Friday, June 19, 2009

Save or Die

The combination of Vladimir the dwarf's death due to poison and my recent dissatisfaction with S&W's saving throw mechanic has gotten me to think a bit more about "save or die" effects specifically and saving throws generally. My default presumption nowadays is that "the dice don't lie," which is my way of saying that, most of the time, random rolls result in a much more interesting "story" than any I could plan beforehand. That is, if "story" is what happens after the fact, once the players acquire some distance on events and retell them later, then a random element can't possibly "destroy" it. Those random elements are just additional events that the players can describe after the fact, imputing to them meaning and relevance that they didn't, at the time, possess.

Consequently, I have no problem with killing a character based on a single random dice roll. What's interesting, though, is that a saving throw vs. some death-dealing effect is rarely the only thing a player can do to save his character. In my experience, to be in the position of having to make a Hail Mary roll like that, the player already has to have made one or more bad decisions -- or at least that's how it ought to be. In the aforementioned case of Vladimir, the players all knew from previous experience that the dungeon was filled with molds and fungi that released poisonous spores if disturbed. And yet, when finding an entire room covered in the stuff, a room that included mold-encrusted human skeletons to boot, Vladimir nevertheless ventured forth, torch in hand, to try and rid the room of its fungal infestation.

I take the term "saving throw" literally. It's a player's last chance to save his character after having made a poor decision. Without it, Vladimir would simply have died when he set the torch to the fungi. Instead, he got a chance not to suffer for the mistake he made. To my way of thinking, that's fair and even generous -- one might even say "heroic." After all, if I were to enter a room filled with poison gas, I'd probably die almost instantly. But then I'm not a resilient D&D character, never mind a dwarf counting on his race's resistance to poison to save him in the event things turned ugly. Normal guys like me don't tend to get saving throws when we do stupid and dangerous things, but adventurers do; that's what makes the adventurers.

I readily grant that the way I handle "save or die" moments may not be the norm and probably never was. As I interpret the rules, though, a saving throw is intended as a check against player stupidity, a final "objective" opportunity for a player character to survive even though, by all rights, he shouldn't. It's not unlike a 1st-level character who decides to take on an ogre (a 4+1 HD creature). Chances are the character is going to be slaughtered, but the dice might roll in such a way as to turn this foolhardy attack into a glorious victory against the odds rather than into the ignominious defeat it deserves to be.

I'm lucky in that my Dwimmermount players have all very nicely internalized the old school way of playing: they're cautious, methodical, even a little underhanded in the way they approach most problems. Consequently, they've avoided lots of situations where they might well have died, or at least where they'd have had to make saving throws to avoid doing so. That's why, so far, there's only been one PC death. Frankly, I'm rather proud of them. I certainly take pleasure in watching them puzzle things out and "beat" me at my own game. I don't want to kill their characters, but I will if they do something that, by either the rules or the logic of the game world, ought to kill them.

They all know this and accept it and that probably explains why they make such a concerted effort to avoid making foolish mistakes -- just as it should be.

22 comments:

  1. I like your thought on the save being the last attempt of a PC trying to save itself from stupidity.

    I am also a fan of characters suffering from their mistakes. Generally in my game there is no set story since the group will somehow find a way to completely circumvent or avoid anything I spend more than 30min writing up.

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  2. I agree 100%. In fact, I don't see the point of playing a game where the risk of my character's demise isn't very real. If it weren't, we might as well just tell each other a story about how awesome our characters are and what great things they do. -Bleh.

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  3. I love your interpretation of the saving throw, James. And I agree with completely.

    I don't know why, but a lot of players (even several in my own game group, unfortunately) assume that the old axiom "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword" is not in force in role playing games. Consequently, they approach every encounter as a straight-forward combat exercise. I find I'm often chastising my players for "thinking with their swords." I'd kill to have a group of old school gamers who understand that combat should be the final option, not the only one.

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  4. I generally agree.

    However, I find that all too often in actual play save or die gets perverted. For example, the PCs might enter a combat with a randomly encountered medusa that can turn them to stone if they fail a save.

    Ideally, there would be some warning of such an encounter; either there would be a rumor in the tavern, or there'd be some odd statuary, or some sort of reasonable recon could have ascertained the nature of the possible threat. If the players choose to proceed without protection or intelligence collection, so be it.

    But, all too often, the GM just throws one in randomly as a surprise with no forewarning and rubs his hands in glee as PCs get stoned (or level drained with a wight; or slimed by green slime falling from nowhere; or crushed by instant death cave ins from nowhere, etc). This isn't as much a rules problem as it is a DM problem, but its a common enough DM problem that it probably deserves some rules to soften its impact.

    Ideally DMs don't suck, but we all know that there's a bell curve for most things and the bell curve has a big meaty part!

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  5. To paraphrase a famous review, if the dice didn't lie, then you'd only ever roll "This game sucks, Beavis" when playing FATAL.

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  6. The dice in my current game create such interesting and desperate straits for everyone in such a roller coaster effect that most combats or crazy athletic stunts often result in crushing damages or terrible fumbles that splay PCs and NPCs prone before their enemies.

    Yues, despite this 'fact', I have one player who provokes Fate rather a lot, but so far, has always just managed to scrape-by.

    I do believe there is an oracular nature at work in the expression of the dice.

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  7. Once I DM'd a game in which the players uniformly "cheated" on their die rolls. It was an interesting phenomenon, and I figured it was telling me something - they wanted to get away with stuff, they weren't so interested in the creative possibilities of dice-related failure. Maybe they wanted their egos stroked, or some escapism that involved runaway success. I let them do it, and they had fun. Some folks would think I was being immoral in some way, more might protest that the game wasn't as interesting as it could have been. Perhaps. I don't know if it mattered, though.

    Here's a question that does perplex me: do/should you allow "save vs common sense," as a method for warning your players that they're planning something that you find obviously foolish? It might be that they're not thinking, it might be that you and they have different ideas about their characters' capabilities, it might be that you haven't described the situation adequately. So what - does it destroy the nature of the activity if you break the 4th wall in this way?

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  8. Although I am a huge fan of letting the dice roll as they may, and death being the effect of that, I dislike "Save or Die".

    I instead prefer to deal damage. As deadly as poison nerve gas is..is it MORE deadly than being hit in the neck by a 20 foot tall giant wielding a razor sharp bit of metal taller than you? Training videos while working with industrial machines tell me no.


    Its a minor gripe though, save vs 30 damage will still probably result in a death, but it "Feels" better to me.

    Just a personal preference.

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  9. @richard
    "Here's a question that does perplex me: do/should you allow "save vs common sense," as a method for warning your players that they're planning something that you find obviously foolish?"

    In cases where I, as the GM, believe the character would have better (and more intelligent) insight than the person playing the character, I have them do a INT or WIS check (depending on the possible source of that knowledge).

    I'm a huge fan of letting the dice fall where they may.

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  10. "Death is the mother of Beauty; hence from her, Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams And our desires-- Wallace Stevens

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  11. I don't agree at all with your interpretation, James. True, sometimes players make unwise decisions and a saving throw is required depending on the situation. In general, though, there are plenty of attacks that require saving throws and it has nothing to do with poor player decisions. Get bitten by a poisonous spider? Save versus poison. An evil wizard casts a spell at you? Save versus spells. Saves are a defense, but not necessarily a bandaid for players who do dumb things. Now, I could buy your interpretation if through the history of D&D there was just one save that was basically a luck roll, but that is just a house rule from Swords & Wizardry, and I don't think it should be confused with how things traditionally work. Most of the time each save is interpreted to cover a kind of situation. Breath weapons reflect literal dragon breath but also the ability to take cover. Spells reflect the ability to resist magic. Wands may reflect ability to dodge. Death and poison reflect an ability to resist toxins or survive deadly effects. Paralysis and petrification reflect the ability to resist stun and other things that may affect the nervous system. This isn't just my interpretation, either. IMHO and all that.

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  12. Dan,

    I actually have another post coming up where I talk about the kinds of saves you're discussing here.

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  13. Not speaking of other affects, but I always thought of dying if missing a poison save was always a bit of a rip-off. So I usually base damage on the hit dice of the creature involved (although giving small very poisonous bugs bonus'), and let the damage pan out over several rounds.

    Now, poison from some giant thing like the building-size scorpion from Arduin should probably kill you if you fail.

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  14. Ideally DMs don't suck, but we all know that there's a bell curve for most things and the bell curve has a big meaty part!

    Indeed and there's really no defense against a sucky DM. That's the primary weakness of the old school style of play and it's certainly one of the reasons the game has developed in such a way as to fetishize "balance" above other factors.

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  15. This was definitely a key “moment of zen” for me in my “Why do these crazy Dragonsfooters still play this obsolete game?” quest.

    When the player reads about saving throws, they ought to think, “OK, I want to do anything I can to avoid making one of those.” Likewise, the referee should realize that a saving throw without fair warning should be extremely rare. It suddenly seemed so logical and obvious. But—back-in-the-day—my friends and I were young and stupid and didn’t have many experienced gamers (of any types of games) to teach us these things or lead by example. This is one of those areas in which our high or non-existent Gygax numbers did us in.

    Suddenly, I went from “This is a stupid game” to “I wished the books had explained this to me”.

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  16. Jade Talon said: "do/should you allow "save vs common sense," as a method for warning your players that they're planning something that you find obviously foolish?"

    I understand the words "Are you sure?" are traditional. ;)

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  17. I understand the words "Are you sure?" are traditional. ;)

    Hah! Yes, that's more or less how I handle it in most cases.

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  18. Paralysis and petrification reflect the ability to resist stun and other things that may affect the nervous system. This isn't just my interpretation, either. IMHO and all that.

    Perhaps, but saving throws in the DMG are described as being exactly that, which is to say luck and divine or magical protection. There is a clash between saving throws as "magic" and saving throws as "skill", but basically you are just getting the opinion of the author at that given point in time.

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  19. Save or die is problematic with the "story oriented" approach to D&D, because your character will have to go through that dungeon, will have to face that mage, etc.

    In the tradicional campaign model, non of that is true. So facing "save or die" situations is more in control of the players, though not totally of course.

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  20. Absolutely fascinating.

    I'm by nature very gameist and analytical (came into RPGs by way of wargames). In 25 years or so of gaming I've never really given to saving throws much thought.

    Love the interpretation that normal people just die. But player characters get saving throws, a chance to do the incredible, the super human, the heroic!

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  21. That is, if "story" is what happens after the fact, once the players acquire some distance on events and retell them later, then a random element can't possibly "destroy" it. Those random elements are just additional events that the players can describe after the fact, imputing to them meaning and relevance that they didn't, at the time, possess.

    The hosts of The Podge Cast put this in concrete terms. In the last year, they posted the KTNG series of game session "recaps," where they retold the previous sessions of a campaign.

    There were no mechanics recalled, except as necessary for the flavor of the recap. It really is a great series. The rules system is not D&D, but Burning Wheel... yet, regardless, it really sets in concrete how the players later imagined the game play in context of the story versus at the game table.

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  22. That's a great way to look at the saving throw mechanic. I agree that saves are a PCs last chance, instead of a cruel punishment. In my own 4e campaign, Saedom, I have become dissatisfied with the simplicity and dopey approach that saves take in 4e. I have decided to go for an OSG approach and have created a save table to replace the 4e saves. The table, as it is know, is kind of a modified 3e save table. I intend to slowly morph it into something much more like I knew and loved in ADnD.

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