L&L 3/05 - Save or Die!


Krampus ate my d20s
I like the article. I initially dislike the mechanic. HP thresholds are good math, but can be lousy gameplay without good story. It is a 'proc' system. Opponent is at X% hp, you get this sweetener to your attack or this attack becomes available. I guess the classic is crit mechanics. +2d6 flame on crit for a flame tongue or max damage on crit.
I don't mind the Bloodied mechanic. Hypocritical, I guess, but a single level of obvious hp differentiation is good. There needs to a visual sign that someone is in trouble and repercussions for foes/PCs in trouble.
Maybe SoD becomes straight damage until its threshold is met. Single SoD roll, 25 hp/round petrification damage if fail until <25hp, then Petrified. Heals can keep someone up, but the tension is still there. On going damage is clunky but if it is chunky enough, it should not be too onerous. Maybe you could include a 'permanency' save after combat. Being turned into a newt, but you get better.

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The idea is that a non-injured/exhausted high-level character is able to reliably fight the medusa without gazing at it directly, while less experienced or more wounded/exhausted characters are not.

I agree that the mechanics need a stronger "avoid the gaze" aspect, but using hp threshold as part of those mechanics seems plausible to me.


Honestly, i like save or die, but would rather not have it at all than introduce a whole new subsystem like this in order to water it own.


No, not working.

Most of the classic SoD abilities are ambush abilities. Open a door and a medusa stares at you from across the room. A Pack of ghouls jumps out from a mausoleum at an unwary traveler. The fear of SoD isn't that they finish the fight early, its that they take you out before you have a chance.

First, there needs to be a separation between save vs. death and save vs. status ailment. Abilities like paralysis, petrification, non-lethal poisons, etc should have a fairly short duration or an easy way to counteract. (In Pathfinder, smearing medusa blood on a recently stoned foe reverses the petrification). Perhaps setting the HP threshold for actual death attacks (the kind you need to raise dead or root around the pockets for spare change) is appropriate, but I'd really hate to see a group of ghouls beat a foe around for a minute before paralysis kicks in; it looses the need for the ability.


I like save or die mechanics. I think they should be rare though (only one or two poisons, a handful of monsters, a handful of spells, and a handful of traps). Save or die should pretty much be reserved for high level because at lower level, massive damage from monsters, etc. should be more applicable.

Save or die has always been a real game tension for me in tournament play because the stakes are so much higher. If I play a home game, unless I have a ball-buster DM, if my character dies, the DM is going to provide some way for him to get raised. Not so much in tournament play. If I have little funds and my character dies then I'm out of luck. Add to the tension and stakes each time I sign up for a module. I love that sense of dread. Makes me play smarter and seriously consider the consequences of my actions.

As a DM, I'll use save or die, but it's going to be rare and I won't even begin to consider them until the PC's are around 10th or 11th level. Once the PC's get up those levels, then I'll use one or two (max) save or dies in a mod.

I can see how if save or dies are abused by heavy-handed DM's then it's a bad mechanic. It's kind of like a DM who always favors using poison or only using undead in a fight-it can be tiresome.


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I recall playing a game that was like this, where an instant-death attack only worked if the opponent had a certain number of hit points or less. I can't remember what game it was, however.


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First question is frequency of death in D&D. Decide how common/uncommon PC death should be, then we can discuss save or die. If you want to see PC death once or twice a session in your zombie apocalypse game, sure save or die is awesome, who needs fiddly rules and difficult to kill PC's. If you want to play Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli and see the end of the story with your character, then save or die sucks. And then there is everything in between.

I prefer less lethal systems, but either way is fine with me. This is something very easy to house rule as DM. You can always use fewer save or die monsters (or none at all), and/or end all save or die effects at the end of short/extended rest, and/or whatever else floats your boat. Or if you like more lethal, forget the save, if death ray hits, you die, roll up a new character. It sounds like next edition will be D&D: The house rule edition, so what's one more.

Edit: Side note, 4e Executioners have been killing monsters *no save*, when they are down to 10/20/30 hit points, since level 3. So even a "die no save" rule based on current hit points in the hands of PC's is feasible.
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The problem with save or die is it brings a lot of baggage with it. It assumes that you want a level of lethality and threat that may not jive with your particular playstyle and necessitates easy resurrection.

I like death to be rare and dramatic. Not something that can occur in the first round of combat with a poor toss of the dice. I also don't like Raise Dead magic. I want death to be rare but meaningful and dramatic. Once you're dead, thats it. No coming back.

Save or die doesn't fit with my playstyle at all and honestly, I don't want it.

That said, if they did implement something like Mearls is suggesting, I am tentatively receptive, but I almost think that instead of HP threshold, you should use an alternative tracking system.

For example, how about you create an affliction track that works sort of like HP. Whenever a save or die effect comes into play, it does affliction damage instead. Whenever that affliction damage reaches a certain threshold, bad things happen to you. Like turning to stone.

The idea is based on the way that HERO system handles transformation effects. Essentially, HP represents a buffer between health and death. Abilities that bypass that buffer are too powerful, so you essentially have those abilities do "damage" but its not traditional damage. It accumulates affliction damage that has no effect on you until it would have done enough damage to kill you. In other words, the medusa might have a 10d6 gaze. Whenever you look at her, you take gaze damage. By itself that damage has no effect, but as soon as it totals your max HP, you turn to stone.

It doesn't have to work like that, but thats the general idea. You could use a 4e or M&M 3e inspired tiered save system instead. Or I could also live with some kind of Fate point mechanic, where every PC has a certain number of Fate points and any time they fail a save or die effect, they can spend a Fate point to counter it.

But my acceptance of such a system depends entirely on how many Fate points PCs get and how easy they are to recover. I can live with a tiered save or die approach, but otherwise, I would prefer save or die to be a completely optional module. I have no interest in old school save or die mechanics as they were.

I think the breakpoint with this issue is that some people want cold save or die effects even if it means you can be ambushed and dead before you even get an initiative roll, and I absolutely do not.


I actually also had my own idea of dealing with monster savr or die attacks being based on a character choice. For example the Banshee's scream gives the character a choice he can risk the save or die roll or he can plug his ears and take a substanial defense and attack roll penalty instead. So basic you choose between a
large penalty but, being safe against the save or dies lethal effect or risk the save or die and have no penalty. The risk level is up the player.

Mike's idea is good too of coarse.

Ps damn ninja'd on this idea, that'll teach me to only skim posts.
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I think this is a good and useful mechanic, but beware of Hammer-Dependent Nail Observation Syndrome. In the context of the medusa, I strongly dislike it. It makes no sense to me that a medusa's petrifying visage only works on low-level characters or those who've been through a fight. Why is it that a high-level fighter can look a medusa in the eye with impunity? Or if it's some kind of abstraction where the fighter isn't actually looking the medusa in the eye, what exactly is the fighter doing? It gets way too metagamey, way too fast.

A fighter can't look a medusa in the eye with impunity any more than he can take an axe to the face with impunity. In both cases his hit points represent the fact that he's an experience combatant who can fight without doing the above.

When he's worn down after many battles? That's when he is as vulnerable as a low level character without his experience would be.

The difference being that he needs to get all the way down to "number of hit points an axe hit can do" before he'll actually take an axe hit to the face and fall over, whereas he can get unlucky by failing a saving throw against a medusa's gaze while he's still got plenty (exact number based on the medusa's description) left.

On the other hand, where ghouls are concerned, the idea seems just fine. It makes sense to me that a ghoul's paralyzing touch is more effective on a weak or wounded combatant.

It's nothing to do with things only affecting weak or wounded combatants. It's about people who are good at fighting (which is represented by having lots of hit points) being able to avoid being hit for a while.

If there's one thing Wizards should have learned from 4E, it's that any proposed mechanic--no matter how elegant in a system sense--needs to pass a narrative "smell test." If you have to stop and scratch your head and think about how to reconcile the story with the mechanic, the mechanic isn't going to work as written for a large chunk of people. I'm scratching my head over the medusa. I'm not scratching over the ghoul.

You seem to be having problems with your "narrative smell test" because you're trying to shoehorn the effect into a hit-points-as-wounds narrative, whereas D&D has always used a hit-points-as-general-fighting-ability narrative.


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I really like Mearls' proposed system.

The only issue I have is that the wizard is always more likely to be turned to stone/disintegrated/etc, due to lower health pools. ( I am assuming that pretty-much-universal-mechanic will remain in Next).

While this may make sense that the wizard is more likely to get hit (and paralyzed) by a ghoul, I think he should have some advantage when dealing with, say, a soul trap.

I hate to bring up "Physical HP" and "Mental HP" again, because it's redundant, but SOME acknowledgement of classes areas of strength needs to be built into the system.

Perhaps the answer is in saving throw modifiers once again?


I like the idea and I line Crezy Jerome's idea of spending hit points as expenditure of luck to avoide the gaze.

On the players side then Save or Die effects should only work on bloodied creatures.


OK, see, that was a better way to phrase it. I understand what you're saying now.

It also makes me think that if that's the way 4th Ed battles go, no wonder people complain about fights taking forever.

In 4E, when you're knocked out, attacks against you auto-crit when they hit. Basically the DM can finish you off you in one round unless the battle is nearly won already, if your team isn't protecting you properly. Otherwise, even with nothing attacking you, you can die in three rounds by yourself. People die in Encounters all the time, and that's way before the really crazy stuff shows up.


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Further to my earlier suggestion I think it's worth analysing: What would make one able to avoid petrification at the hands of Medusa..?

Canonically, it's having the knowledge of her gaze and the wherewithall to bring a mirrored shield. This is a bit gimmicky, sorry Perseus. So, being able to fight her without looking in general - you can fight blind, incurring suitable (considerable) penalties. You can fight normally, in which case one might argue that weapon skill, or fighting prowess in general, or perhaps just luck prevent you from seeing into her eyes.

At the end of the day, a saving throw (particularly a 4th Edition saving throw) is a character having no choice but to leave it up to fate as to whether they make it or not. In the hack and slash, there's plenty of luck to determine how often you're hit, how many hit points you're on, but to get to a save-or-die dice roll is a character's absolution of responsibility - no skill, no spell, no weapon or armour can save them. This is dramatic, inherently dramatic and it seems to me that a fixed hit point threshold diffuses some of that drama. So do multiple saving throws really.

I suggest.. you have to make a save when you take a given amount of damage. What would make you accidentally look more than a smack in the face? The threshold could be your level + x, your con + x, some combination, but you would have no control over the moment when it happens. As for those poor 1st level commoners - they don't know Medusa, they wouldn't even try to look away..

Oh and I'll throw in an alternative.. you have to make a save when you're critically hit. In fact, the irregularity of criticals is a great way to make these save-or-die effects tense, but no so frequent that everybody dies. For Medusa, I'd have her immobilise you as a matter of course, but you're only going to lithomogrify if you get really hurt. Works for ghouls too!
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You seem to be having problems with your "narrative smell test" because you're trying to shoehorn the effect into a hit-points-as-wounds narrative, whereas D&D has always used a hit-points-as-general-fighting-ability narrative.

I'm not going to wade into that argument again on this thread. But 4E lost a ton of players because it failed this exact "smell test." The 4E treatment of hit points is one of the most common complaints I've seen among people who went to Pathfinder. If 5E treats hit points the same way, those people won't come back, no matter how many times you tell them they're smelling it wrong.


The problem with save or die is it brings a lot of baggage with it. It assumes that you want a level of lethality and threat that may not jive with your particular playstyle ...
This gets down to the idea of what constitutes a "playstyle".
My opinion on it has nothing to do with desire for a high or low level of lethality and everything to do with creating a simulation of actually being in the story.

If you were writing a story and would never do it that way, then it shouldn't happen that way in the game either. But in this case "shouldn't" applies to the creative experience value of the game. If someone has a "win the game" approach then they are talking about something only tangentially related to that at best.

and necessitates easy resurrection.
No it doesn't.


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I'm not going to wade into that argument again on this thread. But 4E lost a ton of players because it failed this exact "smell test." The 4E treatment of hit points is one of the most common complaints I've seen among people who went to Pathfinder. If 5E treats hit points the same way, those people won't come back, no matter how many times you tell them they're smelling it wrong.

I think after reading enough of comments like this, 5e is dead already. Those that are playing earlier editions are not open to anything except a reprint of their own edition. WotC created another excellent edition with 4e, that was what a lot of people were looking for from their game. So they are just going to create another fragment, filled with more new players, and those that look to the latest and greatest only.

I'm usually latest and greatest, because that means improvement. But this reeks too much of retreading things already done (and failed in many people's eyes), with many articles (most Monte) being not so subtle hate on 4e.

Your edition is great, for you. My edition is great for me. If we can't embrace that there's a chance that maybe our games can both benefit from some of the other editions qualities then WotC is publishing their last edition.


Krampus ate my d20s
Maybe you save vs medusa's gaze with your Int, if your a wizard, quick thinking and book training make you a tougher opponent to petrify.
The nice thing with the periodic damage is that you can scale the SoD threat. Fighting Medusa, Queen of the Gorgons? The damage threshold is 75 to turn to stone with 75 hp of petrification damage each round on a failed save. Fighting an ancient medusa crone with terrible cataracts? The threshold is 5 with 5 hp/rd petrify damage on a failed save.


Besides the old Power Word spells, I seem to recall the 3e Death domain having a similar power. Let's see:

You may use a death touch once per day. Your death touch is a supernatural ability that produces a death effect. You must succeed on a melee touch attack against a living creature (using the rules for touch spells). When you touch, roll 1d6 per cleric level you possess. If the total at least equals the creature’s current hit points, it dies (no save).

So it's not unprecedented for such a power to be in the hands of PCs. I think the rule as presented is simple and works pretty well. If we're talking about a PC's one-shot spell, I would hope that there is some kind of compensatory effect if the target isn't below the HP threshold.

For example, flesh to stone spell: If the target is below the HP threshold, it must save or turn to stone. If above the HP threshold or the save is successful, it is slowed (turning to stone) and can attempt to save each round on its turn to shake off the effect. If the target drops below the HP threshold while under this effect, it must immediately save or turn to stone. A paralysis, sleep, or death effect could use the exact same rules (perhaps with a different save type being required) except you could sub out different effects: sleep would weaken instead of slow, death effects could stun, paralysis effects could daze, and so on.

Disintegrate: If the target is below the HP threshold, it must save or be immediately disintegrated. If above the HP threshold or it successfully saves, it takes 10d6 damage (or whatever is appropriate).

Death poison: If the target is below the HP threshold, it must save or die. If above the HP threshold or it successfully saves, each round on its turn it takes poison damage and can attempt a save to shake off the effect. If the target drops below the HP threshold while still poisoned, it must immediately save or die.

I think this could work well for a number of types of effect. It combines a little bit of 4e's multiple-save concept but still allows for instant effects if the target is vulnerable.

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