Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chop! Staves and Spells

[this is my final post in a series discussing the removal of "saving throws" from your D&D game. You can see the formative thoughts here and here; links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3...plus a four part series on "dragon breath"...um...here, here, here, and here. Let's get to it]

Well, it's about time...a few ten thousands of words and a couple weeks later, we're finally down to the last saving throw on the chopping block: Staves and Spells. I managed to get both kids to sleep (Sofia is literally "rocking out" to Don Felder's Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride) next to me), so the beer's been cracked and the laptop's been fired up. Let's see if I can get through this before people start waking up.

I'll start with the easy one first: Staves. A magic staff is just a lesser extension of the magic-user's might...if we can get rid of magic wands (either because we don't need saves to dodge magic ray-guns or because we're rolling them into the overall category of "magic") then we can easily drop the longer version.


Now let's take a step back for a moment and talk about dice rolling, that hoary tool for randomly resolving in-game happenings. Fortune (as the injection of random chance is called) is a great little bit of impartiality and surprise...a little somethin'-somethin' to keep everyone on the edge of their seat during a game, even when the DM's narrative abilities fall short. Gamers of all stripes are prone to dislike too much random chance...we've outgrown the strategy-less days of Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders, after all. Allow us at least some (and hopefully more) input into what happens...otherwise, why not just hit the casino down the street and throw some cash at the roulette table?

[*ahem* okay that's a ridiculous apples-to-bowling balls comparison. Forget I mentioned it]

Let's put it a different way: while we like some randomness - to surprise us, to thrill us, to not leave things up to GM fiat (see Amber: Diceless Role-Playing) - it's certainly not the dice-rolling that drives our interest in role-playing games. Even when we hear the phrase, "Let's hurry up and get to some dice rolling," what's being asked is that we get to one of the exciting, active parts of the game...because those are the times when dice-rolling (for the most part) are going to take place. This IS a "fantasy adventure" game we're talking about, ja?

SO...we don't want too much randomness...just enough. That's one of the reasons I wanted to cut damage rolls out of combat: find a way to incorporate the resolution of random damage (if you even want random damage...see my Five Ancient Kingdoms for a different option) into the attack roll, rather than random roll followed by random roll (followed by random roll again, if you're using an "initiative" mechanic). It's one of the reasons that I hate things like "dodge/parry" rolls (sorry Rifts, Chaosium, etc.). Let's just get to the meat of the action: it's your turn in the combat round, you get one roll to see how successful you are, then it's someone else's turn. Period.

I'm not a minimalist...I still want some back-and-forth in a resisted sequence of action (which is what combat is), rather than "one roll scene resolution" (see Story Engine as an example). I just want things tightened up, okay?

[and, yes, there are sometimes when extra dice rolls are cool with me: usually games that involve lots of gunfire and bullets and rolls to see how riddled with holes you are...but that's not sword-swinging fantasy, 'kay?]

And so now we get back to our topic at hand, and the problematic issue of D&D's Vancian magic. See, when we look at Chainmail we see that magic was divided into two, one-roll type actions:
  • Fireball/lightning throws from a wizard wherein certain targets (Heroes and whatnot) received a "save" roll, and
  • Other spells that had no save, but required a dice roll from the wizard to succeed.
Wizard takes a spell (or spell-like) action and one die roll determines whether or not it is successful. In the former it's a save roll, in the latter it's the wizard's own casting roll.

What D&D did with its adaptation of Chainmail magic was to remove casting rolls (and counter-spelling, but that's its own story) and instead limit spell-casters in other ways...namely, quantity of spells and spell accessibility. Chainmail had some limits in quantity of spells (though even the most insignificant of Seers still had unlimited fireballs and the ability to turn invisible at will), but any wizard, regardless of power, could know the spell cloudkill or anti-magic shell (for example), not just spell-casters of "high level."

By implementing this Vancian sensibility (spell-casting is not so much a matter of the character's skill, but a matter of storage capacity), it makes it a lot harder to CHOP magic saving throws. I mean, if you make magic-users roll a D20 to cast spells (the way fighters have to roll a D20 to successfully damage someone), then its simple to say, hey, no save allowed buddy. Because...well, I've asked this question before in this series (several times) so I guess I can do it once more: what the hell does this saving throw versus magic represent?

My 11th level magic-user has memorized the spell Flesh to Stone, successfully implanting the living, wriggling bit of magic in my noggin. What is the difference between casting it at a 1st level fighter rather than a 10th level fighter? What does the one with the "10" saving throw have that the one with the "16" doesn't?


Absurd. The magic is the magic. For that matter, what does it mean that the 1st level fighter makes his saving throw? If it's a matter of willpower "resisting the magic" then Why O Why does a save versus a lightning bolt still mean the character takes half damage? Why doesn't the same principle of resistance (no effect) apply?

This bullshit is further confused with 3rd edition and its different saves (Reflex for lightning bolt...as if someone could dodge a flash of lightning...versus Will for imprisonment), and compounded in 5th edition with different ability saves for different spells (Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, whatever).

"Dodge this, pal."
"It's just magic, dude...get over it." Bullshit, I say. It's not "magic"...it's game design and lazy game design at that. You have a resource (magic) that has an in-game effect and you're giving the target an "out" (saving throw). But just as we can read a fantasy novel and say, hmmm, this plot is full of holes and doesn't make sense logically we can say, boy this design is full of inconsistencies. Sure...there's magic and it works "magically" (the way a "hyperdrive" in space opera works on scientific principles that can't be explained in real life). But if they don't have internal consistency, they're rendered absurd or ridiculous or whatever you choose to use as your derogatory term. Do you want to play Steve Jackson's Munchkin? Or do you want to explore a fantasy environment that works on consistent natural (and supernatural) laws? Sure, sometimes the beer & pretzel game is fun, but if you want satisfying, long-term play you need to hold your game to a higher standard than just, "well, this works."

Because that's what you're doing now: oh, we want magic to automatically work BUT we don't want it to automatically work. Dude...figure it the fuck out.

Now, I've got my own take for the new fantasy heartbreaker, but my magic works on different principles than the Vancian model. For purpose of illustration I'll describe it a bit...though keep in mind that mine's a different animal from standard "wa-hoo" D&D:

Magic is hard, but not relegated to people with a natural "gift." Anyone who falls into the "above average" education level will know some magic, but only dedicated scholars are going to know more than a handful of spells. Similar to mathematics (in our real world), magical knowledge is gradually built upon a foundation of knowledge...you need to learn "prerequisite" spells before you can learn the higher arts. There are different "levels" of spells (three, in fact), but they are not restricted to a particular character level...a higher spell level just means a more difficult spell to cast. This difficulty is modeled by the target number a spell-caster must roll to successfully create the spell. Having a higher level of experience means its easier to cast the spell (like a high level fighter has an easier time hitting a low armor class).

Now, keeping in mind that this is how magic operates in my heartbreaker, where would a saving throw fit? If a fighter hits you with a sword, do you receive a saving throw to avoid taking damage or (God forbid!) death? No, of course not. If you failed to wear adequate armor, picked a fight with a dangerous warrior, and stayed within sword-reach, well...that's on you, buddy. Why should magic be any different?

As it is, the arbitrariness of saving throws in D&D is pretty ridiculous. The only thing that doesn't keep a DM from achieving a TPK with a 1st level magic-user using a (save-less) sleep spell on a group of 1st - 3rd level adventurers and then slitting their thieving throats is the sheer kindness of the DM. Why shouldn't the NPCs arm themselves with the exact same repertoire of magic as the average PC adventuring party? Magic-users are supposed to be highly intelligent right? Why play them stupidly? Have the orc shaman throw an auto-hit magic missile at the 1st level party's magic-user and watch that "sleep bomb" go down the toilet.

But noooo, "that's not fair." You'd much rather have a game where the PCs go into the dungeon, fire off a sleep spell at a group of goblins, retreat, rest for the night, then come back and do it again. Boy, am I tired of that.

SO...I don't have (or need) saving throws versus magic for my new heartbreaker. If a character wants to resist a command while under a mind control spell (as is depicted so often in Conan-style fantasy), they have a (limited) resource called Grit that they can spend. But that doesn't help you folks who are still playing D&D. How can you chop saves, while sticking with your Vancian paradigm?

Well, let's look at the B/X spells that would give saves and see if we can just get rid of 'em (the way the designers have already done away with saves for 1st level spells sleep and magic missile). Okay, my list shows the following: Charm Person, Light/Darkness (in the eyes), Continual Light/Darkness (same deal), Phantasmal Force (disbelieve), Web, Fireball, Hold Person, Lightning Bolt, Charm Monster, Confusion, Dimension Door, Polymorph Other, Curse, Cloudkill, Hold Monster, Magic Jar, Death Spell, Disintegrate, Flesh to Stone, and Geas. Oh, wait: web doesn't have a saving throw in B/X...good. Cleric spells with saves include the same ones listed, plus Silence 15' Radius (if cast on a person), Cause Disease, Dispel Evil, Finger of Death, and Quest. With a few slight alterations, we should be able to axe all the saving throws here.

[sorry, I could go through all of OD&D and AD&D and BECMI but that would take a much longer series of posts than what I really want to do. You should be able to extrapolate as necessary]

Magic-user spells first:

Charm Person: this spell basically gives the caster a "12" reaction roll ("Enthusiastic Friendship") and should be treated as such: the monster is charmed, not dominated. Any command/request that goes against something the creature would normally do should break the spell. Creatures with a high intelligence should never be charmed for more than a day.
Light/Darkness, etc.: don't allow this to target a creature...period. Cursing someone with blindness is a 4th level spell; why would you allow the PCs to do so with a cheap Continual Darkness?
Fireball/Lightning Bolt: reduce overall damage to D6 per two levels (round up). No saving throw.
Hold Person (or Monster): limit this to creatures whose HD do not exceed the caster's level.
Phantasmal Force: just don't allow it to do harm. If it's touched, it's dispelled; forget "disbelieving."
Charm Monster: as charm person, but again limited to no more HD than caster level. Groups must have less than half HD/level.
Confusion: problematic for a number of reasons. Just limit it to creatures of 2HD or less (or reduce the duration for larger creatures). More useful as a battlefield spell (see Chainmail).
Dimension Door: don't allow its use on others.
Polymorph Other: do not allow targeting of creatures with more HD/level than caster.
Curse: why should a player receive a save when there's no save against a cursed scroll? Answer: they shouldn't.
Cloudkill: limit poison to damage. Duh.
Magic Jar: limit to creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.
Telekinesis: no save allowed.
Death: this doesn't need a save; use as written.
Disintegrate: limit to single creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.
Flesh to Stone: limit to creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.
Geas: limit to creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.

Cleric spells next (I should probably note that I dislike the idea of giving saving throws to clerical spells in general...this IS the divine will of the gods we're talking about!):

Silence 15' Radius: can't cast it on a person.
Cause Disease: no saving throw.
Dispel Evil: total HD affected cannot exceed caster's level.
Finger of Death: total HD/level of creature cannot exceed caster's level.
Quest: no save, but must be same alignment (and/or religion) as caster.

Does this make spell-casters more dangerous? Sure...but that's to the good, in my opinion. Anyway, the average party of adventurers is going to outnumber the number of auto-kill spells a caster is going to throw at a party...and I'm sure the players with spell casters will appreciate not having their spells thwarted by a good DM saving roll (ask my old player Luke how frustrating that can be).

However, there is the matter of the use of a high Wisdom since (in B/X) its only benefit outside the cleric class in providing a bonus to saving throws versus spells. My thought? Use it to award "grit" points to PCs that can be used to automatically resist a magic spell that would otherwise de-protagonize the character (that is: mentally control the PC or transform their body in some way). In B/X it would look like this:

13-15 +1 grit point
16-17 +2 grit points
18 +3 grit points

Give ALL player characters one or two grit to start (a below average WIS would result in a lesser starting amount). Grit is regenerated at the beginning of each game session. Sound good? Sounds good to me.


: )


  1. Very interesting food for thought. I was recently thinking about magic items/protective talismans that defend against spells (either unique and rare, or consumed in use, or both), and wondering how to make them meaningful beyond giving some chumpy saving throw bonus. No-save spells would make those things highly sought-after. Going after a wizard known to specialize in disintegration spells? You might want to undertake a quest for the Amulet of Cohesion first.

    Also, combining no-save magic with a workable counterspell mechanic would make a magic-user PC a much greater boon to an adventuring party, which goes a long way toward offsetting the traditional "squishiness" of the class.

    1. @ Eric:

      I actually want to do a follow-up post to this, and I might include some thoughts/ideas about counter spells.

  2. Wow, glad my post on the 5E saves inspired this series of posts. It was a good read, and good food for thought.

    I actually still like the fact that high HD monsters often resist "save or die" spells thrown at them, as it helps keep the high level MU from dominating the game. But this save-less system would make for a very different, and likely very fun, play experience.

    1. @ Lord G:

      Thank YOU for being the spark that lit this conflagration. ; )

      If you're afraid of high level Wizards dominating, you can modify the "up to HD of caster thing" to "half the HD of the caster" when it comes to magical, special, or intelligent monsters.

    2. @ Lord G:

      Or just send 'em up against a dragon.
      ; )

  3. There are a number of things that a saving throw can represent. In Fantasy Wargaming, they use the term as a by-word for a specific sort of counterspell, though they pretty much just toss it off and never use it again. Notably, only magicians of level 2 or more and characters with a Faith (a stat indicating connection to the Ethereal plane) of 12 or more can get any benefit from it. That said, I think that you summarize most of the issues nicely.

    That said, though, there is a sovereign protection against the Sleep spell at low levels: hirelings. That is one of the many, many valuable characteristics of hirelings: they soak up spells like Sleep and leave the PCs unscathed. Henchmen may be XP sponges (and so their value depends strongly on the party's approach), but hirelings are essential equipment.