To Die or Not To Die – That Is the Saving Question


March 8, 2012 by deadorcs

Anna thought carefully before making the decision to move her thief (a cunning and resourceful half-elf) a little further down the corridor. There were no foes about, but the dungeon was rumored to be riddled with traps. The rest of the group was ready to push on, but Anna knew that her character would be circumspect about navigating an otherwise featureless corridor.

Declaring that her thief would prod ahead with a 10′ pole, the DM asked Anna to make a Detect Traps check. Rolling the die, she announced the number, and the DM made a little note behind the screen. Seeing no immediately negative response, Anna took a deep breath and declared that her thief would move the rest of the length down the corridor.

With a barely perceptible smile, the DM announced that a trapdoor has opened beneath the half-elf’s feet. Wincing, Anna waited for the verdict. With precision, the DM announced that Anna’s character had fallen 10 feet into a pit filled with spikes. Anna frowned as the DM rolled the damage, but she subtracted the hit points from her character sheet. While the rest of the group quickly exchanged thoughts on what to do next, the DM looked at Anna and said, “It seems the spikes were poisoned. Roll a Saving Throw.  If you succeed, you will avoid the poison, if you fail, the poison is fatal.”

Groaning, Anna rolled the die. As she read out the result, the DM looked at his notes. The die roll was insufficient to avoid the fatal poison. Looking up, the DM reported to Anna as evenly as possible, “The poison was fatal. Your thief is dead.” Anna, shocked by the quick turn of events fired back, ‘But I’m only 3rd level! What do I do now?”


Save or Die. Until the 4th Edition came along, this particular brand of DnD lethality was an accepted part of the game. While certain saving throws might allow you to survive with just additional hit point removal or other serious condition (blinding, deafening, dismemberment, etc.), many saving throws had only one outcome when you failed – death. It’s a dreaded and often hotly contested mechanic. After all, DnD is about (at least for many players) developing their character’s background and ongoing story. Having all that swept away with a single roll can seem downright unfair. On the other hand, many feel “save or die” effects to be the hallmark of dangerous adventuring. Their argument is that you shouldn’t be allowed to go up against a Wyvern’s stinger if you’re not prepared to face the poisonous consequences. If your character gets hit by the stinger and your character dies, that’s too bad – the world is a dangerous place.

I think both approaches to DnD are perfectly valid. As with most topics related to DnDNext, though, my own views fall somewhere in the middle.  I’d like to see Save or Die mechanics return. The sudden call by the DM to “make a Saving Throw” has a great deal of impact and builds immediate drama. Such calls are not nearly as dramatic in the 4th Edition of the game. At the same time, however, I don’t want to see my player’s character building efforts snuffed out due to random chance. The trick then, is to institute the mechanic in a slightly different way. There are a couple of methods I’ve come up with. “A Pound of Flesh” and “Murder By Numbers”.

A Pound of Flesh

With this method, Save or Die simply becomes, “Save or Become Maimed”. While certain horrible blunders might still get you killed (for example, your Dwarf declaring that he can totally swim through lava), most traps and monster effects only maim you, instead. You might lose an arm, eye, or all your body hair, but you’ll survive. This accomplishes two things. The first, is that you don’t die, and you live to fight another day. The second, is that your injury now becomes a compelling part of your character’s story. You might have to adjust to fighting with the off hand, or take a penalty when you face hirsute Wookies. A failed saving throw against a mental attack might give you a detrimental fear against that foe. Your character has survived and now has a powerful reason to work with the DM to overcome the damage. Questing for a Restoration or Regeneration spell/ritual or finding a magical replacement, can be an adventure unto itself. Using the Pound of Flesh mechanic gives you a high level at grit, while not sacrificing the hard work that goes into creating an interesting character.

Murder By Numbers

This technique is closely related to how DnD 3.x handled certain incidents of serious damage. Instead of death or bodily harm (as above), you suffer permanent ability score damage. This method has the same results as the one above, but has a more “gaming” feel. It’s not important exactly how your failed saving throw damaged you. Instead, one, two or more ( in real deadly circumstances), ability scores are permanently reduced. Assuming DnDNext requires no ability score prerequisites for certain talents or feats, removing ability score points is a great way to show how the character has been damaged. A fall into a pit might reduce your dexterity (broken leg). A failed save against poison might reduce your constitution (weakened immune system). Again, the character doesn’t die, but there’s interesting story elements you can now add to the character and you don’t have to remember specifics. Just like using “A Pound of Flesh”, your character can now quest for items or spells that might repair the damaged ability.

So…to those building the future with DnDNext, I suggesting bringing back Save or Die. However, instead of “Die”, let’s explore other options to not only enhance the drama of the situation, but to build compelling character stories at the same time.


My Name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game



4 thoughts on “To Die or Not To Die – That Is the Saving Question

  1. […] offered by Mike Mearls and other moderate approaches proposed in the online community, such as Randall Walker, are promising. My concern for D&D Next is that it attempts to reclaim the intense lethality […]

  2. Syrsuro says:

    I think that pit trap is a good example of how not to use save or die.

    The value of save or die is in the increasing tension – the creation of fear and trepidation in the minds of the players.

    That only works if the players are aware that the threat is there and its true value is in forcing the players to CHOOSE between pushing on despite the risks or retreating until they are better prepared (in the case of poison that means slow poison and neutralize poison spells).

    Once the player is actually rolling the save, the tension is gone and the value is wasted.

    On the other hand, save or paralysis (as an example of a potential poison) is useful. Granted, this kinda puts the poisoned player out of action – but it raises the stakes for the rest of the party who must figure out how to get their paralyzed party member out of the pit before whomever set the trap shows up to see who rang the dinner bell.


  3. Philo Pharynx says:

    The other Randall at RetroRoleplaying had a good idea that works for old-school or new school games:
    Basically, most save or die effects give the PC’s a chance to fix it if they act quickly. Suck out the poison, apply CPR, infuse them with positive energy. To adapt this to 4e, I’d reverse things the way they are now. Now, you have to fail two or three saves in order to get the effect. This is less than a 10% chance without any modifiers. Now, I’d have the effect take place, but they start making the equivalent of death saves. They need to fail three for the effect to become permanent, and a 20 recovers. (number of failed saves can vary depending on how nasty the effect is) Allies can use an appropriate skill to reverse the effect. (heal for poison, arcana for petrification, religion for death magic)

    This increases the drama and gets the whole party involved.

    Depending on the character and player, Pound of Flesh and Murder by Numbers can be worse than death. “Instead of working on a new character, we’re going to make you play your existing character, but make them suck. Bob ended up sucking at something he didn’t care about anyway, but you got screwed in something that defines your character.” It also has the issue that the penalty depends on the level. At low levels it’s something that will last an adventure or more. At high levels, they’ll take care of it in just a few minutes. So the risk gets less the higher you go.

  4. mmaranda says:

    I’ll state as I have publicly many times I am a fan of save or die. A good DM or a new DM with a reasonable guide to when and how to use something as powerful as save vs death it can be a pwerful tool.

    I in fact much prefer something as scary as Save or Die to these other alternatives because the consequences seem much less harsh (I mean it isn’t death just blindness) so DMs might add them in more often without thinking about it and without providing any clues that there is something lethal around as is often the case with a save or die kind of monster today.

    From a player’s side I’d also much rather have my PC dead and be allowed the option of starting a new character or trying to get the party to raise the old one, rather than have a maimed PC who continues trying to adventure but is unable to do any of the tasks they used to. In my own experience this leads to Frustrated DMs and Players both thinking they are acting in the PCs best interests but neither being happy with the result of either a retired PC or a PC struggling to do all the things it used to do and that the party relied upon until such time as healing can be found, usually as part of a quest.

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