04 August 2009

On 'Save or Die' Effects in 'Swords & Sorcery' games

Prompted by some recent conversations with the Fiendish Doc Samsara, here are my thoughts on 'save or die' effects in 'swords & sorcery' themed games:

Given the absence of any ‘raise dead’ or ‘resurrection’ spells in most ‘swords and sorcery’ settings, Game Masters may want to make ‘save or die’ effects (from poisons, traps, magic, and so forth) more rare than they are in a standard S&W or D&D game. Moreover, instead of causing instant death, many poisons might do constitution damage (automatically depleting all of the character’s remaining hit points), the amount determined by the strength of the poison in question (from 1d4 to 1d20). Thus such poisons would cause either unconsciousness (unless the character makes his/her saving throw), a -2 penalty to all actions (until the lost constitution points are healed), or death (if the damage roll is high enough).

Alternatively, poisons might cause temporary paralysis, loss of strength or dexterity points (to be recovered through rest, as per constitution points), and so forth.

Game Masters of ‘swords and sorcery’ games should be creative in coming up with non-lethal, or at least not automatically lethal, alternatives for ‘save or die’ effects.


  1. I prefer to leave characters unconscious, paralysed or weakened as it leads to more gaming opportunities - capture/incarceration, being carried by another character ("its you or the gold,hmm.."), having to crawl away and vowing to return. This fits in more with my idea of S&S heroes than -clunk-dead-end of story.

  2. Oh yeah, paralysis, that's a good one too!

  3. I kind of outgrew the whole "fail save - die - go to temple" routine around my second high school year. There were clerics at Temple Row who could do it, but you better have around 10-20 grand to pay for it or no dice. My players never got that kind of money, or else would not want to part with it.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).