Advancing Editions – Dr. System Shock, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Save-or-Die

While “save-or-die” isn’t really what we’re talking about here, it sure makes for a catchy buzzword. But instead of that, we’ll be looking more generally at the evolution of the saving throw in general – from its humble and confusing beginnings to the modern day.

Also get the d20’s ready. When I say the old system is confusing, I mean like in the confusion spell. Hope you’ve got a good Wisdom save bonus.

Just as a note, it may take a year but by god do I follow up on my stupid title jokes.


To begin, let’s establish one thing. Not all save-or-die effects are system shock rolls. I just wanted to make a Dr. Strangelove reference. In reality, the two have a little overlap but are still very different. But more on that in a bit.


Would You Like to Save? (Y/N)

To start, lets look at the 2nd Edition saving throw system. It’s wildly different from the current 5th Edition system, so a bit of an introduction is absolutely necessary to even begin to discuss the topic.

Saving Throws are divided into several categories based on the cause of the effect, instead of the ability score of the target. So this means that a dragon’s fire breath is a “save vs. breath weapon” and not a Dexterity save.

The categories were…

  • Save vs. poison/paralyzation/death
  • Save vs. wands/rods
  • Save vs. petrification/polymorph
  • Save vs. breath weapon
  • Save vs. spell

This is an odd system for many reasons. Firstly, it’s a little hard to determine which category to use in a given circumstance. What if you have a wand of paralyzation? Or a wand of petrification?

The solution to this first issue is a hierarchy system, in which certain saves take precedence. I’ve listed the saves in that order; poison/paralyzation/death has the highest priority, while spell has the lowest. That means that your wand of paralyzation will use a save vs. paralyzation rather than a save vs. wand because the effect (paralyzation) has a higher priority than the method of delivery (wand). However, the wand of petrification will function oppositely; the effect (petrification) is a lower priority than the method of delivery (wand), and so the higher of the two is used and it becomes a save vs. wands.

Needless to say, this is extremely confusing. Just as one example, the placement of wands and rods on the hierarchy ensures that determining what save to use for any wand or rod will always be an issue. I don’t believe this ever existed, but a rod of green dragon breath sounds like a nightmare. At least save vs. spell is at the bottom, so you’ll only ever use it if nothing else fits.

Except that isn’t easy either since most spells, even ones that cause other effects, use the save vs. spell. This is directly contradictory to every other way of determining saving throws since the save vs. spell is at the bottom and thus should almost never be used. Instead, even a spell that causes petrification, like flesh to stone, uses the save vs. spell rather than the much higher tier save vs. petrification.

The other thing about this system is that it serves absolutely no purpose. It seems as though the idea was to reinforce that certain character classes were better than others when it came to avoiding certain effects, but the whole system is cumbersome and hard to keep track of. Plus, the current ability score based saves achieve literally the same effect (a dodgy rogue is better than a slow paladin at avoiding fire breath) without anywhere near the same level of complexity.


Dr. System Shock Syndrome

We also want to look at the system shock roll, called out in the genius title at the top of this post. It’s a bit different from a save, and in some ways resembles the modern Constitution or death saving throws – in fact, system shock rolls actually function off of Constitution, making them a bit unique in 2e. These rolls are used for two things; horrific alteration of the physical body, and heart attacks.

The first is obvious, of course. It covers things like terrible mutating magics, or dreadful necromancy that perverts life itself. So stuff like polymorph would cause a system shock roll. It’s also what you had to roll if you let your familiar die, which is pretty hardcore. Oh, your magical pet bird died? Then so will you (maybe).

The second sort, however, are a bit weirder. The “heart attacks” (as I call them) serve as a catchall for effects that shock the body in a way that isn’t mystical or fantastical. One example comes from illusion spells; certain illusions can be so terrifying (a crushing roof, for instance) that the victim suffers a heart attack from sheer terror and dies. Another example is with regeneration, where the “heart attack” functions similarly to the dangers of modern surgery. Get too extensive a procedure and your body might just shut down from the shock of it all.

One important thing to note as well is that system shock rolls are not saving throws. How often did this really come up? Eh, depends on your DM. But it’s an important distinction because it serves to illustrate one of the few differences between the two types of rolls.

And as a final aside, system shock rolls aren’t the same as resurrection survival checks. There’s something I myself forgot until double-checking things for this article. Instead, the resurrection survival check was a percentile roll you had to make whenever your character was dead and someone was attempting to revive them – if you fail, the spell is wasted and you’re dead forever. Just like system shock it was based on Constitution, but the two had completely different scaling.



Alright, so what is a save-or-die? We’ve covered normal saves, and we’ve covered system shock rolls. We’ve also addressed a particular type of saving throw called the save vs. death magic. So is that it then?

Not quite. The idea behind “save-or-die” can apply to any effect that causes an immediate “game over” scenario. This doesn’t have to be actual death either, hence why I call it a game over.

A true game over event would be anything that makes it functionally impossible to succeed the encounter (either by defeating your enemy or surviving in general). Getting hit by an instant kill or petrification effect would both be considered game overs, but so would being incapacitated in a crowded room of monsters. In the latter instance the effect itself doesn’t harm you, but it does ensure your demise.

Other examples include things that simply make it so hard to continue that you might as well quit. This would be things like ability score decreases or major injuries like blinding or losing multiple limbs. Another great example is level drain, which can leave your powerful archmage as just another NPC commoner for the rest of their life.

And that’s the save-or-die. There have been multiple different iterations of the concept over the years, so this is just my own interpretation, but I feel safe defining it this way. A save-or-die is something that can immediately take your character out of the game and force you to roll a new one.


Precious Bodily Saves

So, ultimately, what we’re looking at today is the values dissonance between modern saves and 2e saves. This is arguably one of the biggest whiplash moments when going straight from 2e to 5e. And as one of the three people to ever really do that, trust me when I say – its a trip.

As an example, take the flesh to stone spell. In 2e, this spell is very simple. Succeed on a save vs. spell or instantly turn to stone. Brutal, right?

In 5th edition, meanwhile, it’s a bit more involved. After failing the initial Constitution saving throw, you have to then fail three more Constitution saving throws in order to be turned to stone. And if you succeed three times, you live.

The system shock roll is also totally gone, rendering spells like polymorph safe to use again, and drastically weakening illusions by preventing them from creating instant kill scenarios.

Pretty much every prior save-or-die is gone, either replaced by a more forgiving check/roll or increased to require multiple failures in order to suffer the full consequences. But is this really a good thing?

Well, yes. The prior system felt awful. Sure there’s a bit of thrill to the idea that your character might die at any moment, but somehow it feels unsatisfying to have an entire low-level party wiped out by bad saves against carrion crawlers and unfortunate crits from secret assassins (though Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh remains my favorite module of all time to this day despite that).

But lets say you want to bring back a bit of that old feeling to 5th edition. How do you do that without completely shattering the assumptions of the current game?


The Save-or-Story

My solution would be simple – rather than forcing death on people who fail saves, find more creative ways to make the roll weighty.

One easy method would be to simply have “save-or-die” scenarios absolutely exist… they just kill someone else that you care about instead. So rather than a save to avoid the giant axe blade swinging towards you, you’re rolling to see if you can successfully push your party’s likeable archaeologist/guide out of the way in time.

You can even make those situations more compelling by having a bit more variety in the results. So it’s a DC 18 check to save Likeable Sidekick from the trap and avoid it yourself. If you fail by less than 5 (so a DC 13, essentially) then you still save Likeable Sidekick… but you take the blade instead. That’s still not too bad, since you’re a PC you’ll likely have the hit points to not be instantly killed by this, but it still sucks since you’ll have to use up some healing on yourself.


Another option would be to work the save into the greater narrative flow itself. The players are exploring a darkened crypt when they hear an ominous *click!* from behind them. A portion of the floor falls away and…

Basically, you create a segment of adventure and define two different potential starts. In one start, the players avoid the pit trap and begin the lich’s lair in Area 1. This is a safer, less threatening situation and allows the players to scout ahead a bit before encountering enemies.

In the other start, the players fall into the pit and begin the lich’s lair in Area 7. Rather than beginning at a disused entrance with ample hiding space, they start in a stone room where the only exit is right past undead guards.

Bonus – if you’re feeling perky and up to the task you can also potentially split the party. People who fail are dumped into the pit to escape the undead guards by themselves, while those who succeeded have to hurry through the lair to save their friends.



Admittedly these ideas don’t exactly replicate the original feeling of 2e’s save mechanics. For some, the idea that your character could just flat-out die at any moment (for any reason) was a thrill.

For me? Not so much. I also believe it just isn’t good game design. Even in a hardcore game where the whole goal is for the DM to put up as much of a fight as possible, save-or-die effects just feel like cheating.

Even so, it’s interesting to look back. The saving throw system has changed a lot since 2e. I missed seeing that change in action, but it’s still neat to look at. The new system is also definitely more streamlined – much like the dreaded THAC0 system requiring seventeen advanced math degrees to work out, I don’t think referencing a class-specific save chart multiple times a session would be fun for anyone.


Thanks for joining me for this very late-arriving Advancing Editions article! More are coming soon, but I don’t think I’ll call out any names this time.

Well anyway, see you next time for THAC0: Thoroughly Hating Advanced Calculus 0!

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