The Weird Economics of Deadly Dungeons

I ran a randomly generated dungeon for randomly generated first level adventurers in Labyrinth Lord today. Six characters explored five rooms, and three died. There's no graceful unconsciousness before death in LabLord; no negative hit points. When you reach 0 you die. And among first level characters it's not unusual to have 3 or less hit points, meaning that about half the time a character will die from a successful hit from a short sword, club, spear or virtually anything else.

Personally I like the ruthlessness of that sort of unforgiving system when I do old school dungeon crawls, both as a player and a DM. The victory of levelling up after five or six sessions tastes so much sweeter for the underdog who made it while scores of their friends perished along the way. My somewhat dubious record as a DM was a dungeon that killed more than twenty characters and henchmen in a single 4-hour session. Both I and the players had amazingly fun, and when they lost a henchman (the third to be named James, if memory serves me) who had survived two previous delves into the very same dungeon (in the same session, since they frequently went into a few rooms before retreating back to the village to recruit more help), the sadness was palpable. I have never wanted to fudge a roll more. I honestly felt bad.

Anyways! That's not the point of this post!

The point is this: quite frequently I see characters go down into a fairly empty dungeon only to return with a handful of treasure, some interesting trinket, and more mundane adventuring gear than they'll ever need. They never need to re-stock on rations or arrows. They can have their choice of weapon regardless of personal fortune, and don't even have to find a seller. They have flour, lard, lock picks, holy symbols, holy water, garlic, mirrors, spyglasses, enough rope to spelunk to the center of the Earth, chains, padlocks, ten-foot poles and even ladders, should they want.

Why? Because every character or henchman comes with a small list of equipment, and the loot from dead colleagues often outweighs the actual treasures in both weight and value...

A new player once puppy-eyed me and asked if their elf could please have an heirloom +1 dagger, and I said yes. Nine character deaths later, when the party didn't have any original members left, I actually gave them experience points for that dagger. It was the only treasure they found in the dungeon, because they never ventured deep enough to find the treasure I had placed there.

But boy did they have weapons, armour, and gear! They could have opened a shop.

-- CC0 Björn Wärmedal