Save or Die and Lethality in D&D Next

March 7, 2012

The Real Purpose of Save or Die Effects

So, the designers at WotC are talking save or die mechanics and lethality this week. Mike’s got some ideas about hedging save or die mechanics with hit point thresholds or slow-acting effects and Monte has jumped right in with a discussion about game lethality in general. And I am sitting here thinking ‘either I’ve missed the point of the old save-or-die monsters or everyone else has.’ Because monsters with save-or-die powers aren’t really about lethality at all and hedging them with anything kind of misses what they are really about anyway.

(EDIT: Not to big too admit I might be wrong. The Hydra DM raises a good point in the comments about some kinds of hedges being useful, as Mike Mearls discussed. And that first paragraph was a little more snarky than it should have been at any rate. I meant no disrespect to Mike or Monte, whose transparency in all of this I greatly appreciate.)

Let’s look at a classic staple of save or die mechanics: the medusa’s petrifying gaze. The deal is, if you catch her eye, you turn to stone forever unless you can make one lucky die roll to resist the effect.

Now, I would argue that the whole point of crap like that is to create a encounter which the party would be really stupid to walk right up to and start beating to death with pointy pieces of metal. Just like Perseus, the party will either have to fight at an extreme disadvantage (fight blind) or else do something incredibly clever (such as using reflective surfaces to track the monster and fight back).

The thing is, save or die mechanics make for lousy head-on battles. Yes, it can be a tense battle, but its also wildly swingy and unpredictable. Because the save or die mechanic isn’t (and shouldn’t) be there to make a battle difficult, it should be there to discourage approaching something as a toe-to-toe battle in the first place. Its there to say: “one does not simply walk up to medusa and chop her head off.” If it does turn into a head on battle, someone is probably not walking out of it alive.

Now, 4E dispensed with the whole ‘save or die’ thing because the game was evolving. In 3E, there was a greater focus on ensuring that if a party ended up in a combat with a level appropriate encounter, they could win just by slugging it out. And 4E took this to the logical conclusion: every balanced encounter is winnable purely through five-on-five (or whatever) combat with only minor modifications to the basic strategies and tactics the party used.

Incidentally, the same evolution can be seen in the idea of monsters that could only be killed certain ways such as vampires, werecreatures, and other supernatural entities. The requirements became less stringent, evolving into resistances (some strong, some weak) and eventually being remade into vulnerabilities to reward PCs who had the right tools and tactics without punishing the PCs who didn’t.

The question of whether save or die effects (at least on monsters) belong in D&D Next is actually a really loaded question and one that shouldn’t be summed up in a simple yes or no poll. Because the fact of the matter is this:

If D&D Next wants to continue the assumption that a group of heroes can stand toe-to-toe with any balanced encounter and kick the crap out of it with sword and spell, save or die effects HAVE NO PLACE in D&D Next. They really won’t be doing the game any good. They will just make such encounters very swingy, difficult to balance, and unpredictable.

So, the real question is this: do you want monsters in D&D Next that somehow or other cannot be safely engaged through brute-force combat? Do you want some special beasties that the party needs to investigate, plan in advance for, and come up with countermeasures for? Do you want monsters against whom standing toe-to-toe and whacking away is a really stupid idea? Do you want monsters that stand outside the normal encounter balance system? Monsters for whom the Challenge Rating or Experience Value is listed as “Special” or “Easy if Handled Properly” ?

My answer is yes. Yes I do. But then, you’ve got to do it right. In no uncertain terms, in the Monster Manual or DM Guide, you’ve got to spell this shit out for the DM. Tell the DM right up front: “this isn’t just some orc you can drop in front of the party to have a knock down/drag out with. If the party ain’t forewarned and can’t come up with a good plan, its going to wreck their shit. So, don’t spring it on them as a surprise. And if you do spring it on them as a surprise, make sure they have a chance to retreat, regroup, and come up with a plan. Fighting this thing is not just something that happens DURING an adventure, it IS the adventure. The party may need to do research and procure special tools which may lead them to other adventures.”

But maybe you feel differently. Maybe you don’t want those sorts of things. That’s cool too. But if the designers aren’t ready to include save or dies in that capacity, to make some monsters special and provide a different sort of challenge from the usual tactical combat, and to spell that out for all DMs to see, save or die effects really don’t belong in the game.

Now, as I mentioned above, all of the same arguments can be made for creature immunities and monsters that can’t be outright killed without special weapons or special preparations. Whether it is a werewolf that takes no damage from anything other silver, a red dragon with serious fire immunities, or a vampire that just won’t die unless you get a stake through its heart first, these things are ADVENTURES not ADVERSARIES. A party does not casually knock-off a dragon. A village being plagued by werewolves can’t be handled the same way as a village plagued by goblins. And I’m all for keeping this stuff around too. These are monsters that write their own adventures. But, once again, its got to be spelled out for the DM if you want to go that route. “The party probably can’t kill this guy without a silver weapon. And they’ll end up as psychotic werewolves if they try. So, don’t just drop a werewolf in front of the group as a random encounter if they can’t get away and plan a different assault.”

Now, again, maybe you disagree with me. Maybe you want a D&D in which the heroes can just punch out whatever crosses their path and the MM doesn’t have a special section of “Monsters that Don’t Work in Standard Combats.” That’s fine. I’m not the only one buying D&D books. But, if you want that sort of game, accept the fact that save or die effects, weird immunities, and puzzle-monsters are probably going to have to get left behind. Alternatively, accept the fact that you can’t just toss a medusa into an encounter to fill out an XP budget.

As a final side note: it is worth paying attention to the fact that things like medusae, beholders, vampires and other ‘hard to kill/save or die’ monsters ended up being higher level challenges. This meant that, as a party got more and more powerful in physical combat, the game started providing other challenges in the form of monsters that couldn’t be beaten head-on. So, as the party became harder and harder to challenge in pure physical combat, the types of challenges changed.

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28 Responses to Save or Die and Lethality in D&D Next

  1. Reyemile on March 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I agree with almost everything you’ve said. There is one problem–killing the medusa usually isn’t an ‘adventure’. It’s usually, ‘take a nap and then the Cleric memorizes Protection from Petrification.’ You’re save-or-die model is good in principle, but if DnD is really going back to the Vancian wizards-can-do-anything model of game play, it will fizzle in practice.

  2. The Angry DM on March 7, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Even that counts as prep. It still requires the party to find out or discover what they are up against, research the issue, and come up with a way to counteract it. And that’s assuming the cleric is available and the Protection from Petrification is available at the level the party is engaging the medusa.

    “But if D&D is really going back to the Vancian wizards-can-do-anything model…” is hyperbolic. We don’t know what wizards will be capable of. Of course other systems that interact with this system will have to be in line with the design goal for this system. My concern is that the question is being asked without any real sense of a design goal behind it.

  3. Boarstorm on March 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    @Rayemile: That’s not bypassing the encounter, that’s solving the puzzle (monster).

  4. The Hydra DM on March 7, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I agree with your premise, but perhaps not entirely with your dismissal of “at threshold X save or die, at threshold Y take lots of damage” as a mechanic.

    Many RPGs and RPG spin-offs have a mechanic commonly dubbed an “execute”. It’s a power or ability that (commonly) deals disproportionately more damage against targets with low health. The concept of an execute is simple: you do not escape this fight by the skin of your teeth, you either win hard or you drop too low and die instantly.

    Commonly, opening with an execute is a terrible strategy – the opponent is not damaged enough yet and it will be wasted instead of effective in causing instant death. So the same for the method of “save or die” Mearls proposed in his Legends & Lore article. If you open with the medusa’s gaze against a PC, especially a high level PC at the beginning of the adventuring day, they will probably live to tell the tale. If you use it on an expendable NPC or a low level PC, or even just a worn out high level PC, they will, with a high level of certainty, be very dead very fast.

    Sure, you could have an attack just labelled “save or die”, and you could trust the DM to set it up so that the first time the PCs encounter the creature it doesn’t open with that attack and turn one of them to stone/dust/whatever instantly… but wouldn’t it be a much safer idea to make it so that opening with that attack simply couldn’t turn a PC to stone/dust/whatever? IF a DM drops a medusa in to fill out an xp budget with the proposed method of save or die, it’s not going to kill a player on the opening round. They have that chance to go “oh, shit, medusa? It can turn us to stone – and if we stick around much longer that’s what it’s going to do!” If, on the other hand, it’s just save or die with no triggering condition then the instant you open with medusa’s gaze it’s too late – that character is probably already dead, and the cost of learning that lesson by DOING instead of by being lectured by McLecturePants the Plot-Giving Elf is that somebody is dead now.

    I think that a large part of being an adventurer in a game like D&D is going places and poking them with a stick to see what comes out, and being able to survive JUST long enough to say “this is a bad, bad idea – time to run.” An execute gives that potential, a flat “save or die” does not.

    The other side of the coin is that you are ignoring the possibility for PLAYERS to get their hands on “save or die”. The wizard giving the villain-of-six-months the (middle) Finger of Death is like telling the DM “I know you worked really hard on this encounter to make it special, but your villain has a 75% chance to die right the fuck now before any of that cool stuff can happen”. Turning save or die from, well, save or die into an execute power is an absolute god-send for keeping spells like “finger of death” in the game, giving them to players, and not having to worry about your villain suddenly keeling over dead in the middle of his monologue because a PC got impatient and ended the fight in the first turn.

    In short: I agree with the premise that save-or-die is an effect that should exist in a game where running into a battle and killing things to death is not always the order of the day. I agree with the premise that removing save or die will cause this sort of gameplay to arise. But I think that save or die is, gameplay-wise, almost always strictly inferior to an execute version of save or die. I want save or die around, I want players to have to say “hey, you know, we’re going to need to get something for that Disintegrate beam the Beholder has”, but I don’t want them to encounter a Beholder for the first time at level 6 and then suddenly their precious character of many months is reduced to smoldering ash at the whim of a single roll – I want them to make the DECISION to fight the Beholder, and have the OPTION to make the decision to run, before I get to say “okay, you had your chance, you played it wrong: save or die”.

  5. TheAngryDM on March 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Hydra, that’s an interesting analyis. Thanks for it, though I really don’t think it changes the main thrust of my article though that ‘save or die’ (or similar mechanics, such as an execute) have far-reaching implications for the style and modes of play.

    As for players having ‘save or die’ effects, please don’t confuse ignoring something with purposefully limiting my scope. The existence of all or nothing effects on the player’s side of the screen is a completely different matter with completely different implications.

    And honestly, that’s the crux of it. I got into the same thing when I talked about healing. These mechanics aren’t trivialities, they are loaded issues, and often they encompass several issues. “Should save or die be in D&D” is kind of a silly question without some sort of context around it. For players? For monsters? Why? What does it do for the game? What does it help? What does it hurt?

    Frankly, I’m not interested in the specifics of the mechanic itself at this juncture. I’m more interested in the goal or purpose behind it. If save or dies end up having thresholds or slow acting effects or whatever to mitigate them in the end, that’s cool. But can we talk about why we’re asking the question and what it really means first?

  6. The Hydra DM on March 7, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Heh, I didn’t expect it to change the thrust of your article, simply be some things that I thought you left out and shouldn’t’ve. You make a good point that sometimes a narrower focus is better, though, and of course as the statements bracketing my comment imply I agree with the thrust your article does make.

    I may be more concerned personally with “HOW save vs. death”, but this piece on “WHY save vs. death” is, in my opinion at least, 100% on the money – just perhaps a bit incomplete is all.

  7. John on March 7, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    An excellent framing of the discussion, and I agree with you on all points! Not sure that’s ever happened before… The “Tell the DM right up front: “this isn’t just some orc you can drop in front of the party to have a knock down/drag out with. If the party ain’t forewarned and can’t come up with a good plan, its going to wreck their shit.”” paragraph reminded me of a HPK (half-party kill) we had when the DM sent us the old ‘Bodak Surprise’… Wrecked our shit, indeed. Also, I am stealing the line “Adventures, not adversaries.”

  8. DMServo on March 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    You use the term puzzle-monster almost as an aside, but I think the instant-death monsters of yore are essentially that. Recall that most of this kind of monster in D&D had their origin in myth and legend. Those stories did not include the monster as a stat block opponent, but as a device for emphasizing the monstrousness compared to the hero – and the audience. Since these were stories, the story needed a way for the monster to be defeated, and every one of them has such a weakness. The drama of the story often involves the hero discovering the weakness and how to use it to be victorious.
    All well and good for a narrative device, not very good as a gameplay device. First, because a monster drawn directly from legend has its weakness already known, thus removing the drama of discovering it. Second, a game (D&D at least) is not designed to be a story, told once and then done, with the hero’s fate decided at the end.
    Including monsters that function as adventures, or at least as puzzles, has the problem of replayability. Face the naked nymph once, die. Face her a second time, you know what to do to live and she’s of barely passing interest. As an adventure or puzzle, at least. The solution seems to me to be every monster with instant death/unstoppability expect for ___ has to be a brand-new creature, so the drama of discovery remains. (And once that monster gets its own ‘Ecology of’ article, it’s removed from the game!)

  9. Steve on March 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Off the top of my head, I believe that asking why we would include save or die effects, and what they mean for the game comes down to two things. How disposable do you want a character to be? How much player skill(read metagaming)do you want to be part of the game?

    Character longevity has definitely increased over time and editions. I agree with everything you have said about encounter balance changing over time. Reinserting save or die effects, however this is done/envisioned, tips the balance back towards the lethal making a PCs existence more precarious and thus more disposable. Whether the monster/trap/puzzle is an adventure as you envision or carelessly dropped in as a surprise the effect is ultimately the same: one die roll can determine your character’s fate. For me, the question of save or die is less about mechanics and much more about the tone of the game overall. To make a video game analogy, do you want to play on Normal and basically ensure the survival of your avatar, or do you want to play on Hardcore fully aware that a single misstep can end things for you? While the story can always go on, how important is it to you to finish that story with the character you started it with?

    I also bring up the idea of player vs character skill. I once read a Rule of Three article that stated one of the main goals of 4E design was to give character skill priority. In short, the goal was to prevent an intelligent player from dumping her INT for min/max reasons and then just using her natural intelligence to solve all her problems. On the other side of the coin, it allows the normally shy player to live out the fantasy of being a smooth talker without having to actually come up with every one liner and keen diplomatic insight. All of this serves as a way to reduce metagame thinking.

    I feel that save or die reintroduces the need for metagaming/player skill. If the game has the potential to kill your avatar somewhat whimsically, then it follows for me that one needs to bring all their understanding of the game, as a game, to the table. It becomes your job to recognize the creatures amd situations that can’t simply be tackled head on with pointy steel and magic. How exactly does my character know which situations require more research and planning? Has he ever faced a werewolf or basilisk before? Who tips him off that this extra planning will be required? Whether the DM cues the party in some fashion or the player applies previous/personal knowledge to the situation the result is the same for me; you are metagaming. If you don’t want that in your game, maybe save or die isn’t for you. If you do enjoy rewarding player skill, a well crafted save or die encounter is an excellent way to challenge, engage and reward that kind of player.

    Personally, I love rolling up PCs and playing the game from a variety of mechanical approaches. I also like player skill and in my own games I reward it. Your approach of making the monster/situation the source for the whole adventure is exactly the kind of play I like. Also, I sometimes get the urge to just throw a PC into a gauntlet to see if I can get it out alive. So the spirit of what save or die brings to the game is right up my alley.

    Of course, I always reserve the right as a DM to switch it off if I implemented it poorly or if it would turn the night into a boring and capricious affair.

  10. Level 1 DM on March 7, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    ““Should save or die be in D&D” is kind of a silly question without some sort of context around it.”

    Questions like this (e.g. the level 1 fighter hit point question) are a sort of gut check question that can’t necessarily be broken down into a few simple poll choices. Sometimes I think that they pose the questions like this to spark this sort of discussion. I hope that 1) they are reading the comments and not just the poll results and 2) you are also sharing this feedback with WOTC

  11. Matthew on March 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Given 5e’s intended modular nature, do you think that its possible to accommodate both the save-or-die version and the hedged version (example below)?

    I’ve run monsters with unique abilities to kill with a touch, even in 4e. Yes, they were introduced much like you recommend, giving players to chance to be coy and resourceful. I know the two types of monsters can run in the same edition.

    Essentials line monster books offer some adventure ideas for special monsters in their entry. What if the adventure ideas came with the save-or-die special powers? What if medusa had a side bar on medusa adventures, with the save-or-die power, and the warnings about its use?

    I don’t think the decision on save-or-die mechanics is all or nothing for 5e. I totally agree that the question by Wizards was over simplified, but I think we can accommodate both versions with a single “red-flagged” ability on a monsters stat block, with a side bar (or adventure ideas) on how to use the monsters.

  12. The Id DM on March 7, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Interesting take on things. My first response, which I do not mean to be dismissive at all, is that D&D Next can feature all of this whether “the system” supports it or not.

    Take 4E, folks have taken the system to a Fourthcore place that features save-or-die traps and monsters. It’s a different flavor of 4E; the DM and group can decide to play that or not. The challenge comes when you attempt to blend play styles.

    I’m running a regular 4E campaign where I’m quite death aversive. Unless the players do something terribly foolish (and it’s almost happened), I’m not trying to kill them. I want them to be challenged and feel like they just were able to pull themselves out of a bad situation. But I don’t want arbitrary deaths; I don’t find that interesting.

    However, I’ve thought about adding that element for a special plotline. For instance, I would establish a quest that would result in a fantastic reward – perhaps an artifact that is well beyond the level of the party. Various NPCs would talk about the dangers of the quest and how it’s likely the party will die. I sometimes have this flavor for routine quests, but I would go OVER THE TOP in terms of the descriptions.

    In this way, the party can decide if they want to take on a more difficult challenge with risk of death – or contine with the normal campaign. I don’t need D&D Next to do this; you can do it in 4E or any other system. The interesting piece will be to see how they set a baseline. The baseline for 4E is scaled encounters with little risk of player death; I imagine D&D Next will have a baseline somewhat closer to greater risk of player death.

  13. Darryl Mott Jr. on March 7, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    I’ve got to say, I’ve never looked at SoD that way before. However, I still don’t like it because the monsters I typically want to use that have it (mind flayers, beholders, any casters powerful enough to have access to “disintegrate”, etc.) are creatures where there is no “go and research a better way to do it”. There isn’t a “trick” to beating a beholder aside from “kill it before it can kill you”. Mind flayers are a bit trickier because you can avoid the SoD just by staying out of its reach, but even then it can zap you with a mind control ray and force you to come over so it can eat your brain.

    So while SoD works in situations like a medusa or basilisk in the way you described, most of the monsters with SoD effects don’t really have anything to do with “run away and find a way around it”. That mentality is more for invulnerabilities (which I also don’t like because then you get metagaming, such was the group taking the left tunnel, finding a hydra that’s immune to fire, then saying “Oh we need to go back because the DM must have put a Wand of Acid Arrow somewhere so we can kill this”, which breaks the suspension of disbelief for the story).

  14. Stephen C on March 7, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I think save or die tends to result in bad GMing. Save or die should be “use it when you’d be willing to say ‘you just die’ but want to be kind”

    But it ends up being treated as just another thing.

    I don’t mind SoDs in DDN as long as they’re in their own section of the Monster Manual with appropriate warnings.

  15. TheAngryDM on March 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Hey Iddy, thanks for coming.

    Your points aren’t unfair, but, here’s the deal: the WotC designers asked a question – should we have save or die effects in D&D Next. They want to know the answer. And my answer is a very extended “yes, if…” or “no, but…”

    And actually, I’m trying to raise the point that save or dies aren’t (or shouldn’t be) about arbitrary deaths. The well-prepared party that handles things right really shouldn’t have to make a save unless they decide to accept that risk. As I said, you don’t walk into a medusa’s cave without a blindfold, a reflective shield, a protection spell, a break enchantment scroll, or a death wish.

    The real question is whether that’s how you want medusa caves to work. Do you want to require that sort of planning, research, and so forth? Or do you want it to be a balanced encounter handled through the normal combat engine? The answer to that question will determine whether or not save or die effects (for monsters) have a place in the game. Now, while I did give my personal opinion (yes, please), my opinion is kind of irrelevant.

    I also have a general aversion to the response: “anyone can add anything they want, so D&D can include everything.” If nothing else, it means they could hand me a blank piece of paper with the D&D logo on top and tell me they’ve given me a game that supports my own unique playstyle. Some assembly required, right?

    Fourthcore, quite frankly, isn’t the best example. In fact, its the example of the amount of work a group of dedicated people put into introducing a playstyle that they didn’t feel 4E supported. Yes, they did it, but they did it precisely because it was something missing from the game.

    On the other hand, I also found 4E really didn’t suit my playstyle. But I didn’t write Angrycore or D&D: Angry Edition. I moved on to different games. So, what the system supports and makes available is not a trivial question. Not everyone is going to take on the work to make the game suit their needs. Some of us will just leave it.

    But again, my point isn’t so much about what D&D Next should or should not include or what’s best. I was trying to dig deeper into the question and figure out what is really at stake.

  16. gc3 on March 7, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Perhaps there should be no save or die effect, that just encourages idiots to take risks. It should be more like “The Medusae turns you to stone if you look at it. Do you want to look at it?”

    “No”

    “Okay, that’s a -10 on your attack score.”

    “Can I use a mirror like Perseus?”

    “Yes, that’s only a -2 on your attack score.”

  17. Alphastream on March 8, 2012 at 1:35 am

    Great post. Great comments. Really thought-provoking. I think I’ll rant a bit.

    I think we are giving classic gamers way too much credit. I really think it was like this:
    – I’m playing a game called D&D in a monty-haul devil-may-care casual way. It’s pretty much a guy running some prepackaged mod or chucking stuff at us they thought was cool. Our characters die for all sorts of stupid/fun reasons (see the fire chute in G3). For G3 specifically, a ton of the enjoyment is totally in our brains because this is new and we are imagining, not because the adventure had massively great concepts or story.
    – Medusa or some other bad thing shows up and drops save or die. If you are lucky you have an awesome time. 3/4 or some-such proportion of people at the table live to tell the tale and think it was fairly cool. The other person isn’t so pleased, but hey, not like in this era we are doing some amazing storytelling.
    – ‘Roll new character, keep going’ is far less of an issue when your PC has no personality and/or didn’t represent your crowning achievement of 10 days work to create some crazy build of which you are really proud.
    – Things like medusas were all over the random encounter tables. It was never some balanced “you must have a mirror, don’t fight this directly thing”. I bought a lot of wolfsbane in AD&D, but I never had it when I needed it. And the random encounter tables didn’t come with wolfsbane. We went up, we swung, some of us died. We had another piece of pizza and swore to always live together in the same home town.

    I think we look back at earlier times and we reminisce and we think mostly about the feel-goods. We convince ourselves that all manner of classic AD&D modes were a rich experience full of story, then end up shocked when we look at them again and find so many empty spaces (which, yes, is partly very cool, but let’s not pretend that was awesome encounter design when viewed by today’s standards). We recall the fun of surviving save or die because of the times we made it, in part because our brains work that way. Or, because in the sense of “back then”, it really did work (such as because our PC was not very special and the campaign wasn’t either, or it was a one-shot experience).

    But, in this modern era we are often playing for story. We are more likely to have a solid backstory and for a campaign to feel much more like a movie than “thinkspace our brains flesh out”. When we go into a room and there is a medusa, we do think we can defeat it like Perseus, but we don’t think that has to involve closing our eyes or going to town for supplies.

    And, fundamentally, it is hard to blend save or die with mechanics to thwart that. Take the classic idea of taking a shield and looking at it to see the medusa rather than looking at her directly. If you can really do that in an encounter then this quickly became a minor thought exercise and now will be a fight with no one turning to stone. Same with wolfsbane, garlic, and the like. It is as easy for this to be no fun as the case where the party just swings and half are turned to stone.

    I’ve had a ton of cases where a PC at the table was irrecoverable. Giant spider in the Moathouse killed a half-orc assassin I really liked. Gargantuan flesh ooze under an antimagic ray in LG almost (unfairly) killed my buddy’s PC that he loved so much. One of the smartest players I know had his LG wizard disintegrated by rolling a nat 1 _three_ times! Pools of acid trap. Read a magical tome for wizards… but I had the wrong alignment, so it killed Ferdinand II – in rebellion I make Ferdinand III. Half-dragon-basilisk peeking one eye out of a pool of water and turns half the party to stone but we can’t see it because the judge is cheating. Ran a table where the assassin critter spends three rounds and attacks the wizard… save failed, dead. Then I watch the sad player because now his PC (if raised) will be behind his buddies in which adventures he can play (and he can’t play enough to keep up). I could go on and on. Maybe it’s because I have to worry about these things when writing adventures, but I find “irrecoverable” death is overrated. Orchestrating it for it to be awesome is just really hard. And I don’t think the solution is a puzzle. I just don’t think it works well outside of one-shots. It is _exactly_ what I want in Tomb of Horrors. And I pretty much want to play Tomb of Horrors no more than once every 10 years or as a Lair Assault / Iron Lich 1-2 hour side game.

    It’s like in Aliens or the Matrix. Not this way. We want a meaningful death… and really, haven’t we earned it? Put a grenade in my hand and let me drop the pin when the big bad shows up. Let me die to power the ritual. Let me storm the dozens of orcs so the other PCs can escape with the artifact. Make it matter.

    Can it work? Maybe. I think that in this day and age there are some really fundamental problems. We want to preserve today’s desire for a story-rich experience (based, in part, on your PC) with our desire for rapid encounter design. We want to have the game be exciting, but feel fair. We want opportunities for horrible challenges, but we also want resources to overcome them – including through smart play. By far the easiest solution is to remove or water down these mechanics. 4E did it right in this respect, and it also provided the flexibility of design to give anything teeth. Consider the medusa with the failed save trigger that finally leads to being turned to stone. Add a medusa controller (or add a theme power to a solo) that forces a PC to re-roll a made save at a penalty. That’s a beautiful power – as DM you can trigger it if and when it will cause the right tension. Or an aura that causes any failed save to count as two – insane, but avoidable – you give the PCs the trigger and let them take the risk. This is the beauty of what 4E did with monster design. It sadly never showed DMs how to use these tools, but the possibilities (while retaining balance) are amazing. I’m not saying we need to stick with 4E, but for this case it is by far my preference for a starting point.

  18. TheAngryDM on March 8, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Alpha, thanks for the kind words and the response. Obviously, I appreciate a good rant as much as anyone. Probably more than most. But… I think some perspective is in order.

    First of all, its easy to say this is all being filtered through the rosy-tinted glasses of nostalgia and that “classic gamers” really didn’t play this way. But that’s kind of a skewed viewpoint. After all, I did play that way. I don’t have much experience with classic modules because, from very early on, I was writing my own adventures. But that’s neither here nor there.

    The fact is, this ‘classic mentality’ was the modern game up until four years ago. 3.5 had the same save or die monsters, Pathfinder still does. And in both of those games, the commitment to a character that takes hours to build, with a personality and backstory, is just as relevant an issue as in 4E. 4E is only four years old. Hardly a classic/modern dichotomy. And I am hardly reminiscing for my fresh-faced, apple-cheeked youth.

    But the thing is, I still agree with you that save or die monsters did end up being random gotchas in the old days and I think that many of us did recognize that as the game evolved, they didn’t work out so well in that respect. Which is why I said it is important to implement them properly in the new edition (if they end up in the new edition). It is important to make them something more than random monsters and flat out tell DMs… well, exactly what I said they should. But we need to distinguish between flawed implementation and flawed mechanics.

    End of the day, though, you don’t like them. Which is fine. As I said, I do. I want them. For the reasons I’ve explained. If they are done right. With the understanding that they are less about pure monsters and lethality and more about something special and different. You and I can differ there and it doesn’t change anything I’ve said.

    Because my whole, long thesis is still: “if you want them, this is what point they should serve and this is how to do them; if you don’t want that as part of the game, you probably don’t want save or die spells.”

    I’ll tell you the truth: in my personal, unqualified opinion, the 4E approach bores the shit out of me. I don’t find the monster design beautiful. I find it too damned focussed on making every encounter into a combat. Five on five, toe-to-toe, slug it out with powers. All of the neat things monsters and PCs can do doesn’t change the fact that the implied structure of 4E is that everything can be resolved with two groups of people kicking the shit out of each other on the battlefield. I’ll still run 4E as a one shot, or as an occasional diversion. But after trying to keep several long-term campaigns going over the last three or four years, it doesn’t hold my interest in the long run. And TO ANYONE READING THIS, if you want to tell why my opinion is wrong, it won’t get you very far. Because nothing you say will change the fact that I wasn’t having fun. So don’t bother. I’ll probably just delete your comment.

    But that’s not why I wrote this. Thing is, as much as I want to be playing and loving D&D Next and as much as I want to be part of the conversation, I also accept the fact that my opinions may not be the majority opinions. I will be fine if D&D Next comes out and it isn’t for me. There are loads of other games I could play and I still have all my previous D&D editions as well. Yes, my opinion is in there, but it takes a back seat to the bigger question of: “why might we want save or die” or “why might we want to get rid of it.”

    Basically, I wanted to expand the question that WotC posed, provide what I thought was some much needed context, and give everyone the chance to think through their opinions from another angle.

  19. Christopher Hackler on March 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I think that save or die effects in the game are fine, just almost never in the character’s hands. Over the course of a career a character might be exposed to a few save or die effects and even then they would receive fair warning. If it is called the Slaying Stone and all tales talk of its powers of destruction then you are warned. Characters shouldn’t open a door take two steps and be subject to a save or die effect. That sort of encounter building is grinding.

  20. Alphastream on March 9, 2012 at 2:35 am

    Hi Angry! To be really clear, my rant wasn’t a rant on you, just really more of a deluge of ideas I had in my head. I don’t have any vehement disagreement, just thoughts feeding off of what had been said by all people that posted here (and often in agreement).

    That’s a really good thought around flawed mechanics vs flawed implementation. And I agree that Wizards needs to own the implementation as well. That was a big 4E problem, right? Especially at the beginning, the rules caused a flawed implementation. Boring grind and no story or RP really became the perception for some and hurt the game. Similarly, across all the editions Save or Die has often been fun for its shock value, but has been difficult to terrible in execution. 3E, for example, was too often just a momentary setback. Lose 4 levels, cast a spell to get them back. Ability damage? Yep, a spell for that. Poison, paralysis, disease… all just momentary setbacks. Not of high enough level? Now they become incredible hindrances… few want to play the rest of the adventure with a 4 Con.

    It isn’t that I don’t like save or die, because I’m actually all for putting them in a game, but it is just an area that is problematic and too often will play poorly. We can look at how often Tomb of Horrors is mentioned and realize that there is both potential and attraction here. At the same time, there are relatively few adventures like that – especially favorite adventures. Ravenloft, for all its “horror” is a favorite for story and characterization and feel. Pharaoh is full of traps… but not remembered for death traps. Against the Giants, Drow series, etc. Tomb is in part remembered because it was the anomaly. It was the _different_ experience. Lair Assault and Fourthcore (both are awesome) are in some ways reactions to the balance of 4E (some would say lack of teeth), but they are as much popular as they are influences and ways to get a change.

    D&D Next will be stronger if it can figure out the problem of having classic swingy challenge elements while retaining most of 4E’s balance and fairness. Wizards is clearly looking at possible tweaks, which is great. Hopefully the final version will consider the discussion and end up in a very good place. I think the hit point idea is a good exploration, but not the right mechanic. The idea is sound, however. Have the threat, have the story, but find the balance so the result isn’t absolutely arbitrary and often unfair and story-poor.

  21. ProfessorCirno on March 9, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    My take is that if SoDs are designed to be “traps” then they should actually be designed as such. If SoDs are simply an ability a monster can use, they should be designed as an ability that comes up in a fight, not a one hit kill puzzle. If a medusa is meant to kill you on the spot, then don’t design the medusa as yet another monster to kill.

    The problem with trying to do both a’la 3e is that you end up with the innocculation problem, where SoDs become little more then a scaling war between the DM and the Players. The Players find more and more immmunities to protect them, the DM searches for more and more obscure ways to hit them, and so on and so forth. I can’t think of anything that reduces the “shock and horror” more of a supposed one hit kill ability then the players having a patchwork set of immunities to anything they encounter. Furthermore, this renders the SoD entirely meaningless – if “preparation” ends the puzzle, then there isn’t a puzzle to begin with!

    The thing with the 4e method is that it induces a very different type of drama then the one-hit kill type does. The one-hit kill SoD is a shock scare. Someone jumps out and yells “BOO!” and you stumble backwards. But the 4e method is a slow, tense, creeping scare. Every turn it gets worse. Every failed save you are very literally one very large step closer to death. It takes the “shock” if a single roll and drags it out over several, so that your allies have a chance to get really scared and scramble to help you and kill the medusa before it hits them, too.

  22. Ye Olde RPG Link Roundup | Tyth.net on March 9, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    […] A discussion of lethality and “save or die” effects in D&D that brings up some interesting points – don’t just charge the medusa! […]

  23. spotmarkedx on March 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    I think I like the concept of “save or death” or “save or become a statue” or the like, but I don’t like the implementation as it stands at the moment. Hopefully I can express my feelings on this clearly:

    1> With respect to “in game warnings”. I find there is a lot of room for miscommunication here. For example, and not to pick on anyone, but above a commenter made an example of a “Slaying Stone and all tales talk of its powers of destruction” and how the players would be foolish not to pick up on this. But what does this mean as a player? If the player is not on the same wavelength as the DM, this short description can mean anything from “save or death” to “this will be a hard fight at the end of which you might have some kind of artifact that will power your character up in some undefined way”. How is this Slaying Stone different from Conan the Slayer, who is certainly awesome, but does not throw around any save or dies? If the DM describes an ogre that attacked the front gates of a town, and the arrows bounced off his ugly hide, is he talking about a really high AC, or some form of damage reduction? There is a lot of room for one side believing they are saying one thing, but the other party hearing a different message.

    2. With respect to player knowledge. So, as a player, you come across the statuary garden. All the statues seem well crafted and extremely lifelike! Some seem horrified, some seem to be readying to fight… How many people already know that I am talking about a medusa or a basilisk? Did anyone miss this? No? That is a problem in my eyes. I think save or death is something that loses a lot of tension when the players immediately can bring out their blindfolds and mirrors. As said above, a lot of the coolness about the stories of the medusa or similar effects was the adventure and story of finding the weakness – the fact that the hero and only the hero had the foresight or wisdom or luck to find the tool to beat the enemy. Otherwise, you are just effectively running an enemy that has a 50% miss chance or has a +5 to defenses or whatever the blindness equivalent is. The players already know what the countermeasure is, so there is no real investigation necessary. It just is a question of “does the party have [countermeasure]?” If yes, this fight is easy/defeatable. If no, this fight is hard or undefeatable until they regroup and go get [countermeasure].

    So how would I solve this? Part 1 is always hard since this will depend on the DM, not the game. Put hard advice around these kinds of abilities about the necessity of players understanding that you are talking about Awesome Powers of Killing, and not just awesome powers of killing. But even with excellent advice, wording can always be subjective. Believe me, I’ve been in groups where what the DM says is not what one or two of the players heard. It can create some tension when the world-views collide. Adding save or death on this can escalate this kind of issue.

    Part 2 I have at least some answer for that would be in the purview of the designers. I think I would remove any save or die from the monster manual completely. I don’t know if I would even have medusa with a petrification – maybe just make her a snake girl that is really good with a bow. I’d add save or death powers as templates, with advice on how to build up to a save or death power. Advice on weaknesses that can be exploited. Advice on how to both start players on the path of discovering the weakness as well as setting up the adventure to get the required mirrored shield or silver weapon equivalent. However, I would put it freeform enough that it is always the players in character that find out how to win, not the players figuring out ways that their characters would find out the weakness that they already know about. Maybe the next medusa turns people into stone by looking at them (so closing your eyes is pointless), but the power doesn’t work if she hears beautiful music.

    Put another way, what if vampire weaknesses were not known? You fight this hideous monster of the night, defeat him, but he always shows up the next night, no matter what you do? The story of you desparately fighting against an enemy that knows you a little better each time you fight him, while poring over musty lore – some correct and some incorrect? That is a story that would stick in your mind. The story of you defeating a vampire and then looking for the nearest tree limb to turn into a stake? No more compelling than defeating a tough orc chieftain, even if you have to fight the vampire twice (once without stakes, and once with stakes, garlic, and holy water).

  24. McClaud on June 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I just wanted to comment on one of spotmarkedx’s comments before I move on to my opinion:

    “How is this Slaying Stone different from Conan the Slayer, who is certainly awesome, but does not throw around any save or dies?”

    Maybe I misunderstood this comment, but if you’re referring to Conan the Barbarian type characters, just remember in all of the stories, when Conan ran into a potentially lethal monster/demon/sorcerer that could best him, he turned around and RAN AWAY. Conan did not go toe-to-toe with impossible odds 90% of the time. I think we were mislead by movies to think that Conan was a huge, awesome warrior who could hack apart all his foes. In the books, not so much. More often than not, his companions died a horrible death while he made a fighting retreat, closing the tomb and never actually getting the fabled treasure that he was promised. Or he out-thought the enemy strategically and turned the tables using his environment, not his sword.

    I think the problem I saw coming from 4E – and then was proved to be correct after having played it and watching others try and hold campaigns – was the attitude towards balance. In my 26 years playing RPGs of all kinds, having things unbalanced is inherent in some of the best RPGs. Let me repeat that – just balancing a game does NOT make it fundamentally better. What it makes is bring a sense of false fairness to the game. That everyone is working for a PC win, and that a PC win is always the best outcome in the game. That is utterly untrue – being challenged in a game is the best outcome of the game, and if you lose because the odds ran against you, even as you tried your hardest, that’s part of the game. Satisfaction comes from trying your best despite the unbalanced world you live in. And if you win, that’s icing on the cake.

    So I’m on your side, Angry. I agree that the real question about save or die creatures is why are we talking about it? Are they looking for a way to make the ultimate RPG through balancing hard mechanics like save or die? Because if they are, it will fall short. What is the final desire of the developer? How are they going to make a bunch of rules that DMs can either keep or ditch fun enough to keep people playing?

    4E fell short. A lot of people realized this after trying campaigns. I think mostly because risk stopped being a factor when things became overly balanced. You don’t have to ask me, either – ask Mike Krahulik or a dozen other new DMs out there who abandoned 4E after a year because it relied too heavily on balance and not enough on substance.

  25. Jon on March 18, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    You’re talking about monsters-as-puzzles, which was the primary challenge of d&d up to mid second edition. After that, character building was the primary challenge, and to some degree, 4e refocused on team tactics, but that’s all digression.

    Monsters as puzzles is a hallmark of original and first Ed play. I started on original in middle school, and you had to solve a monster puzzle every adventure at least once. Heck, Zanzer’s dungeon had a white dragon (spoiler alert). Trolls are a classic example, too.

    I agree those monsters are fun, but they require an almost adversarial DM / player relationship. A party that doesn’t know about the fire and acid thing that meets a troll is totally f’ed. And back in 1991, when you rolled with the master set, you just got killed. Over and over. Until you solved it.

    Once character building was the challenge, the knowledge roll revealed how to kill the troll and the wizard had made sure to keep a diverse damage type portfolio, so he took care of the troll. Now that 4e focused on team tactics its more about beating a soldier type monster. But look up the 4e troll, will ya! You still need fire or acid to kill it. But like 3rd Ed, you can get that info with a knowledge roll. Monster knowledge rolls sort of take the fun out of the puzzle monster encounter :(

  26. dWintermute on August 29, 2013 at 3:19 am

    There’s another vital use for monsters-as-puzzles and monsters-as-instant-death: Walls.

    If you don’t want your players chasing the bad guy through the swamp JUST YET, or want to give him a head start, throw a herb of catoblepas on the riverbank, they’ll detour around and it’ll become a chase not an acid arrow in the back.

    If you’re doing a “massive dungeon” campaign like one under Mystera City to find the Nucleus of the Spheres or another huge level 1-20 dungeon setting– keeping the players from sequence breaking themselves into unwinnable fights is a great use of the SoD monster.

    You need a range of walls in a game like that, not EVERY tunnel can be flooded until they find the everful ewer someone tipped over on level 14, and not every door can require the high priest’s signet ring that they can only find in the abandoned temple of Lloth…

  27. Patrick on September 28, 2014 at 12:39 am

    Late to the party here, but I haven’t yet heard any reason why “puzzle monsters” require save-or-die mechanics. Use a “just plain die” mechanic. It’s faster, accomplishes the same thing, and avoids misleading the players into thinking they can fight the monster straight up.

    Think of it this way. Suppose you’re in charge of developing the lava rules for 5e. You have three proposals in front of you.

    Proposal 1: If you fall in lava, take a giant pile of damage that will easily kill you. Save for half.
    Proposal 2: If you fall in lava, make a save or die.
    Proposal 3: If you fall in lava, you die, no save.

    If we all agree the goal is to make a puzzle with a solution that reads “don’t fall in lava,” these all lead to the same place.

    Now apply this to the medusa fight. You don’t even need rules for her medusa gaze, besides this- if you fight her with your eyes open and no special countermeasures, you die. If you have a countermeasure (mirrored shield, eyes shut, etc), go for it. Done.

    The ONLY reason to use a save-or-die effect on a puzzle monster is if you want the puzzle to be MORE forgiving- if you want the players to be able to stare down the medusa and live 25% of the time or whatever.

    • Dan on September 28, 2014 at 1:07 am

      You’re right, I think it’s largely an artifact of AD&D having very few non-die-mechanic anything.

      It also does allow for some alternate puzzle solutions: you can load up on save buffs and fight with a small chance of dying, embrace the gimmick and have a very low chance, or go in straight-up and have a high chance.

      Also remember the glory days of SoD were AD&D where there was no such thing as “damage type” so the type of save often defined the nature of the attack: Petrification, death, paralyzation, etc.

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