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In D&D 3.5 there is a Massive Damage rule:

Massive Damage

If you ever sustain a single attack deals 50 points of damage or more and it doesn’t kill you outright, you must make a DC 15 Fortitude save. If this saving throw fails, you die regardless of your current hit points. If you take 50 points of damage or more from multiple attacks, no one of which dealt 50 or more points of damage itself, the massive damage rule does not apply.

Preface

I do not like this rule, I think it is a bit silly. But that's just me. In my campaign I have modified that ruling to still have some consideration when Massive Damage is dealt.

I have come up with the following alternative:

If an attack deals at least 50% of the remaining hit-points of the target, the target needs to make an appropriate roll to see if it doesn't get "taken down".

Here meaning in most cases a Balance roll, but could also be a Ride roll, Climb roll, etc - as circumstance dictates. This basically means that Massive Damage in my games means there is a chance to knock down an opponent (which I also consider as eligibility for Cleave)

My question is not about this alternate rule, but knowing the context is of my question is important.

As my campaign has progressed (from level 1, now at level 12) the players and their characters are much more powerful, and are able to deal 50+ damage on most attacks, this has caused some of them to wonder if we should use the proper rules for Massive Damage, stating that it is part of the rules, and the design of the game.

I understand that argument that certain spells, or attacks are absolutely more effective if there is a chance that they can kill targets with Massive Damage, and while my alternate rule gives a benefit, nothing beats an instakill.

Question

So I want to know, how integral is this ruling to the game? Is playing without this rule acceptable? I never considered it to be an important part of the game, but is it possible that I am mistaken, and that much of the games design and balance is expecting this rule?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik That is a good point, but I am really asking about the merits of using this rule vs not using this rule. I know that if I use it in my game now at this level what the odds are, I am just wondering if it is even necessary. IE: By removing this rule from my game, am I making a change that I really shouldn't be making? \$\endgroup\$
    – Inbar Rose
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 13:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Answer in answers. Comments are only for clarifying the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I actually didn't see it written as optional/variant anywhere. I see it as a normal rule like any other. Perhaps a page number? \$\endgroup\$
    – Inbar Rose
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 15:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll leave that to Hey I can chan and Baka-mastermind. AFB at the moment, plus I misread the SRD entry on variant rules for hits and damage, and MD isn't in that category. Previous comment removed. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Rule in the link you posted isn't optional. These rules are optional alternatives. You can see them taged as "variant adventuring rules". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 18:51

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Is the massive damage rule needed? No

There are so many ways to die in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 that eliminating one relatively rare thing that can kill a creature likely won't have any long-term game impact. A handful of special abilities expect the massive damage rule to be in effect but not enough so that its removal would be disruptive enough for the game to grind to a halt.

Is it useful? Sort of

The Dungeon Master's Guide says

If a creature takes 50 points of damage or more from a single attack, she must make a Fortitude save or die. This rule exists primarily as a nod toward realism in the abstract system of hit point loss. (27)

That is, powerful creatures can get complacent about threats, and the massive damage rule attempts to clumsily add back into even high-powered creatures' lives an element of risk. As PCs typically make more saving throws than their individual enemies (who usually just die), PCs run a greater risk of death from massive damage than other creatures. The massive damage rule, then, should make the PCs pause when faced with an unknown creature, as PCs should recognize that even they, no matter their power, have a 5% chance of dying to the foe if the foe can deal enough damage. In theory, in its own small way, the massive damage rule encourages PCs to explore alternatives to violence as methods of problem solving.

Unless, of course, the PCs are immune to massive damage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that using Arcane/Divine spells to become immune to Massive Damage is not necessary. A +14 modifier on the Fortitude save and the Steadfast Determination feat are sufficient to sidestep it by ensuring that the Fortitude save always succeeds (that's the issue of a fixed DC). Achieving +14 is likely (+6 from 20 levels worst case, +5 from cape of resistance, +3 from Con modifier) but the feat is taxing, especially as Endurance is a pre-requisite. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 15:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Besides, these are Variant Rules (meaning they can be abandoned without a second thought if a DM wants to). Also, these rules suggest that the damage threshold increases/decreases by 10 for every size category \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 15:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. There are actually a handful of feats (like, I dunno, three or so) that eliminate completely the need for massive damage saving throws, and a couple of semi-mundane ways to make saves on a 1 not automatically fail, but I think those're better addressed in their own question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 18:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Baka-Mastermind Even before the 3.5 revision, the massive damage rule was in place in 3E; massive damage threshold based on size is optional in both the original and the revision. Also, before the 3.5 revision, saving throws did not automatically fail on a 1, making massive damage much less of a danger (and discouraging extraplanar incursions). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fun fact: About 110 pages in to the Epic Level Handbook, they recommend ignoring the Massive Damage Rule. \$\endgroup\$
    – J. Mini
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 13:55

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