RPGaDay2020 Day 28: Close – close shaves in BECMI and 5e

The RPGaDay2020 prompts in a map by dunroaminpress

Yesterday in RPGaDay2020 we looked at the flavour of potions and differences between versions of D&D.

Today the theme is Close. Let’s look at another difference between editions of D&D.

Specifically the close shave. Those moments when characters almost die, but manage to survive.

Back in the Basic set or AD&D days, it was much easier to die.

  • once you reach 0hp, you’re dead unless or until you get resurrected
  • drink poison, and you need to save versus poison or you die instantly
  • various spells and effects kill instantly (if you fail a saving throw) – for example a Shade (a type of Phantom) attacking requires a Save vs Death Ray or you instantly fall dead of horror

And there were various other ways to die instantly.

Move forward to fifth edition, and there are so many ways which turn these into close shaves.

  • once you reach 0hp, you then have three saving throws before you’re dead, which also gives your companions time to rescue you (in most cases – alas poor Horace who got caught the wrong side of a door with a roomful of orcs). And the way the maths works out, there is a slightly greater chance of surviving than dying
  • you can heal on a short rest, and heal completely overnight (at least with the standard ruleset – healing takes a bit longer in my campaigns); this means you can generally recover between encounters, making the a series of encounters more survivable
  • poisons do damage rather than killing outright
  • spells like Circle of Death do damage rather than killing outright

The two things which make the most difference are the death saving throws and the poison doing damage. Death was a constant companion in the olden days. Now it is still possible to die, but it’s generally exceedingly unlucky. In the three years I have been playing fifth edition, the deaths have been:

  • Horace, a first level dwarf fighter with an orc hatred, ran into a roomful of orcs without scouting or waiting for his companions. The (first-level) party struggled (they went straight into the attack without finding the buffs and clues I’d left around to help them) and couldn’t get through to save him; in fact at one point more than half the party was on death saving throws and it was only by shutting the door that they had time to recover and avoid a TPK
  • Francesco, a fourth level Sorcerer, annoyed a stone giant into throwing a stone at him, and took so much damage he was instantly jam

Under BECMI rules, Horace would almost certainly have been joined by most of his party in death; it was the fifth edition rules which turned it into a close shave.

I have also had other close encounters which had characters on the verge of death, but successful death saving throws and the judicious application of potions or spells of healing have been sufficient to bring them back from the brink. It has got so even a character being down and bleeding their last doesn’t feel hugely dangerous – I just know they’ll pull through somehow.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It certainly reduces the element of risk when there’s less danger of an encounter being final, and makes the party much more likely to barge into battle rather than look for ways to resolve the situation peacefully or avoid it. On the other hand, we don’t have the players’ investment in a character they have run for months or years suddenly getting snuffed out.

On the whole, it’s probably for the good, since this is meant to be a bit of fun. But I do feel the players aren’t scared enough of getting hurt any more.

Come back tomorrow for Day 29, and we’ll go for a Ride with a brief guide to horses.

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