log in or register to remove this ad

 

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

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.
Pretty sure you are correct, it was an optional rule. We just started playing again after a few years break. I was DM and catching up on the rules as we went along. My friends PC died after reaching 0hp. Just so happens in between then and the next session I came across the a deaths door rule and decided to implement it. Needless to say the player was a bit irked.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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.

There's a fairly valuable old saw that there's always three texts: What the author intended, what the author actually wrote, and what the audience gets out of it.

Which then gives us room to pause and consider - if what the author wrote was so poorly presented their intent that so many readers got it wrong.... which is the more valuable note - that the audience misinterpreted the rules, or that the writer effectively misrepresented those rules?

The history is, I think, a minor curiosity. The note that techncial writing skills are key in game publishing, however, is actually useful to people today.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I agree with Umbran. It was poorly written like a good third of book rules. Next you going to tell me a fireball was larger than a 40 foot diameter because someone math checked Gary.
 

Ace of Shadows

Savant Sage
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. ....

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).
I think EGG may have been asked about this one on his Q&A thread and said something about it but I didn't bother noting it and that is quite a haystack to go back through unless this point is a big deal for you. I don't believe it was supportive of your construction.

FWIW, I agree there are different ways this can be construed because unhelpfully the rule is silent on what precisely happens if a single blow brings you to -1 or optionally -4 or less and the language in the first set of brackets is also ambiguous. However, I think that is down to simple oversight that some players would attempt to construe what was being said so narrowly.

The following points are at least equally valid to those you make and in my view have the upper hand of the debate on balance. The rule of course applies to PCs and NPCs so irrespective of interpretation it has balanced application so absent an answer from the rule-maker its a question of table preference. A wise DM asks his players how they would prefer to play since the point of the game is to have collaborative fun in a PvE fashion not barrack room lawyer debates.

1. The silence doesn't of itself expressly indicate a solution either way however if something is not said then implicitly it is more likely than not never contemplated by the writer. I don't think that helps the construction you are advocating should be implied.

2. The later language and description of hit points being lost up to -6 and -10 and what happens at those points can be construed as indicating it never occurred to the writer that he needed to do more than just indicate two possible trigger starting points or a trigger starting area where an unconsciousness state would be entered before proceeding on to indicate when you could scar or lose members and then later die no matter which route you came there.

3. Scarring being stipulated as occurring if a creature is brought to -6 hit points is incongruous with this only occurring by a bleeding or burning method rather than instant physical trauma and with the possibility of death occurring before this negative hit point level. At the very least its counter-intuitive and thus the earlier death point being implied in here is more likely never intended by the writer nor occurred to him.

4. Further, members severed being stipulated as only occurring when a creature brought to -6 hit points is equally incongruous and counter-intuitive for the same reasons and might also be a strong steer that being brought instantly to -6 hit points, losing a member and falling consciousness was also in the contemplation of the writer.

5. If the writer had in mind an earlier alternate death point its something you would normally expect them to expressly mention such a significant thing rather than merely imply it. When creatures die is not something you expect a designer to be deliberately unclear or silent on.

6. Gygax said its the intent not the letter of the rule that is determinative when construing the rules.

I believe the way it is most commonly played - unconscious if taken to 0, possible scarring and limb loss if taken to -6 and dead only if taken to -10 - is because its the least counter-intuitive interpretation and thus the most likely correct interpretation - not because the community as a whole was trying to contrive interpretations that the language of the rule doesn't bear in order to gain some advantage obviously unintended by the writer, as you postulate.

If anything those advocating the counter-intuitive interpretation of multiple death points seem to me to be the ones with the contrived interpretation of the rule because the introduction of the rule itself was probably not popular with them, for some reason.

The notion you need to hit 0 hit points on a dime in order to enter an unconscious state at all when blow severity is so variable is frankly an absurd and bizarre idea, even as an abstract of reality, which is why no-one I encountered at tables in the UK ever ran it that way. As a DM I wouldn't as I like to keep things simple and intuitive.
 

phantomK9

Explorer
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.
Sounds like a suggestion for something like taking Exhaustion levels once you are at 0 Hit Points.
Either one per round or one each time you are damaged.
At 6 levels there is death.
 

Misunderstanding is usually drive by a will to make a better game. You misread rules to make them fit your own expectation. Death was too common, so people misunderstood the 0 exception, and years later we got death saves, and revivify and healing word on top of that.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
.

The notion you need to hit 0 hit points on a dime in order to enter an unconscious state at all when blow severity is so variable is frankly an absurd and bizarre idea, even as an abstract of reality, which is why no-one I encountered at tables in the UK ever ran it that way. As a DM I wouldn't as I like to keep things simple and intuitive.

Wow. No.

Seriously, try reading it again. The whole section on hit points. That’s the “Zero hit point section”.

As for the no one you knew running that way- there’s plenty of people who ran it that way- just look at this thread.
 

TerraDave

5ever
There is a lot in the original DMG. Its a great book. And there all sorts of nuggets you could pull out of there and say--did you know this was a rule?! From training costs--which wasn't that obscure but not that widely used, to the surprise and simultaneous initiative rules--as actually written, to limits on demihuman magic item use.

But, for a number of AD&D rules, many tables intentionally chose to ignore or simplify them. I don't think it was so much misunderstanding or ignorance. They saw, say, a table of weapon vs. armour modifiers in the PHB and thought "not worth it".

Its also true that not everyone read the rules very carefully, and relied on conventions taken from table to table. The fact that at one point, you had multiple versions of the game in print at anyone time added to this. As did the unclear wording of many of the rules (like in the example). Overall, this was a rational strategy.

Like using a simplified version of deaths door. Which probably also found its way into many B/X games (and is an excellent house rule for that system).
 

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
This is exactly how I always played it. With the exact same house rule.

However....
I have had to explain this a lot of times, and I mean A LOT OF TIMES!!!!! I was very present in tournaments during the 80s and believe me that when a 13 year old boy shows a "grown up" of 17 that he was playing the rule wrong, it is not an instant win scenario...

I come from a French speaking province in Canada and I was one of the few that was fluent in English. Just showing that they were playing it wrong in tournaments was a bit hard but I finally won when an English teacher showed them that my interpretation was right. I have been a referee in many tournaments after that.

But our dear OP is fully right. That rule was often overlooked, ignored or simply misunderstood.
 

Ace of Shadows

Savant Sage
Yes I saw some guys talking here on the internet saying they played an alternate way back in the day and then go on to say that everyone I knew were doing it all wrong apparently deliberately before 2E - so I came to say that it never occurred to me or anyone I knew to read the rule the way you do then and the insinuation of deliberate cheating was rubbish. I did re-read the rule now to see what you were talking about and saw then how it was 'possible' for the rule to 'interpreted' the way you do - whilst I could see your argument and said so I also said it looked to me to be incongruous and counter-intuitive and thus contrived way to read the rule - so I don't agree with you that your reading is a clear cut on and certainly don't agree with your suggestion that anyone else doing it in what I would view as intuitive way and you acknowledge was widespread, is deliberately cheating. That's taking it way too far, in my book anyway.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how many times you read the rules, any of them, because they never explicitly say, you can also die at -1 and -4 anywhere and in game design you really need to explicitly spell out such an obscure death point like that and give a rationale for its arbitrary nature, if you genuinely intend such a thing and want it to become intuitive to players and especially if you are at the same time taking the time to explicitly say you can die at 0 or -10.

I've only ever played 'die at 0' or 'die at -10 '- I actually don't care which it is although I can see the no unconscious state abstract is very simplistic.

I was reading some Gygax Q&As recently, I believe here, and I seem to recall someone asking Gary about death door rules and how he played them. I didn't appreciate the potential significance of the discussion until I saw this thread so I thought I might point you in that direction to check if I'm right it came up. I don't recall him saying anything about folk dying at -1 or -4 when he explain how he played but due to my lack of interest in the subject at the time as no-one was suggesting it was a deliberate cheat to treat deaths door as -10, I could have missed it. Clearly this is a burning issue for you so did you ever raise it with him direct whilst he was still here answering questions about the game? I expect @Rob Kuntz might recall how Gary approached it. Maybe he can clear it up for everyone.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Yes I saw some guys talking here on the internet saying they played an alternate way back in the day and then go on to say that everyone I knew were doing it all wrong apparently deliberately before 2E - so I came to say that it never occurred to me or anyone I knew to read the rule the way you do then and the insinuation of deliberate cheating was rubbish. I did re-read the rule now to see what you were talking about and saw then how it was 'possible' for the rule to 'interpreted' the way you do - whilst I could see your argument and said so I also said it looked to me to be incongruous and counter-intuitive and thus contrived way to read the rule - so I don't agree with you that your reading is a clear cut on and certainly don't agree with your suggestion that anyone else doing it in what I would view as intuitive way and you acknowledge was widespread, is deliberately cheating. That's taking it way too far, in my book anyway.
???? Seriously?

No one said it was cheating.

There is, like, an ENTIRE POST about how 1e had a multitude of playing styles, I should know because I wrote it. Moreover, I specifically wrote that this was a rule that was commonly misinterpreted and misapplied- not cheating. Sorry, not DELIBERATELY CHEATING.

In addition, if you read the rule, it's really not ambiguous. Here, I'll help you:

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.


Let's stop right there. What does that mean (especially when you read it in pari materia with the PHB, the rest of the DMG, and every other D&D book published before then) ... it is about a hit that takes you to EXACTLY ZERO HIT POINTS (optionally, as low as -3 "IF FROM THE SAME BLOW WHICH BROUGHT THE TOTAL TO 0.").

What does this not include? Anything blowthat brings you below 0. Or, if you are playing with the optional rules, any blow that drops you below -3.

All the other words are about what happens to you in the unconscious condition- you lose a hit point a round until you die at -10.

But if you want to know how it was originally played, you can look at the OD&D rules- which are also quoted above. Hint: when you reach zero hit points, you die.
 


Ace of Shadows

Savant Sage
???? Seriously?

No one said it was cheating.

There is, like, an ENTIRE POST about how 1e had a multitude of playing styles, I should know because I wrote it. Moreover, I specifically wrote that this was a rule that was commonly misinterpreted and misapplied- not cheating. Sorry, not DELIBERATELY CHEATING.

In addition, if you read the rule, it's really not ambiguous. Here, I'll help you:

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.


Let's stop right there. What does that mean (especially when you read it in pari materia with the PHB, the rest of the DMG, and every other D&D book published before then) ... it is about a hit that takes you to EXACTLY ZERO HIT POINTS (optionally, as low as -3 "IF FROM THE SAME BLOW WHICH BROUGHT THE TOTAL TO 0.").

What does this not include? Anything blowthat brings you below 0. Or, if you are playing with the optional rules, any blow that drops you below -3.

All the other words are about what happens to you in the unconscious condition- you lose a hit point a round until you die at -10.

But if you want to know how it was originally played, you can look at the OD&D rules- which are also quoted above. Hint: when you reach zero hit points, you die.
I don't know mate all that banging about people misinterpreting rules because the were motivated to go get an advantage that doesn't exist, instead of just interpreting them intuitively, sounded to me an awful lot like a thinly veiled insinuation that we were all cheating munchkins - I didn't even have a DMG when I was taught that rule by a DM - when I thought my PC was dead - 'you don't die at 0 you die at -10 ... its in the DMG' he said to me. And when I eventually bought one that's how I read it too - apparently along with a whole bunch of other people such that it was most of the playing pool so much so I never encountered your way.

None of that language carries the clarity you seek to ascribe to it - the point when someone is BROUGHT TO THE POINT OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS or enters unconscious is the start of the story - you then look for when he then specifies they die not where the gate to the field of unconsciousness is ... he then starts to bang on about losing more hit points and still being unconscious and then finally indicates an actual death point of -10. You have just assumed death must occurs immediately after the start point for unconsciousness [1 point as soon as you step past the gate] although it doesn't actually state this and you do that by turning a blind eye to the very extensive immediate discussion about losing further hit points whilst remaining unconscious all the way to -9 and the various things that can happen in that zone as if that has absolutely no bearing on interpreting the rule at all although its plainly a discussion concerning about being unconscious at certain other negative hit points IN THE RULE beyond the start points indicated and not something you just assumed in your head must occurred beyond 0 and -3 that isn't actually stated in the rule ... that is a very large and artificial assumption especially when no rational reason is supplied for such a weird inconsistency IN THE RULE or anywhere. That is why I am saying your interpretation is artificial, incongruous and counter-intuitive and I believe wrong. Good luck explaining a 10 year old kid the logic behind two PCs both being on -1 hit point, one dead [his PC] and one unconscious [his mates] and that the unconscious one can then bleeds out to -9 before he is still saved but the one on -1 is still somehow dead. I'm not going to do that because I don't want to look like a cheating DM playing favourites with my players and I seriously doubt it was the intention of Gary to put me in that position when he wrote those paragraphs. Not if he is expecting the kid to want to keep playing the game as any commercial designer hopes. No-one comes back to play game that flaunts broken logic unless they realise the issue isn't the game but the DM interpreting its rules - then they go somewhere else - where logic is a thing.

Its not the letter of the rule its the intent.
 
Last edited:

Stormdale

Explorer
We always ran the if dropped to between 0 to -3 the deaths door rule kicked in (but if dropped to -4 by a single blow you were dead) in AD&D rule and started using the 0 to -10 option when Pool of Radiance came out in 1988 (i.e. before 2e codified it)

Stormdale
 



Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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!

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."
And the rationale for reading this as just "death at -10" is obvious: DMs and players wanted some wiggle room between fully functional at 1 hp. and outright dead at 0 h.p. The rules above, though clunky, gave this.
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.
I've got a sneaking hunch there was something in Dragon at some point that made death at -10 an official option long before 2e came out.
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.
He also caused it to be better, even if unintentionally. :)
 


I only played 2nd edition and the hovering at death's door rule (up to - 10) was a sidebar in the night below adventure. So I don't know what was the deafult rule there. We played it like that all the time.

I also know that we played that raise dead can't bring elves back, but I think (true) resurrection worked... But that might have been 3e instead.
We also used level limits in ADnD which is why I usually played half elf bards... ;)
 


An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top