Saving Throw – Is it a Valid Mechanic?

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Saving Throw – What is it?

Saving Throw or SuckIf you have been gaming long enough then you will have come across the concept of a saving throw. The idea of the saving throw is your character’s ability to withstand an effect represented in number form. An example may be using Health score to withstand poison or Will for mind control. Games have used these mechanics for decades and the make sense at face value.

We have all made saving throws and never questioned the validity of the mechanic. Endless clocked hours of high adventure means you have made hundreds of them if not thousands. The game play medium doesn’t matter. I have never seen a system that didn’t include them. Even video games get on the bandwagon.

Something used so often must be an enjoyable mechanic. If saving throws were not, why would it exist? I am going to challenge the idea of the saving throw in this article.

Save or Spectate

Saving Throw or Fun

“Failed my fear save and my party is fighting without me. Sure would be nice if I was having that much fun!”

This article was inspired by the concept of fear as represented in RPGs. Fear is the idea that something is so frightening, either physically or mystically, that your character falls apart when confronted with it. This is represented in GURPS with a Fright Check. In D20 there is a Fear Save mechanic. Both systems base the saving throw on your character’s willpower. If you succeed you confront your fear and if you fail you succumb to it. GURPS has a player roll for fear effect and the table lists outcomes such as being stunned for rounds of time, fainting, falling into comas and finally losing whole attribute points (Though you’d have to be PRETTY SCARED to do that). D20 would have you run away in abject horror. It seems to make perfectly logical sense.

Despite the logic this sat completely wrong with me. Certainly people being frightened in reality don’t just shut down and fall to pieces. Even in cinematic reality we see people still making decisions despite fear. Only people with very real psychological problems or physical conditions actually faint or turn into blubbering idiots when they are frightened. There’s even videos of people who attack what scares them. The discussion of whether fear is accurate or not is beside the point. I only mention this thought process because it led me to my real problem with fear saving throws.

I don’t like losing control of my character.

Save or Lose Control

Panic Call

“Hello, 911? Something scary is happening! — Oh wait, I failed a fear save… I can’t actually make this call, sorry.”

Most saving throws can be summed up as “Save or Spectate”. I say spectate as in you get to watch everyone else play the game while your character is disabled. It doesn’t matter if I am disabled from death (Save of Die) or ripping my hair out like a lunatic (Save or Madness). Any time a game encourages me to get up out of my chair and browse the fridge for something to eat, I feel like the game failed. It’s not the saving throw in itself that’s bad, but rather, that the save often means my game is done for a set amount of time (which can be permanent).

This utter loss of control hinging on one single botched roll is monumental. It can be difficult for even GMs and Storytellers to balance. How do you balance encounters on the idea that your whole party may or may not fail to succumb to an effect? Yet, these saving throws are shoved into encounter after encounter. Saving throws in GURPS can get so bad we have special rules to deal with them like Rule of 16. Rules that exist just to make certain some gets SOME fighting chance.

Saving Throw for Actual Gameplay

The loss of control also happens before the saving throw. The occurrence of the saving throw is usually predetermined. If you see the dragon then you are going to make a fear check. If the lich spots you he is going to cast a fear spell. To punish a player so harshly for something that was not his choice to encounter is poor mechanics.

“Hey, you could have NOT fought the dragon!”

Yes, I could also have not played the game. Because I played and faced a dragon doesn’t mean I need these mechanics. Some people think this is a mark of the game being difficult. Difficulty means that I need to figure out how to play better to win. There is no difficulty when a dice roll determines if I win or lose.

Save or Video Game

World of Warcraft might have been the first game to realize this was a problem. Originally there was a great number of abilities to disable another player. You had fear spells, stuns and more. In Player versus Player, these abilities would be unleashed to disable the player then combinations of attacks would ensue to finish them off. Blizzard realized how little fun this was for the person being attacked and created diminishing returns as well as objects to overcome disables. This improved the player feedback on abilities. Many other games that have disables also find the less time people spend disabled the less negative feedback they get to combat. So why is Pen & Paper different?

Save and Still Play

I would not have a problem with the saves if they just limited my role play potential. Few people mind role-playing a scared individual. People would likely not complain about acting out the effects of mind control. At least I am still playing the game. I still make choices and decisions, even if my character now views their party as enemies.

More saving throws should be created that still allow a person to play. The goal should be GAME not victory! The characters want to win, but we want to play! To prove this point, I want a GM to put the final challenge for the campaign in front of the players at the beginning of the game. If they win, how many do you think will say “What a great campaign!” after?

There is More than Saving

This is a very one-sided view if I only took the above into account. Yes, losing control of your character sucks, but sometimes it’s the only way the outcome can go. I wouldn’t expect a sleep spell to do anything but put someone to sleep or not, right? I argue the system for determining if I fall asleep is broken.

Save or Cheat!

Dead Captain America

“I’m not actually dead, so instead of a 917 point ability to kill me, this was only 30 points.”

GURPS argues that an effect which absolutely can kill is worth infinite points. This argument derives from the fact that Hit Points are a value that determines structural integrity before “death” (I quote death because a tank has Hit Points too). Creating “death” would then need to make sure you left everyone with no Hit Points and thus it would be infinite points!

Us clever players realize this rule (We’re not that clever) so we look for methods to get around needing to whittle away a large pool of hit points. An example is the ability to put someone to sleep with a saving throw. This leaves them helpless for you to finish off. There are an innumerable ways to bypass hit points. If you create a mechanic to bypass a firmly held mechanic, isn’t that a lot like cheating?

On paper, Death is infinite points, but in practice, death is simply “What’s the cheapest way for me to remove this obstacle?”

Often, saving throws are the method of choice. For the effects of combat, does it matter if I kill you or knock you out of play? When superman punches the bad guy so hard he lays in a heap seeing stars, does the audience go “Superman didn’t actually kill him so it doesn’t count!”

Save for Better Experience

I don’t blame game designers for coming up with Saving Throws. D&D started as a pretty simple game. However, after years of jokes and problems with people around this mechanic, you’d think we’d move past it. I think we are ready to do that in this age of gaming. I think we are ready to challenge tradition to make games more enjoyable for the masses instead of the niche audiences. The majority of people want to play even in dire circumstances, so how can we fix the saving throw?

Why are there Saving Throws?

We need to determine the actual reason saving throws exist to determine how to fix them. It is difficult to speak with the original designers. This means we use logical deduction to determine why this mechanic would exist. Let’s imagine the game without them.

If we did not have saves versus fear or saves versus sleep and similar mechanics, a party could just consist of pig headed fighters. These fighters could have nothing for brains and walk through most encounters without a problem. The rogues would be able to supplement the fighters and the idea of will power having any bearing would disappear. From a balancing stand point, that makes a lot of sense. You could argue that no one should need will power, but more choice and variation is better than less in my opinion.

Right now, this leaves the choice as attack hit points or force a saving throw. Either we create round to round struggle or commit to a game finishing attack. That doesn’t seem like much of a choice to me. The choice should be whether you attack the mind, body or resilience. Working with that idea we have some possibilities!

Save vs Pool

Brain WorkoutA mark of a good game design is similar rules can be applied to your entire game. You already have physical hit points. Hit points work quite well. Nobody wants to be struck once and have the game end. So we have a pool to determine how many strikes you can take before you finally cave and lose.

Why not have mental hit points of some sort? If an attack is attempting to diminish resolve or mental resistance, then it should have damage like any other attack. The value could simply be equal to your Will for GURPS. Then you add in the attack type mental or resolve. When defining the attack you simply add the side effect when someone runs out of mental points.

So instead of sleep spells being an affliction of save or sleep. It becomes an attack that looks like this:

2d6 resolve sleep

Saves are Hit Points

We can even treat the resolve points like hit points. If you take over half of your pool in one attack then you become mentally stunned. If you have less than 0 you must make will rolls every turn or you faint. This removes the need to even have an affliction that causes stun since it’s just a byproduct of a mind under attack.

This adds the ability to have DR against the effects. For example, combat reflexes gives +2 to Fright Check and +6 against IQ rolls for stun. What if that was simply DR against mental effects? You simply shrug off easily resisted issues with minor mental damage. In fact, you could just buy a mental DR and then have limitations for what resolve effects it defends against. +5 DR vs Sleep for example.

We could attack fatigue in the same way for physical effects. This would mean there are no ways to bypass “hit points”. It also creates a more unified game play experience. The mental struggle is represented next to the physical struggle now. How interesting is it that the game now has a physical tank and a mental tank? The saving throw will still exist as a damaging malediction.

Save Versus Conclusion

There is a lot to consider. Maybe someone could take this and create a whole formal system for GURPS. You certainly have my permission to increase the gameplay experience for everyone. That is the point of this blog.

I look forward to hearing feedback and thoughts on the saving throw from everyone.

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  1. Interesting post.

    I’ve had this thought several times, in a D&D context.

    I enjoy attacking attribute scores, but I’m not a fan of save or suck.

    Regarding willpower, it’s also more realistic to have it be something that is slowly worn down, rather than something rolled and then either all is well or you pass out.

  2. Unknown Armies has a nice method on this, where a character who fails a fear check is given a choice: Freeze, Flee, or Fight (berserkly). This preserves player agency while providing hard choices for the player.

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