364 Save Or Die

Another time I launched the episode but didn’t post it here in a timely manner.

Brett is running some AD&D and one of the features (bugs?) in this game is the Save or Die situation. Some folks hate this and others enjoy it. Where are we?


I like Save or Die. Personally, I really enjoy grittier games. I have no problem going into a game knowing that my PC can die. It doesn’t matter if they’re 1st level or 10th level. That tension you get from knowing that you character might not survive this encounter is exciting. I actually get quite bored in games without serious consequences. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go into games looking to kill my PC. I want them to live through the campaign. That said, I’m more than happy to lose a PC to a memorable death.

I do have a problem with Save or Die if it isn’t handled properly. Brett mentioned this at the end of the main topic - you need to telegraph that shit well in advance. If my PC opened a door and without warning was immediately faced with a Save or Die roll, that would piss me off. At that point, I’d have no chance to save my PC - one roll determines it all. Now, if I was given warning ahead of time, then I can make some preparations. I don’t expect to be told “there’s a Medusa in the next room”. That kind of warning sucks. It gives me too much to work with. Small clues can go a long way. Finely detailed statues of people and creatures set randomly in the room is plenty of warning. It’s my job to pay attention to those clues and figure out what to do. I now have time to consider what my PC should do before taking another step.

Save or Die probably works better with experienced players and an experience GM. Experienced players are more likely to recognize the signs. They’ve seen them before. Experienced GMs will do a better job of foreshadowing the challenge and building tension. You don’t want death to come without warning. I think that’s where you run into the turtling and table flipping - players not being given enough warning that they should watch out and prepare.


Personally, even in my old school games, I’ve found Save or Die as written too harsh. And “unrealistic.” In most cases, especially in the “natural” cases (i.e., centipede bites, attacks that don’t involve magic), I’ve adjusted it to “Save or you are going to Die.” A failed Save usually results in toxic shock, followed by unconsciousness: “The character isn’t doing so well, a lot of clammy sweat and shakes, very shallow breaths. This person is in a bad way.”

In these cases it’s up to (hopefully) the other characters in the party to decide what to do for their fallen comrade. Usually it involves getting them out of the adventure location and seeking medical or magical help.


I remember my players being terrified of giant scorpions back in my old AD&D days, specifically because of their Save-or-Die poison. A lot of PCs died at the hands (stingers) of giant scorpions.

In games that are supposed to be deadly and gritty, and that both encourage and reward smart play, I dig the mechanic – or some variation of it. Like @Gabe, I tend to prefer something that puts you on death’s doorstep and then forces action from others to prevent the worst from happening. I quite like The Black Hack’s version of this – it’s basically Save or be "Out of Action" – and that OOA table has a 1 in 6 chance of the character dying, but also results that will see PCs maimed and disfigured as well. (Permanent attribute damage.) So bad stuff, but not just immediate death.

I’m generally down with what Farty is suggesting as well – telegraph the danger. I’m not a big fan of relying on the players’ knowledge of the game lore. Just knowing that such and such a creature can do X to you doesn’t interest me like the PCs learning about how venomous the swamp monkeys are from the witch that lives in the giant mushroom at the edge of the Moonwood.

Last comment – I don’t run straight up D&D, but if I did, there wouldn’t be any Raise Dead spells or the like… so that sort of puts a point on Save or Die as well. If the PC can just be brought back, no big deal, I think that robs the mechanic of some of it’s power.


You guys seemed to question the usefulness or appeal of this episode in the closing minutes, but I just wanted to chip in and say I enjoyed it. I thought y’all did a good job of discussing/revealing an element of old school vs new school without arguing that one is better. To my ears you neatly sidestepped any gate keeping or value statements. I say “revealing” because many gamers in the hobby today have never experienced Save or Die. A cold exposure to such a mechanic might leave a player feeling cheated or dumbfounded. But it is ultimately a different mindset and a different type of game that is worth understanding and experiencing. Difference is good right? Experiencing different styles of play is good.


Another thought-provoking episode. Personally, I hate the instant death save sort of mechanics, but games without it are missing something. Threat. When I used to play AD&D I did appreciate that feeling of surviving a fight more that than I do in 5th edition. Don’t get me wrong I prefer the more durable characters of modern games, but that comes with a cost of a certain level of excitement.

Why would so many willing give this up? Because the games we play are built for us to be the “heroes” and we like it. It’s baked into many modern rpg’s. Bennies, FATE points, inspiration, flash backs are just examples of this. Games that feature these sort of mechanics are more cooperative in their story telling. By my thinking that is a good thing, so I do not lament those tension provoking mechanisms… mostly.

When I first started playing AD&D, I thought of myself as a protagonist rather than the hero. After all, what book has the hero die as many times as I did? Even Game of Thrones had nothing on me.

This mentality of being the hero is a different sort of fun that generally I prefer. That said, I am running a 1st edition AD&D game and remarkably no one has died yet. But as we all know it’s a matter of time. Wow, I do love the tension that game has.

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