Saturday, July 9, 2011

Getting Rid of Saves?

[I'll probably write about the problems I have, and the problems I don't have, with WOTC at another time and in another post. Suffice it to say that I'd like to buy OD&D. Let's leave it at that for the purposes of this post.]

I don't usually spend much time monitoring WOTC. Usually any new developments that are of any interest to me at all are more than covered by more than one of the wonderful Old School blogs whose RSS feeds I subscribe to. (Yes, if you've been wondering why I'm not following you on blogger, it may be just because I don't follow anyone on blogger because I use an RSS reader instead.)

Lately, though, with a few posts predicting or offering advice for 5E, I thought it might be time to swing by WOTC's D&D website and see what's up. Mike Mearls column called "Legends and Lore" is interesting, mostly because I don't know of any other place on the web where someone who knows D&D history quite well messes with D&D rules from a New School perspective while still engaging older editions respectfully and seriously. That last bit, by the way, is particularly impressive to me; Mike Mearls appears to genuinely respect older editions.

Anyway, in the latest "Legends and Lore" article, Mearls argues for a streamlining of things in D&D by getting rid of separate saving throw values. He figures that we've already got six attributes, so why should we have separate save values when we can just roll attribute checks for the appropriate attribute when we need to roll a saving throw?

Wow! Mike Mearls is advocating attribute checks?! Cool! That's one of my favorite tricks I learned from the Swords and Wizardry Quickstart! Isn't that something that's really, really Old School? Please correct me if I'm wrong on this, those of you who are more familiar with 3.x and 4E than I am, but attribute checks are really rare, if ever used at all, in later editions, right? I don't remember a single attribute check in the 3.5 campaign I played in.

So Mearls' suggestion, from my perspective, has these two things going for it. One is that it is rules-lite - "minimalist" in his terminology. I'm always a fan of simplified game systems both because they are easier to quickly learn and use with players that for whatever reason don't take the time to learn the rules themselves and because simple systems are easier to homebrew, and I just enjoy homebrewing for the sake of homebrewing. On the face of it, Mearls' idea seems like an elegant way to approach saves, and even seems like it could be considered an Old School thing to do.

There are a few hitches with that, though.

One is that Mearls' suggestion is about streamlining the system down to a "core mechanic." In contrast, one of the tenants of Old School game design, from what I can tell, is modularity, that is, making sure that there is no one "core" mechanic, but that instead games are conglomerations of different mechanics that deal with resolving different things. So, for example, dealing with traps is done differently than fighting is done differently than turning undead, and so forth. This makes it so that if I don't like the way fighting is dealt with in the default rules set, I can devise my own system, pull out the combat "module" in the default rules and graft in my own system, all without worrying about messing up the non-existent core mechanic. What Mearls is suggesting, though, is to give D&D a core mechanic, revolving around the six attributes. That's interesting, and it might still be possible to preserve some modularity because it might be possible to have lots of different ways to use the six attributes to resolve any one activity, but, for my tastes anyway, I see this as getting much too close to making it so that any tinkering I do will mess up a beautifully streamlined core mechanic.

The other way that Mearls' suggestion isn't Old School is that it doesn't address the idea that saves aren't all about the performance of the character, but are instead super-abstract reductions of all that can go in the character's favor when something bad happens, ranging from, yes, some quick thinking on the character's part to some sort of fumbling on the trap designer/attacker/whatever's part to some sort of quirky biological resistance to a poison to even divine intervention. Making saving throws dependent on attribute scores would make it so that anything external to the character has no effect on the outcome of the saving throw.

I'm not an expert on saving throws. I've only ever used Swords & Wizardry's single save system, as well as 3.5's triple save system when I first started playing, though I'm growing more and more interested in switching over to the original 5 saving throw categories. I do get the impression that this last point, about saving throws including influences external to the character himself, is an important one.



  1. 3e and 4e have attribute checks, but they don't work quite the same as in previous editions. They follow the core mechanic of "Convert your Attribute to a Smaller Number, add that to a d20, compare to a value set by the DM." Only really used for improvised actions and as a default for when you have no training in a skill, as far as I recall.

    I consider the minimalist "Roll under your Attribute on d20" check that shows up in 2e and previous to be quite different. More elegant. More modular (as you mentioned). Doesn't fit any "core mechanic" of D&D.

    As for saves, I use the Swords & Wizardry system myself. I consider saves to be entirely about luck. As in: if you have to make a save, you already messed up, and the roll is just a bit of generosity on the game's part. The 3-4e Fort/Ref/Will assumptions run counter to this, as they imply there is an element of skill involved somewhere. The 5 save system does fit my criteria in its obscure, cryptic way, but I don't like having to look things up on charts.

  2. I use an RSS reader too. But I "follow" on Blogger for kicks. The only problem with RSS feed readers is you can't easily read & reply to comments...

    C&C uses a Abilities as Saves too. I'm a fan of a single save, such as S&W and 4e--I like saves as a last-ditch mechanic for not getting hurt or dying. I perceive them as a form of Luck, as opposed to Class/Skill Ability. I was cool with the Triple save from 3x, but I actually liked that they became defenses in 4e! (There are tons of innovations that I admire in 4e, but it's just not D&D to me--a subject way beyond the scope of a blog comment, obviously.) I was never a fan of the 5 seemingly arbitrary Saves in OD&D/AD&D, I really didn't get them. But that might be because of how I think they should be used. Raggi/LotFP made more sense by actually being more specific in their use. But I still like them feeling more like an element of luck.

    Have you seen my "Quick and Dirty Ability Checks"?

  3. I see saves as far more than just luck. Some of it's luck, as well as skill, favor from the gods and whatever other reason you can think of. That's why I like the single save and 5 save system. The Cleric's Save vs. poison may be shrugging it off with con, or snatching his hand back, with dex. Or, an act of sheer faith, like St. Paul in the book of Acts.

    I don't buy the "if you need a save, you've already screwed up" idea. It's true sometimes. At others, it's more a case of bearding the dragon in his den and having to take it on the chin. A player can do everything right and succeed at every roll and still find himself having to make a save. Unless he just stays behind at the tavern, waiting to grow old.

  4. I'm an advocate for getting rid of the saving throw. Pretty sure I'm doing it for my S&W Complete campaign. Going to use ability checks instead, based on what is affecting the PC. I was informed Castles & Crusades has a mechanic like this, and upon investigation, it does. Pretty neat stuff. Now, to adapt to Pathfinder... One less DC I have to pull out of thin air...

  5. I guess saves don't really bother me as "another mechanical system I need to learn" because I just tell my players to attempt a saving throw and expect them to look at their character sheet and find out what their saving throw is. I don't require my players to know much about the game when they sit down at my table, and I'll walk them through just about anything, but I do expect them to be able to read and use the one-page character sheet. So far that's been a good arrangement between the two sides of the screen. From that perspective, moving from a S&W-style single save to the traditional 5-save system is just a matter of working in space for four more saves on the character sheet and saying "make a _____ save." I actually think that the tougher part of that would be finding the space on my pretty cramped character sheet…

    Antion: Ah, now some of Mearls' terminology starts to make a bit more sense. I *was* misunderstanding what he meant by attribute check… thanks for that.

    Rev. Dak: That's actually a very simple and elegant system. I like it. It has the advantage of allowing for differences in difficulty too, so that's cool. The one thing I don't like about it is that I try to keep rolls in the players hands, especially when it comes to their characters failing, if I can help it. Still, very cool mechanic.

    James: I'm with you on saves including luck, skill and just about every other improbable variable you can think of. I also like that you don't have to have messed up to have to roll a save. Paul wasn't "messing up" by gathering firewood, was he? ^__^

    Ohio Metal Militia: Interesting; I'll have to see if I still have that C&C quickstart lying around and check it out. I'm not sure why you'd have to be pulling DCs out of the air, though, if you were using saves… just tell your players to attempt a saving throw and let them do the paperwork…