You are right that old-school modules can be deadly. My suggestion is to try playing in this setting with the rules as written, just to see what happens. I personally like the deadliness and struggle to survive at low levels, it is fun when you embrace it. On the plus side, PC creation is quick
. That said, there are ways to increase survivability for new PCs:
- Start PCs at 3rd level, as you suggest. Gary Gygax in his later years played OD&D this way.
- Give 1st-level PCs max hit points.
- Allow PCs to bind wounds for 1d3 hp after any battle.
- Give 1st-level clerics a bonus spell for 15+ wisdom.
- Allow clerics and M-Us to create scrolls of any spell they can cast, for a cost of 100gp and 1 week per level (this rule is from Holmes basic). This typically allows at least M-Us to start with one scroll, since they aren't spending money on armor.
- Allow one NPC/retainer per character, to be taken over in the event the primary PC dies. These retainers normally get a full share of treasure but only a half-share of XP.
- Allow the hiring of mercenaries/meatshields, 0-level fighters who work for a daily wage and are expected to fight (sometimes morale comes into play with NPC retainers and hirelings, which can be fun).
There is no right or wrong here, it's your game so just try a few things and have fun with it. Apart from the above list, it is useful to encourage tactical thinking. Realize that in S&W, based on OD&D as it is, 1gp = 1xp, and so sometimes it is best to find ways to avoid a fight and steal treasure. Talking with enemies and trying to offer deals or help against common foes is another way to avoid fights. Charisma becomes very important in that scenario. Also, missile weapons are very deadly in S&W, since they fire twice per combat round, so you can encourage players to try and find ways to engage enemies from afar. That's all I can think of for now, I'm sure other members on this board can think of some others.