Monday, March 26, 2012

Hypothesis: Why some players really fear Save or Die

Hypothesis: Newer gamers tend to dislike, distrust, and complain about Save or Die effects, while older gamers brought up with the math of TSR editions don't mind them so much, because of the math behind saves in d20 D&D vs. TSR D&D.

Probably not a new insight, as the numbers have been out there for anyone to look at for 12 years now, but I've taken a hard look at some of those numbers in the game for the first time myself.  Boring, but oh well.  It sheds some light on the recent discussions revolving around Mike Mearls' posts about Save or Die threats in D&D.

I've mentioned this phenomenon before.  In old school D&D, as characters gain levels, they only get better and better at making saving throws.  This is because the save numbers are a function of class and level and are divorced from the threat that forces the save.  It doesn't matter if it's a weak ass Giant Centipede or a huge honking Nightwalker that forces you to Save vs. Poison.  You've got the same chance against either.  And as you get into the mid-to-high levels, you can be pretty confident that the odds are on your side (although never completely worry free).

In new school (d20) D&D, your save bonuses increase as you level, but so do many of the save DCs that you nee to hit to make that save.  So by the time you're 5th level, you can easily save against the Giant Centipede (but likely won't encounter any) but have about as tough a time saving against the Giant Scorpion's venom as you had against the Centipede's at level 1.  And by the time you're level 17 and facing Nightwalkers, you actually probably have a worse chance to save than you did against the lesser foes, unless you've optimized your magic item purchases/feats/multiclassing to boost your Fortitude save.

Let's compare the percentage chance to save of a Fighter in BX (Moldvay/Cook) D&D, where he maxes out at 14th level, a Fighter in BECMI (Mentzer) D&D up to level 20 (maxes out at level 36 with a 95% chance to make any save), and a 3.0/3.5 D&D Fighter.  Now, these are not hard numbers where the d20 system is concerned, because stat bonuses, feats, and common magic items can boost saves.  Of course, in Classic D&D it's not that hard to find rings of protection or other devices that boost saves, too.  Also, as noted above, there's no set number against which to save in d20 D&D.  The threat is relative to the power of the source of the attack.  At 20th level, a Fighter may only face a DC 25 spell-like ability from a Balor, or a DC 40 breath attack of a Great Wyrm Red Dragon.

Here's a chart.  Click to enlarge.
 What does this tell us?  That devoid of any magic items at all, the Classic Fighter just gets better and better at making saving throws.  They start off worse in most areas, but improve over time.

If you play a Fighter up from 1st level to the "sweet spot" 4-8 range, you notice you're getting better and better odds to avoid poisons, spells, petrification, and dragon breath.  No, you're not invincible, but there is improvement.  Throw in a ring of protection or a displacer cloak, and you can be fairly confident as a player that the odds are on your side.

What about the d20 Fighter*?  well, you start out fairly good against poison or other body-affecting attacks, and decent against others.  It's likely as a Fighter you'll have a bit of a bonus to Con and maybe even Dex, improving the Fort and Ref saves.  Wisdom?  Not likely, so your Will save is gonna be right where it is (because you're not gonna take Iron Will as a feat over Power Attack or Weapon Focus, now, are you?).

As the player advances, though, the DCs quickly outpace the by-the-book bonuses to saves.  Meaning the player had better invest in lots of cloaks of resistance, stat-boosting items, and maybe spend one or two of those feat slots on Lightning Reflexes and/or Iron Will.  If you don't have all of that stuff, there's not much chance you're gonna be making any saves against Fireballs or Confusion spells up in the mid-to-high levels.  And remember, the numbers I'm using above assume low stat bonuses, so even with the magic item Christmas Tree effect, high level saves are hard to make.

So what do players who've been brought up on 3E and later games learn?  That Save or Die effects suck, ESPECIALLY at higher levels, because their character is more than likely going to fail that save.  Old Schoolers, and those who've been introduced to RPGs through the clones/simulacrums, learn that you've got less to fear from that dragon's breath (unless it's one of Frank's Large or Huge dragons!) when you're name level, and if you play into the Companion/Masters levels, you've got little to fear from any sort of special attack.

This is something that should be addressed in the discussions involving 5E, I think.

*Any class, actually, as they use the same progressions for all classes, with the Monk having good progression in all 3, a couple classes good progression in two areas, and most having good progression in only one Save category.


  1. Not so much with me. I have been playing since 1979 since Holmes Basic, and I hate Save or Die.

    It is a lousy mechanic. Sure there are some effects like that in the real world, but that is the story I want to tell.

    Game stopping outcomes should never hinge on a bad roll.

    1. Fair points, Tim. And that's why I tried to phrase my hypothesis with general statements, not blanket ones. Some New Schoolers are fine with Save or Die (I've met a few PF aficionados that can whip up a PF char nearly as fast as I can a BECM one, for example).

      Your objections have nothing to do with the comparative math involved, and more to do with the concept itself. And if they don't suit your style of gaming, then of course you can get rid of them no matter what game you play (if the game has them to begin with).

      Personally, I don't mind save or die effects, and never consider them game enders. Game changers, certainly, but at lower levels it's not so hard to catch up a replacement PC, and at higher levels it can actually become a spur to further adventure ("Can we recover enough of Durgron's corpse from the stomach of the purple worm to use Raise Dead, or will we need to find someone to cast something more powerful?")

  2. Unlike Timothy, I don't have a particular story to tell in my games - the story is what we'll tell after it's finished. So, "And then Harthak the Invulnerable rolled a '1'" is a perfectly acceptable thing to happen. As for how Save or Die works in various formats:

    Firstly, from my min/max days, I can assure you that a 3.X/PF Fighter (if anyone's crazy enough to play one) does have Iron Will, an OK Wisdom, and seeks out magical bonuses to saving throws. Without those bonuses, you're not just a lump of hit points that does mediocre damage, you're a lump of hit points that does mediocre damage to the rest of the party. The Reflex save can go hang, as it generally just means hit point damage.

    Secondly, from using the Epic Level Handbook, combat in that style of game boils down to Russian Roulette, with Save or Die (or effectively Die) being a normal kind of attack.

    Finally, from playing Labyrinth Lord, "Save or Die" is the end of the discussion. Characters typically have the chance to prepare themselves, avoid the attack, or just RUN AWAY before having to drop dice on the problem.

    1. I and a few others have played Fighters in d20, but none of us were hard core min-maxers. You basically confirm my points, though. And looking at the numbers, that min-maxed Fighter would need Iron Will, the best whatever of Wisdom (were they periapts?) they could afford, plus the best cloak of resistance they could afford, and would maybe then keep a similar chance to that given at 1st level (and that's wealth not going into their magic swords, armor, or Str and Con boosters, as well).

      Maybe that's part of the reason Fighters aren't considered worthwhile by d20 min-maxers. In order to keep themselves safe from mind control, they gimp their 'niche' of dealing and taking damage. And another reason why such players would like to see Save or Die effects going the way of the dodo.

  3. that inverse chart is really interesting. i can't say i am a fan of save or die, but i can see its place in the game. i would really miss mork and mindy, but i would ham up that death to the 't' and then make a new one.

  4. You know, Timothy's response illuminates another interesting corollary to this discussion: Save or Die is probably counter to running a "story" based game.

    If the game is the story, then death is part of it. Frankly, it's often a cool interlude or segue into the next chapter.

    If the game "follows" a story or plot line, then death is a rude interruption.

    Neither is wrong fun, so maybe you build the game so either is valid.

    1. With the "modular" approach, building 5E/Next so that both styles are valid shouldn't be hard. From what I've read coming out of WotC, though, it seems like only the newer gamers are being considered (not surprising since it's mostly fans of the current edition that are giving them feedback), and also no one's talking about the actual math involved either.

  5. Very interesting analysis. Having played both a lot I am surprised how I never noticed this before. I think this one of those areas that got "fixed" in later editions but in the end just made high level 3e feel the same as low level 3e but with a lot more math and decision points ( what magic items to get, what feat to get, even what class to take) as you go up levels that made the game unfun. Our 'high level' game Pete ran was a perfect example. I felt like a lot more fun from our low level games which is why I was advocating going back to b/x near the end. Even if my character dies, it only takes a few minutes to make a new one, even a high level one to replace the one that bit the dust. Poison is poison - in my books. One thing folks haven't been discussing in all the save vs die discussions is the original idea of what hp stand for. In my b/x games all the hits are are bumps, scratches, bruises, battle fatigue until you get to the last 6. Those are your real hits, the ones that leave scars. But death magic and poison they go straight those 6 hp. If a high level fighter - lets say Lancelot gets bit by a rattlesnake, well he is probably going to die.

    1. I remember that game. I remember my Ranger getting hit by a spell in a surprise round, and being out of the game from that point on (also Gene taking forever to go through all the spell lists for his Mystic Theurge each round... Yeah, glad you thought to go back to BX, and brought me with you!)

      The "death spiral" in our high level d20 Conan game as the Picts were shooting poisoned arrows at us wasn't fun, either. A nice, quick Save or Die would have been preferable to that. The real lesson learned with that one was "Don't give Pete mead to drink if he's the DM," though. :)

      One question, though, about your system (and for others who use similar wounds/vitality point systems) is this: If most hit points over the first hit die are just wearing you down with fatigue, scratches and the like, then why is that rattlesnake forcing a Save with each attack? And yes, this then brings up the question of how far do you go with Simulationism.