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.