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D&D 5E The -10 Myth: How a Poorly-Worded Gygaxian Rule Became the Modern Death Save

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is a little different; normally, I like to make certain I have my ducks in a row for a thesis, so that other people can shoot them down. It is the internet!

However, I'd like to explore a concept I've been thinking about that popped up in a recent thread.

@Lanefan wrote the following in regards to AD&D (1e):
(Dying at -10 is ) Not a houserule, a supported option (via an early Dragon magazine?). There was a death at -3 option as well.

The thing is, this is a common thing I have heard articulated by many people. Many people that played D&D in the 80s. The "-10 rule." The trouble is- this rule doesn't exist. Let me explain:

There are a number of things people get wrong about AD&D (1e). Well, wrong isn't the correct term- much moreso than later editions of the rules, even so-called "core rules" in the main books were more guidelines at the time than rules. And because 1e was so complex, and had so many different and bespoke subsystems that didn't always play nice with each other, it was fairly common for different tables to ignore, adapt, and change the rules in play to make the game more useable and flow more easily. In general, you'd have the following types of rule modifications that were wide-spread:
A. Ignorance. Probably the largest category, but this covered all those rules that were tucked away that tables might not even be aware of. Elves couldn't get resurrected (except the rod, because reasons). Item saving throws. Every time you come back from the dead, you lose a point of constitution. Monks can't use flaming oil. Slow poison works after the character has "died" due to poison. Rules that are in the open, yet get overlooked in the dense tangle of text and tables.

B. Fiddly Bits. Probably the biggest area for wide-spread modification are the fiddly bits. The rules that just added more complexity than seemed worth it for many. The usual go-to example here is the weapon v. AC tables. Sure, there were tables that used them. But IME most tables did not use them because the value added simply wasn't worth it. Another example would be the way that 1e carefully went through the timing in the one-minute combat round (segments for spell casting, weapon speed factors, and so on). While there was great value in this (because of the ability to disrupt spellcasting, and giving added value to 'fast' weapons), many tables used a simpler initiative system.

C. Incompatible Subsystems. Similar to fiddly bits, the presence of incompatible subsystems often caused many tables to ignore certain subsystems. The two common examples of this are psionics and grappling (non-weapon combat) which both used completely different systems than the rest of the game ,and were often ignored by many tables.

D. You Can't Tell Chad What To Do! One interesting aspect of 1e and early D&D is the way that it achieved "balance." For example, Magic Users would be weak at early and even mid-levels, and powerful later. But another way it achieved "balance" was, for example, to grant a lot of power, in exchange for some sort of debilitating penalty. One example everyone knows is the demi-human level limits. You get all this cool stuff for being a demi-human (can multi-class, can see in the dark, get special abilities), and in exchange, you are forever limited in your level. The thing is- players tended to not like that. So there were often house rules that would let players avoid these hard caps.

Now, all of that said, I want to address the single weirdest and most widespread "houserule" because it doesn't neatly fit into any of these other categories. It's more akin to a misheard song lyric, or, as Jimi Hendrix would put it, "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy." In addition, I remember hearing about this houserule at the time, so I know it must have been fairly widespread.

So what is it? Roughly speaking, it is some variation of, "You don't die unless the hit takes below -10 hit points." In other words, 1e characters don't die at 0. They have a 10 hit point "buffer." Which is great! Right?

Except it doesn't exist. Like a lot of things in the 80s, it was a rumor that spread and couldn't be contained. Sorry, Richard Gere.

So let's look at this, and why people believe it, and what ended up happening!


1. OD&D. (1974)
Death is at 0 hit points. Period.

Dice for Accumulative Hits (Hit Dice): This indicates the number of dice which are rolled in order to determine how many hit points a character can take. Pluses are merely the number of pips to add to the total of all dice rolled not to each die. Thus a Superhero gets 8 dice + 2; they are rolled and score 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6/totals 26 + 2 = 28, 28 being the number of points of damage the character could sustain before death.
(Men & Magic p. 18, emphasis in original)


2. Holmes (1977)
(This is the codification of OD&D, and pre-AD&D)
Death is at 0 hit points. Period.

First generate a random number for "hit points." To generate the numbers roll the special dice in this game — 8-sided, 6-sided, 4-sided. This represents the amount of damage the character can take. For the number of "hit points" roll the proper sided die mentioned below. The die pertaining to players' character type is rolled once per level of experience. (See the section EXPERIENCE POINTS AND EXPERIENCE LEVELS.) Fighters, including dwarves, generate random numbers from 1 to 8, clerics from 1 to 6, and magicusers and thieves from 1 to 4. Elves use a spread of from 1 to 6 as they are both fighters (1-8) and magic-users (1-4). Although halflings are always fighters, they also use a 1 to 6 point spread due to their size. Note that constitution can add or subtract hit points, but no character can have less than 1 point per level regardless of subtractions. In combat, if a character receives a blow, a dice roll will be made to determine the number of damage points inflicted. These are subtracted from the character's "hit points." If his hit score falls to zero he is dead.
(Holmes p. 7, emphasis in original).


3. AD&D (1e) Player's Handbook (June 1978)
Death is at 0 hit points. Period.
Each character has a varying number of hit points, just as monsters do. These hit points represent how much damage (actual or potential) the character can withstand before being killed.

Damage is meted out in hit points. If any creature reaches 0 or negative hit points, it is dead.

(PHB pp. 34, 105).



At this point, it is well-established that when you conceptually and in the rules than when you hit ZERO HIT POINTS, YA DEAD. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. And now, it gets interesting! Why? Because Gygax never met a rule he couldn't make a little bit more complicated, that's why! So in the DMG, he decided to add a little wrinkle .... I'm going to preview this by telling you what I think was going through his head, and then let you read the exact rule he put in. "You know what? Hit points seem rather simplistic. Obviously, when you go below 0, you're dead. But what happens when someone hits you and you go to exactly zero hitpoints? That sounds interesting! I should make a table for that ... no, wait, I should make a RULE for that exact scenario!"

4. AD&D (1e) Dungeon Master's Guide (May 1979)
(Note- this is a specific subsection underneath the general HIT POINTS Section- the emphasis for the title is in the original, and this is the entire rule):

Zero Hit Points:
When any creature is brought to 0 hit points (optionally as low as -3 hit points if from the same blow which brought the total to 0), it is unconscious. In each of the next succeeding rounds 1 additional (negative) point will be lost until -10 is reached and the creature dies. Such loss and death are caused from bleeding, shock, convulsions, non-respiration, and similar causes. It ceases immediately on any round a friendly creature administers aid to the unconscious one. Aid consists of binding wounds, starting respiration, administering a draught (spirits, healing potion, etc.), or otherwise doing whatever is necessary to restore life.

Any character brought to 0 (or fewer) hit points and then revived will remain in a coma far 1-6 turns. Thereafter, he or she must rest for a full week, minimum. He or she will be incapable of any activity other than that necessary to move slowly to a place of rest and eat and sleep when there. The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else. This is true even if cure spells and/or healing potions are given to him or her, although if a heal spell is bestowed the prohibition no longer applies.

If any creature reaches a state of -6 or greater negative points before being revived, this could indicate scarring or the loss of some member, if you so choose. For example, a character struck by a fireball and then treated when at -9 might have horrible scar tissue on exposed areas of flesh - hands, arms, neck, face.

(DMG p. 82).

Woah! Now we see where the confusion began. Notice that this is a very specific rule - this is a rule under the subheading of ZERO HIT POINTS, and it starts with "When any creature is brought to 0 hit points ..." It's a bizarrely specific rule about characters getting hit by a blow that takes them exactly to ZERO hit points. Of course, then you get all the other verbiage, as Gygax likes to insert.

You can optionally have it work "as low as -3." And then, there is the bit about losing a point each round until -10, when you die. And you can administer aid to keep the person from dying. If you're not paying attention, if you're looking for some way to make the game easier, you can see how this mess of a rule can transmogrify into "You don't die until -10."


Okay, cool. So?

This misunderstanding was common and widespread. A lot of things in the 80s spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth, and I would say that this misunderstanding of this particular rule (many people probably not having actually gone and found the text of the rule) was so widespread that by the time of the publication of 2e, in 1989, it had become the actual rule. 2e changed it to "Hovering on Death's Door) (2e DMG p. 75) and explicitly stated it applied to -10.

However, while a lot of misconceptions about 1e and 2e occur because people are misremembering and attributing 2e rules to 1e, this is an example, IIRC, of a widespread misunderstood rule being accepted and incorporated into 2e.

More importantly, it is, perhaps, the best example I can think of where a rule that was widely misapplied, eventually became the default rule. And the default rule became popular, and continued to be used throughout editions, eventually becoming the modern 5e version (death saves, etc.)

All because Gygax decided to complicate a rule, and in so doing, caused it to be misapplied.


ADDENDUMS FROM THE COMMENTS
@Stormonu reminds us that Unearthed Arcana (Dec. 1985) had the Death's Door spell- a level 3 cleric spell. It begins- "When a cleric employs this spell, he or she touches a human or demi-human who is unconscious and 'at death’s door' (-1 to -9 hit points). The spell immediately brings the individual to 0 hit points." If you aren't familiar with the DMG section, this could be confusing and add fire to the widespread misunderstandings! The primary benefit of the spell is that it would bring the character to a state where you could restore hit points and avoid the many debilitating effects, such as coma and week of rest, required.
 
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More importantly, it is, perhaps, the best example I can think of where a rule that was widely misapplied, eventually became the default rule. And the default rule became popular, and continued to be used throughout editions, eventually becoming the modern 5e version (death saves, etc.)
One thing to note: the was popular for a reason. As much as Gary wanted what we now call old-school play, a lot of people used his rules for a totally different, more story-driven game. And not dying until -10 supports that style of play rather well.

Better, I think, than death saves, but I digress.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
One thing to note: the was popular for a reason. As much as Gary wanted what we now call old-school play, a lot of people used his rules for a totally different, more story-driven game. And not dying until -10 supports that style of play rather well.

Better, I think, than death saves, but I digress.

Oh, I agree that it was popular! A lot of the evolution of the game, IMO, was driven by people not wanting to die all the time, or not wanting certain limits (like racial limits) on their characters.

It's just that a lot of those changes came from either ignorance (Elves and resurrection, for example) or deliberate changes (houserules to evade racial level limits), whereas this was a widely-accepted misinterpretation of a rule that became the actual rule.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I agree that there was some misinterpretation. But if a character isn't dying until -10 hit points (assuming they got taken to exactly 0 or, optionally, -3 and then bleed out) is it really that big a deal to extend that -3 into the up to -10 zone? No, it really isn't. It simplifies the rule overall.
So, while it may be a misinterpretation, it's a good misinterpretation.
 

Nice Take on this.

I was going to state that my group understood the rule as written and changed it on purpose, but then I realized all of our big campaigns were in 2nd where the Death's Door was official. I think most of our 1st edition games were single shots, and we used 0 = Death.

But we fell into all of your categories along the way, Rules overlooked, ignored, changed for simplicity.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I only remember using the -10 hit point rule in 2E, don’t remember using it in 1E, but that was some 30 or more years ago.

Back in the day, I sat down with the DMG and Unearthed Arcana and transcribed the rules from the two books into a single notebook - both to memorize the rules and reorganize things in one place for reference. I don’t remember running across this, though I surely had to.

Additional confusion may have been added with the introduction of Death’s Door to the Cleric spell list in UA, which references the -1 to -9 values in passing, without the expanded paragraphs from the DMG. People may have interpreted it as a rules change.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I agree that there was some misinterpretation. But if a character isn't dying until -10 hit points (assuming they got taken to exactly 0 or, optionally, -3 and then bleed out) is it really that big a deal to extend that -3 into the up to -10 zone? No, it really isn't. It simplifies the rule overall.
So, while it may be a misinterpretation, it's a good misinterpretation.

Well, good gets into a normative issue. What is good for some tables isn't good for others. For example, it might be good for some tables to ignore the elven resurrection rule, but most tables, knowing that elves are a scourge upon all that is good and fun in D&D, know that any rule should be strictly enforced against elves whenever possible.

I think a better way to phrase your observation (which I agree with) is that it was a popular misinterpretation.

I also think it's interesting, because it made me think about how so much of the "rules" in 1e were orally transmitted; there was a lot that was learned through play and discussion, and many people who played extensively were not always familiar with all of the details of all of the rulebooks.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Additional confusion may have been added with the introduction of Death’s Door to the Cleric spell list in UA, which references the -1 to -9 values in passing, without the expanded paragraphs from the DMG. People may have interpreted it as a rules change.

Excellent memory! As one of those people with disdain for UA, I had forgotten about that. I will add it to the OP. :)
 



jgsugden

Legend
A thing to remember - widespread wasn't a thing back then.

There was no internet to distribute information. Information had a downhill flow, as opposed to the horizontal flow we now see on the internet. The Books and Magazines were the source of information and provided the entire framework for the game. There was very little community on which to draw upon for interpretation and clarification.

Yes, there was some horizontal spread between players in a community, or at conventions. However, gameshop play, conventions, etc... were not the forces they are now. There are a small number of people that had wide access to other players as information sources, but until the mid 90s you were looking at the printed page for understanding for almost everything.

With regards to the -10 rule, this was a common misunderstanding of a poorly worded rule where people widely interpreted it the same way because they found the game too harsh without the leeway.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Someone got time to scour Dragon Magazine? I’m sure a lot of ink was spilled over this subject in the “Letters from the Readers” section, but I don’t have ready access to my PDF versions (or print, for that matter) for a quick search.
 

Better, I think, than death saves, but I digress.

I work at a medical library and look at a lot of medical textbooks in my job, and just kind of generally like studying health and dying. There are very few role-playing games where injury functions like in reality. I think the recent legend of the five rings game had a pretty good model where you had stamina to avoid being hurt, but then if you were hit you were going to suffer injury.

Even if you are delimmed and begin quickly bleeding out, you simply pass out after a round or two, but don't die for several more minutes because, well, magic exists. And magic can restore things even better than modern medicine can. And we can already bring go back after they are sort of technically dead for a few minutes.

To me, having people die at negative 10 hit points is too simplistic. Having someone die from a couple death saves is also too simplistic. I prefer having zero hit points represent an inability to fight, but remaining conscious vaguely. Then as you fail saves or drop lower, you pass out, but it's still possible to bring someone back to the break of death for quite a while.
 


With regards to the -10 rule, this was a common misunderstanding of a poorly worded rule where people widely interpreted it the same way because they found the game too harsh without the leeway.
I feel like maybe misunderstanding is maybe the wrong phrasing here.

Like, as you point out, people didn't really have the internet (I mean some real nerds had stuff like it, I worked with someone who had been using emails since the 1970s, but it wasn't as we know it), only 'cons and word-of-mouth to really spread it, and yet somehow, across the entire globe, the international D&D community all seemed to come to believe this same rule. I knew 1E players in the UK when I started in 1989, and I started with 2E, but they already subscribed to the -10 HP = dead theory (I know this because of an argument at one point, actually over whether an NPC was dead).

It's more like people saw this rule, and decided to ignore a bit of it - if it just a misunderstanding, I think it would be much more irregular, people would have talked about -3 a lot and stuff - but it was consistently -10.

I do think Snarf's listed reasons are generally valid as to why rules got ignored/re-interpreted/mis-interpreted/changed etc. but I just feel like it's really unlikely this was simply an error rather than people going "let's take the loosest possible bit of this" (which, in my experience, was a common attitude into the 1990s).
 

I only remember using the -10 hit point rule in 2E, don’t remember using it in 1E, but that was some 30 or more years ago.
It's my recollection that 2nd ed codified the Death's Door optional rule of death being at -10, with the 1hp/rd bleed, rather than at zero.

This was a simplification and expansion of Gygax's optional rule from the 1E DMG, still presented as optional, but used at every table at which I remember playing 2E.
 
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pming

Hero
Hiya!

We never had any confusion about it. My 11-year-old self read it a couple times, thought about it, and figured it out. I used it in my game for about two or three years, iirc, before I modified it to be "-10, with an adjustment based on your Con HP bonus". So a Fighter with +3 HP for having a Con of 17, would have his cut-off at -13...and the frail Illusionist with a -1 HP adjustment would be at -9.

The rule, with the 'optional -3' bit, imnsho, is pretty straight forward: You get hit and go to 0 to -3, you are unconscious and dying, loosing 1hp per round until you reach -10. If you get hit and go to -4 or lower, you are dead.

I honestly did have some DM's misinterpret this to simply think you weren't dead until -10, period. But I only had to point it out to them once and then they got it. It's like THAC0; it's not complicated at all...yet soooo many people, apparently, "don't get it" or find it "confusing". Really? Taking 8 points of damage and going from 5hp to -3...no problem. Rolling 18, subtracting it from THAC0 15, is -3... "Nope! Too confusing". o_O

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Even some very early RPGs, like Runequest, experimented with more realistic injury systems.

The verdict was it just wasn't fun.
Oh, I loved the L5R system for samurai combat. You've got to slice limbs off with that. And the game gives PCs resources to turn horrible wounds into nasty scars, with the exception of duels to the death.
 



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