I’m not sure if you can truly count me in the “save or die” camp. I mean, I appreciate a little mortality to the characters in my games – including my own characters – but I’m not sure that I’m simulationist (and I use that term unwillingly and loosely) enough to actually enjoy the idea that my PC is instantly killed for failing a single die roll.

Aside: I realize that there are certain people who argue that most save or die situations are not the result of failing a single die roll, but rather a failure to plan accordingly, or act like a SWAT team in the dungeon, etc. I also realize that for some, the other side of the coin – that if I’m a hero I’m ready to face death and embrace that possibility when I throw myself into danger – is true and that’s valid. To both groups though (especially the first one) I tend to feel – and I’m just speaking for myself here – that it is increasingly unsatisfying to “die in one” because the d20 came up a 7 instead of an 8. If I enter a dungeon expecting to fight trolls and I prep for trolls and I plan for trolls and I’m ready to die facing trolls, imagine how unsatisfying it is to run across the Giant Spider (which might even be a wandering monster/random encounter) and die from its bite. Maybe it’s just me, but it bugs me. End Aside.

I think the problem is inflation. Inflation of abilities, inflation of equipment, inflation of scores, but ultimately, the real culprit – to my mind – is inflation of hit points. And this is the part where I both praise and berate 4E D&D. I think 4E’s inflation of well, just about everything, was a terrible choice. But I really dug the way 4E handled things like Poison. When you were poisoned in 4E you often suffered extra damage AND some type of debilitating effect. That damage was often ongoing damage and a save was necessary to stop taking the damage. Sometimes, the poison was just its own damage type and did extra on top of the regular damage of an attack. 4E’s typing of damage, reversal of the way saves are made, and thoughtful (but flawed) application of conditions was a great combination. Because having the poison do extra, ongoing HP damage; that makes sense to me – the poison is killing you. And you can vary the danger of the poison by varying the amount of damage it does as well as applying modifiers to the saving throw.

But 4E fell down on the job with this (in my estimation) because of the inflation on the other end. There is very little element of the ticking clock in 4E because you usually have a lot of hit points and a fair number of ways of getting hit points back very easily even in the midst of combat. And all of this was wrapped up in a very tidy math-package which already accounted for ongoing damage and expected hit point recovery in such a way that you rarely felt pressure when poisoned (for example). It is also distressingly easy in 4E to ramp up mods to saving throws to allow you to succeed.

So, on the one hand, they created a great dynamic system of damage, conditions, and after-the-fact saves which is then weakened by inflation and over-emphasis on balance (which may or may not correlate to the issue of inflation – but that is the subject of an entirely different post).

Much of this has been on my mind as I’ve considered the future of D&D, the current Pathfinder game I’m running, and the ridiculously freeing experience I’ve been having running Amber again. Running an Amber game and a Pathfinder game in the same week every week really shows me how much of a chore running Pathfinder is. Some out there enjoy that chore and I won’t fault them for enjoying it – but it weighs on me after a while. The longer I play I realize that the sheer weight of choices in a crunchy game like Pathfinder just starts to become a restriction rather than a freeing element. In Amber I have very few choices to make when creating and maintaining my character and yet, characters are as varied and as interesting as any I’ve ever met in any other game. Four characters out of six in my current Amber game are “Amberite – took Pattern – and actually have fairly similar stats across the board since the auctions were not particularly competitive…” And yet I don’t for a minute have any problem distinguishing these characters or seeing them play radically differently during their experience of the gaming world around them. I don’t want to wander too far from the topic – my point is simply, a dearth of mechanical choice-points does not, in fact, necessarily lead to a dearth of experience or variation.

I feel this way about Warhammer Fantasy 2e as well. This is a great game if you like straightforward math, simple rolling, and lower-scale inflation of character health and character power. Yes, magic can sometimes get a little out of hand – but it also has actual consequences. I’m a huge fan of the way Warhammer sets up its “hit points.” You have a pretty decent amount at the beginning of your career and this really doesn’t change much as you advance.

The advantage I see in this is the ticking clock I mentioned before… Often, in fiction (and nothing to do with ‘reality’), the dramatic interest generated by poison (for example) is twofold. The first is that it impedes the protagonist in some way. This is aptly handled with conditions. The second is that it puts the hero on a clock – maybe they have 24 hours to live, maybe they have 24 seconds to get the antidote out of their medkit and take it. Ultimately, that clock generates the tension while the debilitating effect simply ups the ante of difficulty for the protagonist to accomplish their aims.

The inflation of ‘outs’ for PCs though – including greatly inflated hit points – is at the heart of a lot of these issues. With that level of inflation and the ease with which conditions can be “shrugged off” it is difficult to generate the same dramatic tension. In systems that seem to be as much about resource allocation as anything – it is difficult to understand making the profusion of resources so overwhelmingly large… instead, use that resource allocation to create the sense of danger, the sense of the ticking clock… but that’s just one opinion.

It’s funny. I actually set out today planning on writing about how diseases in RPGs are so underwhelming and ended up in a totally different place. Maybe disease gets to be next?

As always, thanks for reading.


5 responses

  1. I like that in this post the point of the mechanic is to lead to dramatic tension — to a player/DM experience enhanced with excitement and fear. Inflation is bad because it mutes dramatic tension. D&D has always been prone to inflation, I think, which is part of why I’m setting up my new campaign under the Atlantean/Arcanum rules.

    1. Sorry for the late replies… wedding got in the way. I think you actually do a great job of reducing my point down to its essentials without losing the point. Also, seriously, amazing respect for running an Atlantean/Arcanum game. Man I wanna do that!

      1. Thanks! When I go to the East Coast for the holidays I’ll run a proof-of-concept Arcanum game with my childhood gaming buddies (and their kids). We’ll see if I can recruit regular players here in California when I get back. If not, I guess I’ll take it online, because it’s the system I want to use.

  2. My thought is to change “save or die” to “die or save”. This works for a number of “permanent” things – poison, petrification, lycanthropy, soul draining, etc. The idea is that you take this nasty effect and then the other characters need to save you before you get affected permanently. For poison, you take a nasty effect if you fail the save. This might be unconsciousness, paralysis, or another condition. Generally it’s something that takes you out of the fight. This adds the urgency that simply losing hit points doesn’t. You then get saves every round. Failing three saves (more or less if you want to adjust the potency of the effect) gives you a worse worse condition. (it kills you, you get petrified, etc). If you get a natural 20 on your save you are cured, but otherwise a success doesn’t help you.
    Without rolling a natural 20, somebody has to actively help you. This depends on the type of affliction. It could be a heal check, an arcana check, a religion check. For some cases, just spending a standard action helping you would be enough.
    As you mentioned, simply taking ongoing damage isn’t that tense. A normal save-or-die is only tense until the die lands. This method can keep the tension up for several rounds. While it’s based on 4e death saves, it can easily be ported into other games.

  3. You know… that’s actually a really good idea. I really like the idea of all saves in the form of 4e’s Death Saves. That actually works for me quite well.


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