Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Save Versus Epiphany

Just realized something yesterday afternoon that I hadn’t realized till now…Saving Throws are just as abstract as any other part of D&D’s combat system.

I mean, sure, it says as much in the rules, but I just didn’t “get it,” you know? Let me give an example of what I’m talking about:

A character is fighting a giant spider. The giant spider does damage with its bite, as well as forcing a save versus poison and death. In the past, I simply figured this is the character’s chance to resist the spider’s poison due to his immense stamina or whatever (i.e. “that spider scratched me, and I feel the burn of the poison, but it wasn’t a strong enough dose to kill me”). Different character classes had different “fortitudes” (not to be confused with D20’s Fortitude save, though this is the logical extension of my line of reasoning)…for example a cleric or fighter is naturally hardier than a magic-user or thief.

NOW I realize the faultiness of my reasoning. If the venom of a giant spider is strong enough to kill a human, it doesn’t matter whether you are a fighter or a magic-user…and it certainly doesn’t matter what LEVEL of fighter, magic-user, or 0 level character you are. Deadly poison is straight-up deadly, and having survived to 5th level doesn't make you more likely to resist it.

But just like hit points don’t actually represent the physical trauma a character can withstand, neither does the poison saving throw. A fighter gets hit by a giant spider, takes some damage, and rolls his save. Does taking damage mean a character has been impaled on the spider’s fangs? No, not unless the damage was enough to kill him. The fighter may have been simply thumped by a leg or two, knocked down, bashed around…or he may have dodged a blow that otherwise would have hit and is now fatigued, out-o-breath, and the NEXT “hit” will do him in.

The fighter is surviving the poison because he is AWARE of the poisonous attack, and its deadliness in hand-to-hand combat. A save means he AVOIDS the fangs…he knows the dripping venom could spell his doom. Certainly higher level characters are more esteemed in the eyes of their patron deities and thus receive some blessing that appears as good fortune or luck (think Zeus watching over Heracles), but for the most part high level characters are more aware of the dangers inherent in adventuring…and thus take more precaution.

The magic-user has a lower poison save than a fighter, not because he is frailer (that may or may not be the case, based on individual Constitutions), but because he is not as deft as the fighter in melee of avoiding those dripping fangs. Neither does he have the protective gear (shields, vambraces) and combat reflexes to avoid a poison spit attack. The magic-user is kind of a dumbass when it comes to avoiding these mundane threats…until he acquires the cunning and wisdom of experience (i.e. until his level goes up and his save improves).

Likewise with a save versus petrification: this isn’t some adventurer facing down a medusa, approaching through her baneful gaze saying, “Must…resist…turning to…stone!” until he can finally whack the monster in the face.

It’s more like, “Oh, a pretty damsel with curly hair! Are you lost? Can I help – OH MY GOD! ARRRGGHH!” The higher level adventurer has a natural suspicion that serves him (or her) well…a suspicion bought by surviving perilous adventures and hard earned experience. Fighters may have a worse save versus petrification as they are less familiar with these kinds of dangers (and what fighter ever concerned himself with harsh breath? Only a higher level fighter is going to realize...from rumor, legend, experience...the danger of the gorgon). Thieves are generally better (having some knowledge of dangerous women and such), but this is off-set by their native curiosity…until they reach higher level.

Clerics, of course, have pretty good saves all the way across, obviously receiving some divine favor for their zeal and devotion (isn’t there some saying about God protecting drunks, children, and the insane?). Others may curse the clerics’ good fortune, but failure to follow the dictates of their theology can result in stiff penalties for the cleric (penalties to saving throws!) as a deity withdraws its favor. Higher level clerics, of course, receive more “blessings.”

Spell saves are not just a matter of “willpower “ and “resistance;” they are a measure of a character’s knowledge of spellcraft and ability to counterspell! A magic-users get a better saves against spells because of their knowledge of dweomercraft and their ability to mutter/gesture quick counter-signs against the evil eye, charms, or straight up blasts of power. When a magic-user makes a save versus fireball, he’s not necessarily lunging for cover (except in D20)…he’s holding up his staff and deflecting the fiery blast, or allows it to pass around him, reducing the power of its flame. The wisdom bonus is a measure of a character’s ability to recognize a particular enchantment, and (quickly) make the appropriate ward against it. Seems a bit more magical to me.

And dragon breath? The low level fighter, obviously inspired by tales of epic wyrm slayers, is usually the first to face the barbecue with a heroic frontal charge. The higher level fighter is far more canny when it comes to fighting such dangerous creatures and generally receives some of the best dragon saves, using every scrap of cover and piece of gear at his disposal to maneuver away from the brunt of the blast.

Saving throws are as abstract and open to interpretation as the mighty “to hit” roll in D&D. The categories chosen and numbers assigned are fairly arbitrary, as evidenced by the lack of consistency between AD&D, B/X, OD&D, and BECMI (even between rule books in the latter there are discrepancies!)…anyone can come up with a few tables that scale this danger awareness in different ways. I just find it a nifty little system…it makes me want to make my OWN saving throw tables (which I’ll probably be doing for my B/X Companion). Once again, I find my respect for Old School D&D growing in leaps and bounds…saving throws have a lot more personality than just Fortitude/Reflex/Will.


  1. Excellent post!
    I don't know if Gygax captured lighting in a bottle or what but the original rules (which B/X is 98% identical to) are really, really amazing.

    When a person takes a step back and looks at them with a curious and open mind it is amazing to see their synchronicity.

  2. Yeah...the thing is, so often we (I include myself) simply look at one of the rules and say, 'how arbitrary, how stupid.' You know, back when people played incessantly (back when designers could make some money, too), rules got PLAY-TESTED. Sure there were some things that had to evolve from nothing, but I think there was a lot more care, thought, and reason that went into these Old School games than what we give credit for.

  3. This? This is great stuff. This is great stuff and I love it.