Thursday, 3 December 2020

Save vs. Dragon Breath... but there aren't any dragons...

By Turner Mohan

I'm trying to write a new post for every day of advent... mainly so that I can catch up with Archon's March On.

 The 5 classic saves, going back to pre D&D are:

  • Poison or Death Ray
  • Magic Wand
  • Turned To Stone or Paralysis
  • Dragon Breath
  • Spells or Magic Staves
But what do you do when there's no dragons... and "breath attack" is a rare and unusual feature?

PARIAH grew out of my D&D house-ruled game, and while losing classes and levels made sense in terms of the world's fiction (heavily inspired by playing in Spwack's Die Trying game) I did want to make it as easy to run a pariah through an existing adventure as possible, which meant keeping the traditional saves*.

(* but I also made spell saves more similar to 3/5e saves? My logic is inconsistent)

In the initial zine (which is still available in print form from Soul Muppet publishing by clicking on this highlighted text!) I replaced the dragons' breath with "reflex save".

It didn't feel good but it sort of wedded to the idea that this is the save you use against dragon's breath, fireballs and falling rocks because this could be you diving for cover... or dropping behind a shield... or somehow weathering the storm...

A save vs. Dragon's breath is a rapid reaction to something powerful and unavoidable.

Pariah's start with a core attribute, like a prime requisite but not tied to any class. This does two things:
  • Limit their starting core skills (but give them some "special options")
  • give them a save bonus on one saving throw.
PCs don't get automatic stat bonuses to saves (a la 3/5e): they only get a bonus on one save, based on their highest stat.

A core attribute of DEX means you can add your DEX bonus to your reflex save. WIS and INT can choose to have their respective bonus as a bonus to their reflex save.

I was happy with all that, but the terminology didn't quite ring true. Pete of Garblag fame  wrote a set of AD&D 3e rules that listed save vs. dragon's breath as "Evasion" and that felt more true to what was actually happening when dragon's breath was being avoided but it still didn't quite hit the spot...

Then it hit me.

Looking back over the last 20 or so PARIAH games, the saving throw hasn't been invoked very often: paralysis, reflex and poison, probably in that order.

Then in the previous session I think i invited a player to save for the character thusly:

"Can you make a save vs. poison please?"

---five mins late---

"Can you make a save versus... uh...can you make a reflex save please?"

That was all she wrote.

Save vs. something

You throw a saving throw against something threatening you that sits outside your normal range of threats: be it magical, occult... or sudden.

You save against poison.

You save versus death.

What is a reflex save?

Save against an explosion?

Save against "area effect"?

Save against... a "sudden event"?

It's a save against "surprise".

Now I'm happy.

Save Against Surprise

Right... but we already have surprise, so now these 2 things have to relate, right?

Don't really roll for surprise: I usually just give it. If the players are stalking and get the drop, the get a free round of actions before initiative is rolled.

Likewise their opponents: if an ambush predator stalks them, I usually give it a surprise attack. If the PCs catch heed of it in advance they just lose initiative.

I had this additional idea.

What I really like is the idea of a lord getting one-shot by a peasant. 

Harold Godwinson was the son of a powerful fighter. He'd been trained with a sword from birth, had fought in multiple campaigns and repelled the Norse invasion. I think it would be fair to say that he was a 9th level fighter.

One day in Hastings a stray arrow caught him in the eye and that was it. 

Regardless of historical accuracy, the Bayeux tapestry makes a strong point: you might be a 50 HP fighter but, in the right circumstances a stray arrow can kill you. 

D&D- even old school D&D doesn't handle this well.

So how about this:

You're surprised. Flat-footed, your opponent can hit you easily (adjust accordingly) you take damage.

Now... save vs. surprise. If you pass, no worries.

If you fail, that hit becomes a critical hit.

Critical Hit

In PARIAH characters at 0 HP do not die. After 0 HP is hit, damage goes against stats (chosen randomly).
  • At 0 con you die.
  • At 0 STR you die.
  • At 0 DEX you will die in a few days.
  • At 0 INT you die.
  • At 0 WIS and 0 CHA there are other complications.
You're probably scoffing... but there's a 20 HP cap and damage against stats doesn't heal easily. In fact, often it's permanent.

What's more, there's a chance that some of that stat damage might lead to your character dying anyway.

Your HP represents battle stamina: the amount of combat stress you can endure before real damage is taken. With that in mind, the additional damage from a crit should be LETHAL DAMAGE.

So yeah. 

You get surprised, you can die.

See you tomorrow.


  1. Are you really getting surprised by dragon-fire though? But for sure, save vs. surprise is excellent, and a small chance of being one-shot under rare circumstances is excellent

  2. Maybe the first time? Perhaps each type has its own peculiar tell (a sharp inhalation, a glowing body part, a sudden desiccation of ambient moisture etc.) prior to releasing a breath attack. First time you just get a save, thereafter you get the chance to coordinate your action instead?