The Alexandrian

A quick walk through the history of the saving throw mechanic:

(1) OD&D offered an incomplete, source/type-based array of saving throws. This created a couple of problems, one of which was that many effects would actually fall into multiple categories. Did the DM simply make a ruling for which applied? Did a character always use the best-applicable saving throw? Or should they always use the worst-applicable saving throw?

(2) AD&D eliminated that problem by establishing a fairly clear hierarchy of which saving throw category should be applied first. But it didn’t fix the other problem, which is that many effects which required saving throws didn’t conveniently fall into any particular category. There were two possible solutions: Create a new category every time you needed one or simply arbitrarily assign one of the existing saving throw categories. In general, designers and DMs did the latter. This assignation was often based on a rough approximation of “method of avoidance” (you avoid dragon breath by ducking out of the the way, this effect could be avoided by ducking out of the way, so let’s make it a save vs. dragon breath) or “similarity of effect” (dragon breath is a big blast of fire, this trap is creating a big blast of fire, so let’s make it a save vs. dragon breath). (These methods often overlapped.)

(3) D&D3 eliminated that problem by swapping to a universal system based on method-of-avoidance. In some corner-case situations, this system actually reintroduces the lack-of-hierarchy problems from OD&D (“do I duck out of the way or do I tough it out?”), but most of the time there is a clear and obvious saving throw for any given effect.

(4) 4E, of course, took the term “saving throw” and applied it to a completely different mechanic. But if you look at the mechanic which actually derives from pre-2008’s saving throws, 4E did two things with it: First, it inverted the facing of the mechanic. Instead of the defender making the saving throw roll, it’s the attacker rolling against the save.

This is an interesting choice. And to understand why, let’s consider the fact that they could have done the exact opposite with AC: Instead of the attacker rolling vs. AC, they could have swapped AC so that it works like old school saving throws (with the defender rolling against the attacker’s static score).

It’s important to understand that, in terms of mathematics and game balance, this change is completely irrelevant. It has no effect whatsoever.

In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, however, the psychological effect of this mechanic is to make the person initiating the action feel passive: They announce the action their character is taking in the game world, but they take no “action” in the real world. Instead, the target takes the real world action.

Or, to put it another way: If you roll for an attack, the emphasis of the game becomes trying to hit people with your sword. If you roll for defense, the emphasis of the game becomes trying to dodge or deflect the blows of others. (If you roll for both, no such emphasis occurs. But this becomes too swingy with D&D’s d20-based mechanics.)

As a result, in 4E, you are always active on your turn and always passive on every other character’s turn. In 3E, on the other hand, the differentiation between the facing of attack rolls and the facing of saving throws mixes the experience up: Spellcasters generally feel more “passive” than fighters on their turn. Meanwhile, players frequently become “active” on other characters’ turns because saving throws will be called for.

Here, as with many of its design choices, 4E is flattening the game experience into something more “consistent”, but also blander and less varied. No player will ever feel as if they “didn’t do anything” on their turn, but the trade-off is that they literally do nothing while everyone else is taking their turn. (Theoretically this is then balanced out with the plethora of immediate actions that 4E adds. BID.)

The second major change 4E implemented, however, was to basically eradicate any clear connection between the action in the game world and the save/defense being used. (For example, a cleric can use his weapon vs. AC, vs. Fort, and vs. Will. Why? Because the mechanics say so.) They embrace this dissociation of the mechanics because it allows them to give every character class the ability to target different defenses without having them actually take different types of actions.

Laying aside the general effects of dissociated mechanics for the moment, this second change has the practical effect of watering down the actual meaning of the various defense scores. When Radiant Brilliance lets you charge your weapon with divine energy and trigger an explosion by hitting your target with a vs. Reflex attack and Holy Spark lets you do basically the same thing with a vs. Will attack… what’s the difference between Reflex and Will defenses? Absolutely nothing, of course. They’re just arbitrary categories that we drop various powers into for an interesting mechanical mix.

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16 Responses to “Thought of the Day: The Design History of Saving Throws”

  1. Quirky DM says:

    Interesting comment on the passive vs. active. There was an article not too long ago, I think on Dungeons Master, that was talking about making all rolls the purview of the player. If the player is attacking, the make an attack roll against the other person’s defense. If the player is being attacked, they make a dodge roll against the other person’s attack bonus. This way, the player is focusing no matter whose turn it is, and they always feel involved in the game. It’s an idea I like and will be using myself.

    As for the will/reflex/ac thing, you’re right, that was a mistake. For a few classes like wizards who are supposed to have a variety of spells for different circumstances, this makes sense. For everyone else though, it is really pushing it. Instead, they should have decided on a different format, like all martial characters target AC and divine characters focus on will. There are a few exceptions here and there for a special attack, (maybe one or two per character) but otherwise they should focus on their main attack/defense type.

  2. Bill says:

    I confess that I don’t much like using the Saves as Defenses. I tolerated it in Star Wars Saga Edition, but I really didn’t like it in 4e.
    When I run 3e and PF, I use Action Points that allow a player to add 1d6 to one of his d20 rolls. The system’s pretty well known and has appeared in both 3e’s Unearthed Arcana and, I believe, the earliest Eberron materials. With this system, you can use an action point to add to your saving throw if you think your initial roll is in the risky territory. It’s within the player’s control. But if your defense is static and the roll to hit it is in the GM’s hands, you don’t get that option.

    A variation of the action point system exists for SWSE – Force points. They work much the same and I think I would have preferred defenses as saving throws as well. I tolerated the defenses in SWSE, in no small part, because PC defenses tended to outstrip attacks on them. You added your full heroic class value to your defenses and only Jedi and Soldiers kept up with the ability to hit it, everyone else started falling behind. So, compared to 4e, you were already usually getting a point or two ahead of your attacker as if you had rolled a 1 or 2 on your Force die.

  3. -C says:

    I feel compelled to point out that the abstraction of the earlier saving throws was an advantage in play. I discuss it at length here. The more modern iterations assume either a ‘defense’ or a literal action on the part of the players. The literal action is a problem because it assumes you dodge out of the way, or resist, and yet no action is every taken by the character to represent this. With the other saves, what exactly is allowing you to survive is abstract, and therefore up to the player and DM to determine. . . and decide the effects of.

  4. EvilGardenGnome says:

    I understand why they have identical powers targeting different defenses, but I disagree with the reasoning.

    By giving a player powers to target different NADs, you ensure that they aren’t completely useless in a situation. For instance, if all you target is AC and you run into a high AC BBEG, you’re nerfed.

    However, this is another symptom of the watering down of 4e. Everyone is not only always useful, but always powerful. There’s no weaknesses and no negative decisions. My PCs are level 7 and none have an attack bonus less than +12. It’s ridiculous.

    I do like the idea of simplifying the saving throws, though. You have three saving throws and a given power identifies what it targets. Ideally none AC attacks would have been contested rolls. It would have given a PC something to do when it’s not their turn and made things a little more random, which is good when your bonuses are so high.

  5. Paul says:

    Good Summary. I’m fairly certain the reason that they chose to move from “Active Saves” to “Passive Saves” is to speed up gameplay at the table. Only one player is rolling dice at a time, which should lead to faster resolution of actions. YMMV, but that seems to be the case at my table.

    The second problem, that powers are disassociated from any real-world mechanic is a far bigger issue, and it’s one of my biggest beefs with 4e. In the PHB and the first few books, they made an effort to at least keep the descriptions of the attacks consistent with their effect. The rogue can target Reflex with a particular attack because he finds the weak spot in the target’s armor. That’s cool. Very cool. The issue is when the warlord is sliding enemies around with an attack that affects Will. How did he do that? Was it a shout? Why does the Bard’s Taunt power, which attacks Will, work against a zombie? The rules are over-balanced, and I think lazy designers have written far too many powers that make no sense.

  6. circadianwolf says:

    Interesting points–I hadn’t considered the implication of saving throws-to-defenses on how spellcasters play.

    One note, though:
    “(If you roll for both, no such emphasis occurs. But this becomes too swingy with D&D’s d20-based mechanics.)”

    You see this assumption a lot in D&D blogs, but mathematically, the opposite is true. The more dice being rolled, the less swingy a roll is.

  7. Jess says:

    In my game I’ve moved towards an always active player, as opposed to the role as attacker or defender being active. There are the same number of rolls at the table, but it means a lot less work for me. I converted the defenses on the PC sheets to d20 roll modifiers and did the opposite for attacks on my side. The outcome is that the players are always engaged regardless of what I’m doing. I give them a description and ask them to roll defense and then continue to narrate based on how they roll. It’s taken a little getting used to, and there’s a conversion in every monster that I have to now make, but I think it’s been worth it.

  8. Joseph says:

    One thing that making saving throws as defenses did was make it harder to have actually lethal opponents. Consider a poisonous snake. In 1E/2E, the snake had to hit (doing damage) and then the player had to save (or die of poison). In 3E they weakened poison a lot (it was a bit too strong on 1E but in 3E it is nearly impossible to die of a single snakebite or poison chalice with then poisons in the DMG).

    In 4E, there is only a single roll, meaning that poison has to be either drastically weakened or it becomes a single hit kill. The ability to layer defenses (AC and then a save) was a way to make high level characters tough without removing the underlying fear of dangerous critters.

  9. Paul says:

    @Joseph: There are lots of monsters with multiple rolls per attack, including several that roll vs. AC to hit and then vs. Fort for poison on a successful hit.

  10. Zeta Kai says:

    @ circadianwolf:

    “You see this assumption a lot in D&D blogs, but mathematically, the opposite is true. The more dice being rolled, the less swingy a roll is.”

    The math only works that way if you are adding all of the dice together to get a single number. If two dice are being combined into a single total, then yes, the average roll is far more likely to occur, statistically speaking. But comparative rolls are “swingy”, because each die is counted against the other in an opposed, or subtractive, fashion.

    If I roll a high attack on a D20 (let’s say a perfect 20), & you roll low on your defense with another D20 (say a natural 1), then that’s a 19-point difference in the numbers. It’s hard to balance offensive & defensive bonuses that can take such a large disparity into account. Whereas with a static number one side (for example, a static defense of +10, then the designer only has to factor in a “swing” that is half the size, which is much more attractive, both for the designer & the GM.

  11. Norcross says:

    @ Zeta Kai:

    “The math only works that way if you are adding all of the dice together to get a single number.”

    Nope. d20-d20 is exactly the same as 2d20-21. You still have the exact same bell curve, just shifted down.

    It is true that d20-d20 has a larger range then d20-10, but the bell curve makes the results cluster around the center which many people prefer (the flat probability curve is one of the biggest shortfalls of the d20 skill system, IMO). In addition, there is only around a 20% chance of the d20-d20 being outside the range of d20-10.

    I would prefer just always letting the player roll – if an NPC casts a spell on the player, the player makes a saving roll. If a player casts a spell on an NPC, the player rolls to beat the NPC’s save modifier+10. That way the math stays the same but the player always gets to roll the dice.

  12. Justin Alexander says:

    @C: Good point vis-a-vis abstraction. Although I’m amused that the first thing you do after championing abstraction in the post you linked to was to then nail them back down into concrete responses. 😉

    I’ve found that the only category in 3E that really becomes problematic are Reflex saves. Particularly rogues: Guy is standing in the middle of a field, gets hit with a fireball, makes his save, and somehow avoids all damage without even hitting the deck? How does that work?

    But then I remember that I’ve been having that discussion since 1989.

    @Jess: Yeah, I’ve experimented with player-faced mechanics in D20 in the past. I liked the overall metagame impact of making the players feel involved, but found that it slowed play to a crawl. There are a lot of time-saving tricks I use behind the screen, and I’ve got players I can’t even convince to roll attacks and damage at the same time.

    @Norcross: In this case, I’m using the term “swing” to refer to radical shifts in competence from one roll to the next. This occurs because you’re doubling the range of possible outcomes. I’ve got a +9 attack vs. AC 20, then I’ll range from a margin of failure of 10 to a margin of success of 9. If I’ve got a +9 attack against AC +10, I’ll range from a margin of failure of 20 to a margin of success of 18.

    In fact, if you look at 1d20-1d20 vs. 1d20, you’ll discover that the peak of the 1d20-1d20 bell curve (at 0) has a 5% chance of occurring. That peak may be more likely than any other result on the 1d20-1d20 bell curve, but it’s the exact same likelihood that you have for every result on 1d20. Hence, the swinginess as the other 95% of possible outcomes are spread out over 38 other possibilities instead of 19.

  13. Hautamaki says:

    I like swinginess. With swinginess, every encounter, even against a couple of goblins, is potentially dangerous. I don’t like my PCs to feel 100% safe at any point when they are involved in what should be a life and death situation fighting monsters. For this reason, I also use exploding damage dice. Once one of my PCs was shot by a bandit, it was a critical hit, and both damage dice exploded. The PC ended up taking over 30 points of damage from a 1st level goon and was instantly killed. That’s when my players started taking the game very seriously and thinking carefully about how best to approach all encounters, and not just sauntering in simply because ‘we’re the heroes here’.

  14. Cyrad says:

    4e makes area attacks a chore. You have to roll against every single target, which can be daunting if you hit like 7 enemies. It’s much easier to roll saves and gets all affected involved. Sure, the DM still has to make lots of saving throws, but usually enemies grouped up like that are the same.

  15. The Stray says:

    You know, I never realized this before, but this may have been what lead to my insanely long combats in 4e. One of the big problems I had was player disinterest. Whenever it wasn’t their turn, the players would tune out. And why wouldn’t they? Unless they had powers with immediate actions, there wasn’t much for them to actually *do.* They could zone out, and only really needed to concentrate when it was there turn, which means that whenever the situation on the battlefield changed, I had to bring the player whose turn it was back up to speed.

    Getting back to Pathfinder after 4e, I notice the difference right away. Some players still zone out, but it’s more common for them to remain invested if they need to be on hand to resolve a saving throw.

  16. Google says:

    You know, I never noticed this before, but this may have been what cause to my incredibly lengthy fights in 4e. One of the big issues I had was gamer disinterest. Whenever it wasn’t their convert.

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