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Our group had some discussion about the spell suffocation recently. The GM was of the opinion that a successful initial save ends the spell while I was of the opinion that it always runs for its full 3 rounds with a minimal effect of being staggered for 3 rounds if every save is successful.

This spell extracts the air from the target's lungs, causing swift suffocation.

The target can attempt to resist this spell's effects with a Fortitude save — if he succeeds, he is merely staggered for 1 round as he gasps for breath. If the target fails, he immediately begins to suffocate. On the target's next turn, he falls unconscious and is reduced to 0 hit points. One round later, the target drops to -1 hit points and is dying. One round after that, the target dies. Each round, the target can delay that round's effects from occurring by making a successful Fortitude save, but the spell continues for 3 rounds, and each time a target fails his Fortitude save, he moves one step further along the track to suffocation. This spell only affects living creatures that must breathe. It is impossible to defeat the effects of this spell by simply holding one's breath — if the victim fails the initial Saving Throw, the air in his lungs is extracted.

The bolded part is his reason to think the spell ends after a successful initial save. But I think as the duration just says 3 rounds and the italic part states that it continues for 3 rounds.

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If the target saves they are only affected for one round.

The clue is in the spell save section:

Saving Throw Fortitude partial

Indicating if they save they get a partial effect, that partial effect is the section you've detailed and is only one round. Furthermore the section you've highlighted specifically states the duration of the effect if a save is made.

if he succeeds, he is merely staggered for 1 round as he gasps for breath.

The followup section details what happens if they fail, which is for a duration of three rounds. This should be in a paragraph break really to indicate the distinction between the two sections, but the larger body of the text you had in italics.

Each round, the target can delay that round's effects from occurring by making a successful Fortitude save, but the spell continues for 3 rounds, and each time a target fails his Fortitude save, he moves one step further along the track to suffocation.

This section makes little sense if the target is staggered for one round, it's a common way that Pazio indicates how a spell effect works for partial saves.

In Spellcasting the "partial" section states:

Partial: The spell has an effect on its subject. A successful saving throw means that some lesser effect occurs.

That lesser effect is the first sentence, the second section is the full effect of the spell.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Might be even clearer if you say there are four saving throws: the initial save against the whole spell, and then if that one is failed and you suffer the full effects, you get one save for each of three rounds of the full effect of the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 23 '16 at 16:06

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