Years ago, when opening the fourth edition Player’s Handbook for the first time, this writer discovered some good news and some bad news.
The good news was that, since heroes began play with 20 to 30 hit points at first level, one solid hit from a kobold couldn’t kill a hero anymore. For this writer, that was the bad news, too.
Some players and Dungeon Masters (DMs) who weren’t around when the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was still in print react with mild amusement when old-timers like this writer talk about “the 1e days,” when first level heroes at full hit points (hp) died from single sling bullets, and a saving throw versus poison was an instant life-or-death affair at any experience level – just as they might humor a grandfather who talks about how difficult his childhood was, complete with stories about walking 15 miles to school through three-foot snowdrifts, while trudging uphill during both the outgoing and homecoming trips.
The difference between the DM and grandparent was that the DM was telling the truth. Characters died quickly and often, especially at low levels. That circumstance is probably one reason why the 4e system creates much more durable starting characters than any of its predecessors, presumably on the argument that many players – especially those new to the hobby – wouldn’t want to spend time creating heroes only to have their characters reduced from full hit points to zero by lucky swings from kobolds during their first battle. And that sort of thing did happen in legacy editions. A lot.
Whether or not the former or current level of low-level combat lethality is better for the game is an argument best left for those sites who enjoy wasting their energy on such matters. This post is directed toward DMs who enjoy playing 4e, but miss (or, for the younger ones, may like to incorporate) some of the white-knuckle concern that came with low-level battles in the legacy editions.