Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Saving Throws - Eh. Who Needs 'Em?

Saving throws. Do you really need 'em?

I've blogged about saving throws before, if a long time ago: what they mean, they're abstract nature. Haven't thought about them much since...well, except for when I'm creating various saving throw tables for my RPGs (5AK, Cry Dark Future, whatever). Then yesterday I read Lord Gwyd's latest blog post about saving throws in 5th Edition, addition to instilling a bit more disgust in the revamped system (for a couple different reasons which aren't pertinent to this post) got me thinking about the origins of saving throws and whether or not they are, as a mechanic, truly necessary to the game.

In designing the new FHB, I've yet to come up with a new saving throw matrix for the game, so maybe this line of thinking is just an "out" for me...I don't need to wrack my brain to create arbitrary "save tables" that have a modicum of logic. But if so, well, so be it...this is my SECOND heartbreaker after all; let me slide on a couple things.

The first appearance of "saving throws" is in Chainmail, the basic mechanic from which OD&D blossomed. Admittedly, my copy is the 3rd edition (which, I am told, was published after OD&D), so I may be mistaken. Perhaps Chainmail was backward engineered to add saves, but until I see a copy of an earlier edition, I'll proceed with my assumption.

Chainmail limits its dice use to D6s, so a save looks different from the D20 roll that D&D players are accustomed to seeing. However, there are very few "saves" in Chainmail. They include:

  • saves versus the "auto-kill" fireballs and lightning bolts of wizards,
  • saves versus the fiery breath of a dragon,
  • saves versus the turn to stone effect of a basilisk,
  • saves versus poison (as an example only) for a hypothetical giant spider

That's it. Other wizard spells (like Cloudkill) offer no saving throws, although the presence of a magic-user on the opposing side allows a counter-spell attempt which could be considered a saving throw of sorts (albeit, a conditional save).

For the most part, saves are only provided for exceptional fantasy units: heroes, superheroes, wizards, and powerful monsters like dragons, giants, and wraiths. Rolls to save are given for certain special effects that would otherwise auto-kill (i.e. remove from the gaming table) a piece. Dragon fire, for example, destroys

"any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better."

The chance of rolling a seven on 2D6 is about 58%. An 8th level fighter (a "super hero") in B/X or OD&D needs a 10 or better on a D20...that's a 55% chance. A wizard (11th level level in OD&D) news an 11, which is a 50% chance...much closer to that 7+ roll than an 8+ roll (which would be a 42%). To me, it seems obvious that Gygax and company tried to make it pretty close to the original Chainmail.

However, in Chainmail lesser character Heroes (the equivalent of a 4th level fighter in most every way) don't receive a save versus dragon fire. The nice, heroic part about D&D is that the game gives ALL player characters a chance to be "saved" from kill effects, not just the best of the best and the strongest of the strong. And if you're going to have any kind of save in an RPG, that's a pretty smart way to go.

But let's look at those specific saves again.

Magic spells: in Chainmail, wizards main attack lies in their ability to throw a fireball or lightning bolt (only one or the other) every turn, during the missile phase. This magical missile auto-kills any unit except the following: Heroes, Super Heroes, other Wizards, Wraiths, Dragons, Giants, and Elementals. Dragons, Giants, and Elementals cannot be killed, only "driven back;" the others receive saves of 9, 6, 7, and 7 respectively. Other magical spells, only three of which specifically target an enemy (slowness, confusion, and cloudkill) do not allow saving throws.

Dragon Fire: as stated, this is simply a "save or die" roll.

Basilisks: these petrify "anyone, except a magic user or Super Hero (can be saved by a two dice roll of 6 or better) who looks at their face." There is a separate save for those that touch the creature...interestingly, Giants and Treants need 10s to save while most others save on a 7 or better.

Giant Spiders: again this is listed as a hypothetical possibility whose stats "should be decided upon prior to the game" in which they will be used. As an example, "a giant spider might be unkillable by normal men, but will kill them unless they roll a save of 8 or better, and it would combat fantastic opponents as if it were a lycanthrope."

What does that mean? It means that against non-Heroes (and non-Wizards and non-Super Heroes) the spider simply carries a 40% chance of "save or die." That's like saying: there's no roll to hit; YOU roll a D20 and try to his a 13 or die (a 1st level fighter in OD&D save versus poison on a 12 or better).

If we're talking about one of the "heroic" characters, than the onus is on the hypothetical spider to land a killing attack. Using the Lycanthrope line, a 2D6 roll of 8 is needed to kill a Hero, and an 11 or better needed to kill a Super Hero or Wizard...pretty long odds for that "poison" to work its evil. If we  look at that in reverse (the spider "fails" to poison on a roll of 2-7, or on a roll of 2-10), that's the equivalent of giving these heroic types a D20 "save versus poison" of 10+ for the Hero or 3+(!) for the Super Hero and Wizard. OD&D gives us five saving throws: Death Ray & Poison, Wands, "Stone," Dragon Breath, and Staves & Spells. These are the same in B/X except that Turn to Stone is combined with Paralysis...a sad confusion, to be sure (does this include "hold" spells? Wands of paralysis? Or only the paralysis that occurs when one is scratched by a ghoul?). But I suppose the same issue applies with regard to the spell, Flesh to Stone?

"Death Ray" also is a little would seem to apply only to the "anti-cleric's" Finger of Death spell. Why wouldn't this save fall under the "Staves & Spells" category? Because it's auto-kill and the designers want to give PCs a break (Death Ray has an easier save than Staves & Spells)? Then why does Disintegrate get saved as a "spell" and not a "death ray?"

ANYWAY...a lot of questions there and 3rd Edition's choice to limit all saves to a static three (Fortitude, Reflex, and Will) was a pretty valiant attempt to simplify the mechanic and eliminate the confusion. Not that the ability to mix-n-match classes (and save bonuses) didn't add it's own bit of chaos (along with various bonuses and penalties...racial, situational, synthesis, and whatnot).

I go back to my original question: do we really need saving throws? That is to say, do we really need class/level/category-based saving throws? How many effects do you really want to have saves versus?
What does the Kraken need to save? A 4? 
Let's look at our B/X chassis for a moment: does level drain receive a save? Does mummy rot? Does a shadow's strength drain? Lycanthropy? The hug of a bear (or owl bear)? How about the dissolving powers of slimes and oozes and puddings? How about the attack of a rust monster? The whirlwind of a djinni?

No, they don't. Why not? Why does paralysis get a save? If a gelatinous cube paralyzes creatures with its touch, why doesn't a successful attack automatically paralyze its opponent? If a spider's bite delivers poison, why doesn't a successful bite poison the its victim? Why do we give saves for some and not for others? Because they stop a player from playing (either killing or paralyzing or petrifying)? Because its a form of de-protagonization while other attacks reduce and diminish a character but still allow them the freedom to act?

Well, okay, maybe that's valid...getting your armor rotted off doesn't automatically make you "sit on the sidelines" like other effects. But my experience has been that players tend to retreat from the dungeon when their strength or level has been drained sufficiently...or when their equipment has been destroyed by these various "screw you" monsters. And doesn't being afflicted by a curse like lycanthropy or mummy rot have a deprotagonizing effect? PCs that fall under DM control (because they're now a werewolf, for example) isn't much different from being under the influence of a vampire's charm spell, as far as I can see.

Personally, I'm coming around to the idea that if you don't want something to happen, you probably shouldn't put it in the game. My concept of a ghoul doesn't include a paralyzing touch so (in 5AK for example) there's no paralysis attack from the creature. But if you don't want players to become paralyzed (because such an attack can easily result in a Total Party Kill), then why even stick the power on the monster?

[just FYI, Chainmail lumps "ghouls" in the same category as "wights" stat-wise and then says that WIGHTS paralyze opponents they touch...which, by the way, models the barrow wight attack from Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring. In OD&D, the designers gave wights level drain instead and left the paralysis for ghouls alone...and it's stuck ever since. BTW, in Chainmail? No saving throw versus this ability...but then, it doesn't affect heroic characters at all!]

Let's look at dragon fire for a moment. What do you want dragons to do? Do you want them to offer a  sufficient risk/reward to justify "huge damage" versus "huge treasure?" Ok, why not go the Chainmail route and say, 'roll a 7+ on 2D6 or die if you're caught in dragon fire?' Just have it as an effect of the monster. Forget these saving throw categories with these tables of numbers that slow down the gameplay with their search & handling time.

All right, this is running long (again) and I'm out of time (again). I'll try to write a bit more on this later. However, let me just finish up by saying that at this point I am strongly considering having all "saves" be effect based, rather than character-based. But there will be a lot fewer "effect-based" saves (or saves of any kind) in the new FHB.

Why? Because (in my opinion) most of the things requiring saves just aren't very interesting. Certainly they're uninteresting if the player saves (and nothing happens), but even their failures (especially the ones that "sideline" players indefinitely) are uninteresting. I still want to make characters suffer (because I think suffering is part of what makes the heroic journey interesting), but I want that suffering to be interesting and (perhaps more importantly) "un-savable."
: )


  1. I reduced saves to one kind, and based on class and level. Spells and other abilities that get a save get that one saving throw number.

    The saving throw is a chance at a mulligan; without it, your stupid action or bad luck just killed you. A save is a chance at a do-over through wit, guile, agility, or divine intervention.

    It's a take it or leave it mechanic overall but it is a core feature for D so I kept it at a minimal level.

  2. Certainly, if you don't want those kind of effects in your game, then you shouldn't include them. I don't think that's what saving throws are for, though. Many of us want to play in a world where a character can be petrified by Medusa or enthralled by a witch, but where a Conan or Flash Gordon might resist the witch's charm through sheer willpower or narrowly dodge a laser beam, and saving throws model that beautifully. There might be too many categories. I like the option in 3e where the ref rules which ability is used, rather than sticking with a key score (some examples given in the DMG were saves vs. enchantments and saves vs. illusions. Both are Will saves, but the former use Charisma, while the latter use Intelligence. A mental attack might be a Fortitude save using Wisdom instead of Constitution). We can get rid of others, like save vs. death ray, by using adjustments or a DC, shifting it to the monster entry

    There are some cases where I'm not sure a saving throw's appropriate. Medusa's gaze, for instance, can be resisted in some stories but not in others. While the save could represent avoidance, player skill already models that well enough

  3. I have come to dislike Saving Throws as they become seen as extra improvable abilities that downplay the importance of teamwork and tactics, so I'm a big fan of effects as special abilities of monsters rather than another class/race/attribute -derived stat (basically a character skill) on the character sheet. I prefer player skill -in a dragon's lair I would rather become immersed in figuring out what to do rather than rolling. ST are reductive - too videogamey and binary.

  4. Here's a question that stems from my lack of D&D scholarship (i.e. I'm not one to go searching for interviews with Moldvay or Mentzer to get the skinny on the D&D design thought process): have the creators of the game, ANY of them, given ANY insight on how the saving throws were developed in the first place? Do we have any input from the proverbial horse mouths???

    1. @ Anthony:

      I don't have that information, but it might be worth researching.

    2. If you mean the particular categories used, I can't seem to find that information. I'd guess they just evolved through play

      If, however, you mean the concept of saving throws, those come from Tony Bath's medieval wargaming rules

  5. I interpret Saving Throws as the characters means of avoiding or mitigating danger outside of damage done by a to hit role. Unlike many later games OD&D does not have a method for a character to dodge, mentally resist, or withstand a damaging danger.

    Saving throw are the mechanics develop to handle this.

  6. I, for one, never understood saving throws. I mean, you have a low Dexterity but using your Reflex save you were able to twist and turn and flip away from that attack, good going Wizard Merlin! Huh? I've just done away with saving throws all together and if need be, the character can make an ability check to see if they can avoid, dodge, etc. I mean, that what the ability scores are there for. They tell you how strong, fast, etc. your character is.