I was discussing some old school tenets with my brother the other day, when I explained my dilemma with Old School Save vs Death (too harsh) and 5e Death Saving throws (too lenient), and my inability to find a happy medium, my workaround, and the thoughts behind the feelings that have arisen to such.
My biggest thoughts mostly deal with danger, expectations, and storytelling, and the media we consume in our modern world. Moreso, I think it related heavily to our Videogames we play as well.
I’m of the opinion that the game itself, and perhaps the entire genre of fantasy gaming, has been hijacked initially by Tolkienic Fantasy and then again afterwards by Blockbuster Videogames and Movies. Televised electronic media is ever prevalent and all consuming, and this in turn has had a heavy hand in the guiding of our fiction, both literary and private. More-so, our games-industry increasingly attempts to deliver a cinematic experience rather than a challenge of skill, and that’s where the crux of my ambiguity lies: I, as a narrativist, want to tell a good tale. But I, as a gamer and referee, wish to challenge my players (and be challenged as a player) fairly and have my skills tested/test the skills of my players. Not that there aren’t outliers to this, Dark Souls, Sekrio, Darkest Dungeon, anything by Altus, and other electronic games pride themselves on their levels of depth and difficulty. But right now I’m running the risk of making a blog commenting on Videogames rather than RPGs, which is what this blog is supposed to be about.
The roots of the hobby lie not in the games of today, but rather in napoleonic wargaming. A hobby long since given over to Warhammer’s science-fantasy realm and legions of rabid fanboys. Anyone who’s played such a game can certainly attest, all the troops don’t make it home from the board even if you win. Even older videogames returned you to the beginning of the game if you struck out three or more times. A rousing game of Contra or Castlevania should serve as an excellent education in the price of defeat. Brutal, to lose all progress. But back then, it was considered fair. Some still consider it such.
Couple this with the increasing extravagance of cinema’s and the videogame industry’s fantasy worlds, one where all too often the heroes single handedly trounce monstrously giant opponents, god-like in their might, the audience never doubting for a moment that the heroes would lose, as they slug their way through hundreds of foes. This is intentional: the victory is important, not the journey, or the hundred would-be heroes who have come before. In electronic games, a loss or failure often merely delays the story’s completion, it does not erase it. Falling from a cliff or being ran-through by a demon’s blade is but a trifling setback. This is also intentional: the challenge is not the focus, the story is.
And this is the scenario we’re accustomed to: that the heroes will win, and that losses will be negligible, only delaying time (which will not be of the essence), and we’ll get a good tale out of it. Not that the danger is a ruse in most all forms of media we take in, but rather the consistent focus doesn’t let us see the deepest of travails, merely the triumphs, and we have become desensitized to total-loss (which death is for characters).
Granted, this is all half-fact and a lot of theorizing and generalizing on my end of things. So frankly I’m talking out my ass about this. I’m not a sociologist or a media analyst. I’m a dude who’s listening to ‘80s deathmetal and painting little plastic monsters while daydreaming about cave-divers with swords. Speculation does not reality make.
Now you may think, “Oh but I have worked hard on this character, spent hours playing them. To lose them to a poor roll is frankly dumb!” And I agree. Poor luck of the die is hardly a good reason to end a burgeoning or advanced career in delving, despite its realism. It makes for an unsatisfying end to the tale, and smacks of the simulationism that Gygax warned against in the AD&D DMG.
Neither do I think that 5e’s current death saves are fair. Best 3 out of 5 rolls? That eats time, and is there to allow your compatriots to make it to you before the clock runs out. It’s supposed to be the bleed-out of first person shooters where everyone drops their stuff and runs to help. Except only the cleric or designated person with a potion moves. The fighters keep fighting and 5 rounds (two to three, at the fastest) is a leisurely walk in the park at the table. We once had a fighter pinged with Healing Word alternatively by a cleric and bard for ten rounds at the table. We joked he was doing burpees, coming up to attack and then down again. Granted, the ready availability of healing is... another topic for another day. But it is... difficult to die in the most modern edition of the game. Absurdly so.
My work around (which, admittedly I’m not super happy with either), is to rule it as this: Save vs Death Means Save Vs Death Saves. If a spell would kill a character flat on a failed roll, they instead must roll three Constitution Saving Throws against the DC of the spell/trap, not ten (otherwise merely flip a coin). Best two of three determines their fate. Going to Zero in Combat results in the same, with successful saves indicating your character lives, but with a nasty physical or mental scar that the player must decide upon. That feels fairer than that one-roll death and less padded for those old hats like me who don’t mind if a character dies.