Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jesus saves! You suckers take full damage.

Thinking about saving throws.  And about a lot of the "saving throw hate" I've read on various forums (and rarely, blogs) in the past.

Mostly this stems from me looking over the save system in 5E (the Basic .pdf, the PHB has been ordered from the States but I'm not expecting it for another week).

For those who haven't checked it out, the new game uses the six ability scores as saving throws.  Roll d20 plus/minus your ability modifier, plus your proficiency bonus if it's a save you're proficient in.  Beat a target number, you pass the save.

I see some potentially big problems in that.  Now, with the bounded accuracy theory of design, this first one may not be so bad - most saves don't really improve with level.  Since they are tied to ability bonuses, which do increase every few levels, there is some improvement.  But you don't get a bonus to every score, only +2 in one score or +1 in two scores every four levels or so.  And most players are probably going to be pumping those increases into the prime abilities for their character at first, which are probably the ones already increasing because of the proficiency bonus.  The other saves will remain as poor at level 20 as they were at level 1.

Also, the Basic .pdf lists some things that can be trained in to gain proficiency, like tool use, weapons, armor and languages.  Saving throws are not listed.  I could see a DM house-ruling it (or maybe it's in the PHB, or will be an option in the DMG?), but it's not RAW.

So that's a potential weak point of the new game.  I'll need to examine some of the save DCs though to see if it's a big problem or merely an annoyance.  But it's kinda lame that the Fighter will almost never improve Wis/Int/Cha saves, or the Wizard in Str/Cha saves, or the Cleric in Dex/Int saves, etc.

I have read plenty of gamers extoll the 3E system of Fort/Ref/Will saves as being very logical.  The focus of the system is (like in the 5E ability score saves above) on YOU and how YOU negate the special attack.  It does have a sound logic to it, but it's also lacking in flavor at the game table.  You don't even need to think about what it is you're saving against, just your bonus to the die roll to resist whatever bad thing is happening.  Plus, high level DCs just get crazy, and unless you're focusing lots of your char-build into saves (or playing a Monk) you're gonna get burned because the DCs go up at the same rate or better than your save bonuses.

There's a lot of hate out there for the old school system, with it's arbitrary save categories.  But the math is solid, and the system has a more external focus that I think serves the game.  First of all, the math.  Old school characters just GET BETTER at saves.  Across the board, every few levels.  And while everyone sorta sucks against dragon breath or spells, there are varying levels of ability against other forms of attack (and Fighters get a boost against that old dragon breath even).  The BX/BECMI 1st level Cleric has a 50/50 chance to save against Death Ray/Poison.  Even their worst save, against dragon's breath weapons, has a 25% chance to succeed (although at that level, with those hit points, a successful save will still probably kill you...). 

All saves increase at every 3, 4 or 5 levels.  Fighters get the boost every 3 (when Thac0 also increases), but Clerics and Thieves get it every 4 levels, and have lower XP requirements, meaning they can keep up at first.  Magic-Users get stuck with advancement every 5 levels and the most expensive levels (of the human classes), but that's kind of the point of the class, right?  AWESOME COSMIC POWERS!  Itty bitty living space (or make that chances to live to next level). 

In 2E, Fighters get a definite boost in that they gain every 2 levels, IIRC.  But even the poor M-U, if he or she survives to mid to high levels, ends up with good chances to save versus most special attacks.  And that's a good thing! 

It also means that monsters get really good at saving at high HD, so all those awesome "save or die" spells of the M-U become gambles.  In 3E, you just need to target a creature's weak save with the proper save or die effect for a good chance for it to succeed.  In Classic or AD&D, you may end up wasting several spells before one sticks.  Those "overpowered" M-Us aren't necessarily dominating every combat the way some claim.

But let's move on to my other claim.  Old school saves are definitely arbitrary and illogical in their groupings and possibly their assignment of which classes are good at which and poor at others.  I won't argue that point.  But the saves are based on the attack you're trying to defend against.  That's a huge thing in play. 

When the DM calls for you to make a Save vs. Petrification, everyone at the table is likely to stop and listen, and pay attention to that roll.  A Fort Save?  Maybe, maybe not.  The thing is, the DM can call for a Fort, Ref or Will save at any time, and it doesn't give the players much to sink their imagination-teeth into.  Those arbitrary categories give description and focus the play on the effect happening IN THE GAME WORLD rather than on the numbers on the character sheet (although those do get referenced too, of course). 

This is also the reason I'm not fond of Swords & Wizardry's single save.  It's too generic, and with each class/race getting bonuses to certain arbitrary save types, there might as well be the whole old school system in place. 

So, in the end, if I do end up playing 5E a lot, and running the game ever, saving throws are one area I'm likely to come up with some house-rules.


  1. I believe your class can grant you proficiency with a save in 5e.

    I do find that making ability scores more important and changing things from “get better at everything but at different rates” to “only get better at some things” (whether in 5e or other D&D knock-offs) makes it feel more like a game, which is something I want to avoid.

  2. Class grants proficiency in two of the six save categories, and likely ones you're going to want to increase through ability score boosts.

  3. @ Lord Gwyd:

    The whole concept of "saving throws" come from Chainmail...a small chance that (the more powerful) individuals will resist certain effects. They used to be ALL "save or die" (i.e. get removed from the game board), and there was no increase over time at all.

    [wouldn't it be interesting if we returned to that line of thought? If the special attack itself carried a "save chance" rather than any particular attribute...class, level, ability score...of the PC? Sorry - just musing to myself]

    1. Actually, they're even older than Chainmail. Tony Bath had developed saving throws by at least 1960, and Donald Featherstone's War Games (1962) popularized the concept within the wargaming community

    2. @JB - actually, that would be interesting.

    3. @ LG:

      Yeah...already doing it.
      : )

  4. 5E's "every ability is a save" does break down closely to the old school saves. With ability increases and proficiency bonuses increasing each class does get better at saves. They may not be the same ones as BECMI or AD&D, but each class does have certain saves that they are good at, just as before.

    1. Oh, I get all that, but the improvements in 4 out of 6 saves are by no means guaranteed. You need to choose to raise the ability scores that you aren't considered proficient in the save, which may be suboptimal. If you select only one, you guarantee a 5% increase in chances to that one save out of 6. If you put +1 into two scores, they may or may not increase the ability modifiers of one or both. And if you choose to take a feat you get no improvement at all.

      Basically, the problem I see it is that you can only expect two of your six save categories, the ones you are proficient in, to improve as you level.

      Unless you have some unusual build, like a Fighter/Eldritch Knight pumping increases into Int for spellcasting, often the ability increase will go to one of the scores that you're proficient in saving throws, from what I can see so far.

      My point above was that before, you had some you were good at and some you were not good at, but they ALL got better as your PC gained experience. With 5E, some or all of your non-proficient saves are likely to remain at or near the level they were when you start at level 1 for your whole career.

  5. I believe there's a feat you can use to gain proficiency in other saves. So there's that, too.

    1. Maybe. I skimmed the feats section last night, though, and didn't see one. Easy enough to add one if there isn't, of course. Or as I mentioned in the post, allow for a training option similar to languages and tool proficiencies.