Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to Chop Saving Throws

DM: "Black Dougal, you find out that you missed a tiny discolored needle in the latch. Roll a saving throw vs. Poison, please!"
Dougal (rolling): "Missed it!"
DM: "Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Hot on the heels of yesterday's post (just in case you missed it, though of course you didn't, O Valiant Reader!), I'll move from the why of saves (and why to get rid of them) to how we chop 'em from the game.

Or did I give adequate reason as to "why?" An exchange like the quote above (from Tom Moldvay's Basic book) isn't terribly unusual in a B/X game...but then, traps in B/X are the most uniformly deadly of any edition. I've written before that I don't have a problem with this kind of thing (or a variety of other "mess up the PC" game effects because the game provides methods of overcoming these effects. Poison can be neutralized, curses can be removed, levels restored, and dead characters raised. Finding a way to un-petrify a beloved 8th level character (since stone to flesh is only available to 11th level magic-users) can provide impetus for its own fantastic adventure.

At least, that used to be the case. But then, back in the days of my youth, we had a lot more time on our hands to game on a regular basis. We'd game at school (at recess or study hall breaks) we'd game over the phone (with three-way calling using worries about expending "minutes"), we'd game in the evenings and weekends. Back in the day, we didn't have significant others or kids or jobs. Chores and homework were the main responsibilities...even things like Boy Scouts and soccer practice were only a couple-three days a week (and since we gamed with the same people we could talk about and plan and scheme during these extracurricular events, too).

Now, though, time is limited for the average adult gamer (and even youngsters, too). Maybe people don't want to spend a helluva' lot of time sidelined from the game. What happens to Black Dougal's player after his character dies? Does he spend the rest of the session rolling up a new character? Does he make a beer run for the group?
Depending on party size.

One of the last things I mentioned yesterday was that I like characters to "suffer." Perhaps part of that is my latent sadism, but my intellectual take is something along the lines of this: things that we suffer for make us appreciate (or value) the reward for that suffering all the more.

Playing a game of D&D is an exercise in risk-reward. Well, it it's about making good tactical choices in order to achieve victory. But we're talking about "the Old Way" of playing, right? SO...risk-reward. Making choices based on that risk, determining if the reward is worth it. Taking on risk DOES involve suffering: mental suffering in the form of stress.

[gaming should not involve physical suffering. Feed your players and don't hit them with sharp objects, please!]

Will my character die? Will I make/miss my saving throw? Do we have enough arrows/torches/HPs to survive this dungeon delve? Should I have purchased iron spikes or garlic instead of that extra throwing axe? Do I stick my hand in the pool of mysterious liquid to get that gold key? Do I waste time rigging up some sort of "claw" on the end of my ten foot pole, knowing that there are wandering monsters just lurking around the corner? This element of risk leads to stress, leads to fear, leads to adrenaline...hopefully making victory (when it comes) more savory to the palate.

Does the saving throw add to that?

I'm not sure it one comment pointed out, saving throws are binary: you take the brunt of the attack (being poisoned or paralyzed or turned to stone or whatever) or you don't. The "half damage" thang (from dragon breath and damage-dealing spells) is the weird, odd-man-out mechanic.

[speculation will cause a wild digression so I'm hold off on exploring the concept]

Many times, the saving throw requested is of a "surprise! resist this!" nature. The captured damsel turns out to be a medusa. The lock turns out to be poisoned. The ghouls jump out of the closet and grab you. And if there's no anticipation of risk (except for the player's perspiration while rolling a D20), then where's the real suffering? Just a *whew* I made it! if the roll comes out okay. And sometimes sudden and sidelining effects with a failure.

So let's fix that.

Hmmm...actually, maybe the best way to look at this is to examine each saving throw individually. Otherwise, this is going to get really long.

1 comment:

  1. Players can feed their own damned selves! If anything, they should be feeding the ref as thanks for all that prep work

    "Many times, the saving throw requested is of a 'surprise! resist this!' nature."

    And in that context, saving throws suck. I'd argue, however, that this is poor design/refereesmanship (feel like there's a real word I could be using, but I'm at a loss). Anything that would call for a saving throw should be something that can be avoided through player skill. One should be able to look back, see how they screwed up, and do better next time (my golden rule in video games). Saving throws are best handled as a means of saying "Yeah, you fucked up, but we'll give you a mulligan this time." Instead of getting a predetermined number of mulligans, however — which would undermine that sense of risk — it's a chance for one, not something you can count on. This chance improves as you level up because it's a reward for good play (like extra lives/continues won in a video game), and it also emulates the literature where heroes sometimes avoid the fates that normal men suffer