On Six Things You Don't Know About Save or Die

Recently, there was some discussion about Save or Die. Yesterday's post gave an example of Save or Die in action. I'm just going to lay out all the misunderstandings about Save or Die in old school games.

  1. The saving throw versus death, especially at low levels is a roll called for when the player has already made a poor choice that results in certain death. It is a chance to avoid death caused by a bad choice.
  2. When the threat of death from failing a save becomes something that is commonly encountered by players (Power Word, Kill, Medusa's Gaze) player characters are traditionally at or near name level. Assuming they received experience for gold, they should have enough treasure, equipment and levels to succeed on a save 90%+ of the time, as well as the resources to raise or heal anyone who does get taken out of the combat. 
  3. Modern games increase the difficulty of the save, meaning that this isn't true for players of modern games. This does not mean that the mechanic of save or die is broken in old school game.
  4. Again, the idea that Save or Die can destroy a gaming session due to luck is immensely ignorant. At what point are the people you are spending your recreation time with so insensible that they willingly commit suicide? This 'destroyed' gaming session due to luck is a strawman. Is the argument that the monster manual should only be filled with creatures that can be beaten in a straight fight? Why would you want every enemy to be a tedious numerical challenge?
  5. The immature idea (because it stems from a sense of entitlement -- a hallmark of those who lack maturity) that saves versus death should only apply after a threshold of hit points are reached creates a gaming environment where choice is divorced from consequence.* This reduces the engagement, meaning, and value of the game. There is an excellent example about game-play founded on this kind of design -- the success of 4e stands on its own merits. 
  6. Not allowing casters access to save or die spells creates needlessly long high-level combats, another problem exemplified by the poorly working model where this was implemented! The reason it's not a problem for PC's is covered in my point above.
*Why am I so direct here about how the idea is immature? Because it contains the arrogant presumption that every monster should be fought and killed by the PC's. If you fight a Medusa without taking steps to protect yourself from the gaze, then you deserve to die. Is the supposition that the  characters to just walk up and fight the Medusa in safety?  Who is the person arguing that this is something the players should be protected from? They should be safe until they are hurt? I cannot find one single coherent point in this argument and yet it is being made.

Is the argument that the game should lack challenge? That there should be nothing we have to worry about? Who is the person who wants to play a game where they say "I try really hard!" and always be told "You win!" If you are that person, I would only interact with you if I worked with you, and I certainly wouldn't let you sit at my table.

I do not have a problem with people deciding that save or die isn't for them or doesn't fit the type of campaigns they want to run. But to be so ignorant about the factors involved in save or die is  embarrassing.


  1. Seriously. In Pathfinder for example poison (and disease, and level drain) are so weak as to be meaningless. To overcome them all you need to do is make an easy save or two. "Oh no! You're poisoned! All you need to do is roll a 12 or better on a d20+3! If you fail, you will take 1d4 damage!" Not very scary. Should I fight the spider? Of course!

  2. Point #1 assumes the DM is going along with this and not all DMs are created equal.

    1. All my articles on theory assume that the DM is a reasonable person. See this.

  3. The idea that players should always 'win' is rampant in the game I play in. Not every player believes it, but the sense of entitlement you mentioned rings familiar in my ears. If you grab the cloak with the yellow mold on it, you made an error. Poke it with a sword/staff/10' pole/henchman first, to see if it's safe. Stuff in D&D is there in many cases to kill you. You gotta be careful.

    I typically tend to be wishy-washy on the idea of PC death when I DM, but in reading OSR blogs like this one I've come to the realisation that that's how the game was designed. You can't reload from a save point. You can't savescum and get that character back before s/he opened the door to the Big Scary Monster's lair. I'm working on assembling a group of players who understand this. I have one so far...

  4. I've been thinking about this for my game a lot lately and these points make a lot of sense to me. I especially like what #5 points out - that choices need to lead to consequences. Of course, I'd say the consequences need to be appropriate for the information given in the decision, in most cases.

  5. Thanks for stating this so clearly, you are so right!

  6. The points you make about save or dies seem reasonable, but wouldn't this be a prime example of a place where rules like "A Table for Avoiding Death" would make sense?

    It just seems odd to me that (at least in the context of yesterday's transcript) you've got a game where you are avoiding/delaying character death from damage in favor of critical effects, but still using hard binary save or dies.

    [Also, hey, how goes it. Been a while.]

    1. This is about driving tabletop activity.

      Players (more than one) requested a single character focused game. This involves a great resilience to combat damage. Otherwise the behavior is "I get henchmen to protect me" which is not what they desire the focus of play to be.

      This does not mean that the threat of death from a bad choice, haste, or in-caution should be eliminated. Without that threat, then the exploration loses a lot of it's interest.

      It goes well.

    2. Alright, that makes sense. I'd still argue that the same reason you have for using crits at zero health (dispensing with the need for henchmen) applies to save or dies as well, but I can see your position.

    3. Right. They can still hire henchmen, but the logistics of doing so don't work out so well. ("Go get that cloak." "Why?" etc.)

      You can see how this works from the play example of them trying to convince the henchmen to jump the floor.

      Also, we are using the weak henchmen force. The drive is to avoid taking time during combat to play out five player turns due to henchmen. Not necessarily the elimination of henchmen.

  7. Thank you for addressing this! Great roleplaying sessions I've been a part of always encourage creative and careful problem solving. By reducing opponents and environments to formulaic mathematical exercises we lose part of what makes these games great! Also by implementing a higher level of lethality in the world, you encourage players to be more careful lest they lose their character.

    Unless of course the player enjoy's playing "roll a character" for the entire gaming session.

    How squishy are characters in your games usually?

  8. I agree with your post in principle, but it's not applicable to yesterday's On Transcript http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2012/04/on-transcript-unfortunate-death.html post because the Yellow Mold goes against your first point. I admit in advance that I'm only familiar with your game as far as that transcript reveals.

    Your first point for save-or-die is that the player has made a fatal mistake that brings up the SoD roll. But Jordan did not have enough of a opportunity to understand the danger of his actions, even assuming the players were already familiar with Yellow Mold.

    Jordan carefully opened the cabinet, rightfully wary of what might be inside. Inside, he finds no indications of danger. In fact, you assure him that the cloak is not decayed, but that it is "fine", which could easily indicate that the cloak is a recent addition to an otherwise very old room. In order to give Jordan agency, you could have easily (1) had one cupboard door open and a long-dead skeleton lying in front of it or recently dead rats, with no indication of a fight. You could have had the room and the cupboard covered in other nonlethal kinds of mold and rot, since conditions supporting one kind of mold are likely to support others. Jordan could have felt a slight burning sensation upon opening the cupboard with his staff, or Rachel when she knocked the rubbish around. At the very least, when Jordan reached out for the cloak and you said that his "vision is blurring", you might have given him a chance to withdraw his hand.

    The only clues were: the building they were in was musty and long-abandoned, the room with the cupboard has trash strewn about, and there is an untouched cloak in the cupboard. This is enough to make mold *plausible*, but it wouldn't warn anyone that it was actually *present*.

    I have no problem with the save-or-die roll itself, but you should give the players a decent chance to avoid the fatal mistake that triggers it. In the case of Jordan's death, your clues were too subtle.

    1. Well, "unknown".

      Your message got caught in the spam filter, no small part of which was your anonymous posting.

      I think your point certainly has ground for discussion. I am not perfect, not do I claim to be.

      There are some unspoken assumptions - this is D&D we are talking about. Your argumentation assumes a refutation of the tropes specific to the game.

      1. The threshold from the wilderness to the underworld was crossed when they entered the adventure site.

      2. Danger and the possibility of instant death are certainly things that can occur from any action.

      3. Yellow mold had been in the game for 30 years in fact longer then the entirety of the life of the player who's character died. They knew that this was a game in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons and as such, this includes rot grubs, pit traps, yellow mold, and other classic decade old tropes.

      I agree that the description was less than perfect. They were more cautious with the rot grubs because of the dead body. I do not think you are advocating that any situation that carries the possibility danger be telegraphed with a dead body. And I agree that the clues were not obvious, easy, or blatant.

      But the players were in a hurry -- almost falling through a damaged floor they knew was there. An empty room containing only a wardrobe is suspicious, especially since it contained a cloak with a gold lining.

      That said -- and this is the most important part. Any action at all whatsoever that wasn't immediately grabbing the cloak would have given away the ghost.

      Remember that this is an actual play transcript. Upon reflection I might have chosen a different way to answer the questions 'is the cloak decayed'. I do not think (and I don't believe my players think -- unless you are one of them) that my response was 'unfair'.

      After all, if they rush through areas and aren't careful, then death becomes all that much more likely.

    2. Also: Thank you for asking this question.

  9. I think #3 explains a lot of the animus about save or die.
    #1 is overstated, though -- it depends on a competent DM to make it so. But there are also plenty of 'low-level' monsters with deadly poison, so let's not overstate the case -- giant spiders, poisonous snakes, etc can be randomly stumbled upon too.

  10. Point 2. is important since it relates to how 3ed borked the magic system. In 1ed the effects that a caster could mete out on a saved throw (generally) got worse but the chance of them sticking went down while in 3ed the effects that casters could mete out generally got worse while if the player built his character and played it intelligently his chance of having the effect stick went UP, throwing a big balancing factor out the window.

  11. -C, i generally enjoy your posts and agree with most of your theses. I found this post, however, so overburdened by loaded sentences and contempt that I found it difficult to struggle through. It seemed, to me, as though you had a very clear idea of certain games and certain game-players whom you disapproved severely. in this article, you address the audience as though they were both a chorus and a gaggle of children.
    even though I agree with much of what you write, I think this type of partisan, escalatory dialogue is mostly reactionary, mostly immature and mostly destructive. I would rather see creativity and innovation than accusatory polemic.
    - Dungeon Smash

  12. Here's the thing. I think save or die throws have their place in the game. I also think they got their bad rep because a lot of DMs used them as immaturely as you claim those who are against the save-or-die to be. And keep in mind, I am one who thinks these saves should exist, but I perfectly see both sides of the medal, and I am convinced that most players will have a different opinion about save-or-die based on what kind of DM they had.


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