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.