Friday, July 31, 2009

To the Death? No, to the Pain.

Talking to Akrasia about his S&W House Rules reminded me of some thoughts I keep meaning to put down on...well, not paper. Electrons, maybe?

Among some grognards, Save-or-Die has a certain totemic power, not unlike Descending Armour Class. It loudly proclaims that the player characters do not possess Plot Immunity on account of being the protagonists of some Games Master-authored story. It trumpets out the fact that player's need to use their own skill or they will find their characters stone cold dead quicker than they can say 'Bree-Yark".

However, I have a significant problem with Save-or-Die: it's boring. It actually fails to generate significant tension in the game.

"What's that?", yell my illusory audience. "The threat of death is the principal means of creating tension. It's exactly this lack that makes newer iterations of the game less than satisfactory" (Note how polite my imaginary readers are towards later versions of the game. No name-calling among these hypothetical gentle-folk).

But I'll dispute that. The very ease with which OD&D characters die and are replaced, combined with the presumed availability of Resurrection spells, mitigates much of the sting of death and robs the grave of it's victory. What players really fear, what gamers will avoid at all cost, is being hurt where it counts. I'm talking, of course, about character effectiveness (What? You thought I was talking about something else?).

Notice how level-draining Undead create a terror all out of proportion to their lethality. I've known many a player who would much rather have his beloved character enter a room full of Red Dragons with nothing to defend himself with other than a dull spoon, than fight a Wraith with all their collected gizmos and gadgets. The Dragons, at least, offer the opportunity for an heroic (or, at least, comical) death. But even though the character's chance of defeating the Wraith is much greater, the character is also very likely to end up losing a level or two.

And that's just the worst.

You lose Hit Points, combat or spell-ability, maybe even a cool trick or two depending upon your class. Suddenly, you suck and your companions don't. Well, maybe not suck, but rather than having a memorable death having been eaten by a family of Dragons while gallantly fighting with less-than-optimal flatware, you now can just do less than you used to do. You are literally less than you used to be.

That's tension. That's a negative incentive. And that's why I don't use Save-or-Die. Instead, I use either level-drains or attribute damage. The former is well-known because of the Undead. The latter is less common which is probably why I prefer it (I also find it easier to rationalize). For example, in my Onderland Campaign, Grave Wights (my version of Barrow Wights) don't drain levels; they inflict Constitution damage. The cold from beyond the grave emanates from these unnatural abominations and it weakens those who feel it. They cannot be warmed, they cannot rest at ease, they cannot heal naturally. Slowly, their Constitution withers away.

Other dangers affect other attributes. I like poisons that intoxicate the mind (damaging Intelligence or Wisdom) and curses that sap one's Strength. To me, those sorts of threats are just so much more interesting than, "Oops. You're dead."


  1. Interesting idea. I agree that too-common death quickly loses its sting, which is why I use a Table of Death and Dismemberment stolen from Philotomy, I think. Fun stuff, because fates worse than death are, well, worse than death. ;)

  2. Well said. One thing the various iterations of BRP did was wounds (which often reduce attributes).

  3. I must have seen that dismemberment table but I'll have to look that up again, sounds fun!

    I use save vs. death - has always seemed a nice compromise between telling the player to kiss that character goodbye and giving them just one more chance. But our house rules dictate only if they haven't lost more than a negative amount of their Con - given that at higher levels you might suffer more than that in a single bad attack, it takes save vs. death out of the picture at higher levels, where by now players should presumably know better or else be able to deal with it. No restoration to playability, restoration to the ability to play again in a couple of weeks at best.

    As for Resurrection spells, well, they're only as available as you make them to your players to be able to discover and learn - so as DM you've really total control over that. That is, it needn't be presumed to be available at all - those temple clerics may have had no more chance to learn that one than your players.

    Save vs. die rolls have generated some serious tension at our table, but ymmv... and though we use descending armor class, I'm not particularly attached to it or give it totemic status in any way, it just has worked and been fun for us.

    I do like the lose a level and suffer idea but I'd probably be more likely to use it with the occasional poison or other effect), and we do use attribute damage (Wisdom = Sanity, pretty much), but these are things that seldom come up.

    I see the fun to be had with inflicting suffering (and really the fun to be had in playing a suffering character), but I'll stick with the save vs. death for now. There's something about the trembling finality of the dice throw there that appeals to us so far, but maybe we've just gotten lucky with the death to difficulty/fun level ratio.

  4. Unsurprisingly, I very much agree with this post!

    One reason why I prefer to use attribute damage instead of instant death for most poisons and diseases -- at least for my 'swords & sorcery' campaign -- is that I don't allow raise dead or resurrection spells (such spells simply seem contrary to the s&s genre). Even when running a 'classic' D&D game, I prefer to keep such spells extremely rare.

  5. Yep. As one of my players has noted, the threat of worse-than-death is often more effective than death itself.

  6. @ze bulete:
    As for Resurrection spells, well, they're only as available as you make them to your players to be able to discover and learn.

    Oh yeah, certianly. But I think there is a definite presumption of there presence in OD&D, or, at least, the game play that occurred. For myself, like Akrasia, I pretty much eliminate Resurrection. One of the things I do now is to let half of the HP's lost in a fight return afterwards--second-wind and so forth. It keeps the number of HP's small, but allows me to avoid having Potions of Healing come out like cokes from a vending machine.

    Death and Dismemberment gave me a thought, though. The newer iterations of FATE have this idea where you can trade in damage for Consequences. So, if yoo are about to take a wound that puts you out, you avoid it by taking, say, "Maimed Hand" or something. I wonder how that might work in D&D. Say that you can avoid the damage of any single blow by taking a spin of the Wheel of Dismemberment.

    That might be interesting.