Friday, October 12, 2012

Dying Ain't Much of a Living - A Look at Save or Die in the OSR

"Dying ain't much of a living boy!" - Josey Wales

The quote came to me this morning (excellent movie BTW) and it's fairly applicable to the OSR style of play in general. By that, I mean there is an expectation that PCs may die, especially at earlier levels.
Heck, over the last 2 weeks, I think I have 3 notches on my belt, and I'm not running a DCC RPG game right now either ;)

So, at low levels, PCs get to meet death intimately - but something happens as they survive and level. HPs rise, AC gets better and they are no longer as susceptible to swingy things like damage rolls. Threat of death retrenches.

Solution? Save or Die mechanics, which I'm not enthralled with when they are over used, but they are extremely useful in keep the players and their characters on their toes.

I just don't see the need for save or die at lower levels. A trap with enough potential damage is a similar to a save or die situation without putting the onus on the player failing a roll - it falls instead on the trap itself and the damage in generates.

In general, I like to keep the use of Save or Die at a minimum - enough to keep players on their toes, but not so much they expect every door to try and kill them. It should be in the back of their mind, but not their focus.

How do you use Savor or Die? Do you not use it? Why or why not?


  1. I tend to save it for special situations. As I am aware of my players' expectations, they have been raised on the 2E/3E/4E supposition that characters are story-related and it must fit if they are to die. Antithetical to old-school play? Maybe a bit, but I don't mind. So I pad the HP levels at first level to increase survivability, and I make sure character death is a thing to remember, rather than an ignominious die roll result, usually. They fear a finger of death spell, to be sure, since I generally keep those kinds of things intact. A 2E kobold mage with finger of death nearly resulted in a TPK about 15 years back - not one of the players complained, but the remaining living characters FREAKED and retreated. I think it's a thing to use judiciously and to great effect when the time is right if you have a group like mine that runs on a different set of core values that they feel are important to their game experience.

  2. I think one problem with "Save or Die" is the phrasing. Really, it's "Die or Save".

    "Save or Die" suggests that you're alive, but if you make this roll, you're dead.

    "Die or Save" makes it more clear that your have already been killed by poison! But wait, if you're lucky, maybe you'll survive after all. Like, a saving throw is a privilege, despite your previous choices getting you killed.

    That said, I use "die or save" effects when it makes sense, or when that's what the monster-entry/random-chart says.

    If I'm playing with the intent of "character continuity", then I don't play with rules that feature "die or save" in the first place.

    As for low-levels, "die or save" might actually be the humane thing, when 3d6 damage means instant death anyway, a saving throw might actually increase your odds of survival.

  3. Just last night, three PCs bit the dust due to yellow mold in my game.

    Save or Die? You betcha. But life or death always comes down to a roll, whether it is a roll for damage done, a saving throw, or what-have-you. It is the choices made that lead to the roll that make it either fun & interesting game playing or random, nonsensical death.

  4. I joined in the debate on this subject on the Classic D&D forum on Dragonsfoot just today. Someone made the point that Ludanto has - that really it is 'Save to Live'. The PC ought to be crushed by a block, or die an agonising death after being bitten by a venomous snake, but here's a die roll that gives the PC a second chance.

    I think Save or Die is an essential feature of D&D. They keep the lives of PCs (and NPCs, and Monsters) precarious, even at high levels.

  5. Save or die slowly makes for a much more satisfying gaming experience. The player of the dying PC doesn't just shut up and let his alter-ego die they become a dramatic impact on resources and focus.

  6. Absolutely. Anything that leads to high stakes dice rolling.


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