This is a One Page Rule that should work for any (OSR or not) game.
Hi! I'm still here, still reading stuff and even playing a little. I moved again, which made things hard for playing. Work and family made me stop running games for the last few months (and cost me a considerable amount of sanity). But... hey!... I run not one but two DCCRPG games in the last weeks (a record for me in the last 4 years) and then the ideas start floating up again. I also discovered Zzarchov Kowolski's instigating Neoclassical Geek Revival, which I'm reading slowly (and hope to post my thoughts here).
So... after running another DCCRPG’s Funnel (i.e. an adventure for starting 0-level PCs, with tons of characters per player and a lot of gore and death) I started once more to think on options about how to can avoid the classical "meat grinders" of traditional D&D/d20. That is, if you want to avoid them. They work perfectly fine for me in OD&D and DCCRPG.
But – maybe – you want to run a dramatic/scenic fantasy campaign, where the young heroes are supposed to survive a few encounters, at least until the first big villain show up (heck, maybe you just want to run a Dragonlance with D&D that follows the narrative logic of its novels). And yes, you want to run it with D&D (in all its myriad incarnations, variants and retroclones… although nothing the “rule” proposed in the post can be used with any game).
Also, lets presume that you don't want to bother yourself with lots of variant rules or stuff that increase hit points at 1st level (like adding your Constitution and/or Charisma Score, or maximizing your 1st HD, or using Hackmaster’s Kicker etc). You want to run the more RAW game as possible, but you want a simple mechanic that enables survival and – perhaps – even increase the drama of the game at the same time.
Here's the DOOM CLOCK! (a probably not original idea but who cares…)
The DOOM CLOCK is suited to campaign/adventures that follow a classic hero novel/movie (think Star Wars IV, Krull, the first Pirates of the Caribean etc.). It isn't suited for traditional hex crawl/Old School games, where the dice are supreme and you character is just another insane fellow trying to get rich plundering the Weird and the Underworld.
How does the DOOM CLOCK works?
1) First, decide how many scenes/encounters your adventure or session will have. Let’s suppose you planned 6 encounters for the first adventure of your 1st level PCs. So, at the first scene, you give to each player a (preferably big and bright) D6, with the '6' showing on top (or you can give 6 big casino chips/coins to each player). The thing is, the marker must be something obvious. If you use a die, you can call the DOOM DIE!!! (with the 3 exclamation marks).
2) During the adventure, each time a PC dies (or otherwise drops unconscious), his player can spend one "point" of his DOOM DIE!!! and bring back his character at full force (all his resources are restored). After declaring his intent, the players adjust his DOOM DIE!!! (which would go from ‘6’ to ‘5’, if this was its first activation). The player can use his DOOM DIE!!! for as long as he has “points” left. Yeah, this mean that you’re practically giving each player 6 “extra” lives.
The idea is to allow each player to risk more and to act more dramatically (i.e. do more crazy stuff!) during the adventure.
This rule also gives a considerable boost to the characters, which is also finem if you’re planning a heroic/Dumas-like game.
3) After each scene – even if no DOOM DIE!!! was spent – lower each character’s DOOM CLOCK by 1 point. For example, if a character - during the first encounter of the adventure – spent a point to scape doom, at the end of the scene his D6 would be showing '4', not ‘5’.
If the DOOM CLOCK keeps lowering 1 point by encounter, at the sixth (and final) scene of the adventure (probably the one against the main villain!) all player character will have no "extra lives”. The ensuring battle will most surely feel more dramatic, edgy and – I hope – fun!
Rules like the DOOM CLOCK also allow the DM/Judge to 'cheat' a little, by creating more lethal or unusual encounters. After all, the PCs are supposed do 'die' once or twice during the game session, if you’re using the DOOM CLOCK. A good example is the infamous 1st level encounter with an adult blue dragon at the start of the 5E adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen. By using the Doom Clock, it's completely fine to toss a dragon against 1st level PCs... they'll live (and if they're really smart they may even keep the DOOM CLOCK from ticking faster than usual).
A Variant DOOM CLOCK: The above rules literally “recharges” a PC when a point is spent. Because some characters – like spellcasters – gain a bigger boost from the rule, the DM/Judge may allow a player to spend a DOOM DIE!!! even when is character is still above 0 hit points. Or – if you believe this rule is too much – you can restrict the DOOM DIE!!! spent to hit point recovery only. That means that spellcasters and other classes with limited resources must still pay attention on how they spend spells and daily abilities.