Saving Throws vs Saving Throws


One of the reasons I think the stripped-down, bare bones approach to savings throws works so well in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that the game designers combine it with a new approach to defensive stats. Reflex, Will, and Fortitude still exist in 4th Ed, but now they represent static target numbers similar to Armor Class.

Every character or NPC has varying degrees of these four defensive stats. E.g. a slow, lumbering monster such as a zombie might have a high Fortitude defense but a low Reflex. A pixie, which is fast and flighty but physically frail, would probably have a high Reflex defense but a low Fortitude. Combat becomes a game of matching the strongest attacks against the weakest defenses. Strategies develop. Players have to work harder; they can’t simply apply the same solution to every problem. Fun results.

“Wait just a moment,” you say. “Didn’t you spend a nearly an entire post carping about how static numbers in the face of random dice rolls can make a player feel powerless?”

Guilty as charged. But in my mind, it’s all about who rolls the dice. In game, if a monster rolls to attack me, I’m not terribly concerned. My armor is thick, my body is tough, and my will is strong. If the GM rolls well, it doesn’t reflect poorly on me. I mustered the best defenses I could in the face of adversity. I feel no loss of agency if the bad guy waffles me with a lucky shot.

On the other hand, if I roll to attack a monster’s Armor Class, I can own the results. If I roll poorly, that’s on me. If I roll well, that’s also on me. But if I don’t get to roll at all, I feel like I’m not participating. And if the monster rolls well on a Saving throw, and my attack fails as a result, I feel like a jerk. It all depends on who is holding the dice.

4th Edition‘s defensive stat system is mathematically identical to earlier saving throw systems. It simply inverts who rolls the dice. Dice are agency. Agency is ego. And in a game grounded in escapist fantasy, sometimes ego is everything.


I imagine this is what my reaction looks like when my opponents make a saving throw.


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