Insta-doom!

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

In the original D&D game, there are certain things that cause instant death for PCs, such as poison and reaching 0 hit points.

You take enough damage, or you fail a save, and it’s game over. Roll up a new character. Long experience has show me that this is not fun if a player is attached to that character, as most players are, and increasingly so with the time invested. At the same time, in a game where survival and mortal danger are core components of play and centrally-focused by the rules, simply excluding character death is unsatisfactory. Is there a way to have both?

My attempt at such borrows the “three failed survival checks and you’re dead” rule from 5E to help provide a cushion for such events.

That is: once a character would be reduced below 0 hit points[1], they must make three “survival checks”, which need not be consecutive, to become stable but unconscious with 0hp. If, however, they fail three checks–which, again, need not be consecutive–the character dies. One check is made each round.

These survival checks give characters a fighting chance against whatever mortal danger they face; providing this opportunity to players feels a little less like outright hosing them when things (inevitably) go south.

More importantly, these three checks provide a mental “buffer” for the player: time to get used to the idea their character is about to pass out of the game, rather than simply slamming the event into their face. It also gives the player (and their companions) a chance to save the character, for, in the case of damage, any sort of healing that restores at least 1hp to a character ends the need for survival checks and restores the character to full health[2] and consciousness.

But what about situations of death caused by other effects than hp damage, such as poison, disease, being turned to stone, or so on?

A short series of checks to avoid that fate can also be implemented, though in such cases only the appropriate type of spells will end the need for making survival checks.

I have also ruled that in some cases, poison, disease, and etc. do not cause immediate death and trigger survival checks, but do hit point or ability damage instead, with the amount based on the strength of the poison or the danger level of the effect (usually, I express this in HD, which is also a good measure of the amount of damage it should do). Survival checks do not end conditions such as poisoned or diseased, and the character remains ill or incapacitated until some kind of healing or significant rest has occurred.

In one of our early games, a character was poisoned by a giant spider. They successfully made all three survival checks with the aid of a healer, but the rest of the party also needed to go on a short quest to find a specific herb (located in a dangerous nearby swamp) to neutralize the poison still ravaging her system. Only after application of the herbal remedy was the character able to regain hit points. The player, whose character was a knight, decided to take on the role of her squire for the session.

The “three saves” rule is reserved for player characters only (and perhaps for beloved NPCs who are not 0-level “normal men”). Creatures and NPCs do not benefit from this rule, and if they would fall below 0hp, are slain immediately.


[1] 0hp is the lowest amount of hit points possible; you cannot have “negative” hit points. Any amount of damage that would drop a character or creature below 0hp is ignored, but results in survival checks for player characters, or instant death for opponents and (most) NPCs.

Any character or creature who is reduced to exactly 0hp by damage is stable but unconscious (or nearly so, as befits the narrative), and needs make no survival checks.

[2] Maybe not “full” health, though…I’ve been toying with a rule that damage resulting in the necessity of a survival check causes serious injury, which requires weeks of bed rest to recover from and cannot simply be “cure”-spelled away.

As I am writing this, it occurs to me an alternate rule could be used here: all three survival checks could automatically succeed if a player declares their character has instead suffered some kind of serious disfigurement or loss of body part–a hand, an eye, etc. attached to a penalty (-1 to perception checks; no off-hand item use; etc).


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