Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Save or Die, Part II

The term saving throw is common enough, coming to us from miniatures wargames and D&D. It represents the chance for the figure concerned to avoid (or at least partially avoid) the cruel results of fate. In AD&D it is the same. By means of luck, skill, magical protections, quirks of fate and the aid of supernatural powers, the character making his or her saving throw takes none or only part of the indicated results ...
That's probably the most exhaustive explanation for what a saving throw is in the Gygaxian canon, but, coming as it does in 1979's Dungeon Masters Guide, it can hardly be called definitive for the entirety of D&D. (And if anyone knows of a lengthier or more detailed discussion of saving throws in Gygax's works, I'd be interested in knowing about it).

I bring this up at all, because my post last month on this topic generated a lot of valuable discussion, but also some disagreement. I treat saving throws, by and large, as a kind of check against a player's foolhardiness. It's a last chance to mitigate the consequences of his own stupidity. Quite rightly, some, including the estimable Dan Proctor, creator of Labyrinth Lord, disagreed with my approach, since it doesn't explain why a character should get a save vs. a spell cast by an opponent or why a fighter has a better saving throw against dragon breath than any other class.

That's a perfectly valid criticism and, in light of the text quoted above, illustrates that, like many things in D&D, there's no single overriding explanation for their existence. Saving throws have, so far as I can tell, a dual purpose. One purpose serves verisimilitude; saves are a way to represent the fact that not every attack is 100% effective all the time. The other serves "fairness;" it's a recognition that D&D is a game and people often better enjoy games when they feel "there's always a chance" that they might succeed (or at least avoid the worst effects of failure). Gygax himself was aware of this when he wrote later on in the same section of the DMG:
Yet because the player character is all-important, he or she must always -- or nearly always -- have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who do are what the fabric of the game are created upon. These adventures become the twice-told tales and legends of the campaign.
I rather like this passage and think it does a good job of showing not only why saving throws are themselves an invaluable game mechanic, but also why saving throws whose consequences are "inevitable destruction" lend richness and texture to a campaign -- which is why I do not now, nor have I ever, shied away from "save or die" effects.

57 comments:

  1. I personally prefer a "save of damage that will kill you" to a "save or die".

    Thats just an issue of sense to me. While falling rocks will indeed kill you automatically, so will being struck by a 15 foot tall human wielding an axe the size of a volvo. If you suffer no real chance of death from one, why the other?

    So rather than something (Even poison) being save or die, I might make it "save or 50 damage"..which in most cases is the same thing.

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  2. So rather than something (Even poison) being save or die, I might make it "save or 50 damage"..which in most cases is the same thing.

    That's an apples to apples comparison. I've always seen this POV as pretty valid, but if you're really putting down so much damage for an attack that a failed saving throw is death, then why list the damage at all. Like you're saying, the effect is the same. You're essentially agreeing with save or die in practice, with a semantic twist.

    I'm running my campaign with save or die effects and after the first time it actually happened and caused the death of a PC, they learned to be more cautious. Save or die is a great tone setter.

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  3. I'm not sure about earlier editions, but in 3rd edition I found save or die to be incredibly frustrating. It basically means ruining someone's night if they make one unlucky roll. I know pathfinder has chosen to cut back on save-or-die effects. 4e has replaced them with things that slowly kill you over a few rounds.

    For earlier editions, maybe save-or-die made more sense. It is something that shows the wargame roots of D&D. In warhammer, a character's save comes from his armor - if an enemy hits your hero an armor-piercing sword, he dies, no save allowed. But, few people invest themselves in a wargame hero the way they do in their D&D character. If my hero dies in warhammer, I probably have two or three more on the tabletop, and we keep playing. If my character dies in D&D, I'm probably going home for the evening - the fun stops. Also, wargames are competitive. "Kill the other guy" is the nature of the game, and players enter with the expectation that there is a good chance they're going to lose. D&D isn't that kind of game. People enter the game with assumptions that they're going to tell a grand tale about their character and his heroic exploits. Save-or-die wrecks that assumption.

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  4. D&D isn't that kind of game. People enter the game with assumptions that they're going to tell a grand tale about their character and his heroic exploits. Save-or-die wrecks that assumption.

    That's because the assumption is false. As the Gygax quote makes clear, any "grand tale" is ex post facto and there are no guarantees that every character will ever have a tale worth telling -- though the deaths of several PCs lends gravity to the surviving characters' own tales later.

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  5. D&D isn't that kind of game. People enter the game with assumptions that they're going to tell a grand tale about their character and his heroic exploits.Save-or-die wrecks that assumption.


    Whether we like it or not, Asmodean's assumption is the current assumption of D&D play, as reflected in the rules. As Mr. M asserts however, this was definitely not the original one, and again the rules reflect that.

    It's this generation gap between current and original D&D necessitates blogs like these to help try and explain how the game used to be, and how that can be fun too. And trust me, it can be.

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  6. In many cases, Save or Die is your last chance to miss a slip into lava or get crushed by a 10 ton brick. In fact, in many cases Gygax allowed for No Save if you don't book out of a trap. If you're in a room filling up with lava, how much damage do you need for common sense. Zeb Cook also wrote a "instant death" rule in the 2nd Ed rules, saying if you have a knife to your throat, you don't get to say "it only does d4 damage".

    As far as "heroic epics" go, I would suggest reading the Gord books for an example of how "instant death" can happen. The Gord books show how death can happen easily to some even beloved companions. Out of all of Gord's friends, only Gellor and Leda remain for the final novel--even Chert and Curley Greenleaf didn't make it. It would be similar to a D&D campaign, except in this case there would not even be a star character.

    I would see character death as a part of life, and as long as your character can be replaced with a new one of similar level, it should be an okay campaign. The overall campaign matters, not the story. Think of a show like E/R. The campaign is an ensemble cast, not a few stars. E/R kept going strong even though most of its cast rotated out.

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  7. I meant to say "characters" instead of "story" in that last paragraph.

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  8. I have my doubts that this is a generational issue. As long as I've been playing D&D (which admittedly, only goes back to the beginning of 2nd edition) people have been houseruling the game to make characters last longer and be more "heroic" I can remember playing in several 2nd edition campaigns that allowed people to start at 3rd level (or higher) and gave everyone better than average stats (in one notable campaign, we each started with one 18.) I'm sure stuff like this went on in OD&D games, too. Not everyone wanted to play in a sadistic deathtrap - some of us wanted to act out heroic parts from our favorite books and movies.

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  9. I never use save or die. I have save versus full damage. A deadly poison might do 10 pts of damage per round for 12 rounds. So, if the throw fails the chartacter has a few seconds to do last heroics, in which a powerful mage can intervene. Falling off a cliff, after failed dex checks and what not, guy dies. Of course, his friends can have him resurrected and owe a debt of service. Good for a dungeon expedition of DMs choice. Nobody dies until much later on (where days in the wilderness will make resurrection fail). Hell, modern emergency medicine has nothing on the AD&D Clerics with the Cure (insert severity here) Wound spells, no to mention Raise Dead and Resurrection. How about a Wish spell as a consulting srvcie to an election campaign?

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  10. About semantics (apples to apples)

    The reason I run that is "save or die" is often poorly applied, some monsters (in one case I believe was a herd of normal animals) use this in what should be an amount of damage to whipe out a low level charcter...but not a dragon slayer.

    This becomes a problem when Sir Reginald who was bitten and chewed on by a dragon after being set on fire, is killed by a herd of gazelles that should have done 20 damage (and been a save or die VS the low level characters but not the high).

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  11. Here's a question for general discussion, especially given the culture shock save or die has caused for asmodean:

    If the very first dungeon adventure, run by Dave Arneson, had resulted in everyone surviving (as opposed to only one PC walking away), would we be playing D&D today? Given Gygax's quote, "Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who do are what the fabric of the game are created upon" it makes me wonder if it wasn't the extreme difficulty and high death count that made dungeons such an integral part of our hobby.

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  12. If the very first dungeon adventure, run by Dave Arneson, had resulted in everyone surviving (as opposed to only one PC walking away), would we be playing D&D today?

    Yes. It might not look quite the way it does now, but we'd still be playing. Roleplaying games are popular because of escapism and creativity, not because of challenge or high death count. I can point to the popularity of 4e, a game in which death is a distant possibility for most characters, and permanent death an even further one. Or look at the bustling indie game scene - there are games there that have only the barest resemblence to the dungeon-crawlers of yore. Games in which characters only die if the player chooses them to die. What's important is getting together and having fun gaming. The issue I have with rules like save-or-die is that the fun stops for one person at the table. In the worst case scenario, that person gets up and drives home and spends the rest of the evening not hanging out with friends, because the dice failed him at a crucial moment.

    That said, I think there are some built-in solutions to this sort of problem in the game. Allowing the player to take over a henchman, for example, allows him to get back into the fun that much faster. What are some other solutions that people use to keep the game rolling?

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  13. Our group's games tend to use save-or-die situations rather sparingly. Getting caught in a dragon's jaws OUGHT to result in rather irreversible instant death, but such fate is likely deserved by any character who is crazy enough to step up to a dragon in the first place. The save represents the slim chance that the dragon might find him bad-tasting or maybe the dragon is suffering a nasty tooth-ache and spits him out whole and alive.

    But...if the characters are performing a mundane action such as walking down the hall checking for traps and doing everything that good sense and tactics dictates, then tossing a save-or-die poisoned arrow trap at them is a bit heavy-handed. I'd be inclined toward poison dealing damage each round if the save is failed, giving the character a bit more of a chance to survive.

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  14. >>the fun stops for one person at the table.

    You've said this a couple times now, and I don't understand.

    At my table, when a character dies (which is fairly often), we suggest a player rolls up a new character and rejoins the game (which takes only a couple minutes, most of that taken up by purchasing equipment more than generating the actual character) instead of sending him home.

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  15. I have my doubts that this is a generational issue.

    To be honest I think there is a generational issue, but you are right in the sense that it shouldn't matter in the light of each group playing to their own needs.

    For me, the meat of the matter is how the assumptions of game are tied to it's rules, and in regard to that there is a disconnect. From the rules, you can tell that the types of games OD&D is meant to play are pretty hazardous to the PCs.

    I should have been more clear with my emphasis in regard to this subject.

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  16. You've said this a couple times now, and I don't understand.

    I only get it in the sense that nowadays it takes a lot longer to make a character in many games today compared to the past. If someone is pretty new to the process, it can take well over an hour to make a new RIFTS PC.

    Compare that to the amount of time it would take to make a Labyrinth Lord PC.

    I gotta say though that the GM is a jerk if he's so beholden to "story" that a player with a new PC can't get back into the game until it's "appropriate". That's just weak GMing.

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  17. You've said this a couple times now, and I don't understand.

    As James said, perhaps this has more to do with the extended nature of making a character in most games. Making a new 2nd edition character could take a while, especially at higher levels. I know people who spend hours working on builds for their 3rd edition characters. 4e is faster, but still a significant amount of time is spent building your character.

    And, if you've spent a few hours crafting a character - whether it's writing a detailed backstory, or picking feats and items - you tend to be emotionally invested to that character. Dying, and especially dying in a trivial manner, feels like you've wasted that time. I know people who have quit campaigns after character deaths.

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  18. As noted above, the time taken to create a character might be an issue.

    The other issue might be the apparent common practice in older games of having non-player characters who can be 'promoted' on the death of a player-character.

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  19. Regarding both this post and the former save-or-die one:

    It seems to me that saves are a way to model characters ability to resist mortal dangers: dodging wands or dragon breath, resisting poison. Tricks and traps that come from “poor choices” (for example, being crushed in any one of several places in the Tomb of Horrors) carry NO SAVE. I do not see a save as a check against “foolhardiness;” foolhardiness rarely receives any kind of check or save, except for players of little experience (i.e. low level characters).

    Based on Gygax’s own module design, I think he himself fell into the “nearly always” category, not the “must always” more often than not. Personally I feel heroes are made, not born…no one starts the game with some “right” to have a heroic protagonist!

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  20. by and large, as a kind of check against a player's foolhardiness<

    Sorry, but I really hate that.

    In real life people survive all kinds of sure-death things. Falls from hundreds of feet up, explosions that they survive at ground zero while somebody a hundred feet away gets obliterated, somebody gets stung by the deadlist thing alive and lives - It's chaos theory man. I'm not a physicist (but I know what "matters" heh heh) but Not every "sure death" thing will kill everyone all of the time. Apply it to a game and you get a saving throw mechanic. Good enough emulater of real life for me.

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  21. I meant to say "characters" instead of "story" in that last paragraph<

    I still use my game world from over 30 years ago, so In part I agree with the campaign/setting being so important. But in a campaign right now, in the game going on right now, the characters are of prime importance to me. I want the players to experience my world through them, and to live large. They make up the future history of my world. My world is nothing without them. Without them, I'm just spanking it to my own NPC's.

    This whole "characters are nothing" and "avoid a story" mentality really chaps my ass. I outgrew that shit before Michael Jackson had his first nose job.

    In my current game, I planned for the party to be at the dungeon by game three. It's 16 games later and they are still having fun little side adventures off the caravan they are with. It's kinda sandbox, but this string of encounters, like it or not, makes up a story.

    I have props for James M, but in his game somebody dies you just start running the mook who has been shlepping your ten foot poles and bullseye lantern. I need more meat to the characters than that. I'm an old school Imperial DM, but my world has more color and verve when the characters are the star of the show. But maybe I've just been blessed with awesome players. That helps.

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  22. Characters are more time-expensive and developmentally labor-intensive in later versions of D&D so save or die effects ultimately cause a cost vs. benefit imbalance. The weight of the game system is at issue, not any sense of a generation gap. System aside, the least desirable save or die effect is one that kills the entire party or simply ruins play. The death spell in AD&D has the undesirble potential to stop a campaign dead in its tracks (actual experience).

    Also, notice how there's no real chance of death in most online RPGs? So why take out the sting of death? Why take out the challenge of having to survive? Because death's just no fun, less so for the faint of heart, and just isn't profitable when the 'dead' become too frustrated to play. The 'dead' complained, and future D&D version 'designers' listened. Sorry to say but it's not generational though, simply because whining about the inequities of life is an ageless universal.

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  23. 'I have my doubts that this is a generational issue. As long as I've been playing D&D (which admittedly, only goes back to the beginning of 2nd edition) people have been houseruling the game to make characters last longer and be more "heroic"'

    In my experience, this itself was largely a reaction to three things. One, the already-mentioned increase in the amount of time and effort put into character creation. A first edition AD&D character can be rolled up in a few minutes; in Moldvay/Cook D&D,the time-consuming part is thinking up a name. When it takes half an hour to create a new character, losing one starts to become an inconvenience and a roadblock to smooth gameplay.

    Second, groups wanted to use modules or follow module-like guidelines, but with parties that were half the recommended size. The earlier TSR modules were generally advertised for 6-10 characters, plus, most likely, a retinue of mercenaries and henchmen.

    Third, a general trend of power inflation happened on both sides: players and DMs alike appeared to not enjoy (or not understand how to enjoyably play) low-powered games where a small band of limited-power characters made short, limited forays into a dungeon and faced relatively modest foes before retreating to rest, resupply, and perhaps experience some in-town encounters. I think that a lot of the encounters in earlier published adventurers were intended to be avoided by the PCs. Wandering monsters, in particular, were primarily conceived of as high risk, low reward encounters that were there to keep the players moving quickly and preserve the attitude that a dungeon is an inherently dangerous place that is best experienced in brief, carefully-planned expeditions if one is to avoid becoming a permanent resident.

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  24. The reason I like the rationality of the saves as I mentioned in your last blog post on this topic is because one must make some sense of the different categories, and why numbers are higher or lower for some classes as opposed to others. Even if people don't always agree on the rationale of different categories, i think that each individual GM should at least decide for himself/herself what they mean and when they are appropriate to use. Otherwise, they are wasted tools IMHO.

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  25. That said, I think there are some built-in solutions to this sort of problem in the game. Allowing the player to take over a henchman, for example, allows him to get back into the fun that much faster. What are some other solutions that people use to keep the game rolling?

    Not sure anyone answered asmodean66's question.

    In our games we let the player create another character with 1/2 the experience of the fallen PC. Once ready, the GM finds an angle and works the new PC in. -It's always played out pretty well and I suggested a similar rule in Wayfarers.

    Personally, I have little interest in playing a tabletop RPG where my character can't die. Actually, it's one of the reasons I like tabletop RPGs. In fact, I wish someone would make a MMORPG where death was singular and permanent. -Now that would be an interesting game.

    Also, I don't understand how character death is antithetical to fun. At least my group never saw it that way. Some of our fondest gaming memories included a PC death. And these were the kind of PCs that Brunomac is talking about. -Not fighters with a 10' pole and a longsword. These were PCs with last names and a rich history of exploits that were biting the dust.

    It's just a matter of taste, I guess. But it does lead to two very different types of games.

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  26. I've always wonder what impact George Lucas has on D&D. The pre-Star Wars crowd came to the game with the expectations of pulp fantasy, where instant death is a common theme. Even The Lord of the Rings so often mistakenly touted as heroic fantasy, smacks of death and human frailty. But the people who came to the game after 1977--and I am sure there were many in the explosion Lucas' films caused, had dramatically different expectations. They wanted D&D to emulate the kind of sweeping swashbuckling fantasy they saw in those films.

    Just a pet theory, mind you.

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  27. Wow. Sorry for all the typos in that last post. That is what I get for posting during my morning commute!

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  28. I've always favored the "PCs can and will DIE!" style of play, if only because it makes it all the more rewarding when you succeed on your own skills, rather than having the game nanny you along.

    Friday Night Firefight from Cyberpunk 2020 remains my favorite combat system - quick, brutal, and you have to avoid getting hit or you will be in trouble.

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  29. This has turned into a thread about if characters should die or not. I think it was originally about "the spider bit you. Make a save or roll up a new character."

    The genre I ran for long periods that had the least character death was Champions (although there was an occasional death, and it was a big deal when it happened). The one with the most was CoC. As it should be.

    It depends on the game, but for D&D the threat of death is a very important part of it. Another reason to cherish the character. You don't cherish a friend or favorite pet any less just because they might die on you. If it hurts, it means you had a great character.

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  30. My groups hated "save vs. die" as far back as the early 1980s. I in fact cannot remember a single character of ours who died during any of the 1980s AD&D or BD&D campaigns. So there's a data point that doesn't fit the "generation gap" level--unless that gap is going to be placed so early in the history of the game as to be effectively meaningless.

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  31. The thing that struck me most reading an 1st ed/old school campaign journal (I think it was stormcrows) was how often they died. And how it absolutely didn't matter cause they all had wishes or raise dead or whatever. The only way the characters got put out of play was being trapped by a demon in her water demi-plane. Even then there was remote possibility of escape/rescue.

    Death seems a lot less permanent in old-school rules. And so Save or Die wasn't a big deal.

    I think that is big factor. Bigger for higher level chars than quick char rerolling. At least in 1st ed.

    But even today reincarnate, raise dead, wish. Are right there in the rules. Death is not much to get worked up over.

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  32. Im going to go directly and say I like two seemingly different game goals. I like the high risk of Character death, and I like more "crunchy" character mechanics. But just that doesn't mean I have to choose one or the other (or have dead players sit out of the game). Any problem can be solved with good mechanics design in my mind. In my case I use "Schrodinger's Characters" so someone with a dead character can get immediately back into the gameplay and still have an indepth "crunchy" character.

    The joy of RPG's is that there is no style of game you can't have if you aren't afraid to change the rules to fit.

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  33. * Save or Die: Yes
    * No Save: Yes
    * Save for Half: Yes

    People wear armour and carry spare magazines of ammunition, AND have medkits because bothering people who own weapons is dangerous.

    How much more so is going into a monster-infested deathtrap for the sole purpose of looting the place?

    Saves are a privilege, not a right.

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  34. Re MMORPGs - the one with permanent death will be the one that gets my business. I really can't stand the feel of existing MMORPGs where you just 'respawn' on death. I'd much rather play Ancient Domains of Mystery where death is permanent.

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  35. BTW there sure are a lot of comments on Grognardia these days, aren't there? This must be a very high-traffic blog!

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  36. I'm a big fan of "Save or Die Slowly"

    In a situation where the save would normally = death it becomes a steady drumbeat of damage until death. This way the other players don't just ignore the dead guy, they can't he'
    s sitting there at the table making a whole heck of a lot of noise.

    For this to work really well there should be some effects with a steady drumbeat of damage that don't' kill all the time.

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  37. One of the more irritating "save or ____" effects that I experienced in 3rd Edition was "Save vs Fear". In one instance, it meant that for something like 8 rounds I didn't have control over my character, who ran aimlessly away from the battle with the beholder or whatever it was.

    Combat length in 3rd (and 4th edition, for that matter) is insane. Having one or more players be effectively removed from a 2 hour chunk of a session is a really shitty game mechanic, no matter how you slice it.

    I remember wishing he'd died and I could start working on a new character who might stumble onto the battle, but of course, as others have already said, the time you have to spend building a character has increased dramatically from the early days.

    Gygax's idea of there always being some chance, no matter how small, of a character doing something extraordinary is well-taken--one of the things I like about 4E (and there aren't many) is the fact that you get to make a save every round to shake off effects like fear or poison. Of course, to accomplish that they had to change poison to "ongoing 5 damage" and fear to "-2 to your attacks", making it difficult to figure out exactly how "poison" can affect a character for only 2 rounds(12 seconds) before being shrugged off (by a heroic constitution--oh, wait, that attribute doesn't factor into it, it's just a 10+ on d20).

    Personally, I like the "save or die" because it reinforces the notion that the world is dangerous--let the dice fall where they may.

    Then again, my favorite board game is Dungeonquest, where I keep a long list of the characters who have perished playing it in the box. I think even in the rule book they say that a player has about a 30% chance of making it out alive (though I've found that figure to be rather generous).

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  38. "The thief, Black Leaf, did not find the poison trap and I DECLARE HER DEAD!"

    Okay, so the "NO save AND die" should be used very sparingly. :)

    The "save OR die" doesn't really have a huge impact on low-level characters, as melee with giant spiders could kill them whether or not the spiders are poisonous.

    But the "save vs. poison or die" keeps the fear of sudden death a factor for characters with more hit points. Sure, level drain is considered a fearsome attack (no save, incidentally), but a giant spider can KILL your PC dead in one round if you roll bad.

    Some have suggested huge hit point damages instead of death, or maybe making the death non-instantaneous. Both of these are fine, but they lessen the impact of "death could be around the next corner."

    I use a mix of all of them, making some poisons take a few rounds to work, making some poisons deal hit point damage. But most poisons still kill on contact.

    I've never used a "you're dead, no save" except for things like falls from mountain cliffs (where they had already been given a chance not to fall) and one shameful incident where the plot required someone die (there's no save vs. railroad, as far as I could tell at the time).

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  39. I find that save or die effects work just fine, provided they are not a 'zap' effect. Death by yellow mold or green slime is fine - Any seasoned player knows that touching that stuff is like playing with fire. Walking down a random corridor to get nailed by an invisible magic death trap that you couldn't *possibly* have known was there? That's just pointlessly harsh.

    I like to use save-or-die effects as a hazard the players bring on themselves by fiddling with things, rather than as an attack that gets inflicted on them uncontrollably. This is partly a learning experience from the first (and so far, only) TPK that I ever DMed, back in 1995 or so. Turns out AD&D wyverns are considerably nastier than their Hit Dice would indicate. C'est la vie.

    Generally these days, I instead have low-level save-or-die monster attacks deal ongoing poison damage (with a save each round) until either the character makes three consecutive saves or someone hits him up with a Slow/Neutralize Poison spell. That way you actually have time to cast such a spell, too. I relegate Real save-or-die effects to big deathtraps (not just some sissy poisoned needle) and "trap monsters" like green slime.

    As for Death Spell? At that level of play, if a dead character is a game-breaking problem, something is horribly horribly wrong.

    I also think that a lot of the hate against save-or-lose effects in D&D (of which save-or-die is a tiny subset) comes from the longer and longer amounts of time it takes to run a combat round. Combat is 3.x in particular tended to take up to 2-3 hours, and while 4e is a teensy bit faster, it's not faster enough. Someone who gets sleeped or held, say, could potentially be out of the game for hours. When the fight you died in only lasted 5 minutes, you were less likely to mind missing it because you were at least busy rolling up a new character.

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  40. I like this turn of relating how we treat this issue in our own games, so I'd like to pitch in.

    In my game there are save or die effects, and it only involves certain traps or attacks where I consider the threat of death as a reasonable outcome. If the party is going after giant cobras or didn't take the time to look for that one-ton stone block trap at the entrance, I think it's reasonable to give them the save, but if they fail, they're toast. Instant death is rare (hasn't happened yet) and is based off a tighter range of reasonable circumstances, like Kilgore's cliff scenario, or coups de grace on a completely helpless charater with an appropriately deadly weapon. It depends greatly on my judgement, so I take my decisions on how to treat an effect with care. I'm not out to mess with the party, but I'm not out to make it easy either. I told them up front my world is a dangerous place, and it would be a disservice to the setting to not emulate that in game.

    To compensate for the danger, my players roll up a new charcter with 1/2 the xp of the prior and I get back into the game as soon as is humanly possible, even if it may seem a little odd. I use the Basic Fantasy RPG, so a new character can pop up in as little as 10-15 minutes. My setting also involves the slim possibility of divine intervention (can only be done rarely, and has less than a 5% chance of success unless you're a high-level cleric or have sacrificed and donated much to the god in question). I was shocked the one time it did work, but then again, that's the fun in rolling the dice, you can never know what will happen.

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  41. Giant spiders caused a total party kill in my campaign once, in a random encounter that was completely optional - see my blog post here http://therecursionking.blogspot.com/2009/05/total-party-kill.html

    It was a shock but everybody enjoyed the evening regardless and just rolled up a bunch of new characters in the next session and carried on. I think they've learned not to mess with giant spiders now because recently the party were near a heavily cobwebbed room in a ruined citadel and avoided entering it!

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  42. Many players seem to feel they must run into save or die situations and is really not the case, at least in the way I play.

    The playing skill relies in avoiding the save or die situation altoguether so as not to force the roll.

    It's challenging and fun. Otherwise every encounter is just a charge into the monsters.

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  43. @ Killgore: If only there WAS a "save versus railroad." Ha!

    Giant spiders should remain scary throughout the life of a campaign, if at all possible...because they're GIANT SPIDERS. How much scarier do you get?!

    Save versus Poison or die is an example of excellent game mechanics influencing a solid design choice. Keep those spiders coming!

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  44. Indeed, "save or die" is an issue mainly in railroady or High Fantasy campaigns.

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  45. James Said: I treat saving throws, by and large, as a kind of check against a player's foolhardiness. It's a last chance to mitigate the consequences of his own stupidity.

    I'm totally down with that, some of the time.

    Other times, it's a model of Conan's will to resist the terror of the cosmic horror confronting him, or the dominance of his psyche by an enemy wizard.

    Still, in other instances, it is Fafhrd and Mouser laughing the laugh of the Elder Gods in the face of Death and the Lord of Necessity.

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  46. It's a last chance to mitigate the consequences of his own stupidity<

    You mean the stupidity of taking up a sword and getting into a life of adventure? So, don't go anywhere there are spiders or open flames? I'm almost as old school as it gets, but the old school mentality of punishing players for playing still pisses me off. I outgrew it before I was out of high school.

    I find the attitude of "saves vs. stupidity" condescending and insulting to players in general. Sure, there are a lot of obnoxious douche bag players out there, but in the last 20 years plus I guess I have been blessed with players that don't need that kind of smarmy "DM as God" mentality that gives a lot of us "Imperial in a good way" DM's a poor rep.

    Again, using terms like stupidity instead of perhaps more appropriate terms like brave or curious is bullshit. Anybody who needs to do that maybe needs to find a better quality of player, or perhaps check their superior attitude at the game room door.

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  47. >>You mean the stupidity of taking up a sword and getting into a life of adventure?

    That's the base assumption I start with about adventurers. There's a reason most people just stay on the farm (or in the market, or whatever).

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  48. I'd be willing to concede that stupidity might be too harsh a description for what a PC does in seeking adventure, but it sure isn't safe!

    In my setting, people who are seen as travelling beyond the 20 miles from their homes most folks stay within are definitely odd, maybe crazy. IMO, they'd have to be, civilization is in a dark age and the wilderness is crawling with bears, ogres, and the occasional dragon! Don't even ask about what may have happened to the ruins after centuries of being left to either rot or become the lairs of fiendishly clever kobolds.

    In some settings, Save or Die Saving throws are the last chance for a character to mitigate the consequences of venturing out into a dangerous world seeking riches, fame, power, thrills, or what have you.

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  49. Again, using terms like stupidity instead of perhaps more appropriate terms like brave or curious is bullshit. Anybody who needs to do that maybe needs to find a better quality of player, or perhaps check their superior attitude at the game room door.

    That seems a bit harsh. I'd like to think I'm a pretty high caliber player, but even I have had PCs that have ended up in pretty stupid circumstances and paid the price. Consider the fact that you might be playing a dumb character to begin with.

    I think a distinction should be made between a player's stupidity and the character's. As our group plays, these two are very different things.

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  50. "That seems a bit harsh. I'd like to think I'm a pretty high caliber player, but even I have had PCs that have ended up in pretty stupid circumstances and paid the price. Consider the fact that you might be playing a dumb character to begin with."

    This. I do stupid stuff when I play all the time. Sometimes doing something dumb seems appropriate, sometimes I want to to find out what will happen, and sometimes I just didn't think it through. Whichever way, it's important to be able to admit when you make a boneheaded decision.

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  51. Gygax, DMG p.110: Now and then a player [-character] will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well. When they have done something stupid or have not taken precautions, then let the dice fall where they may! Again, if you have ample means of raising characters from the dead, even death is not too severe; remember, however, the constitution-based limit to resurrections.

    Short form (I think): Be mindful of the nuances peculiar to your campaign and your players. D&D is not a rigid set of rules, but a framework for cooperative construction of a game suited to the tastes of the participants.

    As a very basic principle of design, I find a high casualty rate opposed to lengthy character generation. In old D&D, equipping seems the one aspect where there is much room for streamlining.

    I like the use of henchmen as a way to keep players in the game when primary characters are indisposed -- and the strategic element in using them as replacements for PCs who have perished. I do not like games in which charisma is a "dump stat". YMMV, of course.

    "Fudging" to a greater extent than Gygax mentioned has never sat well with me. I detest the dishonesty of a DM who pretends to be following rules, effectively transforming players who think they're playing a game into pawns. Far better to my mind is for all to agree to a new set of rules.

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  52. I will note that those dislikes of mine feature in a game in which I am (very delightedly) currently a player. There is an element of compromise in what is at heart a social engagement. Losing sight of that seems to me often the root of many problems in campaigns. It takes open and friendly communication and mutual respect to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

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  53. A clarification: The DM in that game has been most up front about matters; the element of dishonesty is not present. There is very much a sense that adjudication ought to stand up to a consensus of informed opinion among us. To me, that makes a big difference!

    We are all of middle age, and started playing back in the 1970s. I am sure that there are variations in experience among that demographic, but I don't think our commonality of expectations is terribly unusual.

    I think that only one of us (not I!) had as an adolescent the finances to build much of a game collection. My experience was mostly of games in which but one person owned the rule book, and thereby became GM. I think that circumstance may have shaped a relationship among players, referee and rules a bit different from that prevailing among folks who have always known a greater proliferation of the books.

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  54. I like the use of henchmen as a way to keep players in the game >when primary characters are indisposed -- and the strategic element in using them as replacements for PCs who have perished<

    I have always found character creation to be one of the coolest, most interesting, most fun, (etc) part of the entire rpg process. So if you were to die in my game, just taking over the grunt who has been shelping your gold sacks would blow out an entire chunk of player creativity and fun right there. Sure, they can put some of their own personality and background into it, but I think any player who doesn't get to start a character from scratch is getting seriously shafted.

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  55. you can always have the players create their own henchmen - what I mean is that when they hire somebody, the DM can set a few guidelines (OK, he is a level 3 fighter, has a sword+1 and X amount of gold worth of equipment) and let the player create the NPC from there. That way, if the player ends up kicking the bucket and has to take over the henchman, the element of character creation is not missing (I agree with Brunomac to an extent that the character creation process is in itself quite fun, although I don't think it is one of the most fun aspects of roleplaying IMO).

    You will also normally end up with more fleshed out NPCs this way because the DM, even a good DM, will likely rush the process of creating a bunch of henchmen much more than individual players creating an individual henchman to serve each of them.

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  56. @Brunomac:

    "I have always found character creation to be one of the coolest, most interesting, most fun, (etc) part of the entire rpg process. So if you were to die in my game, just taking over the grunt who has been shelping your gold sacks would blow out an entire chunk of player creativity and fun right there."

    Taking over the henchmen also doesn't have to be a permament thing - I like to let them do it sometimes as a way to keep them playing until the session ends. Then they can take the time to properly work out a new character before the next game.

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