Neuroglyph Games Only a Pen is Mightier Catch it on the Rise Dust shaken from a Book

The Next D&D Homebrew: Three Saves or Die!

Beholderfinal1-16GREEN Last weekend’s D&D sessions on Friday and Saturday nights were some of the most fun, intense, and memorable I’ve run in quite some time.  As much as I hate to admit it, in both games I came really close to having TPKs, and there’s nothing quite so adrenaline charged as having most of your heroes bloodied and thinking they are about to cash in their gold pieces.  Overall, I have no problem with a hero dying, but when the whole party is facing the end, it always makes me cringe a little inside as a Dungeon Master.

As it happened, only one death occurred last weekend.  And that was a death scene so cinemagraphic, that even the player felt pretty good about the loss of the character.  Falling over the edge of a chasm while clutched in the tentacles of a dying grell is a pretty spectacular way to end one’s adventuring career!

But I found that one of the things that made the combats a bit more intense was my doing a bit of refurbishment on monsters and effects, specifically using Three Death Saves as a template.  For monster powers and trap/hazard effects that would in previous editions be considered “save or die”, taking a cue from the Three Death Saves seems remarkably appropriate – and definitely more scary!

Death Saves: Not Just for Zero Hit Points Anymore!

One of the accusations that some “old school” folks have made about 4E since the beginning was the exclusion of “save or die” effects.  And of course, “save or die” has once again come into focus within current debates over the style and form that D&D Next will take.  But if you feel that the lethality of some powers and effects in your 4E game is lacking, consider using Death Saves outside of their normal context (ie. dropping to 0h or less) as a template for a deadly attack.

In my Friday D&D game, I’m working on introducing my party to the Cult of the Elder Elemental Eye, and running them through a 4E version of the moathouse from the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil module.  Those familiar with the module, and my mention of the grell, will know that my heroes have found the black obex – the hidden temple to the Chained God!  There are several things in this evil place which have “save or die” effects under old 3.5 rules – like standing atop the black stone obex for any length of time, for instance – which you sort of have to do in order to fight that pesky grell hovering around the cave.

I wanted to keep the nature of the otherworldly stone obex, ostensibly from the Far Realms, an inimical and nasty threat during the combat, but didn’t want it immediately killing off the party as it had the potential to do in OGL rules.  Given its deadly nature, I substituted a Three Save or Die effect here, making the semi-living evil stone into one big hazard while the heroes fought the ravenous grell:

Obex Dark Matter Attack: +7 vs. Fortitude

  • Hit: Target is slowed and weakened (save ends)
  • 1st Failed Save: Target is immobilized (save ends)
  • 2nd Failed Save: Target is paralyzed (save ends)
  • 3rd Failed Save: Target is pulled screaming into the black stone and consumed.  Death.

Needless to say, the party realized that the stone was bad news, and pulling out all stops to both fight the grell and race to get off the obex as quickly as possible.  As it happens, no one was actually absorbed by the malignant stone obex, but the threat of it made for an intense and frantic fight!

As for deadly monster attacks, we’ve seen WotC do similar staging of failed saves, usually for non-lethal attacks, but it’s still not as widespread among the creature catalogues as it could be.  For example, in nearly all cases, poisons have been reduced to the 5/10/15 ongoing damage by Tier, rather than the “save versus poison or die” effect we experienced in older editions of D&D.  But there are plenty of toxins that don’t really work as pure ongoing damage, and should have considerably more harmful effects than a mere loss of a few hit points.

Rather than ongoing damage, giant cobra’s deadly neurotoxin might be better represented as:

  • Hit: Bite damage, and target is weakened (save ends)
  • 1st Failed Save: Target is dazed and weakened (save ends both)
  • 2nd Failed Save: Target is paralyzed (save ends)
  • 3rd Failed Save: Target stops breathing (apply Rule of Three).  Target can only be saved by application of effects to gain additional saves (such as using Antivenom potions or class powers).

I think this series of failed save effects represents the disorientation, convulsions, and paralysis of the diaphragm which accompanies a normal cobra bite (thank you Wikipedia), which would certainly be accelerated and far worse from a giant sized version of this deadly reptile!

In last Saturday’s game, I pulled out the Beholder from Monster Vault (Level 9 Solo) as a fitting final encounter of my players’ Heroic Tier.  While this rendition of the Beholder is certainly much better than earlier monster manual entries, I still found the Petrifying Ray and Disintegrate Ray to be really anemic effects, and hardly threatening to 10th level characters.  So again, I applied the Three Saves or Die template to them and came up with this:

Petrifying Ray

  • Attack: Ranged 10 (one creature); +14 vs. Fortitude
  • Hit: Target is slowed (save ends).
  • First Failed Saving Throw: Target is dazed and slowed (save ends both).
  • Second Failed Saving Throw: Target is dazed and immobilized (save ends both).
  • Third Failed Saving Throw: Target is petrified.

Disintegrate Ray

  • Attack: Ranged 10 (one creature); +14 vs. Fortitude
  • Hit: 2d8 + 10 necrotic damage and target is dazed (save ends).
  • First Failed Saving Throw: Target is dazed and weakened (save ends).
  • Second Failed Saving Throw: Target drops to 0 hp.  Unconscious.
  • Third Failed Saving Throw: Target’s flesh and bones discorporate.  Dead.

And yes, I’ll admit I wanted to make the disintegrate ray particularly nasty.  After all, we’re talking about the hero fighting to resist a magical effect which is atomizing his or her body in a mere 18 seconds, so should have serious aftereffects (like dropping to 0hp) if the disintegration carries on too long.

Statistically, of course, a character is almost assured of hitting one of the three saves if the odds are 50-50.  But success is by no means guaranteed here, and having increasingly hostile effects stage up with each failed save makes for a very scary power to be attacked with.

And it’s easy to use “Three Saves or Die”, and apply it to many hazards, traps, and monster powers which are normally easily remedied by blowing a healing surge to regain a few lost hit points, and it increases their threat level considerably with a minor modification.  Of course, I’d avoid using multiple creatures with powers like this, keeping the application of “Three Saves or Die” effects to Elites and Solos, to make their attacks extra special and very worrisome.  And if the heroes know such deadly powers are possible in their game, they will definitely look for better ways to circumvent failed saves, making certain potions and class utility powers considerably more desirable than they have been previously.

Overall, I think I like what I saw in my 4E game using a new level of threat from applying “Three Saves or Die” effects.  And even though the fights were tougher with these deadly effects running amok in the combats, I saw my players display a heightened level of intensity and excitement, and their victories were that much sweeter when their dangerous foes were finally lying broken at their feet.  What more could a DM wish for?

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Totally amazing Beholder disintegration image by Quigleyer from forums.

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


3 Responses to “The Next D&D Homebrew: Three Saves or Die!

  1. Fauxcrye says:

    Using 3 failed saves as death or horrible effect has been a staple of my own 4e games. The standard was set officially in the Essentials line with some disease, monster, and trap effects. I think it keeps the tension and threat quite real. It is a good rule of thumb and fits the system well.

  2. Alphastream says:

    One of our admins for Ashes of Athas had a great idea for a chapter finale: placing the big bad boss in terrain where a PC must make a death save every round they end their turn in the terrain. That’s really palpable tension. Want to engage the boss in melee? You get three strikes, then you are out! You don’t have to stay in, of course.

    One of our friends went on to use a variant of that for a Living Forgotten Realms adventure, and I really had fun with that one as a player. I’ve heard of DMs using this in home campaigns, so I thought it would be worth sharing should others also have fun with this.

  3. [...] The Next D&D Homebrew: Three Saves or Die! [...]

Leave a Reply