Death Saves in D&D kinda suck. There, I said it.
When we talk about mechanics in games that sort of rile me a bit, the 5th edition version of ‘dying’ is maybe the most frustrating. I feel like a player is sort of waiting in limbo to either be zapped back to life on the most minimal hit points a caster can afford to give up, or they have several rounds until they die in a very unheroic fashion – face down on the floor, having finally bled out. I’m sure in theory and intent, the mechanic is designed to keep death to a relatively low level, supporting the heroic fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons. But it doesn’t really think about what happens when it all goes wrong, and death still arrives.
It makes me wonder about death mechanics in general. It’s an odd beast. That point at which you have little agency beyond watching your character circle the drain. It made me want to compare and contrast death in many systems and see what we can learn from each approach.
Mörk Borg: Quick And Violent
In the dying world of this most Grimdark of Grimdark games, death happens the moment you pass from into negative hit points, with landing directly on zero being a sort of coma you may die, recover from, or end up badly broken forever after.
When weighed against death saves, this is obviously a more deadly method but it does mean that when characters die, they do so suddenly and often dramatically.
Characters who hit a zero and survive often feel like they’ve scraped by and survived something big, which is what I think death saves are supposed to create – but Mörk Borg manages to avoid the ‘penalty box’ feeling by having very real lasting repercussions to hitting that zone and honestly being seconds away from death at any point.
It also offers a reasonably fair healing mechanic that involves getting good rest restoring health. So the players can get rest and get up and risk death again relatively quickly – as long as they don’t mind wasting time as the potential apocalypse inches closer.
This level of thought means that players are prompted to take risks daily but really feel at risk of death when they engage in dangerous action – but at the same time know it will often look dramatic and not just bleeding out after three rounds of doing nothing.
Masks: Pretty Much Never
Masks is incredibly hard to die in, which is to be expected in a game about teen superheroes. A player basically has to opt to die to end up dead.
There’s one playbook (sort of like class) that heads towards death as a possible ending of your story, but that is it. Most fights won’t end with the heroes dead, but instead if it goes bad, they get taken out of the scene by now – maybe unconscious or knocked through a wall or whatever.
This creates an interesting mechanic where players should feel pretty safe to risk themselves and be heroic without threat of damage. However because damage inflicts emotional conditions on players that they have to take RP actions to heal, often it can hang around indefinitely and make players feel like they are broken for a long time and trash party unity.
So what Masks doesn’t have in the deathly stakes it attempts to make up in the cost of damage being something that really has an ongoing price.
Feng Shui 2: Heroic Speech Time
In Feng Shui 2, a game about interdimensional Hong Kong action cinema, you don’t simply die during combat.
Instead, once you have taken a certain amount of damage, you can sort of choose to fall down unconscious or keep fighting. If you take any more damage after that threshold, it is also noted. At the end of combat, you roll a check to see if, after the adrenaline of the fight wears down you are actually dying. This check is harder the more damage you took after the threshold. Once you are dying nothing can be done but you do get a chance for a speech before you pass away with your comrades around you.
This is a perfect representation of the genre the game is trying to ape and gives a real moment to a death in a way I’ve not seen in any other game. A player gets to have a final moment of agency, and the group can swear vengeance before the final curtain.
Judge Dredd & The Worlds Of 2000AD: Minigame Terror
One of many games based on the Judge Dredd property, this game has an interesting mechanic, which I love.
Once a character falls unconscious, they are granted a pool of D6s based on their stats. They roll them each turn, and any that come up six are removed for the next roll. Once all dice have left the pool, the character has died.
While on the surface, this seems like the same mechanic as death saves and still leads to a character bleeding out, I think the nuance comes from the player never knowing how long they are going to last. Every time they pick up the dice of their dwindling pool, they could get all sixes and pass away, leading to any attempt to heal them feeling more important. A character on one dice is in an intense battle with death, maybe for several rounds. It’s not a far stretch from death saves, but the design is more crunchy, and the dice can tell a story.
So if we were to think about death and injury in our games, I’d hope we can see that there are lots of different ways to work it around. If I wanted a truly desperate game, I’d maybe give the player one death save taken a full turn after they drop – this would mimic Mörk Borg’s intensity but give the other players a chance to heal them if they can sort things inside of a turn. Then the save dictates if they die or are just knocked out.
If I wanted to be less deadly and more heroic, maybe I’d have a mechanic where no one falls down, but players take con saves at the amount of damage past their hit points max they are at the end of the battle – before healing spells. Or maybe I can give them a number of D6 equal to their con and see how long it takes them to battle for life. Or maybe I can keep it as is but have a long-after effect based on how many death saves failed before healing. It all depends on how you want things to feel in your games. But if you don’t feel like this or any other rule is working for you, never forget it’s your game.
Now, as this edition of D&D comes to an end is the best place to be experimenting with your own unique takes and rules. The edition is about to pass into the hands of fans only. Take apart what you don’t want and put it back together however you want. People who care about your ruleset being up to date aren’t going to be worrying about 5e anymore. So take that as the freedom to see where reinvention may take you.
Next time, I’m going to finally talk about One D&D.
🤖AI Disclosure. Software helped create images in this post. Geek Native's AI Content Policy.
Nothing to add to the comments? Pop over to the chat portal and see what's going on elsewhere in the site.
I’m kind of disappointed you didn’t look into the one on Dungeon World, that should have been the one in D&D.
The images are AI generated. The hands are off and there’s just a style to computer generated crap.
That’s correct. The use of AI images is disclosed in the article. I buy unique art from humans whenever possible and never replace human art with AI.