Monday, March 5, 2012

Picking Nits From Mike Mearls Latest Column - Save or Die!

(Mike Mearls is playing the role of Monte Cook in today's Legends & Lore Column, which you can read in it's unadulterated form here)

It'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 (probably nearly all of the 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 (is this an acknowledgement that Monte's posts were doing more harm that good with the marketing talk he was spewing?) 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 (as the article's title is Save or Die! it seems like a fairly big issue in the blogoshere - I'm surprised it hasn't come up yet in their design process), 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 (now this is a fricking cool idea!). 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 (so, it's like a home-brewed 5e then). 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 (as it's a group of fellow game designers, I'm not sure if it's an accurate reflection of the rpg player pool, but you work with what you got)?

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 (eh, he answered my previous statement). 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." (or "this encounter will take less than 4 hours to complete" or "TPK" or even "Holy Shit dude!  You died!  This is 4e, that ain't supposed to happen!")  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. (yep, good stuff when used in moderation)

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.  (yeah, 4e isn't much on avoidance, is it?)

On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. (how the hell is it boring?  annoying if you die, but not 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 (TPKs are not inherently bad.  Constant TPKs are the issue).

I really like the save or die mechanic because, in my experience, most DMs know how to handle it well (DM empowerment?  DM responsibility?  This is the opposite of 4e). 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. (Mike is speaking "to me" more than Monte ever did in his posts)

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 (which is fine and dandy.  I do the same for level draining). 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 (in a game with To Hit rolls and Saves, chance is part of 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 (don't fall victim to the "designer ways" Mike.  Use the Force). 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? (let me see what you got first)

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.)

(alright - I must admit to being intrigued by this)

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. (as a balance issue, I'm okay with this)
  • 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. (not sure I agree with this. PCs and monsters do not need to follow the same rules)
  • 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. (keeping with the whole "orcs should be viable threats for multiple levels theme)
  • It creates a rising sense of tension at the table. Running low on hit points becomes even more dangerous. (tension is a good thing in gaming)
  • 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. (again, no complaint from me)
  • 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 (eh, I am not a 3e scholar - I'll take Mike's word on this)
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. (Again, PCs and Monsters do not need to follow the same set of rules when it comes to Save or Die.  Monsters do get a Saving Throw I assume)

K, color me surprised.  Very little marketing bullshit.  Let me correct myself.  No detectable marketing bullshit.  This is actually an informative article that doesn't contradict itself or any previous articles or statements.  Even if I never play 5e, I may use some of this in the ext OSR game I run.


  1. Hit point limits for save or die effects would only work for me if the limit was the Hp of the monster. Otherwise it's another Stat to track.

  2. I never met the guy so I may be talking out of my a$$ here, but Mearls has always struck me as a straight-up guy who loves the game and looks back with a lot of fondness on the old school days. I have a sneaking feeling that if he could do as he really wished, he would just scrap all the new fangled nonsense and tell everyone to back to playing AD&D.

  3. As someone who played 4e your comments in the 5th paragraph had me rolling!

  4. @the dave - I try ;)

    @Chris - he doesn't pile on the BS like Monte. He has some well thought out ideas and doesn't try to surround them with marketing hype.

  5. So, it's a Medusa that does a 25 damage stoning attack that you ignore if it doesn't take you to 0.

    Surely if Fire, Ice, Necrodarkness, and Swords can all do HP damage, the Medusa's gaze can too? Then yon stoning could just do ~15 damage and turn you to stone when you hit 0.

    You could even have it apply a thematically appropriate condition along the way, slow or something, and it can be subdual damage so it can be a bit stronger and faster without crippling you for the day.

  6. 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.

    I was thinking much the same thing as tussock. Medusa gaze does 25 points of damage, and if it kills you you are turned to stone -- much as in some editions of D&D, disintegrate does some wicked damage (lots of dice) and if it kills you, you're a pile of dust on the floor.

    Simple and consistent, easily applied, and so on. Might work only once per encounter or creature faced (so you don't get spammed with the same attack round after round). And so on.

    No need for this to be complicated.

    Jeff's idea of using the creature's hit points as a cap may be a good one, but I'm not sure I want how hard the creature is to kill to be the measure of how well it kills -- especially since that sounds like it could introduce a death spiral. Beat down the medusa so it can only stone weaker and weaker creatures... handy, on monsters, but sucks if applied to PCs.


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