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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
I don't know mate .
1. Not your mate.
2. Just looked at your posting history. Your first three posts got you thread-banned for being obnoxious. Your next action was liking a controversial post in a locked thread. After that, you necro‘d the Mentzer thread. Then this.
3. Seems to be a pattern. Not playing.
 

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Mannahnin

Adventurer
I checked several times- not saying it can’t be there, but saying I can’t find it.
I expect that a lot of folks unsatisfied with death at zero simplified Gygax's original death's door rule, and then 2E just codified the simplification.

And that the prevalence of usage for this optional rule is what led to WotC making it core in 3E (though they also removed the aftereffects/debilitation, which I seem to recall my groups also ignored in 2E).
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I expect that a lot of folks unsatisfied with death at zero simplified Gygax's original death's door rule, and then 2E just codified the simplification.

And that the prevalence of usage for this optional rule is what led to WotC making it core in 3E (though they also removed the aftereffects/debilitation, which I seem to recall my groups also ignored in 2E).

Exactly. I thought that's what my OP said?

Maybe, like Gygax, I need to simplify. :)
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
What's the distinction?

Spirits mean you can't be raised or resurrected.

In 1e, Elves (having spirits) could not be brought back from the dead through raise dead or resurrection. ONLY reincarnation. Because reasons (mostly, because Elves are terrible, evil critters that should be consigned to the afterlife).

That said, there was a loophole. The Rod of Resurrection did work on Elves. Because ... um .... consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and comprehensible rule systems.
 

Spirits mean you can't be raised or resurrected.

In 1e, Elves (having spirits) could not be brought back from the dead through raise dead or resurrection. ONLY reincarnation. Because reasons (mostly, because Elves are terrible, evil critters that should be consigned to the afterlife).

That said, there was a loophole. The Rod of Resurrection did work on Elves. Because ... um .... consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and comprehensible rule systems.

And, for those not familiar, Reincarnation had a random table you had to roll on. Your reincarnated elf could come back as an elf, or a halfing, or a wolf. I think their might have been some evil humanoids on the table as well.

Sorry for the side track but, this aspect brought back a lot of fun memories.
 

Stattick

Explorer
In 2e, we had someone, a half-elf I think, who died. Reincarnated into a Wemic. DM let him continue playing as a Wemic. Was pretty funny.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
And, for those not familiar, Reincarnation had a random table you had to roll on. Your reincarnated elf could come back as an elf, or a halfing, or a wolf. I think their might have been some evil humanoids on the table as well.

Sorry for the side track but, this aspect brought back a lot of fun memories.

Even better, there were TWO different reincarnation tables; in fact, one of my favorite bizarre touches was that the Druid table had a section that required you to roll on the (much weirder) MU table. There's nothing more pure Gygaxian than CROSS-REFERENCED tables. :)

"Ima hopin' to get CENTAUR, like my favorite back-of-the-Rogues-Gallery NPC!"
"Oh, looks like the MU table for you."
".... oh ..... no ...."
"OGRE MAGE!"
 

jgsugden

Legend
Something else to consider here: 0 was more common back then.

A hill giant did 2d8 damage in AD&D. Average 9, but with spreads that involved very small numbers. In 5E they do 3d8+5 (nearly double, with a much higher minimum damage - and 3d10 + 5 at range).

Due to the wider range, the higher minimum damage, the crit rules, etc... you're going to see the 5E PC getting taken to exactly 0 less often by a significant margin. I did a quick little test using excel and tracked, starting at random hp totals between 2 and 50, how often a PC would end up going to 0 and how often they would go to less than zero (versus a hill giant). I did this for AD&D, and then again for 5E.

In AD&D, the PC went to zero about 10.6% of the time. That is about one out of every 9.5 opportunities. They went to less than 0 the other 89.4% of the time in the testing.

In 5E, the PC went to zero about 6.25% of the time. That is about 1 in 16 times. They went to less than 0 about 93.75% of the time.

It makes me wonder if 5E would be a bit better if we extended the 'at zero' treatment down to -1 or -2.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
Ok, so I get lots of different ways it was played etc etc but how did the zero hit points rule in the AD&D 1e DMG become the modern death save?

Seems like a pretty new mechanic
 


Mannahnin

Adventurer
Ok, so I get lots of different ways it was played etc etc but how did the zero hit points rule in the AD&D 1e DMG become the modern death save?

Seems like a pretty new mechanic
Death Saves taken while at 0 is a concept which was introduced in 4th ed*. I think the idea was to create additional suspense, rather than the steady, predictable effect of bleeding at 1HP per round until death finally occurs at -10, like in 3E.

Probably because of the scaling ever-increasing damage numbers as you increased in levels, 4E also had death occur at negative HP equal to the character's Bloodied value (half max HP), rather than at -10. Obviously bleeding 1HP/rd would be a long slow process if instead of death occurring at -10 it was occuring at, say, -40 for a mid level character, or -100 for a high level character.

(*Edit: With a somewhat different version having first appeared in the RC, as Snarf notes)
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Pretty sure you didn't mention 2E at all; but I could be having a reading comprehension issue, I suppose.

From the OP:

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.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Ok, so I get lots of different ways it was played etc etc but how did the zero hit points rule in the AD&D 1e DMG become the modern death save?

Seems like a pretty new mechanic

Nothing is new.

The introduction of "Zero Hit Points" by Gygax in the DMG (contra the PHB), which became the widely misunderstood "-10" was codified into 2e as the optional "Hovering on Death's Door."

This gives us the lineage of the whole, Black Knight-ish, "I'm not dead yet!"

Now, combine that with the Rules Cyclopedia (1991) variant rules on keeping characters alive (p. 266):

For instance, when a character is reduced to 0 hit points or below in combat (or from death spells), he's not yet dead. He's unconscious and mortally wounded; if left untended, he will die.
He must make a saving throw vs. death ray every turn. He makes the first roll on the round he drops to 0 hit point; he makes another every round he takes additional damage, and every 10 minutes (one turn) in addition. If he ever fails a roll, he's dead.


A little harsher than 5e, but there you go. Death saves.
 



nevin

Adventurer
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.
Elves couldnt be ressurrected even with rod because they had spirits not soul and were in a cycle of reincarnation. They could be reincarnated. No good reason was ever given for why characters with souls could be reincarnated. I suspect it was supposed to be the creatures with fey connections got one and others the other, but who knows.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Elves couldnt be ressurrected even with rod because they had spirits not soul and were in a cycle of reincarnation. They could be reincarnated. No good reason was ever given for why characters with souls could be reincarnated. I suspect it was supposed to be the creatures with fey connections got one and others the other, but who knows.

Rod of Resurrection: This rod enables the cleric to resurrect the dead - even elven, dwarven, gnome, or halfling - as if he or she were of high
enough level to cast the spell, and no rest will be required as the rod bestows the lifegiving effects. The rod can be used once per day. The number of charges used to resurrect a character depends on class and race: .... elf 4 charges.


¯\(ツ)

(It's one of my favorite bits of 2-step AD&D trivia. Most people don't remember that elves can't be resurrected. But of that group, even fewer remember this truly bizarre loophole)
 

Elves couldnt be ressurrected even with rod because they had spirits not soul and were in a cycle of reincarnation. They could be reincarnated. No good reason was ever given for why characters with souls could be reincarnated. I suspect it was supposed to be the creatures with fey connections got one and others the other, but who knows.
It was to give Elves a Tolkien-like flair. They basically lived forever and when they died their spirits didn't go to the outer planes(that was reserved for creatures that had souls), they stuck around on the material plane.
 

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