A million years ago in my post on Law #0, I mentioned before that I don’t like save-or-die effects. In case you’re on dial-up and can only load one page per hour (thanks for picking this one, by the way), here’s what I had to say:
I don’t like save-or-die effects. They’re the laziest kind of difficulty. They’re not interesting and they don’t challenge the players, they’re just a quick way to put a threat in the room. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that “roll a 14 or stop having fun” is a good mechanic in a rulebook or at a table. I have a standing rule in my campaigns that I won’t use any save-or-die effects as long as the players don’t.
I understand why save-or-die spells exist. Magic is terrifyingly powerful, by design. A first-level wizard, which is the weakest possible PC, doesn’t need as long as four seconds to summon a dog from space, change into a different person, or create fire that can shock an average person into unconsciousness. Magic escalates quickly, and at a certain point having some spell that causes instant death is a logical conclusion.
Spells aside, there’s also room for save-or-die effects in the flavor of D&D. Mythology in general is thick with creatures that can slay without really trying, like gorgons, basilisks, banshees, and whatever the plural of cockatrice is. In essence, giving players the ability to cast death spells is a way to even the playing field, giving them the same chance of killing their enemies with a minimum of time and work.
But what I don’t get is why a player would ever do that, or why a DM would do that to players. I don’t understand what player can cast one spell, consider it a job well done, and move on without having invested any effort in-character or out. I don’t understand what DM can enjoy hurling a creature like a medusa at unsuspecting players, knowing that it will probably result in people at the table who are just going to sit and watch as other people have fun for them. And I don’t understand why a game designer would write something like that, thinking “This has a good chance of ruining all the energy a DM or player put into something, there’s little if anything they can do about it, and that’s exactly what I want.”
Save-or-die effects really have to include things that aren’t explicit death, but have the same effect on an encounter. A player that gets paralyzed, put to sleep, or teleported away is as good as dead for that fight unless there’s some way to break them out, and it takes a dedicated character to prepare for the myriad ways a player can be incapacitated. At this week’s Delve Night, the players fought harpies. Three players fell for a harpy’s song, which requires that the characters take no action but follow the harpy until it stops singing. All the harpy had to do was fly toward a non-threatening area away from the quest objective, and suddenly there was only one player who got to participate in the session. There’s no threat of imminent death, but even with the extra save the players got from jumping off a boat into calm water, one effect shut down most of the party without any chance of salvation. The only ways to stop the effect were to cast silence (which requires a valuable spell slot at low levels), slay the harpy (which requires that a character with appropriate range and damage resists the spell), or play a bard (which requires playing a bard).
In my campaigns, save-or-die (save-or-become-temporarily incapacitated is too hard to type repeatedly) effects are soft-banned. I won’t design encounters with them, including avoiding monsters with those effects built-in or lessening the severity of the effects, and the players won’t use them either. If the players do happen to use a save-or-die spell, then that lock comes off; I’ll never forget the panicked looks the party had when one player, against all advice, tried flesh to glass on a monster, knowing that I would gladly (and indiscriminately, because I’m great like that) respond in kind. It allows players to either safely avoid them or keep one in reserve for a critical moment, which is a neat backup plan to have.
If there’s a flaw in this plan, it’s that the system expects you to use save-or-die effects, so you miss out on a few things avoiding them. Look at the save-or-die effects on the 9th-level spell list for wizards: dominate monster, hold monster (because of the setup for coups de grace), imprisonment, mage’s disjunction (for NPCs rather than monsters), power word kill, wail of the banshee, and weird. Nearly a third of core 9th-level arcane spells aren’t allowed in my campaigns, and a bunch of lower-level spells are out as well; in general, enchanters are outright ruined by this restriction, but all casters end up with fewer options. Things aren’t much better on my side, either. Every core monster above CR 17 can use some save-or-die effect except the tarrasque (which, as you may have heard, is the tarrasque), and I have to read some monsters closely to see whether they have some terrifying game-ending effect. Remind me to talk sometime about the entropic reaper.
I’m not sure whether to include lesser effects under this umbrella, but I lean toward no. A wizard in a silence spell or fighter who gets his weapon sundered probably feels like he’s locked out of the fight, but there’s always the opportunity to affect the encounter in some way. It’s a situation that rewards sufficiently creative players, which I like as long as I do something that means I don’t feel bad about destroying tens of thousands of gold pieces.
This is one of the many cases where Pathfinder improves on 3rd Edition and one of the rare cases where 4th Edition may as well. Pathfinder changed some spells like finger of death and wail of the banshee to direct damage rather than save-or-die, and 4th Edition has fewer effects capable of knocking out an enemy, most if not all of which are restricted to daily usage. In a sense, 4th managed to do away with save-or-die effects by breaking them down into many smaller effects designed to make sure that enemies participate in the battle as little as possible, giving them to players and monsters in equal measure, calling that role a “controller”, and making it a heavily-suggested part of every party and every fight. I’m not convinced this is a net gain.
I guess my favorite story around save-or-dies isn’t the above-referenced terrified players, but it was earlier in that campaign and similarly terrifying. The party was in a one-sided fight (a planned TPK), and the cleric broke out some serious spell to kill a nearly-unharmed enemy construct. She succeeded, and on the next initiative a death salad used implosion to kill the cleric and nobody else. I’m not sure what made the implosion stop (damage interfering with the concentration?), but I know the players suddenly had an opinion about that monster, which set up both the severity of the soft ban on save-or-dies and the consequences of playing D&D as written. It was delightful.