House Rule: Mitigated Save-or-Dies

For November I had a series of short posts about weird mechanics I’ve used or played in games. Before I posted anything I asked my players about any mechanics they thought would a good fit for one of those posts, and I did get some good ideas. But I also got some ideas that didn’t really fit what I wanted. I was looking for mechanics contradictory to the game’s stated intentions, ones that subvert or ignore core assumptions about how the rules should function and as such should only exist for set pieces. Several of the ideas my players proposed were, instead, just house rules we use in our games. They’re good house rules, but they weren’t part of the stated topic.

Now that there is no stated topic, it’s a good time to talk about those house rules. These don’t break the game wide open—again, they’re nothing on the level of “abolish classes”—but they do change it to something we think is more fun than the rules as written.

Concept: Mitigated save-or-die spells
Tested in: The Worldwound campaign

What it is: I’ve historically been an opponent of save-or-die effects. As I said Law #0:

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.

This does, however, kick a lot of high-level effects out the window, and that’s a problem in high-level play. We have to account not just for obvious problems like weird, but also effective save-or-dies like flesh to stone (it’s curable, but only if a caster has one of the very few spells that counteract it), dominate monster (it’s not that hard to give a creature a command that isn’t against its nature, invalidating its second saving throw), or any number of fear effects. Anything that takes a creature out of the fight with one d20 roll is a problem, not a feature or a strategy.

We decided to give all effective save-or-die spells a secondary requirement. Whenever a creature casts such a spell, he rolls 1d8 per caster level. If the total is less than or equal to the hit point of the spell’s target, it takes effect (and may trigger a saving throw). If it is not, the spell fails. The d8 is intentional; enough spells deal d6 damage per caster level that save-or-dies needed something better. There’s no point in targeting an enemy with a save-or-die, hoping your 10d6 exceeds its hit points, when you can just cast fireball and deal 10d6 directly.

What we wanted: Save-or-die spells still exist, but they’re finishing moves. A creature can’t take someone out of the fight with a single action anymore. Instead they have to whittle that person down via other means, using the save-or-die only near the end. It’s a little like catching Pokémon; spells have a very slim chance of working at the start of a fight, depending on the level of their targets, but it’s much easier to catch something that’s already been weakened.

How it went: It’s hard to say. The anti-save-or-die culture is so ingrained in our play style that we haven’t really used this alternative that much as players. Our DM has used it a few times with monsters for whom it’s thematically appropriate, but it’s not often a factor. We may see more of it in Faith when we hit a high enough level for finishing moves*, at least for enemies. For now it’s an option we’re keeping in our back pockets, and we’re happy it’s there if we need it.

What we learned: Old habits are hard to break. We’re still not the sort of players who jump at that chance, but we agree it’s good to have the option. A “yes, but” is preferable to a flat “no”.

* — This may take longer than we think. The scariest 4th-level save-or-die I can think of is dominate person, which nobody in the party can cast. Also, this setting doesn’t have that spell because one of the players put “long-term mind-controlling magic” in the explicit banned list during Session Zero. That player is the one who plays Jace, the party’s mind-controller, and he’s also the one who introduced this save-or-die mechanic to us in the first place. It’s like an ouroboros of enchantment spells.

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