Hello. My name is Ryan and I do not like save or die mechanics.
I know the reason why they exist. That does not mean that I must like it. The game, in general, is dangerous enough without this mechanic, so why do we need it? Does this mean that I am abandoning the principles of old-school gaming and going to convert over to 5e? No. What it does mean is that I am going to steal other people’s good ideas on the subject and apply them to my own game. I do not want the threat of death to leave my games and player death should happen, but I prefer to mar and cripple my PCs over death. At times death is letting them off too easy.
I saw an alternative rule that I am tending to lean towards that is still extremely deadly, but also not a binary result. When someone has a save or die mechanic (i.e. poison, death ray, etc) they take the creatures hit dice in damage. Example: the character is struck with a death ray from an Eye of Terror (Beholder). The character fails their save and would take 11d8 points of damage. Odds are the character will still die, but there is always the chance that the damage roll is low. In addition, if the character fails the save, takes damage and lives, they will have an appropriate permanent effect. In the example above I might have the death ray destroy part of the character’s health and they take 1d3 CON loss.
You could have a character that fails a save against a medusa gaze and live. They then might have some calcification of the joints and they lose 10’ of movement and are just slower the rest of their career. That effect could in theory be removed with a Stone to Flesh spell which would in theory cure them if they were turned into a statue too. This also is the same with poison. A character can fail a save and take huge amounts of damage, but if Neutralize Poison is used, they instantly regain that hit point loss.
Lastly, I use a Death & Dismemberment chart for my characters because again, I like to mar and injure the characters. I would skip this step though in the case of a save or die mechanic. If you hit zero, from a failed save, it is lights out. This adds another level of danger and still makes those save or die mechanics scary, but not cheap.
I do not judge people who use the mechanic and like it. It is certainly a preference. I think it is a little more acceptable at lower levels, but as you put time into a character the thought of losing it to one bad die roll tends to sting more. Might just be me?
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