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.


First Post
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.


First Post
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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