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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Does "Save or Die" Have it's Roots in Tournament Play?

Is that G1-3 in your hands?
The latest Roll For Initiative (which I posted about yesterday) looks at G1 and remarks that it has it's roots as a tournament module. To the best of my recollection, all of the early AD&D module releases had their start as tournament modules for various conventions.

In my early days of running and playing in home brewed adventures and dungeons, the only "save or die" anyone encountered was Giant Centipedes (and even then the save was at + 4 if I recall correctly). Our traps caused damage, sleep, paralyzation, teleporting and the like. It could kill, especially if you failed your save and the damage rolled was high enough, but outright "save or die" was few and far between - at least until we found official AD&D modules from TSR.

Those converted tournament modules seemed to have death lurking behind every lock, door, chest and intersection. Which makes sense for what it was written to do - whittle down a party of pregenerated characters to wind up with a winner. The thing is, most campaigns don't play out well like that.

So, while "save or die" was certainly part of old school play, i think it remembered more because of the official TSR modules from the early 1e days than actual play in most groups, or at least the groups I played in in two states, two schools, college and beyond. You learned to fear when an earl¥ 1e adventure was brought to the table, as death literally was around the corner..


  1. looking back at how many early modules were originally tournament modules, I have often wondered how much of the game's roots are really in ROLL playing. Is it possible that the role play was more of an afterthought brought to the table by non-tournament players? (heresy I'm sure.) We often hear much about Gary's point-of-view, but I have not heard much on Dave's thoughts on the game? I may be speaking out of turn since I have never played in a tournament and am not in the least bit a D&D/RPG Scholar; just a player adding and subtracting house rules and toggling between roll and role play for the last 30+ years.

  2. I love that your cat is the entire focus of the picture, not even a hint of gaming material there.

  3. Yellow Mold is Save or Die in the Monster Manual. If memory serves, there are a few other creatures in there with the same "special ability".

    1. There are tons of poisonous "save or die" monsters in the Monster Manual - snakes, spiders, wyverns, purple worms, etc. - not to mention the numerous petrifying monsters which are "save or basically die". The energy-draining monsters are actually "die no save" for low-level victims. These things were in AD&D right from the start.

  4. My understanding is that tournament, and by extension tournament modules, where a result of player demand. Not something Gary or TSR was actively pushing. Players wanted tournaments so TSR wrote them. Players wanted pre-printed adventures, so TSR published what they already had.

    G1 was written in '78 which is after the monster manual and after Gary had already started working on AD&D. So it comes pretty late in D&D's development.

  5. When TSR saw that adventures were viable what did they have lying around that was close to being publishable?

    Tournament Dungeons of course. They already had a rough draft in the form of what was handed out to DMs. Playtested with dozens gamers. Clean it up, expand it a little and you had a publishable product.

  6. Interesting. By the time B/X came out, save or die seems to be an implicit part of the game, since in the sample of play on p. B59 we see that after he fails his save, "Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead." That inclusion in the sample of play suggests that this is the way you were "supposed" to play with B/X – though I think B/X came out after the first tournament modules (I'm admittedly not a scholar on the subject) and perhaps it was influenced by them?

  7. (summoned by historical discussion)

    The "save or die" concept is present in the 1974 edition of D&D, say, for the "Finger of Death" spell, where targets must save versus magic or die. The spores of Yellow Mold are also fatal if you fail a poison save. How widely implemented these were is a harder question to answer. From the stories I read in the early APAs, I think some of these homemade dungeons were quite lethal, but the notorious ones scared away players. The ability to vote with you feet has always put some democracy in dungeon design.

    As for tournament play, it is crucial to remember that the first significant tournament dungeon was the Tomb of Horrors (which Gygax adapted from an earlier dungeon devised by Alan Lucien), and in the Origins I (1975) incarnation, the ToH was a huge bag of traps and poisons - but it was also designed for a pregened 15-player party which ranged up to 12th level. Some poison is described as "immediately fatal." Many other things can instantly kill you, even prevent any sort of resurrection. But if you've got 15 players, you are expected to lose several - the tournament is designed that way, so that it was easy to divide winners from losers. It did have a big influence on subsequent tournaments, though many players were turned off by its very mechanical and impersonal kills.

  8. 0d came out of CHAINMAIL. It was a wargame with rules for fantastic combat.

    I suspect "save or die" was more like "die or save" in a wargame setting. It was likely curtains for you, but you might just sneak by.

    I don't know if this is true. It feels truthy to me though.

  9. For a party of high-level characters, death was more of an inconvenience, and a gold sink, than a permanent condition.


    1. A point Frank Mentzer made brutally clear in the first high-level game I played in under him. It was a lot of fun once we realized how to operate with high-level PCs.

  10. This stuff was baked into D&D from the start. Anything poisonous in the 1st ed. Monster Manual was save or die. A "lesser" poison, like from giant centipedes, just gave a bonus on the throw. One or two monsters were so bad as to inflict a penalty on the save. Consider what OSRIC has to say on the matter:

    "Generally, when a player character ingests or inhales the
    poison, or it otherwise enters his or her bloodstream, he or she
    must roll a saving throw against poison (sometimes with a modifier
    —up to +2 for a relatively weak toxin such as that of a Large
    Spider, down to -4 for a particularly lethal one). If the saving
    throw is failed, the character dies."

    Now that being said there are non-lethal things that a save vs. poison can mitigate: troglodyte stench, quasit irritation, etc. But that's just repurposing the save category.

    Of course a lot of D&D's insta-death mechanics rubbed people the wrong way. There were dragon magazines presenting variant poison systems where poisons of various sorts did various amounts of HP damage. But that is what came later, not the save or die idea.