25 August 2010

Otyughs and Saving Throws

Saw this picture on rpg.net the other day, in a post about posing "old school" images, or rather, images that suggest old school to you. This one struck me as particularly hilarious, and very, very telling.

One of the things I tell my players before every session (especially when they're new, or we haven't played in a while) is that I'm not going to fudge rolls, that some monsters may be too tough for you, and that you may very well die in the first battle you get in. There are traps in the dungeon that might slay you, and there is a very real possibility that you'll all be ambushed and killed by a band of kobolds. And looking online, it feels like I'm in the minority.

To be entirely honest, the online place I was thinking of was Enworld, which is perhaps not the best source of information, but it is an enormously popular site and the topics that (when they aren't OMG LOOK AT THIS NEW DRECK WOTC IS PUTTING OUT HOW MANY COPIES WILL YOU GET) are at least brain-tickling, even if for the wrong reasons.

One of those brain-ticklers is the debate between save or die, and how apparently they're a horrible, horrible blight on the state of roleplaying. Anecdotes on both sides abound, while my tiny comment goes unnoticed. I said, and I quote:

"Saving throws are your last chance as a player to survive, given to you when you messed up so bad that you deserve to be dead, paralyzed, or worse."

Obviously, the debate went right around me, since people were more interested in point-by-point debating over what amounts to either semantics or preference in playstyle than actually talking about save or die effects, but that's fine. Let the little pedants have their fun because I know what I'm using.

I'm using, and have been using, save or die effects in my games, and I can't think of why I wouldn't. I asked one of my longtime players, the man known on here as T. Hamingston, and he said he liked them for the same reasons I did: They let the player live. They give the player another chance, when they should have been caught by a fireball, or incinerated by dragons' breaths, or horribly disintegrated. And that's something that's overlooked.

Which is sad, because that's pretty much the whole point of them. That's entirely what they're for, and for nothing else. Some of the people on there get upset, saying, "It's just not fair! Players shouldn't be able to die from random monsters, they should be the heroes! Heroes don't die from basilisks!"

Not even a 20 foot tall basilisk?

But that's another subject for another day, about why people need to play the world-saving heroes in a system originally designed to simulate tomb-robbing, mercenary rogues. We'll get to that. Today, it's about Saving Throws. Show me the part in any of the player's sections in any game where it says "The players are Heroes and deserve better fates than to be eaten by Otyughs in a nameless dungeon at third level." If there is a part like that, I've been playing it wrong all these years. Silly me! I've been making my players earn their heroism. I wasn't aware that players need to be coddled, protected, and handed big piles of gold and experience or they won't want to play. I must have been confusing my players with adults, who think that things that aren't earned aren't worth anything (to reuse an analogy, picture the award you got from winning a footrace against five-year-old children).

But seriously, what is it with everybody wanting to be an epic, save-the-world-before-breakfast hero these days? Half of the posters on EnWorld expect their players to be on a slow march towards inexorable victory, and view any sort of deviation from the inevitable end-game campaign as some sort of mean-spirited deviation. What? Challenges are unfair? Expecting players to be intelligent is mean? I think I'm going to release a game today: if these whiny 4th edition DMs are any indication, it'll be the most popular game in the world.

If you're the DM, roll 2d6. If you're the player, you can roll whatever you want, because you're going to win anyways. Sit still while the DM tells you how cool it was.

That's two of them there
square fellers.

2: Tell the players about some cool stuff they did. For example, they descended through the center of the earth, drop-kicked a dragon into a black hole, or talked a king into letting them ride griffons around the world and into the next dimension! Don't forget the Rule of Cool: Everything needs to be awesome, at all times.
3-5: Play a two hour game of watered down Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Make sure the encounter is balanced or the players might lose, and you'll have to contrive a victory out of it anyways!
6-8: Skill challenge time! Roll a d20 at least five times. If you get more odds than evens, they win! If you get more evens than odds, try again.
9-11: Time for some loot! Let your players write the loot from their "Wish List" onto their character sheet, and then have them write a new "Wish List." It can be whatever they want; after all, they've earned it!
12: Uh oh, time to save the world! Roll a d20 behind your DM screen. Whatever it was, tell the players it was a 20, and that they've saved the world! Congratulations!

Wishy-washy DMs look out. I've just rocked your world through subtle sarcasm.


  1. When I'd just started roleplaying, I remember a couple of players who reached 2nd level looking at the map and deciding to go off to loot a ruined fortress they spotted. The GM warned them: "It's a very ancient site, everybody you ask is terrified of going near it." But would they take the hint? They bought a boat, sailed to the fortress, got out, and were killed by the very first monster they encountered.

    The GM said afterwards: "You know when Conan is climbing the steps of an old ruin and he's treading on the bones of adventurers who came before him? Well, at 2nd level you idiots aren't Conan - you're the bones!"

    We actually finally mounted a proper expedition to that fortress when we were all 12th level, and still several of us got killed. But we enjoyed it because we knew we had one of those "firm but fair" GMs.

  2. Huge laughs here.

    Treating them like adults? Shame on you. Silly rabbit, D&D is for kids.

    You know, if you read my blog, how much I agree with all the sarcastic and facetious elements of this post. But I will admit, I insist on the situation actually being life or death before I'll use that saving throw. Not because I expect the characters to be heroes, but because the human body is tough enough to survive the poison bites of a fair number of the monsters that, in the books, come under the 'save or die' heading. I prefer to replace the death category with a set number of hit points that the poison will kill up to - killing the lower levels, if you will. Hell, they've earned some of their status by fifth level, right?

    But that's just quibbling. Huge monsters have huge amounts of poison and the save or die element survives. I'll go one further - there have to be instances were a saving throw isn't enough. You're caught in the magma pipe and here comes the lava. Oh, too bad. No safe place to jump to.

  3. @Dave: That does sound like fun, and is a lot like my personal style. I don't mind having players die, but I never "kill" them. Ever. Much like in real life, there's always opportunities to scout ahead, or retreat, or use tactics to overcome a disadvantage. Sometimes the dice are bad, and sometimes the players are hasty, but, as they say, c'est la vie, right?

    @Alexis: Glad you enjoyed it. :) And I actually agree with you about the saving throws, and consider them to be misused in a goodly number of cases. Saving throws should only be life or death, since that's what they're for. If it requires toughness and a little luck, it should be hit point damage. If it can be avoided, endured, bashed, or resisted, it would probably be better as an ability check. But if nothing more than luck and a little bit of divine help will save you, saving throws are where it's at.

    And yeah, if you let your players save against magma or being crushed by a collapsing dungeon room, then you've gone too far. Where, exactly, do you escape to when that happens?

  4. I'm late to the party, but this post is great. I think "Eaten By Otyughs" needs to be a book title, or a band name.

    @Mr. Morris: "You know when Conan is climbing the steps of an old ruin and he's treading on the bones of adventurers who came before him? Well, at 2nd level you idiots aren't Conan - you're the bones!"

    This is the funniest thing I've read in ages. I'm stealing this anecdote.