Posted last month, WotC’s Legends and Lore column mused a bit about the Save or Die mechanic throwing a few ideas about how they were part of the older game, and if they had a role in the newest edition. I’m not a fan of save or die, and was glad to see it go in 4E. However given the poll results that were provided the following week, it looks like I am in a minority.
I never got how some people felt 4E lacked the sense of danger of previous editions. Things were too balanced and players had too easy of a time. This got me because the DM always had the option to crank things up when making up an adventure. Throw a few trolls at that level 1 party and voila, you have a dangerous encounter where the PCs should have to run.
I’ll concede one point however. Heroic level games seemed to run just fine, but paragon and epic tier things likely would get a little wonky. Especially at higher level play, where out of the book battles could become a cakewalk with a fully rested party. Yet, even that could be overcome with some some tweaks and employing a different design philosophy that Fourthcore has explored.
Another point I’ll agree with is having a saving throw does engage a player a bit more. 4E effect mechanics were very streamlined and uniform, but did lack the interaction of previous editions. Rolling to hit against defence for spells are great when players were attacking, but being the target of these effects could become dull as all the action was in the DM’s hands. With saving throws, at least the PC could have some action in trying to counter a spell, rather than depending on a passive stat. However having something like that for everything could drag down the game, meaning you might have one way of resolving effects for players and another against monsters. In the end, with different systems to resolve spells and effects it could be a headache.
I’m just not a fan of wildly chaotic play that save or die encourages. It becomes harder to help maintain that story. With lots of checks built in 4E, I knew if I threw a high level encounter at the party, they would have a tough time and possibly a few might not make it. All of us could then craft the story around those big, momentous combats that telegraphed the idea that the players might have to make the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of the group.
Another problem I have with save or die is that with most adventures, the DM has control over everything. They are the ones that decide what the PCs will go up against. Having a random lethal outcome be layered on what I decide to throw at the players makes my job harder in trying to make a fun fight. If you were running a module that had been playtested extensively, this would be less of an issue. But most DMs are making their own game. It can be difficult to judge how much of a challenge fights will be using monsters with severe penalties if players don’t make their saving throw. Having one PC drop dead might make for an interesting side quest or push for roleplay, frequent TPKs however don’t seem to make for a fun time.
I don’t want save or die part of the core rules for DnDNext. I do however, want a little section in the next DMG to give advice on how they can ‘turn their game up to eleven.’ Having some suggestions on some stock abilities, or methods for putting save or die mechanics into your game would be great. So if a DM wanted to increase the lethality and danger of their games, they have some tried and true methods to do so.
An example might be to suggest encounter powers for creatures rely on saving throws instead of to hit rolls, and do max damage or ½ damage whether the player makes their appropriate save. For a more 4E-centric mechanic, how about a suggested disease track for level drain, and also add a condition that permanently removes 1 healing surge from a PC's total? Fourthcore introduced the idea of a new power keyword, Kill. If a player did not have a particular amount of healing surges available, they'd die outright. Having a good 5-10 methods and suggestions for introducing save or die into the game, with some additional pointers on appropriate use would likely be a great addition to a new DM’s arsenal of information.
Someone like me? Likely I'd never use it in my game. Yet other DMs out there would have solid, play-tested means to add save or die aspects to their game. I want it out of the game, but as an optional rule, this could have a place in folk’s games. I’m hopeful, as a core mechanic, save or die simply stays dead.