Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Piecemeal System Reviews: Saving Throws in D&D and related systems

First Encounters

To be honest, I didn't hate saving throws at first. D&D was the only RPG I'd ever played, so I figured that saving throws were how you handled certain things.

Sadly, it was the vagueness of what those "certain things" were what initially gave me trouble. Unless it was explicitly stated in the rulebook, I didn't call for saving throws. And because of that it was hard for me to judge when -- in an adventured I'd created -- something would get a saving throw unless such a thing was stated in the monster description, or spell description, or magic item description.

I was very young back then, didn't really get the idea of 'guidelines' as opposed to 'rules', and even when that was brought up, didn't know when you could 'guidelines' something or stick to the rules because the other folks I played with would then attack with very rudimentary rules lawyering arguments.

Failed Save = Death

Eventually, a growing dissonance between the hit point mechanic and the saving throw mechanic emerged in my mind. It was too easy to die by failing a saving throw in comparison to melee combat.

You had two chances to avoid certain death: (1) a botched attack roll; or (2) a low enough damage roll, as opposed to the classic "save vs. poison or die" scenario, where a single die roll decided everything.

It was because of this, and the fact that I didn't really understand when a given saving throw would be applicable ("don't I get a saving throw vs. death every time I'm about to die?" "do I save vs. wands or save vs. magic in this instance?") I eventually began playing to avoid any situations where a saving throw might be needed - but still held the mechanic in contempt.

Departure and Return

Saving throws become a non-issue when I eventually left the system and began my march through many different RPG systems, some of which stayed with me (HERO), some of which I never wrapped my mind around (Cyborg Commando).

Then 3rd Edition happened, and there were only three saving throws -- Fortitude, Reflexes, and Willpower -- which didn't matter so much to me as a simplification, but as a revelation. I finally realized the whole character class + racial bonus/penalty = your chance to avoid something nasty. After that, I had little issue with saving throws as a mechanic.

Expanding on the Saving Throw (M&M, True20, C&C)

I've actually been interested in some of the variants on the saving throw rule since. In particular, I like Mutants & Masterminds / True20 and the way that the extended the saving throw rule to handle damage and eliminate hit points. I also like the way Castles & Crusades extended the number of classic saving throws to six so that there could be a correlation with each stat.

I wonder what other uses this old mechanic has in store in the future?

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