I’m Glad “Save or Die,” Well, Died, But . . . . #DnD #RPG #1e #4e #SaveOrDie

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Save or die in RPGs refers to the notion that a character can be in a position where their life relies on a single saving throw. This is quite common in 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) but was completely eliminated in 4th Edition D&D (“4e”). Despite my enthusiasm of returning to 1e, I think its demise was a good thing. Much like ordinary swings of a sword, devastating but really cool attacks could be unleased on a character without taking them out of the game immediately.

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For example, one of my favorite monsters is the medusa, so I want to use them to their full potential and (relatively) often. In 1e, however, one medusa could take out the entire party before they could say, “The Amazon commercial with Medusa is stupid.” That’s quite a buzzkill, and it can destroy a gaming session. In 4e, however, I had no issues unleashing that petrifying gaze upon the group. On a successful attack roll, those in a close blast 5 were slowed. A failed save on their next turn left them immobilized. Finally, if they failed a second save on the turn after that, they’d be petrified. At any point in that process, a single successful save ended the effect. Poison and other fatal (or effectively fatal) effects manifested similarly. A rare few monsters had abilities with aftereffects, which were brilliant. If at any point you successfully saved, it would end the primary effect but would trigger a secondary effect requiring its own save.

Medusa: The Ancient Greek Myth of the Snake-Haired Gorgon

I’m not sure how I’d eliminate save or die in 1e, or even whether I should eliminate it. Messing with something so deeply baked into the game could create issues. Or not. 1e is remarkably adaptable to house rules. To start, though, I’m going to keep it.

So, make sure your henchmen go into each room first.

Follow me on Twitter at @gsllc

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)


7 thoughts on “I’m Glad “Save or Die,” Well, Died, But . . . . #DnD #RPG #1e #4e #SaveOrDie

  1. I like the “save or die” mechanic, provided that it is in a game with fast and easy character creation so that I can get back in the game quickly, and also provided that it is used sparingly. It adds an element of random risk, and I find that exciting. I’ve lost fairly high level characters to a trapped door more than once, and it’s just the way the game goes. No character is ever “unkillable”.


  2. The alternatives are unpalatable to me too.

    a) There are no situations of certain death, at all. There is either cartoon physics in play, or there is only death by attrition. Or no death, at all.
    b) There do indeed exists possibilities of certain death. But you don’t get a saving throw. Suck it.


  3. If you want to keep the risk of death, but reduce the “one roll kill” frequency, just double the saving throw. Ie: if you have to save vs death, you have to roll and fail it twice to trigger the instakill effect, just failing once isn’t enough. This will reduce the number of times a character dies, but still keeps the risk pretty high, and doesn’t require any complicated changes to the system. It isn’t a “perfect” solution, but then again, there isn’t a perfect anything, and this is quick and easy to implement.

    If something like this still isn’t enough of a reduction of the effect, just admit that regardless of what you’re saying, what you REALLY want is to remove it completely. Then do that and move on, guilt free. Your game, your rules.


    • What you’re describing is what 4e did. Multiple failed saves or die, with each failed save having a deteriorating effect. Sometimes it was two failed saves, and sometimes it was three. That’s what I’m saying I prefer.


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