26 September 2017

Campaign Mood - Save or Die and Game Lethality, Old School vs New

This is a revision and expansion of a post originally appearing here on the 7th of March, 2012. The links to D&D 5e playtesting articles on WotC's site are sadly outdated and dead.

This week (1st week of March, 2012) on WotC's site, the topics of discussion are Save or Die traps/monster abilities and Deadly Dice (the lethality of the game mechanics in general and whether character death is a good or bad thing). We'll start with the first topic, raised by Mike Mearls.

First, a bit of context (Following quotes are from Mike Mearls):
      First, to give you some insight into where I'm coming from, I take the idea of approaching the entirety of D&D's history very seriously. I'm about to start a new D&D campaign at the office, and I'm using the 1981 basic D&D rules as a starting point. As I plan the campaign and (eventually) run adventures, I plan on making house rules, adopting rules from other editions, and shifting the rules to match how the game moves along. In some ways, it's a reality check against the ideas I see proposed for the next iteration. Would I want them in my campaign? Do they work for my group?
He takes the task of understanding old school D&D so seriously that he intends to house rule and "frankenstein" the rules from day one, to create something that works for his group? That's fine and dandy for tailoring the game to your group, but it does almost nothing to advance an understanding of the old school game and what makes it special and unique. To me this is just more rulebook dropping to try and appeal to old school gamers who've abandoned more recent versions of the game, but anyway...
     If you came to D&D with 4th Edition, you might not have heard someone say "save or die." It dates back to the earliest days of the game, where some traps, monster attacks, and spells required a successful saving throw or the hapless target was instantly killed, turned to stone, reduced to a pile of dust, and so forth.
     The save or die effect represents an interesting point in D&D mechanics. On one hand, fighting a critter with a save or die attack is tense and exciting. Or at least, it can be. A good DM makes a fight like this into something that can grow into a gaming legend over the years. Players will remember how their characters valiantly fended off attacks and either hoped for lucky rolls or came up with a cunning plan to defeat or avoid the critter.
     On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. With a few dice rolls, the evening could screech to a halt as the vagaries of luck wipe out the party. A save or die situation can also cause a cascade effect. Once the fighter drops, the rest of the party's inferior AC and saving throws can lead to a TPK.
 I think this description of Save or Die (SoD) effects in the game is fairly simplistic, and overlooks one major component of a successful game; a good DM. While yes, the rules as written do provide for the scenarios that Mike mentions, I think a big assumption on the part of the designers was that a) players were playing their characters cautiously, with an almost paranoid approach to exploring, searching for traps, engaging new and mysterious monsters, etc. A good DM will reward this type of play and allow the careful player to usually avoid having to make that dreaded SoD die roll in the first place.

A thief who meticulously checks for traps before opening doors and chests, charging brazenly down a hallway or prying dust covered treasures from their resting places will have a very good chance of avoiding the SoD situation. A fair DM might even grant a small bonus to the save if it ends up being required if the PC has taken proper or extraordinary precautions.

Likewise, a party that carefully approaches impending combat can often pick up clues to the nature of deadly attack forms. Take the medusa as an example, her gaze means certain "death" for a low level party unequipped to reverse petrification. However, in almost all medusa encounters I've seen published in adventures, she doesn't charge out to attack without warning. The party gets a brief chance to observe her lair, noting the "exquisitely carved" statues of humans, demihumans and humanoids with looks of abject fear on their faces. Medusa lore isn't all that obscure, and observant players should expect something nasty. If the DM follows up with a first glimpse of the medusa herself in the form of a shadow or reflection she casts that is visible by the PCs, even better. Perseus knew the legend, we can assume similar folklore exists in a fantasy world regarding such a terrible beast and give the PCs a chance to know and act on what they've heard as bedtime tales as kids.

Mike goes on to comment in a generic sense on the pros and cons of SoD mechanics, and offer a "fix", where PCs with high hit point totals can avoid instand death and, I assume, just take some damage. Sounds good, except that it punishes low low characters and fixes nothing. High level PCs have access to Stone to Flesh, Remove Paralysis, and even Raise Dead type magics. They do not need protection from instant death mechanics. If you're opposed to instant death, SoD type situations, just remove them, don't reinforce the problem with a well intention but ineffective band aid.

Monte Cook's column on Deadly Dice, the lethality of the game, segues from Mike's discussion into a more general discussion of how deadly the game should be, or whether PC death should factor into the game at all.
      The play-by-the-rules level of lethality in the game has changed a lot over the years. The general trend has been to make the game less lethal overall, although an argument could be made that the game has become slightly more lethal at the higher levels since it was more common to end up with an unkillable (unchallengeable) character at the upper levels in older editions.
 This is really a non-point. Most, if not all lamentations of the lethality of the game are focused on low level characters. 1st to 3rd level characters in Classic D&D or AD&D 1st edition can be, as Monte goes on to note, a dime a dozen. Death waits around every corner, and making it to middle and high levels is an accomplishment.
     I remember way back in the earliest days of the game how someone told me that people didn’t even bother naming their characters in their campaign until 2nd level because there was so little chance that a 1st-level character would survive. As silly as that might sound, the feeling of accomplishment at surviving such a lethal game, even for a little while, must have been great.
Exactly! It does feel great. In the first campaign I played in, a typical dungeon crawl in the Caves of Chaos, the minotaur and owlbear caves vexed us. Our party of 4 players, no henchmen, went through a total of 14 characters before we bested both foes, with my thief PC being the sole survivor when the minotaur finally fell! I'll remember that win for as long as I play the game! When death is not only possible, but fairly likely, surviving and conquering the challenges is a big deal.

Of course, one could argue that the D&D game isn’t about feelings of accomplishment. It’s about creating characters and developing fantasy stories. Characters perhaps shouldn’t die unless circumstances dictate it, rather than when the dice go against them.
I don't buy this argument one bit. I love story and role playing as much as anyone. Heck, I probably put a lot more value in it that most other old school and "OSR" players do. But, here's the BIG POINT, the story evolves as the game unfolds. The game does not get twisted and bent out of shape to cater to whatever amateur novella I'm trying to pass off on my players as the new campaign.

Besides, this is heroic swords and sorcery fantasy. Death is every much a part of the story as life and victory. Death snatched Thorin Oakenshield from the seat of victory. Boromir fell, giving his companions more focus and motivation. Sirius Black and Obi Wan Kenobi died, inspiring their proteges to buck up, face their fates and conquer evil. If there is no death, or at least no real chance of death, you aren't playing a game, you're not even really telling a story, you're just mentally masturbating about how cool and powerful and untouchable your pet character is. Put the dice down and start a D&D fanfic blog!

There is another component of the shift toward "invincible" PCs in the game. The impact of video games on the hobby.

In most video games, there are save points, reloads, respawns, or some other mechanics to allow you to return to where you left off, or close to it, in the event that your character dies. To me, the need to import this mechanic into a table top rpg is based on flawed thinking.

In a video game, at least early on, and somewhat still in single player console games, the whole venture is a solo quest. While you may have a party of a handful of characters, there is generally only one player. If the game never lets you die, it quickly becomes boring. On the other hand, if you have to start over every time, the game becomes tedious to the point of frustration and quitting, considering that some modern games have hundreds of hours of play time.

Even in newer, multiplayer games, such as the World of Warcraft mmorpg, having to start over at level 1 every time your "guy" dies would ruin the fun, since you're part of a guild of players who will continue on if they didn't die. The game simply can't adapt to having a low level character running around with a bunch of high level characters without killing the new guy every time a monster shows up.

D&D and table top rpgs in general have a unique feature that all video games lack. A DM. The DM can tweak things to fit a replacement character back into the action. Or variant rules such as Hackmaster RPG's mentor/protege system can be used to make the replacement character something more than a 1st level whelp. An existing henchman or NPC ally can be promoted to full PC'hood. etc. The flexibility of the rules means that one, or even all of the characters dying does not mean that the entire story has to end and reboot from the start.

Even when we suffered a TPK delving the Caves of Chaos, the overall story continued. We found the bodies of our doomed predecessors. We heard tales of their fate from bards and travelers, etc. The story moved along, and we stepped back into it.


  1. "Besides, this is heroic swords and sorcery fantasy. Death is every much a part of the story as life and victory."

    Well, no. It isn't.
    At least not in the way it affects PCs.

    Thorin Oakenshield was not a PC. He was a patron. Bilbo was the PC.
    Boromir was not a PC. He was an NPC on the same quest. The four Hobbits were the PCs.
    Sirius Black and Obi-Wan Kenobi were not PCs. They were NPC mentors. Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione were the PCs for the one, Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie the PCs for the other.
    All the NPCs did their job in the story - dying to demonstrate a point or provoke one of the PCs to advance in the plot.
    Meanwhile, the PCs survived things from riddle-or-die puzzles, to save-or-die spider venom, multiple lethal spells, and assorted death traps, again, and again, and again.

    Which highlights one of the (numerous) problems with trying to "convert" the "inspirational" reading into the game - the rules just are not the same for protagonists (PCs) as they are for supporting cast (NPCs) and antagonists (encounters).

    To really reflect such things, the DM should be converting save-or-dies into save-or-lose-the-encounters for PCs, with save-or-suck for prominent NPCs, with save-or-dies for secondary NPCs (including mentors and employers) and most monsters, with a limited number of end bosses getting the supervillain treatment of "ambiguous" deaths.
    THAT is "inspirational reading" style, which is, despite claims otherwise, distinct from "adapted wargame" style.

    Of course that handwaves the issue of players who don't even want to deal with save-or-lose-the-encounter situations, getting bent out of shape even with save-or-suck effects that put them out of a single encounter or the remainder of a single adventure.

    1. Players that whine about any potential hardship aren't players, they are amateur fan fiction authors.

  2. I actually agree with save or lose being a useful compromise a lot of the time, but once in a while, I think the tension of a Save or Die check is fun. I'm not sadistic about it though, there is almost always a series of hints that something BAD awaits the uncautious here.

  3. I liked how 4E handled Save or Die effects (contrary to the quoted text, it actually sort of had them): instead of it being a single save, they're always presented as sequence of saves.

    So, a Medusa's glare is a save vs. being Slowed; then take a save every turn, until the PC succeeds: the first time they fail, they're Immobilized and the second time, they're petrified.

    Broadly, it's pretty forgiving: a fairly difficult initial save, then a better-than-even chance of not getting worse... but I like the idea of an effect that would otherwise be save-or-die instead getting progressively worse over the course of a few turns. Rolling more dice makes players feel as if they have a bit more control over the outcome, and smearing the effect over a few turns gives them the ability to get a last few actions in before they're down.

  4. Death need not be instantaneous either! A heroic death, where the hero is stricken with a mortal wound or effect, but lives long enough to finish the battle or quest... now THAT is inspirational!

    A yellow mold death was inevitable, but the player lived long enough to finish the game session and pass on her effects to others, sacrificing her final hp to save another from death.


Thanks for your comments!