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I'm looking for optional rules from (semi)official publications that offer players (and their characters) a chance to avoid "instant death" threats (such as the petrifying gaze of a (CR7) medusa) against which usually only one single saving throw can be made.

Please, recommend me the book(s) that in your experience offer the players the best balanced "fighting chance" against creatures and effects posing such a threat. (I'm thinking "hero points" that could be sacrificed (spent or rolled) to avoid death or some such solution.)

(Note please that I'm not looking for house rules. I'm interested in preferably Wizards-published stuff that you actually found good.)

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

The best link I've found is to Unearthed Arcana which talks about adjusting saves for massive damage. It should be possible to extend that system to insta-death saves for other things as well.

The only other solution I would recommend is to back-port some rules from 4e, where conditions worsen over multiple saves. While it isn't a formalized 3.5 thing, it was clearly introduced to combat the same problem. The typical progression is:

  1. Slowed
  2. Immobilized
  3. Petrified

And works quite well for increasing the feeling of risk without risking insta-death by one bad roll.

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I'm accepting this answer for recommending Unearthed Arcana. (Those interested should note, however, that imo UA's Action Points provide a better solution than the Massive Damage rules - see mxyzplk's answer to the question below.) Thank you again. – OpaCitiZen Oct 17 '10 at 8:30

I know you're looking for rules, but I would make an arguement against such counters "instant death". My thought is that having monsters and spells with such abilities forces a party to be prepared. If your cleric/wizard are using 100% of their prepared spells for offensive/buffing, then why should they be rewarded for not preparing their spell lists carefully? Having such effects such as petrification, disintigration, death effects, negative energy and so forth are a part of the experience and monsters that have such capabilities are, for the most part, balanced in CR against parties that should have the capabilities to respond to such threats. If your wizard doesn't keep a Stone to Flesh scroll handy, or your cleric doesn't keep a Revivify or Restoration handy, then again I would say they should not be rewarded with an out to bypass or hamstring such rules.

If they learn the hard way, so be it. I have spent more than my fair share of sitting back and watching the combat after my character has died (I am the clear leader in character deaths, dismemberments and incapacitations in my group) and I have no problem with it. Nine times out of ten it's the direct result of my actions. It's part of the game and part of the fun.

Now, if you have a small group, with 2 or 3 PCs, or if the DM is throwing such creatures against a party that isn't high enough level to be able to handle them, then I can see a need for such rules, even if they are house rules. But for normal game play, again I would argue against. Let them learn the hard way to work as a team and to be prepared, if that's what it takes.

I also believe that such rules to alter the "instant death" effects of these spells and monsters will alter the balance and challenge these foes would normally present. So if you allow other rules to bypass or weaken it, then I would counter that you must also lower the CR that these foes have. For your example, the CR7 medusa, would become a CR4. I would even make her a CR3 as a medusa with a severly hampered/weakened gaze attack is not that challenging a foe. If they're not facing the fully strength foe, they shouldn't get the full xp reward.

That's my view of it as someone who is usually player and occasionally DM.

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Well, the problem is that Wizards (understandably, I reckon) doesn't try to innovate outside the bounds of how they've set their game up much.

The closest "Wizards official" thing is Action Points, initiated in Eberron but then used by every campaign I've been in since. They're weak, not rerolls, just a +1d6 (or, at higher levels, best of +multipled6) and of course you choose to apply them after you roll but before you know if you made it or not.

Trailblazer (from Bad Axe, not Wizards) expands on them a lot - but IMO they are a bit too fiddly with only moderate benefit.

You said you don't want house rules, but someone else might be interested, so here's a more powerful hero point mechanic I came up with, informed by some semi lengthy research into what hero point systems already existed for D&D/d20 and/or other games (a lot of that research here).

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The GM should telegraph such monsters

If a medusa comes out of a random encounter table and petrifies someone without any warning, that character's player is likely to feel ripped off, and rightly so. It's on the GM to drop hints that a medusa might be in the future, preferably while the party still has enough time to gather necessary supplies and prepare the right spells.

And if that fails, death isn't permanent

The canonical, rules-as-written solution to a Medusa's petrification gaze is Stone to Flesh, either cast by the party wizard or from a scroll/other item/hired mage in town.

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The simplest is that the entire Monster Manual is essentially optional. Just don't use them!

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I'm looking for a way to expand our game/choices, not to restrict/constrict them. (Sure, I could discard the whole D&D system, but what kind of an option is that if we do want to play D&D? ;)) – OpaCitiZen Oct 17 '10 at 8:22
The MM makes it clear enough that the monsters are, individually, optional. You don't want instant death? don't use those monsters that can deal it. There are not that many, and the game runs just fine without them. – aramis Oct 17 '10 at 16:09
@OpaCitiZen Instant Death Monsters are a natural part of the D&D games. You're not required to use the parts that kill, but that inherently is a restriction on your options. – aramis Mar 1 '13 at 20:38

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