Disposable Heroes: What Does Save Or Die Really Kill?

Earlier this month, a spotlight was shone on the save or die game mechanic by members of the development team for Dungeons & Dragons Next. The vast majority of my experience with D&D is through 4th Edition, which is built with less lethality as the default option compared to earlier editions. For example, our group played a BASIC D&D game last year and the character I played died while I was away from the table during a 90-second roundtrip to use the bathroom. I left the table while the character had full health only to return to a corpse riddled by zombie teeth and claw marks. The lethality of the game has certainly shifted over time, and the developers of D&D Next are now seeking input about the utility of the most lethal aspect of D&D – save or die effects.

As a relative newcomer to D&D and tabletop roleplaying games, I find the save or die mechanic fascinating for all that it means for the game and those playing it. I have been playing computer- and console-based RPGs and other videogames since Atari and I cannot think of an equivalent mechanic to save or die. I have never played World of Warcraft or similar games, but I have learned if a character dies, his or her progress is not lost forever. The player – and character – continue to adventure another day. Even thinking about punishing games like the original Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which resulted in a multitude of deaths, they still featured the same protagonist after the character died. No matter how many times the player was punctured by throwing stars or knocked out of the sky by birds, the player still continued Ryu’s journey set forth by his father.

Ignoring Raise Dead and other options, D&D is one of the few games I’ve played where character death is FINAL. Save or die effects add an element of chance to the finality; saving throws in 4th Edition, not factoring in any relevant modifiers, will fail 45% of the time. In earlier editions, the fail rate was less favorable to the player. Fail a save, and the adventure was immediately over for that character forever. This strikes me as an odd way to manage a roleplaying game in terms of fostering a level of attachment and emotional investment from a player.

This topic is quite salient at the moment for me because I am currently playing through Mass Effect 3. I started playing the original Mass Effect five years ago, and my interest in the world and Commander Shepherd (female, of course!) has persisted. Had Mass Effect introduced new characters in each installment, my attachment to the protagonist – and thus, the game – would be significantly lower. The relationships I’ve built with the cast of characters in the game have produced memorable moments that have taken years to fully develop. If I had to start a new character with different relationships to the gaming world each time I died, then games like Mass Effect would not be fun because the shared history and experience of playing the game as one character would be lost.

Below, I review some of the recent conversation and commentary about save or die effects. I then present psychological research related to roleplaying games and player attachment to his or her character. The save or die discussion intrigues me because it touches on a core distinction I’ve noticed in gamers – those that play the game to explore a world and develop a character and those that play for a self-contained memorable experience.

Should We Save or Die In Future Editions?

The discussion of save or die and its role in the future of D&D started with a Legends & Lore column by Mike Mearls, Team Lead for D&D Next. I encourage everyone to read the full article, but a brief snippet is below:

The save or die effect represents an interesting point in D&D mechanics. On one hand, fighting a critter with a save or die attack is tense and exciting . . . Players will remember how their characters valiantly fended off attacks and either hoped for lucky rolls or came up with a cunning plan to defeat or avoid the critter. On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. With a few dice rolls, the evening could screech to a halt as the vagaries of luck wipe out the party.

A reason presented above to favor the inclusion of save or die effects is the level of drama and tension throughout a challenging battle with a vicious monster. The reasoning asserts the game is enjoyable and rewarding simply from the character surviving in the deadly game world. Several days after Mike Mearl’s column appeared, Monte Cook, Design Team Lead for D&D Next, added his viewpoint on this line of thinking:

I remember way back in the earliest days of the game how someone told me that people didn’t even bother naming their characters in their campaign until 2nd level because there was so little chance that a 1st-level character would survive. As silly as that might sound, the feeling of accomplishment at surviving such a lethal game, even for a little while, must have been great.

The premise states the difficulty of the game and the likelihood that characters will often die – thus making any level of survival a tremendous accomplishment – is a selling point of the experience of playing the game. 

What a spectacular death!

It seems to indicate that players might gain a more visceral thrill from the game when his or her character suffers a spectacular death rather than advancing to another quest. Once again, this strikes me as amazingly unique perspective for roleplaying games, which seem to thrive on the concepts of attachment and development – as I will detail below.

Roleplaying Game Literature Review: Development and Attachment

There is a good deal of literature, research and commentary on the design and psychological implications of roleplaying games. The first article I would like to review appeared in the first issue of the International Journal of Role-Playing. The authors of the article, The Many Faces of Role-Playing Games, attempt to understand what features make a game a role-playing game. The first feature they address is the potential for the game to provide a possibility for character development:

More than being merely character-based, characters in role-playing games are in the vast majority of cases capable of development . . . this development might be in quantitative, skill and ability, terms or in qualitative personality terms. While the form of the development might vary widely between games it is always subject to at least some player control . . .

Character development is not a requirement on every player or character, but is a potential play feature existing within the structure of the game. It is perfectly possible, for example, to “play” World of Warcraft, by creating a character, and then merely touring the world without ever acquiring additional equipment or experience points. Similarly, a player of Monopoly could simply move their piece around and around the board without ever buying a property. But the intent of development is there, even if ignored in some particular play examples.

The authors assert that character development is a foundational aspect of role-playing games. Characters in D&D progress in multiple ways; as the game advances, the characters enjoy new benefits such as additional hit points, improved gear and more powerful attacks. Another aspect of development is related to the personality of the character; during a campaign, the character establishes a history with the world and the people who inhabit it. A shared experience is created with the other players, their characters and the Dungeon Master leading the group.

Another author attempting to define what qualities make a game a roleplaying game in the article, The Game, The Player, The World: Looking For a Heart of Gameness, discussed the importance of player effort and attachment:

Player effort is another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict, or that games are “interactive” . . . The investment of player effort tends to lead to an attachment of the player to the outcome since the investment of energy into the game makes the player (partly) responsible for the outcome.

Attachment of the player to the outcome is a psychological feature of the game activity which means that there is a convention by which the player is attached to specific aspects of the outcome. A player may actually feel happy if he/she wins, and actually unhappy if he/she looses.

The author then states the level of emotional investment in the outcome may not always relate to the magnitude of the effort involved. For example, a player may be either ecstatic or furious at the outcome from a game of chance. A player’s attachment to the outcome of the game is framed primarily by his or her lusory attitude toward the game. In other words, each game has an agreed-upon contract for the players interacting with the gaming world. Problems arise when all players do not have the same lusory attitude toward the game. This directly applies to the designers of D&D attempting to find the appropriate dose of save or die effects for D&D Next. As Monte Cook wrote, a player might be thrilled to have a character reach Level 2 in an old edition of D&D even if the outcome was influenced more by chance than player effort.

The classic game, Monopoly, was used above to portray an example of a game with the expectation of development. Think back to playing the game as a young child with friends or family, and reflect on how you approached the game? Did you consider it a game of skill or a game of chance? Were you ever in a group where some players approached the game as a skill-based exercise while others approached the game as a luck-based activity? It is likely that a level of dissatisfaction was present during games when players arrived at the game with different attitudes. The same is certainly true with D&D and other role-playing games. A campaign is not likely to progress smoothly if half the players are eager to develop their characters while the others are seeking a self-contained visceral experience.

The level of attachment a player has for his or her character in a game varies. The authors of Character-Driven Game Design: Characters, Conflict, and Gameplay stated the following:

For players to have emotional attachment to their PCs, they need to have to make meaningful choices; here implying that the choice has consequences which have an impact to gameplay or the moral evaluation of the action.

Other researchers examined the concept of Character Attachment (CA) in gaming and developed a scale to measure the level of CA in the paper, “They May Be Pixels, But They’re MY Pixels:” Developing a Metric of Character Attachment in Role-Playing Video Games:

Questions about how the individual gamer interacts with the game character have become central to the research paradigm. In interactive video games, there is no parasocial interaction with a fictitious character, no felt connection per se, but an actual, tangible connection between the gamer and a fully functional, completely controllable avatar. Of particular interest to our study is the increasingly popular roleplaying game (RPG) genre. The central element for RPGs is character and story development as a result of the player’s actions. The main purpose behind RPGs is to let gamers immerse themselves in the world and psyche of their character(s). Thus, what separates RPGs from other character-driven entertainment media is this internalization and psychological merging of a player’s and a character’s mind – a phenomenon we call character attachment.

The scale identifies four distinct components of character attachment: 1) identification/friendship, 2) suspension of disbelief, 3) control, and 4) responsibility. This measure would be fascinating to administer to players of D&D and compare it to their preferences regarding save or die effects. My hypothesis is that players who enjoy save or die effects would score low on this character attachment measure since they are not emotionally invested in the character and have no expectation of character development. Those players less tolerant of save or die effects would likely score higher on the character attachment measure because they have formed a psychological attachment to their character.

Even games like Monopoly and Trivia Pursuit demonstrate aspects of emotional attachment to characters or avatars. In Monopoly, I was always the Car or the Top Hat; in Trivia Pursuit, I was the Orange Pie (or Green Pie if I couldn’t get my way). The selection of playing pieces was not arbitrary to me! Even though the game piece had no bearing on the outcome of the game or interacted with other features of the gaming world, I still formed an attachment to the game piece.

In summarizing the literature above, I turn to an article published in The International Journal of Computer Game Research titled, On the Role of the Die: A Brief Ludologic Study of Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying Games and Their Rules:

Interestingly, having a game system that is balanced and offers multiple valid and effective strategies actually encourages roleplaying through its gameplay mechanics. In systems without singular effective strategies, only play expression and personal style remain as valid motivation for gameplay choices made within the game world . . . Interestingly, having a game system that is balanced and offers multiple valid and effective strategies actually encourages roleplaying through its gameplay mechanics. In systems without singular effective strategies, only play expression and personal style remain as valid motivation for gameplay choices made within the game world.

The best roleplaying games . . .  manage to balance the game without erasing all differences and can accommodate many different styles of play. Ultimately, not everything is under the control of the player: there is always some chance that she will miraculously succeed or fail. This will keep her on her toes, and add to the sense that the gaming world is a tangible place; a fictional reality with a potential “bite”.

A player can continue to be attached to a character even though that character suffers setbacks and the possibility of failure. The challenge for game designers – and Dungeon Masters – is to find the proper balance for each specific player and group. A game with no threats is not very interesting because the actions of the player’s character does not have consequences in the gaming world. For example, the player may think, “It doesn’t matter what I do because I’ll always live to see another day.” This is the counter to the notion that player death reduces the level of emotional attachment to a character. The goal must be to find a balanced approach. As a side note, the above article also provides fascinating quotes from the 1978 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons manual, which are educational given current discussions on gaming mechanics!

Game Over

Save or die effects at best reduce and at worst eliminate from D&D the potential for character development, which is a foundational aspect of what makes a game a roleplaying game. It seems the design team is aware of this balancing act, and it is wonderful they are asking for feedback from the community on this (and other) topics. It seems there is not any one approach that will satisfy all players. The save or die scaling mechanics offered by Mike Mearls and other moderate approaches proposed in the online community, such as Randall Walker, are promising. My concern for D&D Next is that it attempts to reclaim the intense lethality of earlier editions, which drains the roleplaying from the game.

If a game system relies heavily on deadly effects and random chance to routinely kill characters, then can it still be considering a roleplaying game? I wondered about this question last year when I playtested a Fourthcore adventure and participated in the session of BASIC D&D referenced earlier. Characters were barely given names as they ventured into the treacherous dungeons. Players died frequently, and while both gaming sessions were enjoyable, I’m not sure they could be considered roleplaying games since players were primarily walking bags of statistics without the goal of developing their character. The goal was survival.

Returning to the comparisons to videogames, older editions of D&D remind me much more of Ninja Gaiden than Mass Effect. But at least when the Game Over screen flashed after a death in Ninja Gaiden, the player came back as the same character and continued the same journey. The player did not start a new story; Ryu’s quest continued. When considering the proper place for save or die effects in D&D Next, it is my hope the designers also devote time to addressing the more general concept of character death.

Death must certainly be an option, or else the players will run rampant through the world without fear, but how could death be mitigated so save or die effects and other lethal aspects of the game system do not end a player’s character forever? Would it be reasonable to pursue alternatives to total death for player characters who have died in the game?

A few thoughts rattling around my head:

  • A simple statistic – Character Deaths – is included on the character sheet. The number is used as a modifier for a variety of skills and abilities. For example, a single character death would result in a -1 to all attack rolls and skill checks. One character death may not be much of a hinderance, but two or more and the player will likely cut ties with their character. The player may become additionally cautious after the first death if they are attached to the character, or the player may throw caution to the wind and use the character as fodder to assist the party by performing dangerous deeds if they are not attached to the character. The character’s relationship with death could become a platform for roleplaying in this way.
  • Characters who die are allowed to respawn in another location (i.e., town, graveyard) and can be recovered by surviving members of the adventuring party. The characters who die may suffer a minor-to-severe penalty for dying, but are still able to continue the adventure.
  • Taking a page from 4th Edition, each character has three strikes – or lives. Once a character is reduced to 0 hit points, they are dead. Strike One. The character is able to be revived by the party or perhaps provided salvation from a deity. The character then is turned into stone by a medusa and dies again. Strike Two. The party is able to restore the character but now the character will be dead beyond saving the next time a death takes place. Once again, this mechanic would likely increase roleplaying in the game since the character would have a firm grasp on his or her relationship to death at all times. Players just starting an adventure may take risks thinking they have multiple lives to fall back on, but as the deaths mount, the players may become more cautious as they want to protect their character.

I do not believe any of these ideas are perfect, but I believe it is a useful exercise for game designers – and DMs – to consider. Player death should not always be a final as it is in D&D. When investing multiple hours, days and sometimes years on the process of creating, managing and playing a character, it seems quite a waste to have that effort and investment taken away from those playing the game.

There is certainly a time and place for disposable heroes in D&D, but let us all consider possible alternatives to capitalize on the truly unique aspects of roleplaying games – character development and attachment.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

21 thoughts on “Disposable Heroes: What Does Save Or Die Really Kill?”

  1. I have pondered this off and on since those original articles came out on the dndnext discussion. And I personally like the lethality of the game, and that death is an option. I do not like the mechanic where the entire livelihood of the character comes down to a single save roll or you’re dead, so I have to believe there is a happy medium someplace. What the answer is, I have no idea, but I do like some parts of each suggestion you make. Just the idea of a deus ex machina of a god of the realm coming down to revive you and tell you it’s not your time leaves death as a resolution, but doesn’t completely discount the time or effort spent creating and playing a well thought out character. The thought does hit a bit closer to home right now since when my gaming group had to break last night, my character was laying bleeding with 0 hit points in a hall way of an ale house full of giants after intercepting some attacking giants while two other characters disengaged from combat to step back and quaff potions. I apparently underestimated how long I could hold them before it was my turn to step back and heal. Ooops.

    1. Good luck with your character making it through alive!

      Yes, I believe there can be a happy middle ground in terms of death and dying in D&D. And of course each gaming group will have a different opinion of where that middle ground resides. That is the key – to give DMs and gaming groups different death and dying options. I believe they are shooting for a modular approach to D&D Next, so they could provide a few options instead of one.

      I think the “intervention by a god” is a good approach since deities are such a big part of D&D. Players are already pulling off super[insert race here] feats, so the idea that each character would be imbued with additional protection from death isn’t a stretch.

  2. Interesting but it’s the same old fallacy: that death is necessary to keep the players from acting with utter impunity.

    Death is NOT necessary. Only FAILURE is necessary and failure does not need to mean death. In fact it’s almost always possible for the PCs to fail in ways more interesting and compelling than death, ways that allow and encourage deeper character development. Death can then be reserved for moments of extreme drama, rather than random mishaps.

    Random death CAN be made into a fun, compelling game, but the scores of questions and complaints I’ve read about character death indicate to me that it’s usually frustrating for all involved.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. In terms of the save or die effects, I’m wondering how they could be changed to save or failure effects. Take the example of a medusa turning a character into stone; how would you shift that from DIE to FAILURE?

      I think the party being cleaned out by a tough monster (or group of monsters) allows the DM to extend the story. The monsters could revive the party in order to perform an evil task or something the monsters are not capable of completing. It might bring alignment into the game more often since players will have to decide if it’s worth doing the bidding of the monsters or resigning to death. There are certainly options, and I agree failure can replace death in many circumstances. But I’m not sure it can in ALL circumstances.

  3. “My hypothesis is that players who enjoy save or die effects would score low on this character attachment measure since they are not emotionally invested in the character and have no expectation of character development.” – I would completely disagree. My most memorable characters grew up in Save or Die versions of D&D.

    “My concern for D&D Next is that it attempts to reclaim the intense lethality of earlier editions, which drains the roleplaying from the game.” – Again I would disagree. Being nice to that obviously powerful enemy is more of an option (RP wise) when Death is on the line.

    Your comparison of the 4th Core game I think is misaligned. It was a one-night one-shot thing. Regardless of lethality no amount of RP attachment could really be made. The same can be said for a non-lethal one-night, one-shot game. I’ve played in those too and can’t recall my characters name there either.

    One of my biggest complaints about 4E is the loss of lethality. As a level 14 wizard I think I’ve fallen unconscious ONCE. I find the stories around Morgoth barely remember able, since the feeling of actually “surviving” or “accomplishment” is not highly present via the 4E game mechanics. Conversely, I can recall in vivid details how many of my 1E, 2E & 3.5 characters survived, escaped, and avoided danger as well as many of the stories that revolved around them. And those stories are as much as 25 years old!

    Sure, I’ve lost characters before, but I remember how, and usually their names and what they were doing. Death, and avoiding death leaves a mark in the story. It’s something that not only the dying character remembers, but the OTHER players do as well. It serves like a bookmark in the story to the survivors. “Remember when So-N-So died?” is a comment you would hear in Save or Die campaigns, which could spark memories and stories amongst the group in game and out of game.

    I’m not for 4th core / deathtrap type lethality, but I would really like the Save or Die mechanic to come back into D&D. I think the getting rid of it was more prompted by their shift to mimic video gaming more than anything; and so that little Johnny didn’t get his feelings hurt when he bit the dust. Society has gotten way too soft in many regards in my personal opinion.

    I harken back to such memorable published modules as The Labyrinth of Madness, Tomb of Horros, and White Plume Mountain, which are all historical & landmark modules from D&D. Each ones major claim to fame was lethality. I think that says something.

    1. I was going to discuss in the article how thoughts such as “I remember when X died” remind me of memories and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. I didn’t want to diminish the seriousness of PTSD though and overstate the point. It would have taken too long to explain and qualify given how long the article was already.

      Maybe another time.

      I think there is a lack of fear while playing 4th Edition. The threat of falling to 0 hit points isn’t that strong since you have multiple chances to save and can be healed in a variety of ways by teammates.

  4. Secondly, looking at your suggestions is interesting.
    The negative 1 modifier used to be called Negative levels in 3.5 which is what happened when you got level drained by negative energy. It’s an old school mechanic.

    Respawn just plain sucks, but there was a spell that let you do it called “Clone”. High level Wizard spell.

    Your Strike 3 mechanic is similar to the 2nd edition optional rule than a character could only be resurrected as many times as equal to his/her Constitution score before they were finally out of the game.

    Maybe yer more old school than ya think! =)

    1. Hah, I always enjoy learning about the old mechanics since I missed those editions. The cool thing about D&D is there is damn-near 40 years of rules and ideas to pull from to provide possible solutions to these issues. I found some of the AD&D quotes from the 70’s really interesting; “the more things change . . . “

    2. All true. Negative levels were an admin nightmare – though everyone sure did fear them! Maybe because of the admin? 🙂

      That Con score res limit never came into play from what I remember playing 2e for at least a decade. Maybe the idea can work for D&D 5e, but with a new, lower limit.

  5. Interesting analysis. Not sure why you’re overlooking resurrection spells/rituals, though: they are a necessary part of the game, especially if save-or-die effects are present. I wrote a post a while back about death in D&D, what purposes it serves, and how it can be made better: http://magbonch.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/death-and-danger-in-dnd/

    pdunwin brings up failure as alternative to death, and it’s actually a more general problem:

    Sorry for the self-links, hope you find them interesting :).

  6. I like your 9 Lives Rules, ID — er 3 Deaths! Mechanically, it’s easy to track, and still puts the fear of death back in the game, but no so much that everyone plays they’re terrified of death every session from the start. Only drawback – it’s a bit silly storywise. But I like it on every other front.

    It’s a tough balance – you want some lethality, you want to feel your character’s life is at risk, but at the same time, there’s a ton of ways to avoid death in D&D 4e. Maybe too many, and maybe it’s too easy. Is bringing back some kind of save or die the answer? I don’t know.

    Oh and nice touch with Master of Puppets! Disposable Heroes is my favorite song on the album!!

    1. Thanks! I realize none of the options are perfect, but I wanted to suggest something to further the discussion. Storywise, the chosen diety could offer the character “grace” to survive death just twice.

      And it obviously depends on the group; some will be perfectlly fine with save or die effects and high lethality in general. Others will want to keep players away from death more often. I think it would be helpful to find a way to bridge that gap – or at least offer a system for DMs and players to try.

  7. I’ve played most of the versions of D&D, though 4E the least, mostly do to lack of people to play with that anything else, i really like the way the game plays and the fact that my Fighter is just as cool as the Wizard, no matter what level we’re at. That last bit aside, I’ve never really encountered a lot of Save or Die effects, even in AD&D/2E, we just didn’t use them as much, they seemed too “villainous” for the PCs, and too Arbitrary for the DM. “hope your dice don’t suck tonight, i’m running A Necromancer with Death spells,” doesn’t seem nearly as fun or interesting as “you guys better look out, the Necro and his army of undead are coming after you.”

    Save or Die takes all your control away. Its one thing if i die because i made a mistake, or because i make the choice to go back in with 5 hit points or whatever the situation happens to be. Its something else entirely when i die because i can’t roll over a 15 on a d20 because the DM decided to bring Finger of Death to the table. Save or Die is the anti-fun, at least in my opinion.

    1. You make a great point about control and balance. It seems that if you are going to use Save or Die, then you need a really good reason. Again, it’s up to the tastes of the group. We played an old BASIC module and one of the players could have died from pulling a lever to open a gate because the lever had a poisonous trap on the handle. I cannot remember if the player saved or died, but it seemed to be a silly reason to have the game end for that character.

  8. I love your blog, but your suggestion of a “respawn” made me cringe. Character death in an adventure or action-style RPG is essential for proper immersion. The idea of a “respawn” completely breaks our “suspension of disbelief” (I realize we’re talking about a fantasy setting here, but I think the point still stands).

    I do think the “Save or Die” mechanic in its current form might be a little harsh though. Character death should be as a result, in some way, of character choices, and if you’ve got a good DM, preferably dramatic and meaningful.

    I just finished running a long campaign in which there were no character deaths, and honestly, I think everybody at the table felt a little cheated, as if the lethality of the environment were only a mirage, and they characters were nigh on invincible.

  9. When I wrote 2E adventures I used save or die mechanics, but left clues and hints throughout the adventure to help the PC’s prepare to bypass such a threat, and yes they did die at times for not being careful and attentive. But I didn’t use a Beholder on a Random encounter with no hint that they would be there or a means to avoid the death effects.

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