I was recommended Red Harvest and Dain Curse, both by Dashiell Hammett. They’re hardboiled 1920s America detective stories, as far as I can tell. I bought a hardback collection of five of Hammett’s stories from Powell’s when I was down in Portland recently. I’m halfway through Red Harvest now. What’s striking is the lack of physical combat compared to the verbal combat – negotiation, interrogation, threats, planting information, etc.
I won’t spoil the book, though. You should really read it, even if you never thought you’d like that sort of thing. I didn’t, and I love it.
Regardless, how this pertains to D&D is that an encounter generally devolves into combat without hesitation if it looks like that’s the way things will go. But the narrator of Red Harvest seems (reasonably, I’d say) to want to stay out of a fight at all costs. Even when things go south and I’d be rolling to hit in a D&D game, he still tries to salvage things by talking it through. When a fight does happen he gets his hands dirty. Of course fists and bullets fly, but it would happen easily twice as often if I were playing in that adventure.
Maybe that would be an interesting premise for a character. But in order to encourage that kind of play from your players, you’d probably need rule mechanics that apply.
In D&D, you can obviously get in over your head, but especially in OD&D once you reach high levels you know a sword or arrow isn’t going to kill you. There really isn’t a chance. There are still dangers out there, and multiple hits could take you out, but you can weigh your risks and decide that a fight is a good idea.
The narrator of Red Harvest fights only when the fight happens, always reluctant to start it, and only when he knows he has a huge advantage does he seek it out (carrying a gun, stalking a man down an alley whom he knows probably has no gun). A fight is never a good idea. The exceptions seem to appear when guns are not involved – when he is not threatened by a weapon which could kill him instantly.
Furthermore, in D&D wounds can heal quickly – perhaps instantly. If our detective is shot, even if he isn’t killed, he’ll be laid up in bed for weeks and during that time will lose control of his situation in Personville. He’ll also be vulnerable to attacks by his enemies. He simply cannot afford to be injured. A fistfight he could recover from and move on. A bullet to the gut, not so much.
D&D just doesn’t allow for this line of reasoning. Either your enemy is what you think he is, and you can gauge the threat and choose to fight or not, or your enemy is a surprise and you know it only once the fight has started. In Red Harvest’s Personville, anybody with a gun is a threat severe enough to always avoid, and you don’t know who has a gun. Most do.
So imagine a D&D game where there was no level advancement. Even seasoned veterans risk severe bodily harm and death every time they fought. Too tough? Definitely. Games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Middle-Earth Role Play have critical hit tables that make any combat a scary proposition.
Shadowrun handles it by making armor and guns easily available, but you’re always in danger of being injured by a few bullets that slip through. Especially if you’re not wearing armor at all, which can make the difference between a Light Pistol just catching in your armor or outright killing you. And powerful guns are always a danger – they’re just uncommon, expensive, loud, illegal, etc. It’s more complicated, but that explains it well enough.
In any case, with deadlier game systems the player gains more from negotiation and roleplaying than swinging the d20s. Player skill enters the picture more frequently and has more importance. A well-played 1st level character can survive what a poorly-played 10th level character would not. Certainly, this bounces a nickel off the expectations of a standard D&D player, and is more worthwhile as a way of deciding whether to use WarhammerFRP or D&D. You probably don’t want to just houserule D&D to make it “one-hit deadly.”