Pathfinder: Save or Die


Last week I used my first 9th level spell against the party. The spell was Wail of the Banshee. It only occurred to me after casting that 200 points of damage was a lot for a 17th level party. Needless to say, I killed everyone except the monk, the ranger and the sorcerer, with the sorcerer being just a couple of hit points away from death. Fortunately the party had enlisted the aid of a planetar angel earlier in the session, and so they were able to resurrect and heal everyone.

I have now officially killed off every party member, including the ranger’s pet. But killing three characters outright and nearly killing another in one go because they failed their Fortitude save felt, well, cheap. Neither I nor my players enjoyed the experience, so it got me thinking about what I could have done differently.

I could have reduced the damage caused by the spell, reducing those who failed to low hit points. I would still have got my point across, but the PCs wouldn’t have had to waste resources on an encounter that was meant to show the PCs how powerful the boss was. (Yes, they now know that he’s extremely powerful, but three deaths from one spell still seemed excessive.)

Alternatively I could have used a different spell entirely. I don’t really like save or die effects, and I often wish they were clearly marked so I wouldn’t accidentally choose one to use in my game. Often when I read a spell description, I think, ‘that sounds cool and will do lots of damage’, not realising the impact it will have if several characters fail their saves. I think this is something that will come with experience.

The third option would have been hitting the ‘undo’ button and cancel my blunder entirely, but since the players had already gone to the trouble of resurrecting everyone I felt that would complicate things even further. I generally take the same approach as is usually taken in Magic: The Gathering – if the error has just occurred and nothing else has happened yet, then it can be undone. If the action has already moved on, then it’s too late.

Needless to say, I now know how scary high level spells can be, and this knowledge has helped me prepare for the upcoming showdown with the big bad. I took a careful look at all the spellcasters and what they were supposed to cast, and took out horrible spells like Temporal Stasis, Prismatic Wall, and Maze. I love making extremely challenging encounters, but spells like those simply remove characters from the fight, which is unfair to the player and also a bit anti-climatic, especially in a final showdown.

What are your thoughts on save or die (or remove from combat) spells in Pathfinder (or similar systems)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

This is day 7 of the 7 Day Feel Good Blogging Challenge, a ‘hot topic’.

Header image by ScottPurdy on DeviantArt.

2 thoughts on “Pathfinder: Save or Die

  • September 24, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    I think the knife’s edge of a save-or-die has purpose in the game. I would personally try to avoid it except for particularly dramatic moments (such as the climax of an Adventure Path part).

    That said, I’d like to point out that “death” doesn’t have to be an end. There are many things that can happen in response to the “death” event. A few examples:

    1. In a Kingmaker pbp that I’m playing in, my paladin died protecting the party against the Staglord in the climax of the first part of the campaign. The Staglord died too in the process. My GM used this as an opportunity to start a slow exposition, my character found herself in the afterlife, alongside the Staglord. Since it is pbp it was easy for him to keep our posts separate from the main campaign, and my character actually played 2 years in-game time over the course of 4 month real-time in a completely stand-alone story path. Her (rich) parents sponsored her resurrection, but she chose to remain in the afterlife – much to the surprise of everyone. Why? Because she decided that she needed to save the Staglord and traveled with him through Abaddon, Hell, Axis and the Boneyard to petition Pharasma. Eventually she succeeded, pulling herself and the Staglord (revealed to be Nikolai Rogarvia, a descendant of the lost rightful rulers) back to Golarion. She forfeited heaven against her goddess’ wishes and put her own soul up as guarantee against the Staglord’s sins, such that they’d both be able to return to life and prepare against the coming of Choral the Conqueror.

    2. Admittedly, the above scenario is not as easy to do in a real-life game; but what I’ve done a couple of time myself (in some form or other) is use “death” as a jump point for outside intervention. In one case Nethys intervened on a PCs behalf, in exchange for certain promises and …”adjustments” to the character. Likewise, it is possible for any other suitably powerful entities to interfere in some way – not necessarily strictly in favor of the dead PC, but you can bargain for a lot if your life is on the line. This approach, similar to “1.” above, allows for certain exposition and motivation to be implanted in characters – sometimes also without the rest of the party knowing details.

    3. Finally, I’ve been very fond of interpreting “death” effects as a another way to mess with a PC. More than once I’ve let a PC live on -10 instead of death, but take on a “permanent” disability. That hobgoblin crit with a greataxe? Yea, you lost your arm. But you’re alive! Small blessing that. …there are a number of physical or mental impairments (spiritual impairments are usually domain of “2.” above) that can be inflicted – and that can generally eventually be cured. I like to time the effort required such that the “cure” comes available maybe 2 to 4 levels later. The arm-loss due to a “death”-crit? Around level 4 that is fine, 3 to 4 levels or so later the party has access to “regenerate”. This has the side-effect that it can be a fun challenge, both in terms of role-playing and mechanically, for a character to adapt to their new circumstances – which can add immeasurably to the memorability of the story.

    • September 24, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      I must say that story about your paladin makes pbp sound a lot more attractive than I had thought. That sounds seriously cool.

      I have no problem with killing PCs, and have killed every single one over the course of this campaign, though in cases when an immediate resurrection is not available I found it difficult to keep the player of the dead PC interested in the game, even with me giving him some afterlife tidbits in between the rest of the game.

      In the case of this particular mass murder of PCs with one spell, it wasn’t fun for anyone, including me, so save or die is definitely something I’ll consider much more carefully in future. With the upcoming fight against the big bad, I think it could easily turn into a TPK if things don’t go the PCs’ way, and I think that would be very anti-climatic. But I still want to make the encounter epic and challenging… I’m pretty torn on how to play this last stretch of the campaign!


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