System Shock Survival

One of the rules I regularly ignore in AD&D is the notion of “system shock survival”. This is a rule that states, essentially, when one’s physical system undergoes a drastic shock (such as when the character is polymorphed, turned to stone and back again, etc.), one must make a roll in order to survive the transformation. The number you have to roll is based on your constitution score (CON 3 = 35% survival, CON 18 = 99% survival, with 70% being about the median).

I really hate this rule because it seems to me to be a sort of “anti saving throw”. Unlike level draining undead, which I see as one element in the DM’s arsenal to force the players into making logistical choices with real consequences (and which can be countered either by thoughtful tactics or the spell restoration), the system shock survival roll seems to me to be a second chance for the DM to kill off a character. I’m not sure it’s a necessary thing,

It also, I should add, turns something like the polymorph other spell, already a pretty potent bit of magic, into a turn-you-into-a-guinea-pig-in-between-two-chances-to-die sandwich. Think about it; if the base chance for an average (CON=10) character is 70%, you need to make two such rolls (70% x 70% = 49%) in order to survive the experience. That’s ever so slightly less than 50%. Yikes!

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

20 thoughts on “System Shock Survival

  1. This is one rule I bend on occasion too. Only if a player is adamantly fighting the process, I use the system shock. Otherwise, the change occurs without incident. It always makes for some interesting role-playing situations anyway that the players tend to enjoy or take advantage of.

    Player: "Okay, Eddy, you're a bird now. We'll pay a wizard to have you changed back… but while we're here, fly down the hall and scout ahead, will ya?"

    And, since fair is fair, my players also know it isn't a killingstroke for any NPC Wizards. One situation had the players partially succeed with a polymorph other: the evil wizard became half-frog! They realized they made him "hopping" mad and that he would surely give them a "tongue-lashing" for all the "rib-it-ribbing" they gave him.

    Afterall, the play is the thing…


  2. Boy, did I ever get tore up on Dragonsfoot for suggesting something else other than death for system shock. Right now, I'm using it as the "roll or die" thing, but I'd rather find a decent alternative (lose a con or something like that sounds good to me).

  3. I'm not sure I'm looking for anything more than just dumping the thing, but I could see something a bit more merciful.

    Perhaps, similar to the notion that a character gets a number of resurrections equal to his Constitution score, a character could get a number of system shock fails before actually dying. Perhaps the two are mutually cumulative; you don't actually lose a point of constitution, but each time you are either raised or fail a system shock roll, it counts against your total. Once you reach the total (which is equal to your original Constitution score), you're gone for good.

  4. In the past I have mostly used SS for things other than aging or polymorphing. The most common is having players roll SS when reduced to 1 hit point, otherwise go unconscious. I think at least once in the 90's I had a PC roll it for each round upon hitting negative 10 hit points to stay alive each round.

    For sure for something like Haste needs something to keep it being used each combat, but death is a pretty terrible trade off. Sure, it could come in handy in some "outside the box" way, but most mages won't want to waste a third level slot on a spell they probably won't use. It's a shame when a spell is reduced to near uselessness due to possibly outright dying from using it. With Polymorph, you need to make an SS roll when you get changed, and another when you get changed back. Two chances of dying there. Just too much.

  5. When I played with Frank Mentzer at Gary Con, he had a player character who had been reduced to 0 hitpoints make a SS roll when a player cast a cure light spell to revive them. I thought that was a useful use of SS too.

    I think a spell like polymorph should have serious side affects. A player polymorphing successfully and for the right reasons could impact a quest quite successfully.

  6. Not me. I love this rule. Any other edition of D&D implicitly allows infinite resurrections for a single character. Good on AD&D for taking a stand to reign that in.

    That being said, tweaking the specific ways this rule interacts with certain spells (Haste, Polymorph Other, etc) is still worth considering. It's not an all-or-nothing prospect.

    I definitely wouldn't mess with how it affects returning from the dead, though.

  7. The system shock roll is there of course to stop party magicians from strategically polymophing party members–so of course, some danger needs to be there to make such occurances rare.

    Lowering constitution is functionally the same as having FAILD the system shock roll and being resurrected at no cost. So you've gone from a 70% chance of dying (temporarily) and losing a point of con, to a 70% chance of losing a point of con without any of the pesky role playing and side quest to get a raise dead for their friend (or opportunity to role up a new PC and tell a good yarn about how this one time your character died when a wizard turned him into a hedgehog.

    Simply losing a point of con just doesn't make for good steytelling.

  8. Besides. DMs who won't let players die, aren't going to let them lose a point of con either (a certain type of player may even complain more about the latter)

    so you've changes the rules for only the people interested in following them in the first place. Secondly, there's no con loss on ressurection, unlike raise dead so actually your proposed rule is harsher to high level characters than the one you propose to replace!

    Thirdly…elves now get a power bump 'cause now they have another spell that won't kill them for good.

  9. Fourthly! Verisimilitude is lost. It's reasonable to believe a spell like polymophing can so shock your system as to kill you. Less so for an argument as 'gamey' as saying you lose a point of con.

  10. Well, I…wait, UWS, done yet? Whew, OK. Kinda spazing on that publish button! Everything is gonna be ok, bro. Don't get too worked over game shit. Please, take a breath, relax and think it over a bit more and you might actually get two thoughts into the same post 🙂

  11. UWS: What's the literary antecedent for polymorph being able to kill someone, I wonder? The most obvious example from literature (Circe) doesn't seem to have it, as I recall. Just curious as to where this idea might have come from in the first place.

    Also, in terms of verisimilitude, the fact that polymorph self doesn't have with it the possibility of death from system shock sort of knocks down that argument. Why should one polymorph require it, and another not, especially when they're both the same level magic-user spell?

    (I might point out that the same argument can be applied to your first point; they can always "strategically polymorph" themselves, and indeed the spell lets them change forms at will during its duration, making it even more powerful.)

    But this is about more than just polymorph other, of course.

    Will; the system shock survival rule doesn't apply to resurrections and raise dead. Those are covered by resurrection survival and the maximum raise rules, which are separate from system shock survival.

  12. You're all nice guys, but you are the ones who have to defend the change, not I with the status quo. Charging rules anyone?

  13. Isn't poly other permanant? What else other than the chance of death would stop some players from turning their henchmen into ogres, lions, small dragons?

  14. Thirdly it's not my fault blogger doesn't let you edit posts.

    What is the mythology for having polymorph kill? Frankenstein, dr. Maurou, raistlin in the legend books, and other mad scientists who attempt to create/alter life.

    Why can't an evil wizard build an army of goblins with mice? Why can't he build an army of ogres with goblin henchmen? Because the vast majority of experiments result in death/warped subjects.

    Perhaps the system shock roll symbolizes jeff goldblum in the movie, "The fly". Perhaps when the syst shock fails the don't just "die", rather they die because the polymorph went wrong like the teleport when wrong–which is to say catastrophically! Maybe when polymorphing someone back from a mouse to a human the spell fails and everything polymorphs correctly except for the heart!

    Can you imagine the mess it would make to have the heart of a horse in the body of a halfling?…messy…

  15. Polymorph Other is permanent until dispelled. Risky for the wizard to transform his henchmen into ogres because they may start to revert to ogre-personalities. Retaining intellect from a PO is subjective.

    Polymorph Self, one retains their own mind. I believe the duration may depend on the size creature they change to.


  16. 1. Copying your text, then delete your mis-typed post, then paste & redo your post.

    2. Could you see a wizard dealing with Ogres with the minds of mice? Until their new personas take over? Easier to threaten & intimidate the real thing.

    3. Spell failures/mishaps are always fun possibilities. They can lead to interesting roleplay.

    4. Horse-hearted halfling? Boy, you think they could be quick &* nimble before! Talk about a halfling superhero…at least for a little while until he explodes.


  17. Quadruply…

    UWS, you're tossing out a bunch of Sci Fi examples when we are discussing magic. Two completly different things (I…I think. Ah hell, I guess it is all fantasy).

    But you do bring up an interesting idea or two. Recently I watched one of the Sinbad movies from back in the day, the one with the son and the magic user mom chasing Sinbad and pals? She has some interesting things go down from her magic use, including changing back from a seagull and being stuck with a seagull leg when back in human form. I think that would be a great type of thing for failing system shock, instead of just "oops, you're dead."

  18. sci-fi and Ad&d? Have you read any Vance/Dying Earth? Did you know doctor strange had a big influence on Gygax and his wizards?

    Turjan the magician spent one book attempting to grow simulacrum in giant vats.

    Have you played the module, "barrier peaks?"

  19. Fritz Lieber in one of his ffard and grey mouser stories has "death" narrating the action. To paraphrase, "unlike killing mere mortals I dispense with diseases, and heart attacks. I kill heroes with fantastic displays of magic."

    Sounds like the perfect death for a hero is to die while polymorphing, beats falling into a 10 foot pit.

  20. UWS, when you say "AD&D," I think "Attention Deficit Disorder," because you are just bouncing off the walls all over the place.

    Sure, I have heard of all the things of which you speak. But my particular gameworld is not some fantasy world that came up after an apocalyptic war or something, nor is it in the dying earth genre. It's a fantasy world. I don't enter Sci Fi stuff into it that much (despite loving Judges Guild and Arduin Grimoire growing up), so your preferences/references don't necessarily apply to what I do with the game. But hey, good on ya, mate.

    As an old school Marvel comics fan, I know of Dr. Strange well. Are YOU aware that he is a magic character and not science related? That is a very strange example to bring up in the context you are talking about. Unless you are just throwing it out as a fun fact, then, well…uh, thanks.

    A hero falls into a 10 foot pit. I doubt that 1-2 dice of damage is going to bother him too much. It certainly will not kill him.

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