I thought age should speak, and increased years should teach wisdom. How have the rules for aging changed between different editions of D&D? An exercise in meta-aging:
Original D&D (1974)
Staff of Withering: A Staff which adds nothing to hit probability, but when a hit is scored it scores one die of damage and ages the creature struck by ten years. (This is not to say it matures it, but rather it shortens the life span by ten years.) A man struck four times thusly will be doddering, an animal dead of old age, and so on. It will have no aging effect upon Undead, and creatures with very long life spans will also be little harmed. (Vol-2, p. 35)
Here, a pretty sketchy rule. The DM must adjudicate what in-game effect "doddering" represents, as well as what proportion of that effect, if any, applies to individual strikes from the staff?
Advanced D&D (1979)Gygax gives a more comprehensive treatment near the start of the DMG. A series of five age categories are established for each of the PC races, and ability modifiers are given upon entering any of those age categories (approximately every 20 years for humans). In addition, dice ranges are given for establishing the age of starting characters (for example: d4+15, d4+18, or 2d8+24 respectively for human fighters, thieves, and magic-users). The ability modifiers are as follows; in general, physical abilities go down, while mental abilities go up with advancing age (DMG p. 13):
The staff of withering retains its ability to age by 10 years, and so links into this rule -- as well as other added abilities, like destroying a particular target limb (the same "wither" effect as the new reversed clerical regeneration spell; DMG p. 134). Ghosts can strike targets so as to age them by 10-40 years (MM p. 43). Dragons, of course, always have their unique rule for advancing powers with age.
Advanced D&D, 2nd Edition (1989)In 2nd Edition AD&D, Zeb Cook presents a table slightly stripped-down from the 1E DMG; age brackets and modifiers are only identified for three categories of Middle Age and above (and those modifiers are identical to 1E). This makes some sense, as there could be some confusion in 1E about whether those modifiers should be applied immediately to all newly-created PCs (esp. the +1 to Strength and Constitution in the first two brackets), or whether an older PC (like a human magic-user, starting out Mature at average age 31) should have modifiers for the younger bracket retroactively applied.
A few other tidbits I should mention here. In the Gygax's 1E Unearthed Arcana (1985), the extra-high level Hierophant Druids gained the abilities of "Extra longevity equal to level as expressed in decades", "Vigorous health, equivalent to being in the prime of life", and "the ability to actually hibernate, suspend animation (same length as longevity - no aging)" at levels 16 at 17. These anti-aging abilities are maintained in effectively the same format in 2nd Edition. The staff of withering is, as usual, a copy-and-paste job from 1E; and the ghost attack ability is likewise the same.
D&D 3rd Edition (2000)The 3rd Edition rules maintain mostly the same model for aging as in 2E (modifiers only at the level of Middle Age and above), with a somewhat expanded array of changes to the ability scores (note that all abilities are affected, and the reductions for physical abilities are more severe):
Like many other "exotic" dangers, the 3E ruleset removes the original aging effect from the staff of withering; it is here transformed into the rod of withering, whose effect is to inflict 1d4 Strength and Constitution damage on the target (may be temporary or permanent, depending on a saving throw). Similarly, Ghosts (now a "template" to be added to other monsters) also have their aging effect removed, replaced by straight points of ability-score damage from a suite of a half-dozen different special attacks. High-level Druids still get their immune-to-aging ability (at 15th level, here referenced as "Timeless Body"), and for the first time, Monks also get the identical ability (at 17th level). This latter addition seems new to 3E, 1E Monks did not have such an ability, and Monks did not appear at all in the 2E core rules (perhaps the addition appeared in some supplement of that era?).
D&D 5th Edition (2014)Looking through the 5E SRD and Basic Rulebook, I can't find any general rule for aging. Druids and Monks still maintain the "Timeless Body" ability, somewhat downgraded, so perhaps such a rule for the effect of aging does exist (see here). The staff of withering now only does straight hit point damage, with a temporary penalty to ability checks (link).
Let's wash our hands of that and look at the "side branch" of the D&D Basic line through the 1980's (you might want to look back at the OD&D rule off of which this branched):
D&D Expert Rules (1981)To my knowledge, there are no general rules for aging characters in the Cook/Moldvay rules. The staff of withering is modified to say this:
Staff of Withering: A hit from this item will age the victim 10 years. The effect of old age will be fatal to animals and to most character classes, but elves may ignore the effect up to 200 years of aging. Dwarves may also ignore the first 50 years of aging. This item does not affect the undead.
It seems like the DM still has to adjudicate what counts as "old age", and then declare the victim as killed outright at that point? Harsh, Zeb!
D&D BXCMI (1983)Frank Mentzer's rules do introduce aging into the D&D Basic line for the first time, but is considerably stripped down. The general rule in the Companion rules only sets a maximum age for characters at which they die, with no age-bracket gradations or modifiers for advancement (DM's Companion, p. 21). Ghosts (and related "haunts") are introduced in this book, and as in 1E AD&D, their strike ages victims 10-40 years; here, unlike the section for the general rule, each 10 years is further said to drain 1 point of Constitution (p. 33). In Mentzer's Expert set, the staff of withering has almost identical language to the Cook Expert rules, except for a rephrased second sentence: "One or two hits will be fatal to most animals and harmful to many humans." (This could be either more or less harsh than per Cook, still requiring DM adjudication.) All of these edits were maintained in the later Allston Rules Cyclopedia (1991).
And one more interesting "tributary" which we could have easily overlooked:
Dragon Magazine (1980)I keep returning to Gygax's writeup of Robert E. Howard's Conan in Dragon Magazine #36 (April 1980), within the year following the publication of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. In this article Conan is given more detail than any other published D&D character before or since -- in particular, because different profiles were given for Conan at eight different ages of his story. He is also given a very long list of special abilities, skills, and proficiencies; recall that this later became the template for Gygax's Barbarian class description (later published in Dragon and then Unearthed Arcana). Here's the key table from the original Conan article (reposted from the last time I discussed it):
A couple things from this writeup: First, as usual, Gygax freely breaks his own rules on aging published just a few months before; Conan's ability scores vaguely follow the same trend as in the DMG, but the numbers are quite different (more variation in the upward direction in the case of Conan). Secondly, he applies an additional mechanic: Conan gradually loses Fighter and Thief levels as age advances. This is done at the rate of about 1 lost Fighter level per 2 years, and 1 lost Thief level every 5 years, after the category of Middle Age is reached (40+). I find this to be a commendable idea, and the result seems quite satisfying. Gygax writes in the article text:
The drop-off in level in later years is meant to reflect the effects of advancing age, and while hit points might drop off more, skill level would not drop below 9th level—say until 100 years of age, perhaps, and possibly not even then.
An intriguing suggestion!
ConclusionsIn mainline AD&D, the tradition from Gygax in 1E on was to apply some modifiers to ability scores due to advancing age, but to leave the PC in question otherwise unchanged (with 3E removing the special aging effects from certain monsters and magic items). In the D&D Basic line, things were a little more gentle, with a maximum age established by Mentzer, but no other general rule for effects from the aging. Gygax's take on Conan, with both ability-scores and energy levels lost due to advancing age, might be the most compelling mechanic, but it was not used again within any published D&D ruleset that I could find.
Finally, a summary of the various ability modifiers found in different sources (summed cumulatively over all age categories):