It's possible I'm not using save-or-suck the same way other people do. What I mean here is game effects where, if you fail a roll (usually one, maybe two or three), you suffer from results that make your character unable to act effectively. These may be severely reduced effectiveness, or total inability to act, or similar effects.
This is a post that's been stewing around in my head, especially when I'm working on monsters or traps or spells with potentially fight-ending resisted powers. It's not a specific criticism of anybody, just a thought about the concept itself and my perspective on it.
Does Save or Suck really suck?
In other words, if you get nailed with something that makes your character less effective, useless, or otherwise out of the fight, is that a bad thing?
I think it is not.
Realistically - by which I mean in meta-game-around-the-table reality, not reality-reality - almost all save-or-suck results are better than actually suffering traumatic damage.
Knocked out without long-term brain injury?
Afraid and have to run away?
Pretty much, you've been rendered combat ineffective. That does, indeed, suck.
But the alternative is potential death.
Basically, the way I feel is this: Save or suck is the GM being clever, fair, and appropriately challenging. It's a way to introduce a serious challenge that doesn't end either with total victory or you have to rip up your character sheet and start over. It's scary and adds tension without automatically inflicting post-combat healing. It's a way to inflict damage that makes the game better but doesn't take your character out for weeks of healing or piles of healing spell castings.
Which is better - a magic spell which causes your brain to shut down and you go to sleep, unable to easily be awakened, right in the middle of a fight? Or getting hit with 3-4d damage to the skull and going down with a severe head injury? Even just from a "fix it later" perspective, the first is better.
I've gotten the most complaints from players when hit with something that neutralizes or weakens their characters, especially if they perceive the resistance as "too low" or the effects as too steep.
Madness spells? Will-2 save or for only 6 power you're out of the fight.
Paralytic attack by undead? Fail that HT roll, and you're unable to move and helpless.
Punch to the face? Blow that knockdown roll badly enough and you're out like a light.
Grappling? One blown defense and the foe has your sword arm and you're in a very bad way.
I get it. It feels terribly to get one-shotted. It's less fun to be a swordsman with a grappled arm. It sucks to blow a roll versus fear and your brave fighter flees in terror. Or to roll the dice and they tell you, from now on you are a spectator in this fight.
It sucks more if you don't even get to defend. A critical spell roll. A grapple from behind. A net that enmeshes you while you sleep.
The alternative for the GM, though, is powers that end the fight for the victim must kill the victim, or they're just another way to ablate off HP and then kill the victim.
Game design wise, the alternatives aren't better. They are either "fights aren't really dangerous unless your HP are low" or "fights end with you a victor or a ghost." Save or suck is a player-friendly alternative to having everything just do damage and having more danger mean more damage. They are a way to make a challenge come alive even when your pool of defenses and resources and HP are still pretty high. This doesn't mean all implementations are perfect. This doesn't mean that "death with no saving throw" is a good idea. And it sure doesn't mean that it's fun to get put to sleep, or turned to stone, or dropped in a single blow.
But the alternatives to "Touch causes paralysis" or "The poison does 1d + the helpless shakes" and "Blow a parry and he grappled my sword arm" are things like "Touch causes enough damage to potentially take you out" and "The poison do 1d + even more d" and "Blow a parry and he cut off my sword arm." Maybe instead of the monster grappling you from behind, it just stabs you in the gaps in your armor and potentially kills you. Maybe instead of maxing out a Sleep spell the wizard maxes out an area damage spell, and sculpts his tactics around just inflicting maximal damage.
So does Save or Suck suck? I don't think so. It's part of the challenge, without making the challenge all about damage. It's just a matter of seeing it for what it is, and what it's preventing the game from being.