Save or Die. Game killer?

To be clear, I’m talking about the ability. I’ve been listening to Erik over at the Tenkar’s Tavern blog and his ‘Designers and Makers’ slot got me thinking…

As a player, I hate Save or Die. Nothing says ‘kill my fucking fun’ like Save or Die. I know why too. I like to keep a character and gain experience to build them up over time, to feel attached. That’s how I played as a kid — I had characters that were crazy multi-classed, +6 Hellblade-wielding, Archdevil-slayers. I remember being 14 and losing a character to a pretty angry Mephistopheles and I was fucking miserable for a couple of days.

If you think about it, things like Flesh to Stone or Petrification are the same thing. It’s pretty much death, although with enough high-level magic you can get round it. The same with Save or Die — it’s get roundable. But it contains the word Death. And that sounds bad and final.

“You’ve been a very naughty Lich, killing all those PCs like that.”

Using Save or Die — or any other ‘single dice roll and probably get a new character sheet’ mechanic — should be used with caution. It’s group and player-dependent. It’s campaign-dependent. If you are planning to use it, then players should know in advance of the session where it may crop up. Players get complacent, but killing a character they have played for 20 sessions (with no backup plan to reverse it) is a dick move, and I can bet that player WILL NOT think it’s a good game. Remember, you are playing for fun after all.

man person face portrait

In one-shots and convention games I can see how this is appropriate. But leave that mechanic/’save or die’ boss until near the end. It’s shit dying at the start of a session. Of course, if you have a group of players that are fine with getting characters killed off, then feel free.

‘As Gary Intended…’ doesn’t mean kill anyone who’s stoopid. After all, M0rdenkain3n, Ten5er, Bi8by, Le0mund and all those guys survived into adulthood and legend.

For campaign play, ‘single roll and it’s game over’ situations really kill the fun. There still needs to be perceived risk and threat though, as strolling through adventures on easy is no fun either (for some).

The Computer Game Difficulty Model

Computer games have Easy, Normal and Hard modes very often, even Insane modes. It’s worth thinking about writing adventures with these three modes in mind.

So, here’s a thought.

When campaign playing, anything that has an insta-kill outcome would get extra save chances. So let’s say we have a room with a Medusa. The players wander in and all make saving throws.

The saving throws have a number of roll chances equal to the Difficulty Level.


  • Easy = 3 chances at Saving Throw (You are your god’s new play thing)
  • Normal = 2 chances at Saving Throw (The gods smile upon you)
  • Hard = 1 chance at Saving Throw (Hey, God! Where are you?)
  • Insane = 1 chance at Saving Throw at -1d6 (Even your god hates you)

This could work for any saving throws, or situations where death is the result. It’s a kind of Advantage mechanic, but it’s fixed for certain situations.

As always, these can be specific to each player too. So if Bob wants to play on Easy, but Roger on Insane then balance that with additional XP at the end of the session.


  • Easy = 75% of XP earned.
  • Normal = 100% of XP earned.
  • Hard = 110% of XP earned.
  • Insane = 150% of XP earned.

Had I have had this in my games as a 14 year old, then my wizard would have not been Mephistopheles’ plaything for eternity. May the pit fiends be merciful to his bum-hole and use foam pitchforks (yeh right).

Over and out, Glynn

One thought on “Save or Die. Game killer?

  1. I like the difficulty setting mechanic you have there, we lived in fear of saving throws I can remember that well. I see now though that theres flex that can be used. It makes me think of critical hits, something that leaves you with scars and potentially life altering events that add flavour and something potentially novel to the character afterwards. ‘I got this scar from a Moray Eel, bit clean through my wetsuit’ ‘See this I cant extend my arm no more…’ etc etc ( dreadful butchering of the scars scene from Jaws which is well worth a watch for the humour and pathos). This makes me think of Andy Bartlett’s Viscera! Booklet for Advanced Fighting Fantasy or Warhammer Critical results. Leaving little character flaws or modifications that can have gameplay implications. I like that as long as it doesnt over-shadow the gameplay itself or become unwieldy.

    In looking for the Jaws scene quotes I learned that Moray Eels have a second set of jaws that reach forward to grasp prey and drag it down their throats once the main mouth has grasped their prey. So not only was Ridley Scott using Dr Who but also the Moray Eel too perhaps!

    The link for Viscera

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