Why I find “Save or Die” poor gaming

In some of my reading over the past couple of days, I’ve caught a theme that applies to me.

WotC has put up more about ideas they are putting into D&D5e, with the constant return to old ideas with a mix of old and new mechanics. As I’ve stated, I’m just not interested in this direction. And then there is this new article On Gnome Stew:


The author, Walt, discusses how he handles equipment in different settings, whether assumed or purchased, in fantasy versus modern, etc.

As I read this article, something crystalized in my mind, and it’s something I think I’ve always found D&D lacking in, until the H-P-E series WotC released with 4e. D&D has always been published with the assumption that there is no overarching plot line to any DM’s campaign. Few module series have ever been more than a handful of episodes linked together (such as the infamous Giants-Drow-Demonweb series, and a few others), but only the HPE series carried the idea of a campaign from levels one to thirty. Now, note I’m also not counting the adventure paths of Dungeon Magazine when it was published by Paizo. WotC also did the Scales of War adventures, which covered a plotline from levels 1-30. These are, historically, uncommon, though.

But what my friends and I have run is always full campaign arcs, ranging from level 1 to somewhere in the Epic level range. I’m beginning to do some prep on a new campaign, and I can easily foresee a longer campaign, or a series of short campaigns. We run games with persistent characters, not unlike a novel. When characters die, it’s more dramatic than the old style “kill and raise/create” cycle, which always struck me as meaningless.

This is kind of why I find “Save or Die” effects poor gaming. Mearls commented in this in yesterday’s Legends and Lore article (http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20120305), when he discusses why some folks don’t like “save or die” effects.

I and my players want storytelling, not the gamist, antagonistic play that the older editions fostered. While I play adversaries as ruthless killers who are trying to kill the PCs, I am not trying to get that vaunted TPK that some DMs think is necessary to prove to their players that their characters are threatened. In my book, that’s a path to an abusive relationship, and I don’t believe that’s actually conducive to anything more than the dissolution of gaming groups, as players and DMs come to resent each other. I’m building better relationship with my players, I feel, than the killer DMs I’ve met in my 30+ years of gaming. I’m guessing it works, as I’ve been gaming with most of my players since 1993 (and the players I currently haven’t been gaming with that long simply weren’t even born then).

Yeah, I’ll take a more cooperative, storytelling game game that doesn’t rely on micromanaging and TPKs over “Save or Die” any day.


About docryder

I'm an experienced table top gamer with an open mind to new game systems. I'm looking to explore ideas I've got. Some are pretty meta, some are pretty mundane. Welcome to my world.

Posted on March 6, 2012, in Metagaming. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Players don’t like “Save or Die” because it’s a terrible system that severely punishes players based on single dice rolls.

    You nailed it when you called it “antagonistic play”. It’s punitive, random death, and (unless they play Magic-Users) the PCs don’t really have access to it. When they do, the problem cuts both ways, with Mages that can wreck a carefully-designed villain encounter with a single spell.

    The Revised Star Wars d20 rules and 4E went such a long way toward fixing something that’s been a problem since the very beginning of the game, and the designers want to move backwards?

    The more I hear about Next, the more I think that players just want “more of the same” and not “better” rules.

    • I’m noticing that the voting on most of the polls they are putting up is cutting across “party lines,” although every once and a while, they swing very heavily in favor of one or another. Those party lines are pre-3.x and 4e. 3.x players now have Pathfinder, and I don’t think many of them are interested in 5e at all. I’m also beginning to suspect the 4e folks are beginning to come to the conclusion that WotC’s focus on 5e means they’re going to have to go the way of the Pathfinder people, and accept that they are no longer welcome.

      The “antagonistic play” was really something I stumbled upon. I hadn’t thought of the idea in years. For some reason, I’ve been thinking of a guy I used to know who once made a remark about “punching the DM who did that in the face” in response to a joke about a Save Or Die situation (never liked that guy). AP does sort of ruin the experience for a lot of us, and sadly too many gamers use such play to work out their own frustrations in life (especially when younger). This gets really bad when they never grow out of it, and I’ve met a few of those (like the aforementioned example).

  2. I’m adding this Facebook comment here for record keeping. It’s from tolladay, an old friend who runs a small firm involved in the entertainment industry…

    “A good read. The topic is a bit too out of my field, but I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to having gameplay mimic the storytelling arc. Sometimes I think the purpose of role playing games is not to play them, but to tell the story of the game play afterwards with your friends.

    “This is collaborative story telling (as opposed to most novels which have only a single author) and as such they are more in line with other types of collaborative creative efforts like filmmaking, advertising, and some types of songwriting. The collaborative creative experience is one of the most wonderful things a person can experience in this modern age. Save or Die takes away from this process by working against group effort in favor of individual effort. If you want individual effort you can always play video games of WOW.

    “I would hazard that one of the biggest things that distinguishes games like D&D from video games is that they are at heart a collaborative effort. This is their strength, and it should be emphasized.”

  3. Found on Google+:

    From Rulebook Heavily of Something Awful (tinyurl.com/7ee8896)

    ‘It doesn’t add tension. There’s no decision point in it. You get hit with it, there are two things that can happen; You either succeed and nothing of worth is accomplished, or you fail and don’t get to play with the rest of the group tonight. There’s no decision point involved because it’s just a straight up dice roll, and the only possible decision involved is “don’t fight monster with SoD effect X”, which is more about ignoring a bad mechanic because it’s bad.

    You know what’s tense? Being down to 2 HP with a huge-rear end dragon in front of you, making the tough decision of whether you should risk one final assault in the hopes of it taking it out, healing and hoping you can tough out an attack or running for safety. Assuming all are viable courses of action fraught with their own risks, there’s some genuine tension because you’ll have to accept the consequences of a choice you made. A dice roll is not a choice, and is entirely out of your hands despite the comforting illusion of being responsible because “you rolled the die”.

    Let’s take the article’s medusa example. I can see its stone-gaze being modelled as a slow and ongoing damage (save ends) effect, modelling how it slowly turns you to stone. Once you’re bloodied, a failed save paralyses you; a failed save while paralyzed turns you to stone. This adds tension because now you can make a conscious decision of whether to deal with the Save-or-eventual-death that’s eating at you (heal yourself so you don’t go below bloodied, get some bonus to your saving throw) or whether to risk it and press on, and grants your allies a tough choice when you’re paralyzed of whether to help you or keep up the pressure on the monster.

    What does the article want to do? Oh, you’re below X amount of HP because a minion monster hit you earlier in the round, roll a die to see whether you get to play. And sometimes that HP threshold is your HP total. Isn’t that fun?’

  4. Another Facebook comment, from Christopher, who I played Encounters with at the FLGS:

    “I like it, good thoughts. I really hate save or die mechanics… It’s only a few steps away from a DM saying “rocks fall, everyone dies”, but with the disguised possibility of living of you roll high enough.

    “I’ve also experienced and also been a victim of DM vs party animosity as well. Games like that just aren’t fun. I started running 4e because my circle of friends had that problem going w two of the players and I wanted to step in and finally get them playing again (with 4e this time).”

  5. I’m also less a fan of save or die mechanics; I know that even in 3.x days, Monte cook worked on reducing their number in Arcana Evolved. So maybe that’s a good sign going forward.

    [Amusingly, I suspect that “save or die” was introduced to counter the even more “traditional” insta-death. We’ve just moved beyond even its level of arbitrary leathality.]

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