Friday, August 5, 2011

On Death and Dying (or It Ain't Over Until It's Over.) #OSR #ODND #SNW

One of the biggest complaints in OSR is there aren't enough Hit Points at first level to accurately reflect that even the average man won't die from a single sword wound, much less a knife. Another infamous complaint are Save or Die effects from spells, poisons and traps. The most popular method to solve the hp problem is to give more hps at first level. But I don't think bumping-up hps accurately reflects that most people die of their wounds after the battle. Typically they die from bleeding out, shock, or in some cases, infection. A better way of reflecting this is to incorporate some sort of dying mechanism. Negative hps are one way of representing this effect, saving throws are another. Constitution is also a factor that should be included to simulate general stamina and health. While higher levels express experience and battle hardiness. Occasionally the dying can do last ditch efforts, like one final kill or crawl to safety. Only rarely does a person die instantly, and typically only after taking a massive amount of damage from a critical hit (such as a sneak attack) or a lethal trap.

The following is a series of rules that emulates death occurring after injury while allowing small heroic efforts before dying. It takes in consideration all of these factors without changing starting hp. It uses what every character can benefit from; Levels, Hit Dice and Constitution. It makes use of several Saving Throws and can be amended to any Save or Die effects.

Instant Death

Any damage that results in losing more Hit Points below zero, equal to their Constitution, must make a Saving Throw or it results in the character's immediate death. If the Save is successful, the character is still dying. For example, a Thief with 4 hp, with a Constitution of 10, springs a trap that does over 14 points of damage will need to make a Saving Throw or be immediately killed.


If a character fails a Save against instant death, or when they are struck down to less than 1 hp, they are immediately dying. They can't move or take any actions. The dying character immediately rolls one Hit Dice (1HD) and adds their constitution modifier. They will die in this many rounds if they are not treated or healed. This is rolled anew each and every time the character fails a Save or Die or drops below 1 hp. For example, a Fighter with a d8 Hit Die would roll 1d8+Con Modifier. The Fighter will die in this many rounds if not healed.

Gaining Consciousness

Dying characters are effectively unconscious, although a Saving Throw can be made to determine if they're awake and lucid. When that's the case, they can cry for help, as the moans of the dying are typical on a battlefield. If they are conscious they can also attempt single actions. Each check or attack that the dying character attempts will be at a -4 penalty, will then require a Saving Throw. Failure of the Saving Throw results in the character falling unconscious and 1d4 rounds closer dying. Which will result in death if they don't have any rounds left. For example, a Mage that is conscious but dying in 3 rounds decides to cast one last spell. The Mage would cast the spell at -4, then make a Saving Throw. If the character fails, he would fall unconscious, roll a 1d4 and be that many rounds closer to death. If the d4 results in a 3 or more, he would immediately die.

Stabilizing The Dying

During combat, another character can attempt to stabilize a dying character as their action. But it's not foolproof. The dying PC gets a Saving Throw, +2 if the aiding character has healing class abilities. A successful save results in the character no longer dying but is still unconscious. They can attempt to regain consciousness and perform any single action as per Gaining Consciousness above. A failed save means the PC continues dying. Any healing, magical or otherwise, returns hps starting at 0. The character will be conscious and no longer dying. A conscious but dying character can attempt to stabilize themselves, but they still suffer a -4 penalty for the attempt and risk falling unconscious and begin dying again, as above.


Outside of combat a stabilized character can still die if they don't receive proper healing or treatment. The character must make a Saving Throw every hour or risk infection until properly healed. If aided by another character, this Saving Throw can modified by +2 if the aiding character has healing class abilities. If they fail any of these Saving Throws, the character suffers from sepsis. The infected character immediately rolls one Hit Die and adds their constitution modifier. They will die in this many turns if they are not finally treated or healed. No Saving Throws.

Natural Healing

If the character makes all their Saving Throws and survives a night, natural healing occurs per standard rest and healing rules.

Notes & Assumptions

These house rules were designed with Sword & Wizardry's single Saving Throw in mind. For other games, the Saving Throws would typically be versus Death or Poison, depending on the rules. Not all OSR systems have Save or Die effects, so some of these rules may not work or apply. Typically these rules only apply to Player Characters, since the DM has discretion when it comes to NPC survival.

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