One of the things that strikes me when I read through the OD&D rules is a throwaway item in the saving throw list. There is a save versus "Death Ray or Poison," which for the most part is interpreted rather tamely as referring to spells like finger of death and similar effects. Don't get me wrong, that's perfectly legitimate way to look at save versus death ray. But it's missing one of the most fun aspects of old-school gaming: making up fun stuff based on vague suggestions in the rulebook.
So, the way I figure it is, death rays have different color beams, which determine the overall effect.
Red: Red death ray beams are based on extreme heat. They will cause wood or cloth to burn, and if intense enough, may cause metal to become white-hot.
Orange: Orange rays are derived from acid, and must be extremely corrosive to any object in their path. Items must make a saving throw or be destroyed.
Yellow: Yellow rays are effectively lightning, and will be conducted by any metal they come in contact with.
Green: Green death rays are based on poison.
Blue: Blue death rays are based on extreme cold. Liquids (canteens, holy water, potions etc) must save or the vessel containing them will be destroyed.
Indigo: Instead of causing physical destruction, indigo death rays affect the mind. A character who fails his or her saving throw will go irretrievably insane.
Violet: Violet death rays reduce living matter to its constituent elements. A person killed by a violet death ray will be reduced to a pile of ashes and a mass of super-hot, boiled water. This has no effect on non-living matter.
And, of course, death rays have to be launched from something.
Ray Gun: These are small enough to be held by hand and do 2-3 dice of damage per blast (save for half). They only strike their target if the wielder first makes a successful "to hit" roll, considering all man-type creatures to be effectively unarmored. A ray gun will have enough energy for 1-100 (roll d100 to determine) blasts.
Cannon: The cannon is a form of death ray too large to be held by hand. Based on their size, cannons (which may weigh from 100 to 1000 lbs) may do 4 to 12 dice of damage. A cannon will have enough energy for 4-40 blasts.
This is just a sketch of how I intend to have death rays work in my games. Has anybody else done anything like this with death rays?