Saturday, July 21, 2012

The DMG, Section by Section, Part 4: Character Age, Aging, Disease, and Death

Character Age

As part of character generation, a character's age is rolled for. Age ranges are determined by class and race. Age ranges vary from 13+1d4 for a Half-Orc Fighter to 500+10d10 for an Elven Cleric. Fighters have the lowest age ranges, followed by thieves, magic-users and finally clerics. For humans, sub-classes (druid, paladin, ranger, illusionist, assassin and monk, which doesn't seem to be a sub-class, but is maybe only available to humans in AD&D?) get their own ranges, but demi-human sub-classes get their ranges from their base class, it seems (based on no sub-classes being on the demi-human Age table). This is pretty straightforward, but gets interesting when compared with the age categories in the next section. It's also something I like and will probably add to my games in the future.


In AD&D, there are five age categories: Young Adult, Mature, Middle-Aged, Old and Venerable. Lifespans range from a maximum of 99 years for a Half-Orc to a maximum of 2419 years for a Gray Elf. (For those following along, these numbers are derived from calculating maximum age in the Death section later on; in this section, the Venerable brackets end for a Half-Orc at 80 and for a Gray Elf at 2000.)

These brackets are important because ability scores are modified based on which bracket a character is currently in. For example, a Young Adult character loses one point of Wisdom but gains one point of Constitution. As characters age, they lose Constitution, Strength and Dexterity while gaining Wisdom and Intelligence; Charisma is the only ability untouched by aging, which makes sense when remembering the Old School dogma that Charisma is more about leadership ability than about physical beauty (and assuming an pre-Modern culture in which age is respected instead of derided and mocked).

What I find really interesting is that, combined with the Character Age tables, this means that characters of different races but the same class will begin their careers in different age brackets. I first noticed this for Clerics, where a Human may begin their career while a Young Adult or Mature, Half-Orcs and Half-Elves begin while Mature (perhaps because of their Human blood?), Gnomes and Elves start their careers as Middle Aged and Dwarves may only begin their careers as clerics once they've reached the Old bracket! I link the Cleric class with Dwarves in my mind, so this surprises me, but that flouting of expectations is something I love about Old School games. I'm also interested in the consequences to play of starting a character out that is Old; will this change player behavior, and, if so, how?

Finally, the Aging section has a short table for the number of years a character ages when engaging in certain magics, ranging from aging one year for casting Limited Wish, imbibing a Speed potion or being the subject of a Haste spell to a whopping five years for casting a Gate spell. I'm curious as to the implications of this; if I was running a Human Magic-User, I would certainly hesitate to have him engage in these kinds of magic, but I'm just not sure I'd care if I ran an Elf Magic-User. Perhaps those are exactly the in-game play style ramifications that are intended. I'm on the fence about penalizing these kinds of magic by including magical aging as a consequence for using them; I'm alternately afraid that it won't matter at all to the players if I include it and afraid that it will discourage using these magics so badly that they will avoid them all-together.

Interestingly, casting one of the spells that includes magical aging as a consequence from a scroll, ring or other device does not cause magical aging; rather, placing a spell on the scroll (or device, presumably) in the first place causes magical aging. I can imagine plots revolving around getting another Magic-User to place one of these spells onto a scroll or into an item so my character (or, as the DM, an NPC) doesn't have to age to use one of these spells.


Diseases (and parasites - there are tables for parasites that parallel the disease tables) are described in the abstract; using these tables, a character does not contract TB or the measles or bubonic plague; instead, one might contract [roll, roll, roll] a mild, acute respiratory disease lasting 1-3 weeks unless treated or [roll, roll, roll] a chronic, severe gastro-intestinal disease which permanently robs a character of a point of Strength and Constitution each time it strikes. The one thing missing from the tables, in my opinion, is how much time elapses between attacks in the case of chronic diseases (d6 or d12 months sounds reasonable to me).

I really like the abstract nature of these disease tables; they add a flavor of uncertainty to the player's experience when their character gets sick. Instead of saying, "your character is down with the measles," this approach has me say, "your character is really sick and has a horrible rash; you're not sure what it is." If they consult a physician, I can roll on the excellent and complementary disease tables in Matt Finch's Tome of Adventure Design, which include Medieval-sounding diagnoses ("Irrationality of the Liver" or "Stiffness of the Kidneys") and Medieval treatments (bleeding, leeches, poultices, baths, drinking noxious liquids, scourging and prayer, and so on). The only thing I need to determine for myself is whether the suggested cure will actually work (I'm waffling between a 50% chance and a 75% chance).

Gygax suggests checking each month if each character has contracted a disease, each week if conditions are "favorable." This sounds cruel until you realize that the base chance of contracting a disease is 2%. There are modifiers which can boost the chances of contraction, but even if the character is Venerable (+5%), currently diseased or infected with parasites (+1%) and exposed to a carrier of communicable diseases (10%) in a crowded (+1%), filthy (+1%) city in the middle of a hot and moist (+2%) marsh, swamp or jungle (+2%), the chances of contracting a disease are, at the very most, 24%. Of course, in conditions like that, Gygax suggests rolling weekly instead of monthly…


Gygax begins his discussion of death by asserting that death in combat is, "no great matter in most cases," because of the myriad magical ways to bring a character back to life. The number of times Gygax has mentioned Wishes so far (we're only on page 15!) has got me wondering if there should be a lot more Wishes available in my games, and why they just don't seem to be super-common in today's roleplaying, even among the OSR. Reflections on that point are especially welcome in the comments. Other bloggers in the OSR (who, like me, tend to play D&D instead of AD&D) have already voiced their opposition to a "revolving door" approach to death and coming back to life, so I won't go into that beyond saying that, yeah, I don't enjoy playing so that the death of a character is, "no great matter," unless by that you mean that it's easy and quick to roll up a new character.

Gygax goes on to point out that death due to old age or (later on in this section) disease poses a greater problem; characters who die of old age and are brought back to life will soon die again, and those who died of disease and are brought back to life will still carry the effects of the disease, like ability score loss, and are 90% likely to still have the disease.

Gygax also provides tables for determining the maximum age for a character; that is, at what age the character will die of old age. The youngest that a character might die of old age is 62, for a Half-Orc, while, as previously mentioned, the longest that a Gray Elf may live is 2419 years.


  1. The way I have been thinking about wishes is more along the lines of general reality manipulation as opposed to the "genie wish" that allows you to do anything. In that context, the strange restrictions like "can only raise an ability score 1/10 of a point" make more sense. In other words, all other spells have some very limited power, like creating a wall of ice. A wish can recreate the effect of any other spell, and also do some other things, but is not omnipotent. It's like a wild card that doesn't require you to pick what you want first. This is not canonical or anything, just an interpretation.

  2. About resurrection and spells that age the caster:

    It's important to remember that failing a system shock roll from being raised means the character is permanently dead, no backsies.

    Also, except for hast, all the spells which cause aging can only be cast by humans and any form of unnatural aging, including from a haste spell or casting gate, requires a system shock roll to avoid dieing.