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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why Save or Die Works

People occasionally say they dislike "save or die" mechanics. The latest example is either Mike Mearls or Monte Cook, in a recent WotC article; I haven't read it, so I'm just going by blogger buzz that it is, in fact, the case. The usual reason given is: a high-level character can be suddenly laid low by a single rattlesnake bite, exactly as if the character were a measly 1st level flunky. It's unheroic. (I've even seen the same feelings expressed about "static armor classes" that don't improve with character level.)

I like save or die for exactly that reason. I could call "realism!" but it's really a matter of maintaining a minimum threat level. With save or die rules as written, absolutely anyone can die at any time. You can't become blasé about adventuring just because you've amassed a bunch of hit poiuts; you have to take precautions and play wisely.

Some people would prefer to ignore low-level threats after they've proved themselves worthy, so that they can just focus on "boss" monsters. I suppose they can play however they want, as long as they don't take up a contradictory position, like complaining about 10th level fighters walking away from 100-foot falls.


  1. I think death always needs to be a threat in D&D. If not, then why even play the game?

    Besides, most high level PC's have access to Raise Dead and Neutralize Poison and things like that. So really, I don't have any sympathy for the position that Save or Die encounters are too rough. :)

  2. Save or die is a huge part of the game as any veteran old schooler knows, taking it away to me is ridiculous. As to why many don't like it, my theory is video games. Many players are used to dying and restarting, dying and restarting. This is a video game mechanic and not an rpg mechanic.

  3. Interestingly, the example Mike Mearls uses in that article as a legit save or die effect is Tiamat. (He is proposing mitigating effects for "smaller" save or die threats like giant spiders.) This leads me to believe that he is objecting to non-scary monsters being able to one-shot PCs, but not to scary monsters having that ability (presumably because players will be more careful around the "boss" monsters). I investigate this idea more in my most recent blog post, but in short I think it comes down to providing players with information to avoid or prepare for such threats. So I don't think the anxiety comes necessarily from players objecting to high-level characters being laid low.

  4. I have real trouble both with the 100' fall thing and the "pincushion" effect of high HP vs missile fire, where you can re-enact the martyrdom of st. Sebastien and survive - and I can see that given this situation in high-level DnD, save or die seems inconsistent. It all raises the old, troublesome questions: "what are hit points?" and "what genre does high-level emulate? How can we set appropriate expectations for players?"

    But all of this is about deciding the physics of genres. The fastest gunslinger is always one duel away from that kid who catches them off guard. But Conan shouldn't be killed by a mook. So I think it's contentious exactly because people don't agree on what genre they're playing in. IOW, it's a personal question for your camaign.

  5. The falling damage thing, despite all the controversy it seems to generate, has always been a non-issue for me. In a case where it seems like almost certain death, it should probably be a save or die situation. 1dN damage per ten feet always seemed like a solution for pit traps, not a general mechanic (and certainly not something that a player should be able to calculate probabilities based on).

    Regarding the pincushion effect: who is to say that all of those arrows are hitting in the physical sense? Some can be dodged due to luck or deflected and still cost HP, assuming one has a somewhat abstract conception of HP. I think we all do by now, right?

    Actually, I do think Conan should be killable by a mook. The reason he is not in the novels is not, in my opinion, because he is a hero, but because they are novels, which are a different art form. Unless the author of the novel is rolling dice to determine outcomes, it is impossible for an author to be impartial. This is a strength of tabletop RPGs. They can actually be impartial.

    Your key point, in my opinion, is: How can we set appropriate expectations for players? Like you, I think this always comes down to the individual social contract of the campaign.

  6. @Brendan; thanks for sharpening this up again for me - so if hit points are really luck points then why have another luck mechanic in the form of saving throws?

    Sorry, I'm really tired right now and got into an OT debate. In fact I'm pro some cases of save or die, and for most of the gaming I've done getting hit with an axe has also been a save or die situation.

  7. @Brendan, Richard: Of course, I only brought up falling damage to emphasize that I've heard people complain about the unfairness of save or die and the unrealistic nature of falling damage, sometimes in the same breath.

    But my own solution to falling damage, which I mentioned before, is add specific injuries based on doubles, triples, and quadruples when rolling damage. The number rolled on each matching die is a hit location, the number of matches indicates injury level (injured, very injured, crippled/lost.) Quadruple 6s rolled on falling damage is a Very Bad Thing.

    But there's a side issue you've raised that probably deserves its own post.