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I am currently running an LotFP adventure using D&D Next, the amazing Better than any man. In SevenSidedDie' s great answer to a previous post of mine he touched upon philosophical differences between OSR-inspired adventures and 4e-era ones. However, there is still one big difference that I am unsure how to handle:

Save or Die effects.

On one hand, I like the danger of the Giant Wasp's sting or a poison needle trap with save vs. Poison or die. I feel it's great that the world is really dangerous, and that a bit of bad luck after a bad decision or two can actually kill you.

On the other hand, my players are invested in their characters, wrote fascinating backstories and fill them with life. I don't want to force them to 'roll 6x3d6', to build a new character after a save or die effect. At the moment, they are still too low level to be able to afford resurrection.

So my (conflicting) goals are to

  1. Keep character death an actual threat (not like in 4e), and have (some) save-or-dies.
  2. But also to give my players a chance to continue playing with the character they are invested in.

Death should be a punishment not to be taken lightly, but not one so bad that they are forever behind, or that it sucks the joy out of the game for them.

Do you know any good ways to achieve these goals?

As requested in the comments, here's what I've tried before:

  • Friendly cleric in close-by village / Friendly celestial in Sigil: Made death too trivial, and also made the party travel back often
  • Sacrifices: Evil party needed to sacrifice an innocent to resurrect. Fun, but changed the focus of the campaign and the party too much. Only works with evil parties.
  • Required sacrifice of a level-appropriate magic items that the character had used long enough to infuse it with some of his/her essence: Won't work in the current campaign because of lack of magic items (magic items are rare and unique, not like 4e off-the-shelf magic items).
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One thing that seems to be a part of the old school approach (though it's not defined in new or old rules anywhere) is that the elaborate backstory is generated in game through playing, rather than developed at the beginning. This makes creating a new character a quick process, so players don't get to know their characters too well until they've earned some experience and are more likely to survive. –  Robotman Mar 2 at 15:40

17 Answers 17

up vote 27 down vote accepted
+150

You Should Be Dead, But...

Save-or-die mechanics are pretty awful for straight-up challenges. I mean, you wouldn't exactly get a lot of tactical thrills from a game that boils down to "Flip a coin to see if you lose," would you? But that's not the only way they've been used.

Practices and opinions vary pretty widely in the OD&D/OSR community, but one way of looking at "save-or-die" is that the saving throw is the "second chance" mechanic.

Proponents of this approach say that falling into lava or getting stabbed through the chest ought to be lethal, so really the game is about avoiding those things altogether, not surviving them if they do come to pass. And the saving throw is there to decrease character death without removing the actual threat.

What this means in play and adventure design, though, is that you can't make save-or-die situations a thing that just happens to the PCs. Rather, you have to telegraph the threat and the PCs' main goal is avoiding it altogether.

For example, if the PCs are entering the lair of a gorgon ("medusa" in D&D terms), they'll know it from the crazy-looking 'statues' all around. The challenge is sneaking past the gorgon, or fighting her without looking at her (probably using a trick of some sort), or even negotiating with the clever and cunning monster for safe passage. If they're having to roll saves to avoid petrification at all, it means they're screwed up the actual plan badly.

Unfortunately, this approach doesn't really work if you want an adventure to involve a series of challenges the PCs are mostly expected to face head-on — because that's your idea of heroism in the story, because you want to play some thrilling tactical battles, &c. What happens then is the players will be rolling those saves not as a failure consequence but as a result of engaging the scenario at all, and of course some will fail and die kinda out of nowhere. That's one of the reasons 4th Edition D&D in particular removed the "save-or-die" angle from the game.

Adding More Second Chances

So, you don't want characters to die all the time, but you want them to feel like their lives are constantly at risk (which is a bit of a contradiction, yes, and it's good to recognize that).

Well, if you want to maintain the "threat" of death, I recommend trying to lessen its occurrence, not its impact. Dependable resurrection mechanics essentially redefine "death" to "XP/loot penalty" or "sidequest" (it's worth noting that some older D&D editions had "system shock" rolls to keep resurrection from being a sure thing). If you want death to be scary, I think it should have some finality to it. Focus on giving players a way to narrowly cheat death rather than a way to straight-up undo it.

One way to do it is to bolt on an explicit death-cheating mechanic. Some established patterns include:

  • One approach that feels rather "old-school" is the "death and dismemberment" table. Make a random chart of nasty things that happen to you. Death is on there. So is other stuff, though. The idea is to replace death with "a chance of death or maybe you just get screwed up some other way." Here's an example with a variety of brutal but non-lethal outcomes.

  • Many games try to balance gritty combat with survivable heroes using limited metagame currency for avoiding failure consequences, in the style of WFRP's Fate Points. If you can straight-up rewrite the outcome with a point, then they're kinda like 'extra lives.' If you want to make it less of a sure thing, have the points give you a reroll instead.

    I recommend using a pure metagame resource instead of something in the fiction (like resurrection scrolls or whatever) because I think creating fictional elements that allow you to defy death necessarily draws a lot of attention to those elements, and invite the PCs to go messing about trying to figure out how to 'game' the system (e.g. score more resurrection scrolls so they can't run out).

Save-Or-Die and Converting Between Editions

Another thing to note is that the different D&Ds have different save mechanics.

  • OD&D and AD&D (and many OSR games, likely) have a chart with fixed saving throw numbers. Most effects just trigger a save on the chart. This means that, as you level, you'll consistently get better at actually making those saves.
  • D&D3 and D&D4 (and most other D20 games) have rising modifiers, but you're rolling against DCs that scale with the level of the challenge. Thus, characters can end up falling behind in their saves (especially any "weak" ones) as they level.

Be mindful of this when converting: mid-level characters in OD&D or an OSR game might actually be way, way better at making their saves than equivalent characters in a D20 game.

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It appears that you have conflicting interests: a lack of permanent character death, but a real threat of death which involves real problems. There are no obvious ways to reconcile these two points. An easy way out of permanent character death reduces the problems associated with dying, and having a god decide to resurrect a player seems too much like Deus Ex Machina to many players.

However, one thing you can do is have some form of limited (as in, with a small set number of uses) item or resource to resurrect characters. Whether this is a magic item of some sort that crumbles into dust after x uses, or x doses of an elixir that can bring back even the dead, the key points are that 1) the players can run out of it, and are aware of this, and 2) there is an ingame reason for the item to exist and be owned by the players. You could have them find it as treasure, for example.

This will allow the players to come back from the dead a small number of times, but if you make it clear that once it's gone, it's gone, they will still be very hesitant to risk death. Dying will still be a major problem, but by the time that they run out of resurrecting items, they will hopefully be able to have enough money to pay a cleric for resurrecting spells.

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There comes a problem with the X-uses item. When one player dies more than others, the players may feel that the reckless player is throwing away their second chances too. –  Conor Pender Nov 4 '13 at 16:57

"The world is cruel. And the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair." Two-Face

You said it yourself in the question, your two goals are inherently at odds with one another. Save-or-Die effects are incompatible with attempting to tell a story where the characters only die at appropriate, dramatic moments. Any neutering of death in the game world to try to balance out the effects of dice rolls will only undermine the point of making a Save-or-Die roll in the first place.

If you are worried about a PC death derailing a session because then said PC's player needs to roll up a new character, plan ahead, and have your players roll up backup characters ahead of time in preparation for the likelihood of an untimely end as a result of a bad roll. Explain to your players the nature of the game world and emphasize that you will never fudge rolls one way or another. Then everyone can come into the game with the same shared knowledge and expectation that, ultimately, its up to the dice.

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Embrace randomness and the chance of character death. Avoid long character backstories and instead build character stories during play! –  okeefe Nov 6 '13 at 4:27

An avenue to explore for situations like this might be to look outside of the traditional "Fantasy Dungeon" RPG style and see how similar situations are handled in entirely different settings.

My specific experience with this comes from playing Call of Cthulhu with a great group and an excellent GM, with a single campaign spanning nearly 4 years. Cthulhu players are constantly faced with "Success or Death" situations (and sometimes even "Success is Death"), so we had to come up with a way to deal with the inevitable loss of a character without making life 'cheap' so to speak.

Our solution was to have a rolling list of "standby" characters: as we progressed in the story line and encountered and interacted with NPCs, players would pick certain NPCs and build them as full PC characters (background, stats, and all). If someone died, we'd look at our recent contacts and work out how one of them would join the team in the place of our lost friend.

This worked out really well, since part of the fun of an RPG system is exploring the options available in character creation, and while losing someone we'd spent significant time on was painful (and frequently resulted in diminished skills or loss of key components, like when the good doctor lost a bit too much sanity and ran off into the jungle with our maps, compass, and most of our food supply on his back), we always had a backup ready just in case.

We also evaluated when those backups would 'expire', since inevitably the Detective we spoke to in New York would probably not believe anything we told him about the Cult of the Bloody Tongue in Australia. This let us keep the list fresh and updated, and in the case of a more level-based system would allow you to keep the list closer to the party's level without having to artificially 'level-up' someone they met in their first adventure.

This is also a great option for a GM for a few reasons.

First, you don't have to be afraid of accidental deaths. The dice will one day decide that someone's number is up and toss out that confirmed crit at a bad time, and someone will go down. As mentioned elsewhere, that's OK, in fact that's great: it's a story point to use later.

Secondly, this option encourages you to include more NPCs, even as bystanders in your 'local color' descriptions, and can even give you great plot hooks and details you never would have come up with before. Even better, your players are becoming even more engaged in the game and in the universe, since now they're helping to define back stories for some of these characters. They could decide that the Bartender doesn't like the Blacksmith, not because of their feud over a woman in their youth, but because he suspects the Blacksmith is a traitor (See? Two plot hooks right there!).

Protecting the players from the actual "Save Or Die" effect, no matter how you go about it, will only remove the fear of death. Preparing for the inevitable death will allow them to fear it, but not become overly frustrated by the loss, allowing them to continue to enjoy the game.

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I've heard of backup characters, but not of employing NPC's as backups. It's an interesting idea. –  Tom Nov 9 '13 at 22:00
    
@Tom Having a passel of hirelings along is a staple of old-school play, which makes it easy to promote Dranle the NPC Torchbearer to PC status mid-adventure. More sources of promotable NPCs is even better! –  SevenSidedDie Nov 10 '13 at 5:15

The way we do it is with an injury track. Save-or-die becomes, save or gain an injury, or gain d2 injuries, or d4 injuries, depending on the severity of the effect.

The injury total causes a penalty on all d20 rolls (success rolls and saving rolls, but not damage rolls) which makes being injured not a good thing.

Every time an injury is gained, the character needs to make a save or fall unconscious for a number of rounds equal to the injury.

And if the injury total exceeds the character’s hit points, there’s a chance of death. (Roll d20; if less than or equal to the injury total, the character needs to make a save or they really will die.)

And the in-game meaning of the injury is up for grabs; could be a general tiredness, a broken limb, temporary blindness in one eye, etc.

Magical healing heals injuries one-to-one just as it heals hit points. And injuries heal naturally at one point per night on a successful saving roll. Probably we could make it more complicated and base it on constitution or something, but we just do a point a night if a save is made.

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Neat. So replace save-or-die with an injury mechanic (which D&D otherwise lacks) and death spiral, so it's serious but doesn't simply remove the character from play. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 5 '13 at 5:21

I sense in your question (as well as the fact that you’ve not yet rewarded one of the many excellent answers) a desire to strike that delicate balance between retaining risk of death in gameplay with an equal desire not to disappoint players with a meaningless demise.

I think what you’re really after is an approach that works broadly, becoming an automatic part of gameplay, not a custom fix for a specific character death.

THE PROBLEM

First let’s analyze the problem. For a game to be a game, victory must be possible, but for victory to feel meaningful, loosing must also be possible. In role-playing, loosing means dying. If the players feel they can’t die, they can never really feel they’ve won. This is the issue of winning vs. loosing. But role-playing is complex. There are more issues at play.

  1. Investment in Character -- Whether the players created a detailed backstory or not, the longer they play a character, the more attached they become. It’s important to honor the player’s investment in their characters.
  2. Staying in the Game -- This one’s obvious, but important to keep in mind. When a character dies, the player doesn’t get to play anymore. Whether dying in an RPG, or going bankrupt early in a game of Monopoly, everybody else get’s to keep playing, but your fun is over.
  3. Preservation of Narrative -- More than gameplay, RPG’s have a story. When a character dies an abrupt and meaningless death, it can break the ongoing plot - both in terms of that character’s arc and potentially the greater story line, which is annoying for everyone.

WHY I THINK THE OTHER SUGGESTIONS DON’T WORK

Purchasing Life -- Several answers suggested approaches for allowing players to buy back their character’s life such as sacrificing magic items, paying local clerics for resurrection, or reducing stats to appease the gods. Put simply, this is commerce. Whatever brings the character back becomes a kind of ‘death money’ that players can save up and use again and again. This is an effective way to mitigate death, in fact, it’s too effective. Really, it removes death entirely and replaces it with resource management. As long as the party as a whole keeps a reserve of their death money, they cannot die.

Death is not Death -- There where a couple of creative ideas about allowing players to continue using their characters after death in the form of undead spirits or visitors to the afterlife. In truth, I loved these ideas, but they don’t address your question because by their nature they are subplots that cannot repeat. Also, these subplots are as likely to disrupt the campaign’s main plot line as augment it.

Near Death
 -- Some suggested translating fails from death to incapacitation such as a coma, perhaps requiring additional saves. While not a bad notion, it doesn’t address the victim’s desire to stay in the game. Further, since the party must care for the fallen comrade, it tends to take away their ability to proceed with the campaign disrupting their play. And in the end, the player might just die anyway. Like Death is Not Death above, this would get old if it happened more than once.

Multiple lives -- Perhaps borrowed from the world of computer games, the idea is to give each character multiple lives. I think this just kicks the problem down the road. In terms of a meaningless luck-based death, it doesn’t really matter that a character might have cheated death before. Once they’re down to their last life, the issue returns. Worst, those PC’s with several lives in the bank are likely to engage in wild, risk-taking behavior potentially disrupting play.

Backup Characters -- Having a backup character ready to go solves the issue of staying in the game, but it doesn’t address preserving the narrative and investment in character.

Almost any approach mentioned above will work well a few times only or fast becomes a crass workaround - a familiar ‘trick’ players can and will use to confidently cheat death, effectively taking death out of the game.


SO WHAT WOULD I SUGGEST?

Luck Points -- Each character has 6 luck points that they can spend whenever they wish on whatever they want (within play, not character creation or level advancement). Each luck point modifies a die roll by 1 (or 5% on a percentage roll) in the player’s favor. Luck points do regenerate, but slowly - say 1/day or 1/adventure. Further, luck points do not increase with level and cannot be magically replaced or augmented.

I’ve used this a lot and predictably many players tend to bank them for saving throw rolls. Other common uses are assuring a successful to hit or damage roll at a critical moment. What I like about them is that players choose when and how to use them and since there aren’t many of them, it keeps death and danger a possibility.

Play Two Characters -- Kind of like combining backup characters with multiple lives, the idea is that each player actively play two characters during the campaign. I think at first blush, this notion rubs a lot of game masters wrong, but I found it works really well.

Firstly, it seems to increase role play. Both in backstory and play, players must address how these characters know and interact with each other. Unconsciously players will choose one of their characters to be dominant which leads to interesting ideas of relationships - master/apprentice, employer/bodyguard, siblings, spouses, or just friends. Also, it’s good for rounding out a party in terms of character classes.

Secondly, it nicely addresses sudden death. If one character dies, the player can keep playing with a character that is theirs, is established in a role playing sense, and is part of the campaign’s narrative. Yes the player was invested in the departed character, but also in the surviving character. GM’s may then allow players to create a new backup character (or not) as they see fit. On the odd chance both of a player's characters were taken down at same time, the GM could give the player a break and let them keep one of the characters.

There are a few things to keep in mind with this approach. If you have a lot of players, this may create too many characters and overly lengthen combats. Inexperienced players may find two characters a lot to keep track of. And parties who typically display poor teamwork might factionalize into pairs. For the most part however, I’ve found the two character approach very effective.


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I like your analysis, even though I disagree in a few points. And your solutions...well... I feel that the luck points are not so different from 'purchasing life' - both require to spend limited resources to solve the 'death problem'. And my problem with killing characters is more that some players wrote elaborate backstories and really give life to their character - two characters would just split that effort (as time for rpg prep is limited). Still, great answer. +1 –  Mala Nov 10 '13 at 1:49
    
I read your question as an attempt to balance the need to preserve an RPG's sense of risk (of death) against the problems of uncontrollable death. If you think about it, luck points can't purchase life, because they must be used BEFORE a character dies. If a PC blows them on a damage role an hour earlier, they can't use them on a saving throw. Also, they can't increase the number past 6 to guarantee a death avoiding save roll. So it helps avoid death, but denies resource-driven certainty that one's character cannot die. –  Tom Nov 10 '13 at 19:46

For the death to remain effective, your solution can't be to make death less serious or permanent, as many above have already stated. So if you want to lower the chance of fatalities, you must lower the amount of situations where the players risk fatalities.

This is not necessarily a question of making it so that there are fewer Save or Die effects in the adventurers path. It can be a question of making it a choice whether they want to encounter it. Be sure to tell the players that there is Save or Die stuff in the campaign, and that it will generally be their decisions that lead them into contact with it. Then let the characters know, in-game, when there are Giant Wasps ahead, and that their poison is deadly. Let the ranger or scholar or mercenary fighter recognise their nests high on the wall, and remember the pertinent information. Let the rogue or healer know that the chest is trapped, from the discoloured skin of the corpse draped over it.

This should the players a choice. Do they risk the Giant Wasps, or do they take the long way around through the goblin caves? Do they really want what is in the chest, or do they leave it alone? Sometimes they might even be ambushed by assassins with poisoned knives (though again, they should probably have done something to provoke this attack). Give them a chance to escape, but at a cost. Do they jump into the river and risk the loss of their equipment, or do they take up the fight?

If someone falls from the deadly poison, the characters can either lament the stupid risk they took, or honor the dead for the sacrifice that allowed them to pass through the spider-haunted forest and save the princess, rather than taking the long way around, and arriving too late.

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I would use a variant of Dakeyras' idea and one of yours.

A cleric NPC of a god of commerce:

Hello consumers!

I see that one of your friends met with an untimely fate.

Worry not! Here at Waulkeen & Associates we have a special offer for these ill events.

You seem like the adventurous kind. Here's the deal: the first five resurrections are free of all charge! You heard me well, good sirs and ladies. F R E E.

I happen to have a full contract here with me. Can you believe your luck?

All you have to do is sign here, and this rod of resurrection will be yours!

This would enforce your idea of the world being a dangerous and unjust place while giving your PCs a few free shots at death.

The PCs would of course be free to refuse the offer and bury their dead one. Considering the cleric's speech, they probably would be better off this way but hey, that's life!

If they accept, they'll be contractually bound to go to this specific church for all religious services. And they'll have to pay or perform a few missions of dubious morality for their new friend.

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Provide a side quest that gives the character/party options

Instead of trying to somehow circumvent the save or die mechanic, why not have fun with it? If your use of save or die mechanics is at or near a point in the campaign where the party could address it, and a rare occurrence (hopefully), then an equally rare side-quest could be a great idea for your party. It can provide you a chance for your party or dead character to make some interesting choices, possibly create or further some of the campaign's plot, and save his character or sacrifice it in a meaningful way.

An interesting example:

You could ghostify the dead player (he'll get some neat new abilities and weaknesses), but the character should know that his ties to the mortal plane are temporary in order to provide urgency and discourage the player from keeping his character as a permanent ghost (unless you're ok with that). The character knows his energy and/or time is limited before he passes on.

Provide a plot seed that sends the party off to get their friend back, perhaps by eventually beseeching a powerful divine source or some other option and performing whatever tasks seem appropriate. Midway through, inject a morality fork that allows the player to be resurrected in a way that seems "easier" and more quickly by a power with more... questionable motives, with a potential reckoning to come later. Towards the end, I'd also try to inject a plot point from the main campaign to remind your players that the bigbad is still out there, and provide an opportunity for the ghost player to make an impact as a potential sacrifice by using up his remaining energy/time to deal a significant blow, perhaps in a way that a ghost could uniquely accomplish.

This allows the player/party to make one of three choices:

  1. Resurrect the player after a side quest with no other obvious side-effects
  2. Resurrect the player more quickly and more "easily" in the middle of the side quest with an unknown cost coming later
  3. The dead player could sacrifice his character's ghost by using up his resources/time on the mortal plane to further the campaign's plot in some very beneficial way, and then roll up a new character

Depending on the choices the party makes, it can reshape the story of your campaign. And it's way more fun than simply handing out "get out of death free" cards.

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I don't think this addresses the question, but I love the idea as a subplot. A campaign could even be devised that integrated this undead angle into its premise. Like PC's are transporting an evil artifact that as a side effect turns their characters into undead when they die - and then sets them against their friends. –  Tom Nov 9 '13 at 22:03

I'm running two Basic Fantasy campaigns right now and I ran into the same issue: do I let the PCs die on a single bad roll? I decided to house rule that failing the saving throw for a save or die poison immediately drops the PC to zero hit points. (We also play with the 3.0/3.5 rule that you die at -10 hp.) The PC will not lose any more hp from the poison, but they are unconscious until they receive some sort of magical healing, or until they heal naturally.

I used this solution to allow the player to keep characters that they've become attached to, but to also let them know that poison is a serious threat that's going to greatly sap their resources. It can also lead to a great amount of danger: if the PCs don't have any magical healing, they may be forced to camp for several days in an extremely dangerous area until their comrade heals.

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That is a great idea, and would work nicely for the current D&D Next rules. –  Mala Nov 5 '13 at 18:44

Similar to Discord's answer, I've used the simple expedient of a coma instead of death. However, I make a couple of additions to still make it life-threatening- to the character in question and the rest of the party.

  1. A failed save immediately drops the character to 1 hp - 1 hp for each point the save was failed by. (maximum of -9, i.e. death's door)
  2. Each day, the character makes a CON save. If it succeeds, he continues to fight the toxin. If it is failed, he gets worse, losing 1 hp.
  3. Healing can help, but only to bring the character up to zero. He cannot be revived until the poison is removed, i.e. Neutralize poison.
  4. Delay poison will cause the character's next roll against the poison to be put off for the duration of the Delay poison spell.

In this way, the poison is still a threat. Standard healing does not cure the poison, and the person is in a position of being a burden to the party in their coma. It has worked well to resolve the save or die without the threat being removed, and indeed, even with these in place, I've had characters die- but not because there was no chance, but more because the party didn't have the resources to preserve the party and save the character.

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I think your solutions lay outside the realm of mortal men. Gods can always use some more people to do their bidding. Perhaps they have plans for this character and won't let the die so easily. A god may resurrect a player and send them on a quest as payment. This allows for some more questing and brings up an excellent opportunity for some roleplaying and character building. You can also take this opportunity to inflict some other effects on the player as a penalty. Perhaps once they awaken they cannot remember anything except that they must complete the quest set forth by their god. Or perhaps their god does not trust that they will complete their quest and gives them a very "special" ring that will hinder them until their task is done.

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But that only really works once. And if not, if the player knows their god will rez them, it's similar to the 'friendly priest' example above... –  Mala Nov 3 '13 at 10:11

The RPG Paranoia got a round it by creating several clones, so you could die a few times, but as each clone dies you realize that the final death is coming closer :-) So in beginning people take chances but as their clones run out they take less and less risk :-)

You can not make death too trivial else people will take on absurd challenges and hoping for a lucky roll. A new character should not be fighting red dragons.

Something I like to use is that I do not let characters die immediately if they get a death result, i basically treat them as if wounded, so someone with first aid can stabilize them and then they can try to heal them with normal healing options. It still leaves the option of them dying if skill checks fail, but it gives them a better chance of survival.

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Your two goals don't actually contradict. Threat of death is real, but the players have a chance (not a certainty) of continuing on with the same character (Con checks when raising). The rules already do this as is, so there's no need to change them.

If the party doesn't have the ability to pay for a raise dead with magic or money, maybe the cleric will raise dead in exchange for something else. Ideally something related to the adventure to avoid side-tracking it (e.g., "rescue my brother who was kidnapped by the orcs in the dungeon you've been exploring"). If done right, this will add depth to your campaign.

Finally, if the PC's die so frequently that going back to a nearby village becomes tedious, then try toning down the threats so they don't die so frequently.

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I am running a specific adventure (as mentioned in the question), and some of the save-or-dies are amazingly funny, or just really really weird in so many great ways, so I feel I can't really cut them out without making the adventure less interesting. And even without that, players making too many mistakes have to be punished, or the tension is lost - few things make combat as tedious and un-fun as the certainty that you have plot armour. –  Mala Nov 10 '13 at 1:54

Elysium!

Bonus: This answer is not limited to Save-or-Die situations!

Definition: Elysium is the Plane of "Ultimate Goodness," it is the home plane of Pelor! (Obviously, if you use a different campaign setting the inhabitants/deities if not the entire Plane change to accommodate the particulars of each campaign.)

How this works:
Similar to other ideas mentioned before, it is a side quest BUT it's not as cheesy as "Cleric X wants you to [insert random thing that could probably be done cheaper than the resurrection spell or similar gimmick]" that your party KNOWS is a get out of jail free card. If your party gets one of these & especially if they get them more than once then death truly has no meaning & they may act as such!

Breakdown:

An epic boss battle/clumsy footing on a ledge/refusal to retreat/or just plain bad luck has resulted in the untimely death of an adventurer who has been good enough to land himself on the plane of Elysium (works esp well for clerics/pallies/followers of Pelor). When they get there they are equiped with their normal clothes but without their magical items and possibly without their "battle-gear."

When they get here the "Manual of the Planes" has plenty of options for what your characters could be up against when they arrive (v3.5 is newest one but it could be modified to handle D&D Next). The exact details of this are best left open to accommodate whatever level the characters are when they arrive. Whatever the quest, an inhabitant of the plane offers to return them to life for their help in this matter.

Additional option:
To simplify DM's setup requirements, set this event/quest up for a particular level and when your character arrives, regardless of level, the trauma of death has effectively made him Level X. This works great, unless you have an adventure that requires...(see next section)

But what about the rest of the party?
The remaining living characters collect the remains of their fallen comrade and begin the trek to town to have them buried/burned etc in accordance with their beliefs. At some time between point A & B they receive divine intervention of DMs choosing. Ie, they all have the same vivid dream of their fallen comrade telling them where they are and they need them to find safe travel (lets try to avoid mass suicide) fast and help with an urgent matter. The living characters now have to find a way to travel to another plane & hopefully have a way to return once they've helped their friend.

Background:
I've not had the chance to use this yet but in the current campaign I'm preparing, the upper levels are extremely deadly & I don't want my PCs to lose a character with this much player investment. (There are a couple TPKs possible depending on their choices/actions which would mean there might be nobody around to arrange resurrection spells)

Challenge Mode:

Staying on this Plane for extended periods of time causes one to lose interest in leaving! Ironically this effectively replaces the save-or-die we started with with "Will-Save-or-Stay-Dead-Forever" This save increases in difficulty the longer the occupants stay here. Ofcourse, DM could simply ignore this or only use it as a way to encourage characters who waste to much time here.

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I am a big fan of Planescape and have previously run a planescape campaign for more than a year. However, the adventure mentioned in the question is set during the thirty years war in Germany, and a planescape-like cosmology would simply not fit; while there is magic and supernatural stuff, anything from another plane is more like Cthulhu: insanity-inducing horrors far beyond human understanding. Finally, religious conflict between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists is an important theme, and something like Elysium would answer too many questions about who's right and who's not. –  Mala Nov 10 '13 at 2:08

Even with the RAW, my method is more of a conversion of a completely different system. The way poison works in Scion by White Wolf is that poisons have different levels of potency. Some take a significant number of doses just to simply take effect. Without getting into a treatise on the system and poison, I would recommend that a given character takes their Con Mod (min 0) doses of a poison for "free" relying on their natural fortitude to soak it. Then each hit after that does the saving throw as listed. Sometimes this is death, sometimes this is stat drain. To continue with the Scion conversion, poisons would have a potency. Some (especially depending on the target) bypass any natural resistance.

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If you are using premade adventures or off the shelf Villains, it won't help too much, however, there are houserules that do make the mechanic even fun. These I've succesfully tried out on different occasions, and they do work:

Channelling

Make the big bad channel his save or dies. One round, he is channelling the spell, at the start of the next turn, the spell takes effect. Make it a signature ability, make it clear what is happening, who is being targeted, and stuff like that. Flashy. Player will have been warned beforehand. In their own turns, after the end of the channelling phase, they will have options:

  • Move out of line of sight
  • Attack the big bad in hopes of disrupting the spell/killing him before he ends the casting
  • Do their own stuff, and hope to make the save

Then, even if they get killed, it is incredibly more fun to play out the encounter, and most importantly, it doesn't leave the aftertaste of "a bad roll killed me, and I couldn't do anything about it". In this case, they made their choice, they had agency, and that is what mattered to them.

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