The latest Legends & Lore column on the WOTC site is on “save or die” effects. From the column, it looks like 5e may be catering to those who do not like “save or die.” Unfortunately, “save-or-die” effects are one of the primary ways to shorten combats, make possible to play “combat as war”, simulate a believable game world, and have some risk in the game no matter how many hit points a character has. If a D&D edition doesn’t have save-or-die effects, chances are I will not enjoy the game.
There is already a method in the game for allowing characters/monsters whose precautions failed to avoid death or similar results from effects that should outright “instantly” kill or incapacitate: the saving throw. The original idea behind the saving throw was that the PCs were so special that while something would automatically kill or incapacitate a normal person, they got a special chance to avoid that fate — a chance mere normals would not get: a saving throw.
One of the primary reasons I hear for people not liking effects that instantly kill or incapacitate a character is that if a character fails a “save or die” roll in combat, the player will be bored out of his mind during the rest of the slow, grindy combat so common in WOTC editions of the game. Sure, the character will probably not be permanently lost as there are arcane or divine method of restoring the character after the combat, but during the combat the player is basically out of the game. The solution to this, IMHO, is not to get rid of save-or-die effects but to greatly reduce the length of combat. Being out of a 5 to 15 minute combat is much different than being out of a 45 to 120 minute combat. Reducing the length of combat to pre-WOTC lengths also helps the game in other ways. For example, classes that aren’t good in combat suddenly become much more playable as players selecting such classes no longer are going to be bored for 45 to 120 minutes every time the party gets into combat. So the primary solution to “save-or-die” effects problems should be to shorten combat so that the penalty for failing a save isn’t an hour or two of boredom.
Another complaint I often hear about “save-or-die” effects is that they really penalize low level parties who might not have affordable access to magical means of curing the effect. I’m not all that sympathetic to this argument as part of “player skill” in D&D should be learning to avoid being endangered by save-or-die effects. After all, if you have to make the saving throw, you have already messed up — you’d made a mistake that would result in automatic death or incapacitation for a normal person.
As a compromise, however, I offer this optional rule (which will be included in Microlite74 starting with the Swords & Sorcery edition): If the being fails its save in a save-or-die situation, the effect “takes effect” immediately (just as it always has). However, if the situation (combat or otherwise) ends and the character receives “first aid” within the character’s CON melee rounds (or a monster’s Hit Dice in melee turns), the character is just at 0 hp and unconscious. All characters are assumed to know first aid techniques that will arrest the various save-or-die effects and terminate the condition without need of magic if the 5 melee round procedure is started soon enough and continues without any interruption (combat is an interruption).
For example, if a character is hit by the Finger of Death spell and fails his save, he drops to the ground “apparently dead”. This preserves the “speed up combat and avoid time-wasting grind” effect of save or die. However, if the character hit is able to receive first aid in an out-of-direct-danger environment (that is, not in the middle of combat) within CON melee rounds, the character’s actual death is prevented — he’s just out of hit points and unconscious.
Finally, while shortening combat and adding a “easy recovery” rule should solve many problems with save-or-die effects without adding much complexity or bookkeeping to the game, I would have no objection to an optional rule that got rid of save-or-die effects completely for those who just can’t stand them (after all, a group’s GM can do that anyway). The default for a set of D&D rules, however, should be to include “save-or-die” effects. They are something that defines D&D and are necessary for some styles of play.