Sunday, January 4, 2015

Save Versus Minutiae

Understanding the Saving Throw.
Over the years of discussion, game play, and reading blogs and articles, it has come to my attention that not everyone really understands the Saving Throw rule of D&D.  I've seen it countless times, some player gets hit with an effect and is either told to make a saving throw or if he is not he asks/demands a saving throw.  The saving throw seems to be an ignore game annoyance ability.  Well it's not.
Per the second edition AD&D DMG:
    The saving throw is a die roll that gives a chance, however slim, that the character
    or creature finds some way to save himself from certain destruction (or at least
    lessen the damage of a successful attack).
    More often than not, the saving throw represents an instinctive act on the part of
    the character-diving to the ground just as a fireball scorches the group; blanking the
    mind just as a mental battle begins; blocking the worst of an acid spray with a shield.
    The exact action is not important-DMs and players can think of lively and colorful
    explanations of why a saving throw succeeded or failed.  Explanations tailored to
    the events of the moment enhance the excitement of the game.
Save versus Dickbaggery-failed.
The original set of saving throws were shown on a table that also listed their precedence (that is which saves came first if there was a question as to what save should be rolled).  For example if an enemy wizard attacked a player with a petrification spell cast from a wand the save for Rod, Staff or Wand should be used as it takes precedence over the save for Petrification or Polymorph, even though the magical spell is one for petrifying the target.  Easy, right?
Each category had a broader range of application than the name would suggest as follows:
(In order of precedence)
Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic-Also used when exceptional force of will or physical fortitude is needed.
Rod, Staff, or Wand-Also used for magical attack from an unknown source.
Petrification or Polymorph-Also used when the character must withstand some massive physical alteration of his entire body.
Breath Weapon-Also used where a combination of dexterity and physical stamina are critical factors to survival (and useful for area of effect saves as well).
Spell-Used to resist spells and magical effects not covered by a higher precedent and for attacks that defy any other classification.
In this situation the reptilian monster (maybe a dragon) would make a save versus Polymorph unless of course the wizard is using that staff to cast the spell, in which case Rod, Staff or Wand takes precedence.  Also, how cool is that?  He's turning his foe into a unicorn and seriously freaking it out to boot.
When combined with the Ability Check (a classic catch-all roll where the player just rolls a d20 and tries not to exceed his ability score) the Saving Throw covers every possible random thing that could happen that is not an attack roll or a proficiency check.  The Saving Throw (and Ability Check) precedes all skill roll nonsense, being the original method of interacting with the world via dice.  Everything else is conscious choice on the part of the players and DM.  Essentially the saving throw is a check to see if the actions of the player character succeed, not a magical "nuh uh" button.

So why is this important in any way?
I believe there are two reasons.  The first is that the game should be ACTIVE.  The players need to describe their responses to situations and come up with cunning plans to deal with threats that do not involve saying, "I attack the goblin with my sword" 500 times a night.  Combat has no saving throw.  The saving throw of combat is actually the attack roll of the enemy versus the defense score (Armor Class in the old days) of the combatant.  Some things can improve this AC value, like defensive fighting techniques, but essentially every attack roll is a Save vs Not Hitting Opponent with the Save number determined by the opponent's AC.  Saving Throws are for Non-Combat actions that have a chance of failure.  Is a fire jet in a wall a fireball (Spell) or is it a cone of damaging flame (Breath Weapon)?  Typically you avoid it in the same way you'd avoid a dragon's breath attack, so make a save vs Breath Weapon.  By the same token if a player describes some action to mitigate damage or tragedy and it looks like something that would match a saving throw you can call for a saving throw to determine the success of the action.  As a character improves in level so too do the saving throws, to reflect improvements in physical and mental abilities and experience/knowledge.  In the days when abilities scores did not go up with levels and only got worse with age, the benefits of leveling were all the more important.

The second reason is that magic is already hard enough.  Some spells have their saving throw listed, like fireball.  Others have no saving throw attached but do require some kind of attack roll.  In the case of the attack roll the spell typically does not allow a save (but it might, some do) because the chance of failure is in the roll to hit.  Where there is no chance of failure in casting (such as Wall of Thorns, which has no save associated) you are usually not looking at a direct damage spell or a combat spell.  Light does not have a saving throw.  Why not?  Well in a meta sense all it does is create light.  That's nothing to save against, but in an "in universe" sense it is because nothing a player can do can effectively avoid the spell.  Light makes light.  That's it.  There is no saving against it.  On the other hand a spell such as Acid Arrow does damage and requires an attack roll.  Should it also get a saving throw?
Bitchy warriors will say, "Yes, it bloody well should," but that is because they are a bunch of brainless entitlement monkeys who think that all magic should have some mystic resistance applied against it for those that don't do magic.  The wizard already has to roll to hit.  That's the "saving throw".  The same one that punkass ranger made when he made his attack roll with a non-acid arrow.  The wizard usually has less of a chance of success on these combat attack spells already given his lower attack values and physical abilities, why must we insist on punishing him with another roll for success or failure?
The truth is we do not.  Many spells do not allow a saving throw and badgering your DM to allow you one because the attack was a spell is failing to understand what a saving throw is and how it works.

If the ranger fires an arrow from his longbow he must roll to hit.  The AC of the target is resisting him.  If he meets or exceeds his required roll the arrow sinks into the target and does damage.  The save that the target made was having an AC.  The target failed.  He doesn't ask the DM for a Save Vs Arrows.  He doesn't look at the DM and demand a Reflex Save (3rd edition) or a Dexterity Ability Check to see if he could dodge the arrow.  Combat is a well-understood process.  The arrow hit, damage is rolled.
Yet many a player, in my experience, would argue that they deserved some sort of resistance check against the Acid Arrow.  The wizard already had to overcome the resistance of the target by making an attack roll, just like the ranger.  The AA hit, now it does its damage.  That's how it works.  There is no simply ignoring it because it was a spell.  The spell creates an arrow made of ACID.  The target had his chance to defend just as he had against the real arrow and he failed.  No Reflex saves or Dexterity checks are involved at this point and simply arguing that a saving throw Vs Spells exists and therefore should be allowed is bollocks.  But I've seen it happen.
Quiz Time: What is the Saving Throw applicable in this instance?
Answer: None.  Roll for initiative and deal with the hentai monster in your usual fighter way.

Finally I'd like to put forth the idea that the Saving Throw and Ability Check can, with a good DM that knows when and how to give out a reasonable bonus/penalty, cover all your skill needs too.  Saves get better with levels, reflecting the overall improvement of the character which, along with hit points, makes the character more viable in the apparently dangerous worlds of D&D.  While it is attractive to say that your character has a particular facility with animal training does it require a skill roll?  Does it require putting points into skills, even?
The old school Secondary Skills concept where a PC had a job aside from their class, probably what they did before they decided they'd rather rob monster homes than work for a living, covered a loose set of skills and abilities associated with the job itself.  A sailor would be assumed to know sailor things and a DM would have final ruling (after a good, long argument that being a sailor somehow qualifies a player to know trigonometry) on what that meant.  If some manner of roll were then called for a simple Ability Check (in the case of non-life threatening situations) or a Saving Throw would easily cover your needs.  Remember that in some way the Saving Throws are highly physical or mental and instinctual actions, yet they get better with experience.  They are not purely instinct then but also represent training, muscle memory, and good judgement.  What they are not is a standard "second chance" to avoid anything you don't like happening to you in a game.

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