Meditations on (Fictional) Deaths (and Not Deaths)

When a fantasy hero dies, it’s a good death. Noble. Heroic, like the name suggests. They want to go down swinging, or protecting someone, or through some surprise twist of fate – if they’re to go down at all.

And that’s my problem, right there. When a 5e hero hits 0HP they are (more or less) equidistant from both death and survival, but those two outcomes aren’t given equal consideration of the evocative variety (vague can take a break today).

With things as they stand, the abstraction of death saves is GREAT for survivors! Being able to say that you went down, were knocked unconscious, this close to dying but managed to pull through – that’s cool, that’s fun, that’s got flavour. But… What if you don’t survive? You’ve already failed two death saves, and (in most cases) the third isn’t an edge of your seat situation, it’s a resigned, bummed out one. And once you’re all dead, instead of mostly dead, you’ve spent your final moments as an unconscious ragdoll with no agency. Dying with the current abstraction doesn’t feel good, or noble, or heroic.

But this community homebrews and house rules! It’s what we do! I’ve heard of many people who allow the player to stay conscious while they make their death saves so that they can have a final speech, reveal a secret, or get closure saying goodbye to their friends and allies. The most recent I’ve seen from @litzabronwyn was fun in that it specified that the character is left stunned and prone rather than unconscious which feels dire but allows them a dramatic death scene:

last breath house rule

This has a lot of merit, makes death way better! But, and I fully recognise that I might be on my own here, I think this version is a little less fun for survivors. Now they’re laying around being very dramatic, croaking out their final words… And then they’re fine and it feels like they totally overreacted.

So, @ThinkingDM and I got to pondering; is there a middle ground for death saves? One where surviving is still cool and dying is still dramatic? It’s a tricky question to tackle.

Or at least I thought it was until I explained to my sister, Raewyn, what I was puzzling over. She doesn’t play DnD, doesn’t know much about it, but she said, “What if each death roll was about a different thing?”

The more I thought about it, the more I think she’s onto something.

I like to use Boromir’s death in Fellowship (2001) as a sort of prototype of the adventurer’s death fantasy. It’s familiar, full of agency, he gets his “my captain, my king” speech (I’m not crying, you’re crying); it has all the elements you might hope for from a good, noble, heroic death. Even if we know it, let’s watch it again coz we can.

To me, there seems to be a very clear narrative beat for each of, what we could imagine to be, his failed death saving throws. 1st throw failed – an arrow slams into his chest. 2nd – another to the stomach. 3rd – another and he’s done.

If we reverse engineer the story beats of this scene and apply to them the mechanical beats of a 5e encounter, we can kind of extrapolate an interesting sequence:

  • A player character reaches 0 hit points. At the beginning of each turn they must make a death saving throw and any damage dealt to them forces another save. (Boromir has been holding off the uruks, but finally he’s out of hit points; now it’s life or death mode).
  • A player character has failed one death saving throw. They no longer add their Dexterity bonus to their AC or Dexterity saving throws. (Boromir is struggling to keep fighting, but it’s more difficult to defend himself with one arm out of commission from the pain).
  • A player character has failed two death saving throws. They immediately fall prone. They can only make one attack on their turn. (Boromir collapses to the ground but, seeing the vulnerable hobbits, forces himself onto his feet to keep fighting).
  • A player character has failed three death saving throws. They immediately fall prone and are stunned. After one minute, the character dies. (Boromir is brought to his knees with no strength left and has only a short time remaining before his wounds take him).

Anyone else looking at this structure for death saves and thinking it looks and works a little bit like exhaustion levels?

Now, a couple things strike me as potentially awkward about this method:

1) it relies really heavily on HP as an abstraction of fortitude in battle. We likely all know by now that damage doesn’t literally mean cuts, but it probably doesn’t stop most of us from describing it that way, so someone hitting zero and being seemingly unaffected might be hard for people to swallow;

2) a healer might take issue after the third failure with a PC being conscious enough to speak but somehow beyond their magic to save. It’s not a likely problem at my table since I’ve pre-established that magic heals quickly more than well and sometimes a wound is too far gone already or would be healed wrong – but my table isn’t every table;

2.5) similarly why wouldn’t self-serve modes of healing be available to a character at 0HP before their third failure;

3) in order to really hit right, the DM would need to ascribe a narrative beat to every failed save. In the Boromir example this would just be “roll your death save”, “6”, “the uruk-hai captain launches an arrow at you through the fray and it lances your chest, just above your heart. Your luck is starting to run out”, “for my turn I keep fighting”. But in a DnD battle there are countless possibilities for what’s going on, and the DM is going to have to come up with something that intensifies the PC’s situation, because when a start of turn death save with no catalyst for failure to obviously make you worse at stuff DOES make you worse at stuff just because, it’s gonna steal the drama.

No more than the usual unconscious death saves do, but still.

However, there are a lot of things I do really like about the concept, among them:

1) it keeps a character alert and making choices. It only takes away from their abilities after they would ordinarily be unconscious anyway;

2) someone who survives gets to feel really cool and tough for pulling through based entirely on last-ditch efforts – they get to be Faramir instead!;

3) you only start making your gurgled dramatic death speech AFTER your guaranteed death, so no uncomfortable social aftermath there.

Surviving is cool, and dying is dramatic.

Anyway, I think the big take away from this is that my sister might be better at DnD than I am.