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On reading guides on classes, most notably caster classes, near every guide recommends that the player take the "Save-or-Die" or "Save-or-Suck" spells. Usually, these end up being status effects. I notice that it usually ends up being one of three major factors.

  1. Only one roll is needed (Fortitude, Will, Reflex), not including Spell Resistance. Damage requires at least two rolls.
  2. A savvy player can target that roll (They know they're fighting a wizard, generally means high Will, low Fort and Reflex)
  3. This targeted roll is binary (hits or it doesn't), unlike damage, which has degrees of success (3d6 could be all ones, all sixes, or all threes, for example.)

What, beyond the listed factors, makes Save-or-Die spells so powerful? And, if they are too powerful, what ways can a DM tweak them to not tip the balance of the game so hard toward them?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Isn't it the titular save or die part that makes them so powerful? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Aug 17 '14 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, what @doppelgreener said. I thought that would be obvious. :P \$\endgroup\$ – Brian S Sep 11 '14 at 14:17
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The first and third points aren’t really big deals; actually, the third point would be a disadvantage of save-or-dies. Would be, if the numbers were more reasonable.

By the numbers: you can probably make someone fail a saving throw

Ultimately, caster classes have every reason to pump their save DCs as much as they can. The ability score that sets the DC is going to be their most important – after all, it also sets their bonus spells per day, and spells of a given level have a minimum required score in that ability. There is no other consideration in their lives that compares to what this ability score can do for them. This makes them “SAD” – single ability dependent. They can and should put everything they can into that ability score (short of missing out on spellcasting).

Meanwhile, even if you have all-good saves, the base save progression for good saves is the same as that of spell’s DCs: good saves get +1 every 2 levels, new spell levels, which have a DC 1 higher than the previous, are accessed every 2 levels. Good saves start at +2 (and a half, technically) over DCs, but as levels accrue that becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the overall bonus. So that’s only keeping you up with the basics.

But even with all-good saves, you need three different ability scores. It’s simply impossible to pump three ability scores as much as someone else can pump one. Items that give resistance bonuses to saving throws can make up the difference, but only if you’re ignoring the other three ability scores. And classes with all-good saves are rare, and tend to suck.

How do poor saves fare? They grow at +1 every 3 levels: over time, you are automatically falling behind. Most classes have a thematic link between saves and ability score focuses – if you have a poor save, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t use that ability score for much, either. Even if you do, you’re playing an impossible game of catch-up.

And the spellcasters can capitalize on this. A cleric’s Will save, there you probably have less than a 50:50 shot. But you still have a non-negligible chance. Someone else’s good save, that they don’t focus on the ability score for? You’ll probably land that. A bad save? Almost certainly.

Which wouldn’t be a problem – would actually be a good thing – but...

It’s good that spellcasters can do things; it’d be boring if saves were made often and spellcasters had to spend a lot of turns watching enemies ignore their effects. I think changing these numbers so spells fail often is a bad idea, because it makes playing a spellcaster very un-fun. It’d be better-balanced, but that’t not the only concern.

The real problem is what happens when someone fails a saving throw. If the spellcaster is being smart about spell selection, that person is, at best, out of the fight. Even at low levels, sleep or color spray literally remove people, grease takes out many creatures, glitterdust, even with the Pathfinder nerf, is still brutal. As levels get higher, the effects get worse, affect more people, or don’t allow a save at all. It turns “casting a spell” into “solve the encounter.” And there is no way to fix that aside from going through each and every spell and consider each for a total overhaul. That’s the only way to fix things, and it’s something a lot of people thought Paizo was going to do, when they were hyping up Pathfinder as a fixed 3.5. But outside of a few notorious spells (glitterdust, polymorph), they didn’t really touch the spells, and in the time since have strongly reinforced caster supremacy.

Ultimately, if this ability of spellcasters bothers you, I think you are playing the wrong system. Pathfinder was designed around the idea that spellcasters should be this powerful. Paizo has consistently pushed the envelope in terms of new and greater powers for spellcasters, while limiting and frustrating mundane characters at every turn, even to the point of errata-ing out the few tricks that start to give them a leg up. At this point, the massive gap between the two is a very-much-intentional feature of the system.

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I love @KRyan's post, but I think some numbers really help illustrate the effect here.

2nd-level party vs. 15 Goblins

  • Your Sorcerer catches them in a Color Spray.
  • Every Goblin who fails is basically out of the fight for 3d4+1 rounds or so.
  • Sorcerer's DC is 15, the Goblins have a Will save of -1.
  • On average 75% (11) of the Goblins drop.
  • But the distribution is also important, 96% of time it wipes out at least half of the goblins.

Party vs Opposing Death Effect

  • 8th level party vs. CR 12 Lich, classic Boss Monster.
  • Lich's first action is to cast Circle of Death affecting 2 or 3 of the PCs.
  • DC is 22, party saves are probably something like: fighter 11, cleric 9, wizard 4, rogue 4.
  • On average the Rogue and Wizard are going to die and the intelligent Lich is going to target them first. But ~25% of the time you'll also get the Fighter or Cleric as well.
  • So 25% of the time this fight is just done on the first spell. Even with Death Ward, the Wizard and Rogue die more than half of the time.

13th level necromancer vs. Anybody

  • Finger of Death + Teleportation.
  • The spell has a DC of probably 23 and deals 130 damage on a failed save. That's going to kill an equal-level Fighter with a good Con.
  • Top saves at level 13 are like 17, but low saves are closer to 7. So somewhere between 25% and 75% of the time your target is going to die.
  • But what if he doesn't die? Well you teleport away and try again the next day. Even the toughest of Fighters are going to last less than a week.
  • But here's the scary thing, put the PCs against a 14th level necromancer. By the end of round 2, there's a 50% chance that half of the party is dead. That's not a really fun fight. Especially if the Cleric is the one that fails his save.

You're going to die in Pathfinder

  • The big side effect of this is the sad fact that your character is going to die before they make it to level 20. (death not necessarily being permanent)
  • This won't necessarily be the result of some terrible decision (aside from just being an adventurer), it will probably just be a stroke of bad luck. If you face even 1 save or die per level, you're going to die long before level 20. You basically need a Cleric with access to Raise Dead, but you don't get that until level 9 and it costs 5k+ just in materials.
  • Save or Die is generally "un-fun" when you are on the receiving end.
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    \$\begingroup\$ "This won't necessarily be the result of some terrible decision (aside from just being an adventurer)" - hahaha! This is some great demonstration of the problem in practice. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Aug 19 '14 at 2:28
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Save-or-die (or save-or-suck) spells are so powerful because they remove people from the fight in one hit.

Pathfinder combat, except for save-or- effects, is all about whittling down hit points. Most buffs deal with increasing weapons' damage or increasing AC, debuffs give penalties to your hit chance (some save-or-suck spells give huge penalties to enemies, rendering them useless for the remaining rounds of combat) and of course blasting spells are just a different kind of weapon.

Until you're dealt enough damage to get to 0 or less HP, you're still as effective as you were at full life. This means that something that deals damage either deals huge amounts of the thing or does not prevent your enemy from hurting you.
This is the reason why people gang on a single target trying to take him down before he acts and this is also the reason why people use save-or- effects.

If a save-or- effect hits (and as most other answerers already told you, if you play your cards right it's highly probable they did), the target is out of combat in a single round of one character, and the other characters are free to pound on someone else.
That said, while increasing saves is bad because it makes asking for saves the wrong choice, changing the whole paradigm of the game, turning save-or- effects into something that does not completely remove the menace from the table would be better. Let's say Finger of Death leaves one or three rounds worth of actions to the target before killing it? Let's have Glitterdust give a lesser penalty or last for less rounds? Such finetuning I can't provide, but the idea seed is there. Make winning a save-or- effect not that different from dealing damage.

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