Even at the end of the Dungeons & Dragons Next public playtest, the designers wrestled with one aspect of Next that remains broken. The ghoul problem. A live-streamed playtest session showed the problem when 4 ghouls faced a party of fifth-level characters and threatened a total-party kill. Mike Mearls recounts, “The thing that irritated me the most about it was I think that this fight would be just as hard if you were 10th-level characters. Four ghouls jumping on a 10th-level cleric, as opposed to a 5th-level cleric, would have had roughly the same ability to take you down.” When ghouls hit, they force their targets to save versus paralysis. One failed save removes you from the fight. Because armor class doesn’t rise much from level to level, ghouls can hit even high-level characters. The damage doesn’t endanger the heroes with high hit points, but the saving throws still stand.
If your character lacks the proficiency needed to shrug off constitution saves, then one hit can easily drop you from the battle. As the game stands, most classes enjoy proficiency in just two of six types of save. Without proficiency, your 20th-level archmage suffers as poor a chance of shrugging off the ghoul’s touch as a level 1 initiate. Even with a +6 proficiency bonus, my money is on the ghouls.
Of course the problem isn’t unique to ghouls. It applies to anything that makes attacks that force saves.
The designers recognize this problem and the final version of Next will feature a fix. Mike explained how the game should play. “As creatures become lower level relative to you, their damage attacks remain a threat, which is nice because that’s a threat to all characters, but their special effects start to fade out. Like lower level characters worry about ghoul paralysis, higher level ones don’t because they know that they can probably make the save. The DC is low enough; their bonus is high enough.
“One of the things I’ve been thinking of is if we just did something simple, like you add half your character level to all your saving throws. And so then we know saving throw DCs scale up a bit. The important thing for me being low-level creatures can have lower DCs; high-level creatures can have higher DCs, just like you kind of expect and that fits into what should be going on in the game.”
Another possible fix could allow characters’ with hit points above a certain threshold to save automatically. While such a threshold mechanic probably won’t apply to the lowly ghoul, I expect to see it apply to various save-or-die effects.
Update: (June 19, 2014): In the Dungeons & Dragons Q&A: Starter Set and Basic rules, Mike Mearls says that the saving throw rules remain unchanged from the final playtest. This means two things:
- The fifth edition designers have an obsessive devotion to minimal core rules. The 5E design makes several compromises to enable the game to resolve everything using the same ability modifiers and proficiency bonuses.
- Ghouls and other monsters that force saves against debilitating conditions will need designs that limit their lethality. For example, a threshold mechanic that allows characters’ with hit points above a certain threshold to save automatically.