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Save or Die!
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

I t's been awhile since I've written an article like this for the community, so I thought it would be worth mentioning what I've been up to. As senior manager for the D&D R&D team, I'm in charge of overseeing the development of every D&D product. The next iteration of the game is currently the biggest thing on my plate. As part of my job, I take a broad view of the project, with an eye toward making sure we're hitting our primary goal of building a game that can encompass a wide array of player and DM styles. As we move into the next stage of development, Monte is going to be even more focused on design, so I'm going to lighten his load and resume writing this column for the time being. This also gives me the chance to test out a few ideas I've been mulling over with the team.

Usually, I chime into the design process when the team is at a crossroads, when it faces some particularly vexing issue, or when it just wants additional ideas. That's where this article comes in. We haven't looked at the topic I'm addressing in this article in depth in the design process yet, so I thought I would throw an idea out and see if it sticks.

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?

Obviously, this represents only one DM and gaming group. The aim is to give myself a perspective just removed enough from the design work that I can strike a midpoint between the community of D&D fans and the people working on the game. With that in mind, I have a few issues that have come up in my prep work. I'd like to talk about one of them this week.

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 really like the save or die mechanic because, in my experience, most DMs know how to handle it well. They use it as a spice: something that can keep an adventure interesting or that can serve as a pitfall for foolhardy play. The mere appearance of a medusa or a giant spider changes the game, leaving even the most confident player nervous. Great triumphs require great adversity, and the threat of instant death is one of the game's toughest challenges.

I do have sympathy for players and DMs who don't like it, however. I've played in campaigns where such threats never showed up because the DM edited the mechanic out of the game by trimming the monster list. Players and DMs who want a directed narrative, where the characters are the clear stars of the story, have little use for giving chance such a big role in the game. At the same time, it's a pity that such dramatic threats don't necessarily play well with campaigns that pull the focus away from the dice.

When I put my designer hat on, I have to admit that the save or die mechanic rubs me the wrong way. I like that hit points give me an easy gauge to judge a character's or creature's status. Some save or die effects, such as poison, can simply deal damage. But what about something such as a medusa's gaze? Is there some way that we can tie a save or die effect to hit points? Is that even a good idea?

Here's my idea. A save or die effect kicks in only if a character is at or below a certain hit point threshold, and that threshold is determined by the power of the effect and the creature. We can extend the effect to things such as paralysis, which can take you out of the fight. Like this:

If a ghoul's claw damage reduces a creature to 10 or fewer hit points, the creature must make a save or be paralyzed.

The medusa's gaze forces creatures currently at 25 or fewer hit points to make a save or be turned to stone.

A creature hit by Tiamat's tail stinger must make a save or die. (Powerful creatures might lack any hit point limit for their save or die attacks.)

There are a few advantages to this approach:

  • It ties the save or die mechanic to hit points, meaning that a monster has to attack you a few times before it can kill you or take you out.
  • The same applies to spells. The fighter hacks away at a troll for a few rounds before the wizard uses flesh to stone on it.
  • It allows monsters to better scale with level. A powerful monster is scary to low-level PCs because it can defeat them with one attack. High-level characters must still approach the monster with caution, but they can stay out of the danger zone through smart play.
  • It creates a rising sense of tension at the table. Running low on hit points becomes even more dangerous.
  • We can design monsters to model their power in the world. A medusa turns the town guards to stone, but the hero accompanying them has a fighting chance.
  • It allows us to strip away a lot of the immunities that cluttered monsters, especially in 3rd Edition. Many of those immunities served to deter one-spell victories.

The biggest drawback is that spellcasters and monsters have to be aware of a target's hit points to decide if an attack makes sense. For most monsters, you can make a save or die effect sit on top of a damaging attack (a wyvern's tail stinger) or trigger automatically each round (a basilisk's gaze). The same can't be said for expendable spells, and the save or die mechanic is likely too powerful for spells you can reuse. For spells, you could state that a creature above the hit point threshold automatically succeeds at a saving throw or the spell's attack automatically misses. The spell could then have an effect on a miss or successful save, giving the caster something for his or her effort.

Last Week's Polls

Daily/Encounter/At-Will spellcasting
1 880 15.2%
2 745 12.8%
3 973 16.8%
4 1354 23.3%
5 1853 31.9%
Total 5805 100.0%

Vancian spellcasting
1 1124 19.2%
2 906 15.5%
3 1163 19.9%
4 1231 21.0%
5 1426 24.4%
Total 5850 100.0%

Flexible spellcasting (such as the 3rd Edition sorcerer)
1 339 5.9%
2 534 9.4%
3 1799 31.5%
4 1891 33.2%
5 1141 20.0%
Total 5704 100.0%

Point-based spellcasting
1 940 16.4%
2 883 15.4%
3 1547 26.9%
4 1290 22.5%
5 1082 18.8%
Total 5742 100.0%

If you could choose only one spellcasting system, which would you choose
Daily/Encounter/At-Will spellcasting 2190 35.9%
Vancian spellcasting 1634 26.8%
Point-based spellcasting 1225 20.1%
Flexible spellcasting (such as the 3rd Edition sorcerer) 1047 17.2%
Total 6096 100.0%

This Week's Polls

 Which of the following best represents what you'd like to have in the D&D game?  
I would like to see save or die effects in the D&D game, working as they did in earlier editions.
I would like to see save or die effects in the D&D game, working specifically as described above: Give them a hit point threshold trigger.
I would like to see save or die effects in the D&D game, working in a different way than they did either in earlier editions or as described above.
I don't want to see save or die effects in the D&D game at all.

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