Taking a cue from his recent experience with the Enhanced Edition of Baldur's Gate, Jay "Rampant Coyote" Barnson has penned a blog post on "being pathetic and loving it" or, to be a little less cryptic, the old-school AD&D low-level experience. Here's a snip:
How did anyone ever make it to level 4?
Oh, right combat was not nearly as common in the (real) dice & paper game as in the computer versions, and the computer versions allow saves. But. man. It seemed like every half-hour, combat would begin, and *SPLUTCH*. If you've not played Baldur's Gate, the other members of your party are pretty optional, and can be killed (and, sometimes, brought back) as needed. But if your primary character has his or her hit points dropped to zero (or some other nasty permanent state, like getting petrified), the game is immediately ended.
For the first three levels, characters are pretty much a single critical hit or failed save away from death. Even at higher levels, there are a number of (save or die) effects in that system. Many of these remained well into 3rd edition, too. Insta-death really was kind of a lame factor of the rules system, but it came from an era where characters were expected to be pretty disposable. After all, in the original D&D rules, it took all of maybe ten minutes to create a new character.
But while I'm not a huge fan of insta-death, there's something to be said for characters being so incredibly weak and pathetic in the older D&D rules. I mean, even in edition 3.5 (which lives on, in part, due to Pathfinder), someone once calculated that in a straight-up melee fight, on the average a 1st level wizard would die in a fight against a common HOUSE CAT. Yes, denied the use of his magic spells, four times out of five first-level Gandalf would be shredded and left in a bloody pulp on the floor by Mr. Whiskers.
Most modern CRPGs try to get away from that legacy, and bend over backwards to make you, as a player, feel at least somewhat badass at lower levels. And I'm okay with that.