Building a Better D&D
I've already dealt with some of the related issues but I wanted to make a specific statement about this. If it is not eliminated then at least it will be reduced drastically. This means that poisons, some other monster abilities, and a lot of spells will require changes. The lower the level of the party the fewer instant-death situations they should face (though there may be some). Even at higher levels it is unnecessarily arbitrary for a high-HP fighter to go from full health to corpse as a result of a single unlucky die roll which it is often only minimally possible to adjust favorably, and VERY rarely something that the player can/should be expected to have the PC attempt to avoid altogether. Going along with changes to the effects that generate the effect in the first place will be the addition of some elements that will help to alleviate or avoid the results in the second place.
It is often felt that the Old School approach to D&D should include instant-death effects, the better to strike fear into the hearts of players and maintain constant doubt and uncertainty in play. To an extent I agree. Players should have their PC's act with caution because every once in a while death IS around the corner and the PC cannot avoid it.
Back in the early days of the game that was perhaps thought to be the way it ought to be. When they were literally making the game up as it went along, when nobody knew any better, when players were not yet learning to deeply identify with their characters, that might have been more acceptable. But that was almost 40 years ago now. People can play it that way if they want – they should game and be happy. It is not, however, how the game should be designed to operate because people DO play differently now. We know and appreciate things now that we did not then. Over the decades of game design experience in building the rules, playtesting results, and having millions of gamers use and abuse them in actual play, a few things have been learned. Things that Gary admitted in the DMG that he would not think of and had not thought of at the time of writing it. It just isn't worthwhile to run the game that way anymore; so few people still do play the game that way. Similar or even better effects can be achieved without such unheroic, arbitrary shenanigans.
The more time and effort a player puts into creating and running a PC the less arbitrarily the game should treat that characters continuation in the game. This doesn't mean they should necessarily be unkillable, just that their deaths should be ever less likely to be from arbitrary bad luck. Back in the beginning players may have gone through PC's like candy. I might even risk asserting that by the time 1E began maturing that just wasn't how the game was played anymore except by a few. Players invested in their characters. They wanted to play out their ONGOING adventures, not their one brief shining moment before being casually or irreverently disposed of. Clever play no longer meant trying to think of ways that the DM would ALLOW you to avoid his screwjobs. It meant taking creative, positive action out of a desire to generate more fun and interest, not taking fearful, defensive action out of a desire to avoid the DM prematurely kicking a given player or the entire ongoing game back to square one.
Yet some deadly effects perhaps should at least in part remain as they are – deadly poison is hardly deadly if it doesn't kill, but only does handfuls of damage that characters can routinely shrug off as “just points”. One way to deal with poison is to have an immediate incapacitation effect but then have the poison still take time to actually kill the PC giving the other characters time to cure it or at least keep the character alive until it's run its course. Another is for a poison to have ongoing damage rather than immediate all-or-nothing, and to have it scale to both the intended deadliness of the monster and the expected level of the PC. As noted before there are many effects that can be achieved with poison beyond just DEATH. As with poisonous creatures in real life, not all monsters poison their prey to eat it, and if they do then it's generally paralyzation poison rather than killing outright. Intelligent, evil monsters will poison to kill though, and monsters that are fantastically large or giant-sized may kill with their poisons as a result of sheer volume.
There are a few monsters that petrify but they don't have to function identically. Really, they already ARE quite different in their size, combat effectiveness, method of petrification (touch, breath, gaze...) and ecology. They share only the special attack result of petrifying victims. So, rather than that petrification being save-or-die, it can manifest quite differently for all of them. For the cockatrice it might take several successful pecks/scratches, each with an increasing level of debilitated movement and combat by the character before finally petrifying a victim.
The medusa is one that has long been portrayed as an all-or-nothing attack in the movies with only clever manipulation of a mirror being a characters saving grace. But players all KNOW this. The challenge in the encounter is not the terrible and arbitrary cost of failure - the challenge should lie in the creativity and effort in the steps needed to succeed. As currently constructed the game will, by "save-or-die" petrifaction, randomly kill a character fighting a medusa even if he does everything right. It is fitting that characters can and should occasionally die, even through no fault of their own, but it's generally going to happen in a sequence of events. Where's the fun for ANYONE in turning PC's into statues arbitrarily and instantaneously? Is it strictly on the principle that the PLAYER must fear the random, arbitrary death of his PC just to make a fight exciting? Bullshit.
While I might yet find a place for it, I have yet to devise or read anywhere - EVER - that save-or-die is anything but an archaic, unneeded and unwanted mechanic which deserved to be eliminated itself even after it saw print in 1E. My present intent is to remove EVERY instance of it on sound principle and reintroduce it only if/when it can be justified - and that justification will be a first.
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