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D&D 3E
PSA: Bad Mechanics 
4th-Nov-2007 12:16 am

I wish to inform you about a class of bad mechanics existing in the core rules. They aren't unbalanced or illogical or anything, they are bad in a far more simple way.

I call these the "you can't play anymore" mechanics.

These are abilities like "panicked" and "paralyzed" that make it so that a player is unable to play the game anymore. Basically it's "oh, you failed a save? Sorry, you're not allowed to play in the game anymore. Instead you have to run away, or stand there quietly, or whatever." By using these conditions, you are are not allowing the player to have play the game.

These conditions should be used sparingly, if ever.

Yes, these fall under a broader category of "save-or-die" or "save-or-suck" effects, which in general are acknowledged to be bad design, as the fate of a character rests on a single die roll. But these are exceptionally bad to use, because the player has no way around them. It isn't that they now have to move into a flanking position to balance out that -2 from being shaken, or that they have to pull out a bow and shoot a guy because they are entangled. Using an ability that makes it so the player can't play is wrong. Period.

This message is brought to you by watching a fellow player storm away from the table after he was not allowed to participate in the only combat all session (after 8 hours of other crap which I can rant about another time) because he failed his save and became panicked and so was not allowed to play.

And for the record, I was just really really pissed off last night after an absolutely horrible session, and that was really the last straw. I understand that certain effects can be used well (and have seen them used to great effect), but the whole "sit around all day while the wizard talks to the DM, and then when you have a chance to do something (in a fight, no less) you aren't allowed to because you have to run away" seemed an easy target.

Lots of things went wrong (and are much, much more to blame). And that's enough of that. Please feel free to discuss the merits (or demerits) of save-or-die effects among yourselves as you wish, but I don't want to talk about what went wrong anymore. Ranting is just a waste of my time, and I'll try to talk to the DM when I've calmed down some.

The above is copied from a comment I made, which people don't seem to have read. I'm sorry I ever made this post in the first place.

But also for the record, I still maintain that not letting someone play the game is bad DMing. Whether you do this through a badly written story or through cruel use of mechanics, it's wrong. But I'll be careful to, in the future, not blame the mechanics for a poor run of DMing.
4th-Nov-2007 07:28 am (UTC)
I've been on the receiving end of a couple "save-or-die" sort of situations and you're right, they suck ass. Even if you make your save, it's generally hard to be happy because a lot of times you're just playing Russian Roulette and the bullet is going to be in the chamber for one of those rolls. I can't blame that player for being pissed.
4th-Nov-2007 07:41 am (UTC)
At least there's a chance of success with save-or-die effects. I once lost a character from touching a Sphere of Annihilation. There were no Int checks or Spellcraft rolls (from a 12th level Wizard with a 24 Int and max ranks in both Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana) to see what it was, even after watching someone else touch it and "disappear." We thought it was a teleportation device of some kind. We weren't expecting a deathtrap. We'd been playing in the same dungeon for twelve freakin' levels and had never encountered anything like this. Three characters died, no save, no warning, no nothin'. Couldn't even raise 'em. God, was I pissed!
4th-Nov-2007 03:00 pm (UTC)
Your DM is a dick. I'd have kicked his ass.
4th-Nov-2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
The DM didn't even tell the Wizard to make a Knowledge Arcana check? That's just lame, especially when by my estimation the Wizard should have had a fairly good idea of what it was just by glancing at it (+22 to Knowledge Arcana, unless you had a skill focus). But not even giving you a check? That is lame.

This is where I would have gotten pissed to, and been very tempted to find a new use for my dice, as missile weapons.
4th-Nov-2007 06:24 pm (UTC)
"No save, no roll, just dead."
"Ok, thanks. Bye."
5th-Nov-2007 01:00 am (UTC)

Tomb of Horrors!
5th-Nov-2007 06:35 am (UTC)
Close, but not quite. Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.
6th-Nov-2007 09:26 pm (UTC)
Tomb of Horrors had some of those too.

I distinctly recall a portal of swirling black energy that utterly destroyed anything that entered it.
6th-Nov-2007 09:44 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, it's quite famous for that. Tomb of Horrors was a deathtrap, no two ways about it. RttToEE, on the other hand, was one big dungeon-crawl, but it was distinctly lacking in those old-school save-or-die (or think-or-die) situations--except for that damn Sphere. We were so paranoid afterwards that the campaign probably took a couple of extra months to finish, but we never encountered anything else like it for the rest of the game.
4th-Nov-2007 11:24 am (UTC)
I have been in this situation (desert-blue dragon-failed will) and it sucks, but if a player storms away from a table... it may have as much to do with how long you are playing as anything else, I can understand frustration at being at the table for 8 hours waiting for this moment and then being out of it because of the fickle finger of fate.

In my group, in the situation mentioned above, we just set a round limit (this has become a house rule for all effects that require a will... so far, we have not used any spheres of annihilation so) generally at 3 rounds, but it is at the DM's discretion... and then have them roll again with a bonus or minus (also at the DM's discretion).

It makes the game better for everyone. The point is to have fun, nothing more.

But not every group is the same...

4th-Nov-2007 06:39 pm (UTC)
Well the effect did have a round limit, but the problem is at 11th level (where this game is), 3 rounds of combat IS the battle. And panicked means that you run away, so you are not only not participating, you're actually moving away from the fight. So even if you recover after "3" rounds, you still have to spend another 3 rounds rejoining the game.
20th-Nov-2007 12:56 am (UTC)
Anyone who plays without a ranged weapon of some kind should be shot. With a longbow. Just sayin'. ;-)

I was in a game once (I dropped out after two sessions) where the fighter had specialized in the longsword--fine, good, that's what fighters do--but then didn't carry a bow. Wtf? So he just sat back while the rest of us tried our best to hit the FLYING MONSTER WITH A BREATH WEAPON. (I think it was some kind of elemental? Definitely wasn't a dragon. It was a while ago.) Definite case of bad planning there.
4th-Nov-2007 12:13 pm (UTC)
Our last two gaming sessions have seen a lot of this. The tribe of feral things we were assaulting has access to some kind of two-headed dog that can hit you with a doppler bark that will stun you for d3 rounds. Of course, they used it every 2 rounds and kept resetting the duration.

It's terribly unfun.
4th-Nov-2007 12:55 pm (UTC)
Luckily Heroes of Horror addresses the problem of fear effects and offers alternate rules to fix. Though they are a bit more complicated, it certainly beats shaking in your greaves.
4th-Nov-2007 03:06 pm (UTC)
Hello, highbulp. I don't think they're bad design at all.

Under most circumstances, I'm a fan of "save or stop" effects. I'd like to explain why.
  • They emphasize the danger involved. If you want to avoid, them, fine: don't go adventuring today, or else immediately run away from every encounter. You're exploring dangerous places, fighting dangerous abominations. Perilous rolls are a way for the game system to represent the chance that bad things might happen.
  • Very few of them are, in fact, "a single save or stop". They're usuallly the last roll in a string of bad luck or bad decisions. Yes, the poison needle might be a save-or-die. But there was the bad luck in the previous spot check, or disable device check, and the poor decisions that led the PC's into such dire straits.
  • The game designers didn't think they were bad design. 3rd Edition added a new one, in fact: the save to avoid death from massive injury. Depending on how you count, there's also the climbing roll as your rogue is clinging to the walls of the active volcano, the save for half-damage when the dragon's breath will kill you otherwise, and the Diplomacy check after you've carelessly offended the King of Thieves.
  • They offer a chance at teamwork. Yes, I suppose the juvenile player of the panicked character was "not allowed to play," but the person who prevented him from playing was the person at the table who was playing a cleric, and who refused to cast Remove Fear, a simple first-level spell. Did the cleric not choose Remove Fear that day, or go to the trivial bother of having a scroll prepared? Was nobody else playing a character who could cast that spell? Did the party never discuss what to do when a member gets panicked? Well, that's what I mean about bad decisions.

So, when the party is going up against ghouls, and somebody is paralyzed, what's the plan? If somebody gets shot with a poisoned arrow and fails her save, what's the plan? When a vampire tries to dominate the party's dwarven fighter, what's the plan?

'Cause you've already realized that waiting until it happens and then getting mad that somebody was "not allowed to play" is neither effective nor fun.
4th-Nov-2007 04:15 pm (UTC)
FWIW, death from massive damage was a 2e rule as well. If you suffered more than 50 points of damage, you had to roll a System Shock check or die.

4th-Nov-2007 06:27 pm (UTC)
I agree. Save or stop is the correct thing, save or die is the wrong thing. Save or stop means the party now has to take corrective action to resolve the encouner. Yes, one or more members of the party are stuck out of the action. If it's the same guy getting hit with fear every time, either the DM is a dick, or that one guy has a critical flaw in his character and the party needs to do something to remedy that. Remove Fear and permanence, done. Yes, that permanence spell takes some doing but nothing worth doing is easy.
(Deleted comment)
4th-Nov-2007 04:14 pm (UTC)
I take it you also ban hold person and sleep?
4th-Nov-2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
I call these the "you can't play anymore" mechanics.

You mean like any of the following?

  • Death
  • Sleep
  • Charm
  • Polymorph
  • being in the wrong room
  • being asleep

  • Sorry, it's part of the game that, sometimes, you won't be able to play. Any encounter when one of these is not a potential result is just boring. You might as well play solitaire for watch a movie for all the challenge there is.

    Your fellow player walked away after eight hours of "other crap"? Then the game isn't fun, and it wouldn't be significantly any more fun if he had been luckier.

    Tell your GM that you didn't enjoy the crap, your fellow player obviously didn't enjoy the crap, and change the way the game works. If he's worth your time, he'll adjust the game play accordingly.
    5th-Nov-2007 02:58 pm (UTC)
    I agree. If you're going to start eliminating all the things that remove players from active play, you'll need a lot more paper. Don't forget Flesh to Stone, Disintegrate, Slay Living and Finger of Death. Some of those not only remove the player, they remove a level, too.

    If only there were some way to break people out of fear or paralysis while the fight was still going on... gee, that'd be handy to have, wouldn't it?
    4th-Nov-2007 05:21 pm (UTC)
    That really sucks, although it sounds like there was a lot more wrong with the game than just the use of a nasty save-or-fail mechanic. Eight hours and you're only just now having a combat, and it's the only combat of the game, and the player fails his save? Ouch.

    I'd say that yes, definitely, these sorts of spells and special abilities should be used sparingly. I'm not sure if they should be written out entirely. I think if I were DMing a game where it came up a lot, I would put in a house rule that says in the case of save-or-run-away effects, you get a chance to make your save again after a few rounds, and even if you fail that you'll still come out of it fairly quickly. And I might pillage 4E's idea of making things like a Beholder's petrification gaze take effect over several rounds, so you're not boned the minute Mr. Eyeball takes a glance at you.

    The point of the game is to have fun, but part of that fun, generally, seems to rest on the belief that we might not win, but we probably will. If there's no uncertainty in a game and you know you'll beat whatever from the minute you enter the dungeon, then there's not as much fun in that. On the other hand, saying someone can't participate because of a fear effect is pretty rough, and also detracts from the fun. As always, it's a balancing act.

    Did you guys know you were in for an eight hour marathon with almost no combats when you came over? That's pretty bad, unless this was specifically a low combat game... the low combat game I'm running has more encounters than that in less time. Wow.
    4th-Nov-2007 05:24 pm (UTC)
    "A panicked creature must drop anything it holds and flee at top speed from the source of its fear, as well as any other dangers it encounters, along a random path. It can’t take any other actions. In addition, the creature takes a -2 penalty on all saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks. If cornered, a panicked creature cowers. A panicked creature can use special abilities, including spells, to flee; indeed, the creature must use such means if they are the only way to escape.

    Panicked is a more extreme state of fear than shaken or frightened.

    Not allowed to play? This person should have been in initiative. They should have had to flee at top speed... this could mean fleeing into a new part of the dungeon which is unexplored.. this could mean using their abilities to get past things. They should definately have had to "do stuff".
    4th-Nov-2007 08:33 pm (UTC)
    Using an ability that makes it so the player can't play is wrong. Period.

    First, this is a stylistic choice, not an absolute. There are plenty of people playing 3e who enjoy either the lethality or the realism of "save-or-die" effects. It's poor form to state this preference as though people who don't agree with you are wrong.

    Second, while I agree that fully-disabling conditions are cheap, they are not inherently bad. They're there for two reasons: there are plenty of real-life examples of the same thing - instantly-fatal or paralyzing poisons from wildlife, or much more commonly, being asleep - and they allow a means of incapacitating a target without killing them... often just as necessary for the good guys as for the bad.

    You suggest that this rant was brought on by the events which transpired at your game, but we don't have adequate information about what happened. Why did this failed saving throw upset that player so much? Was he unhappy with the first eight hours of the game? Was he only there for the fighting? Did the rest of the party do nothing to try and bring the PC back into the fight? Did the GM spring the whole fear thing on your group unexpectedly, or could the party have planned for it?

    You've come to the conclusion that the mechanic is the problem, and that your fellow player's poor behavior (justified or not, it still is) is a symptom of that problem. I suggest instead that the problem is very different, and that the mechanic in question was simply a trigger which led to an explosion brought on by something else. Can you elaborate on what happened?
    4th-Nov-2007 08:43 pm (UTC)
    Was he unhappy with the first eight hours of the game?
    To a great extent. Basically one player hogged the entire game for most the session, spending hours doing "research" while the rest of us sat around.

    Was he only there for the fighting?
    No, but his character was not the type to get involved in a trip to the library.

    Did the rest of the party do nothing to try and bring the PC back into the fight?
    Yup. There was nothing the rest of the party COULD do. There were no available abilities that would help (in that there were no available options for abilities that would have helped).

    Did the GM spring the whole fear thing on your group unexpectedly
    Yup. That's it exactly. "A man suddenly appears next to you in the tavern and attacks, everyone roll a save, 2/3 of the party is now panicked and runs out of the room and down the street."

    And for the record, I was just really really pissed off last night after an absolutely horrible session, and that was really the last straw. I understand that certain effects can be used well (and have seen them used to great effect), but the whole "sit around all day while the wizard talks to the DM, and then when you have a chance to do something (in a fight, no less) you aren't allowed to because you have to run away" seemed an easy target.

    Lots of things went wrong (and are much, much more to blame). And that's enough of that. Please feel free to discuss the merits (or demerits) of save-or-die effects among yourselves as you wish, but I don't want to talk about what went wrong anymore. Ranting is just a waste of my time, and I'll try to talk to the DM when I've calmed down some.

    - highbulp
    4th-Nov-2007 09:16 pm (UTC)
    Fair enough, but thank you for the clarification.

    I've largely given my opinion on fully-disabling status conditions already. I would note that in my own games, I tend to avoid using those in favor of the other three general categories of status conditions: limited-disabling (silence, entangle), penalizing (blind, sickened), and damage over time (something that rarely appears in 3e, but could be likened to acid or greek fire).

    Fully-disabling abilities must be dealt with, or the target is effectively removed from combat (or a sitting duck). The others, however, can be worked around - curing them is ideal, but you could also just cope with the effects and hope you beat your opponent's before you're overwhelmed. DoTs are particularly fun for this, since it's kind of like a slow death...
    5th-Nov-2007 04:24 pm (UTC)
    One thing that I am curious about is how players feel about having these same effects they do not like being used on them as resources to use against the challenges in the game. It sounds like players are having trouble with dealing with setbacks. I agree with one of the posters here who suggested that the PC in question was not disallowed from play. He was still part of the initiative round. Although such effects as sleep, charm, death, etc. do eliminate PCs as a threat to the NPCs who use them against the party, it should be remembered that many of these effects can be countered, and I believe that is the intent of the design. I must also correct the poison save or die claim, too. Since 3rd Edition, poison has not operated under a save or die mechanic at all: it has inflicted ability damage, some of which just make you sick, some of which affects your health (Con damage) and could potentially kill you but it's not automatic. While I understand the concern about players being eliminated from the game by some of these effects, I must counter with the question about how these same players feel about those effects being used against NPC challenges. Really. I don't think that I have ever heard a player say, "Well, geez, now the bad guy is asleep and no longer part of the game. He can't play."
    5th-Nov-2007 07:18 pm (UTC)
    In most cases, a player represents 1 unit on the battlefield, where a DM represents many. While you make a valid point that it is hypocritical to complain about, but still use, status affecting abilities it is much less likely that the DM is going to be rendered useless, helpless, and bored than it is a player will be.

    6th-Nov-2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
    Posted after skipping the last 6 replies do to time constraints...


    Look life sucks. Buy a helmet. Cope and click dude.

    I have lost many a character to save or die spells as well as from lucky crits. His character survived? The party Survived? Then he lives to fight another day.

    Personally I try to play around certain spells and the like but in a game where you can be brought back to life...well life goes on.

    If he wants to fight and thats all he si designed to do then there should be a few more battles in the game for him. If it doesn't fit the story then he needs to make a new character or the DM needs to put in more fights. As well as if he doesn't want to run away scared...stand next to a paladin or play as one :D

    This is brought to you by the letters Y O Y. And the Number Natural 1.

    Seriously every game has its downfall. A bad roll can ruin a game for someone and everyone who has ever played D&D has been there (In my last game the main tank fumbled twice killing fishmen only to have them come back as zombies...when he finally crit and it was worth crap). If this is a serious issue in your game may I suggest Action points? Allow them to reroll a certain of number of rolls a game that way a failed roll wont piss them off because they have a chance to avoid it.
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