Saving Throws

17Jun13

Continuing with my musings from the previous post, I assert that the saving throw rules for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons are superior to earlier iterations.

No, I haven’t gone bonkers. Hear me out here:

I’m a sucker for the granularity of the clunky old saving throw tables from 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I have a soft spot for the fact that each character class could have wildly different target numbers to save vs petrification, dragon breath, death ray, or rods / staves / wands. But while this system gave the game a certain flavor, keeping track of these numbers without the recourse of a handy cheat sheet could be a logistical nightmare.

3rd Edition and Pathfinder streamlined saving throws by reducing the nigh-limitless types of danger to three broad categories: Will, Fortitude, and Reflex. These ability scores reflect a character’s mental durability, physical toughness, and aptitude at diving for cover, respectively. Attempting to resist a malicious transformation or a virulent poison would fall within the Fortitude category, while fighting off an illusion or a vampire’s magical charms would be a matter of Will. This system provides complexity without burdening the GM with the unenviable task of juggling all sorts of figures that differ by both class and level.

But when you botch an important saving throw as a player, you feel a lack of agency, especially when the odds are stacked in your favor. If you’ve got a 77% or 87% chance of avoiding the evil wizard’s lightning bolt, you feel like a jerk when you flub the roll. Anyone who has played X-Com: Enemy Unknown knows the frustration of missing what ought to be an easy shot, and this is exactly the sort of thing can happen with the saving throw systems in 3rd Edition, 3.5, and Pathfinder.

These saving throw systems are symmetrical whether the individual performing the saving throw is a monster or a PC. This can cause problems, in my opinion. For example, in a recent Pathfinder game where I played as a 1st level mage, I tried to put a fleeing goblin to sleep with the only combat-related spell in my arsenal. The progression of the entire adventure hinged on knocking this goblin out, but the goblin got to roll a saving throw to resist the sleep spell. The GM rolled well and easily defeated the DC (a static target number, determined by the spell’s level and my character’s Intelligence modifier) of my sleep spell. It was my one chance to shine, to do my bit as the party’s spell-slinging wizard, and I blew it. I blew it not because I rolled poorly, but because the goblin aced a saving throw.

Monsters don’t need this sort of parity. There ought to be a better method for resolving how spells affect monstrous NPCs, one that doesn’t leave the player feeling like a chump when their sleep spell fizzles or their fireball fails to connect because all of their wizardly might means jack-doodly when the GM’s dice are hot.

In 4th Edition, saving throws involve a simple d20 roll. Rolling a 10 or higher is a success. Anything less is a failure. You have a 50 / 50 chance. It’s an easy system to implement during play, and it feels fair. Failing when the odds are 50 / 50 feels less galling than failing when the odds are 75 / 25 in your favor. At least that’s how it feels to me, and when assuming the mantle of a player rather than a GM, the illusion of agency is paramount.

In 4th Edition, monsters get the same 50 / 50 shot that the PCs do, unless they’re a big bad boss monster, in which case the odds spike in their favor to either 65 / 35 or even 75 / 25. It’s simple, clean, and asymmetrical, which is fine by me, because when you get right down to it, a group of adventurers doesn’t require the exact same rules to govern their actions as the huge honking dragon that’s trying to eat their lunch.

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