Fourth Edition Proved D&D Works Without Saving Throws, So Why Did They Come Back?

Fourth edition dropped saving throws in favor of to-hit rolls and showed that D&D works without saves.

Mathematically, to-hit rolls and saving throws just flip the numbers so that a high roll benefits the person casting the die. Rather than having a lightning bolt trigger saves, why not just let wizards make lightning attacks against their targets? Why not just have poison attack a character’s fortitude?

By dropping saving throws, the fourth-edition designers eliminated a redundant mechanic. The change added consistency and elegance to D&D. Wizards finally got to cast spells and to make attack rolls.

If banishing saving throws made D&D more elegant, why did fifth edition bring them back? After all, the fifth-edition designers made elegance a key goal for their design. See From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance.

Until fourth edition, saving throws survived based on tradition and feel.

The tradition dates to when Tony Bath had toy soldiers saving verses arrows. (See my last post.) The fifth-edition designers aimed to capture tradition, but also the best qualities of earlier editions. Why not capture some of the elegant design of fourth edition?

The feel comes from a sense that the player controlling the most active character should roll the dice. D&D could drop to-hit rolls in favor of saves versus swords, but that feels wrong. On the other hand, characters seem active when they resist a charm, shake off a ghoul’s paralysis, or spring away from rushing flames. Sure, a wizard is saying magic words, a dragon is exhaling, but the action focuses on the heroes escaping the flames.

Plus, the saving throw mechanic tends to send a few more rolls to the players. Players like to roll dice, especially when the roll decides their character’s fate. When attack rolls replaced saving throws, spellcasters got to make more attack rolls, but most characters lack spells. Without saving throws, players flamed by dragon breath never get to take fate in their hands and roll a save. Instead, they just subtract damage.

So saving throws returned to D&D.

If saving throws and attack rolls share a common place in the game, what makes them different from each other?

As a dungeon master, have you ever asked a player dodging a trap’s darts to make a dexterity or reflex save? I have. I handled it wrong. Don’t fault me too much. A save gives a character a chance to escape. Characters springing away from darts or scything blades or falling stones seem to deserve a save. But that intuition is wrong. Such traps should make attacks. The Dungeon Master’s Guide never spells out this distinction.

Just as the reflex defense and AC in fourth edition defended against different sorts of attacks, in fifth edition, dexterity saves and armor class apply to different hazards. The difference comes from armor. D&D’s lead designer Mike Mearls explains that to determine whether to use an attack roll or a save, ask “Would a suit of plate mail protect from this?” Armor protects against darts, scythes, and so on, so traps using such hazards make attacks. Poisonous fumes, lightning, and mind blasts all ignore armor, so targets make saves. I would rather face a fireball protected by plate, but the rules emphasize the agility needed to escape the flames.

Originally, Tony Bath’s saving throws represented the value of armor. Now, saving throws only apply when armor can’t help.

Mearls confesses that the D&D rules don’t always make this save-or-attack distinction consistently. Plate mail certainly protects against falling rocks, and the falling-rock traps in the third-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide all make attacks. But the falling-rock traps in Lost Mine of Phandelver prompt dexterity saves. Better to leap from harm’s way, I suppose.

One area of inconsistency irks me.

Why should plate armor protect against the incorporeal, life-draining touch of creatures like specters and wraiths? Here, tradition and feel led the D&D designers to use attack rolls in a place where saving throws make more sense. If insubstantial creatures forced a target to make a dexterity saving throw, their life draining would imitate third edition’s touch attacks without a single extra rule. Plus, these undead would play like more distinct and interesting threats. Forget the feel of a to-hit roll, incorporeal creatures should force saving throws.

24 thoughts on “Fourth Edition Proved D&D Works Without Saving Throws, So Why Did They Come Back?

  1. mAc Chaos

    I believe the reason that incorporeal undead use attacks is because they are not actually fully incorporeal — otherwise they would be completely immune to non-magical weapons, where in fact they can be harmed by them. Take a look at the Ghost statblock: it has resistances to non-magical piercing, bludgeoning, and slashing, but not immunity. Instead, it seems they must be some sort of semi-corporeal ectoplasm that can still interact with the world physically, and so the player characters can still fend them off. It is strange that this is the case with a ghost, but that’s D&D for you.

    1. Sapphire Crook

      Sounds more like a 5e thing. 3.5e and PF ghosts are immune to non-magical attacks (and take half from magical, certain enhancements help here) and have 50% concealment against spells (Force gets a pass). Their attacks are pure touch (armor/shield ignored) and certain enhancements help against this.
      And of course they have a deflection AC bonus so both spells and regular attacks have a harder time hitting.

      It’s kinda neat, since it implies all magic crosses into the ethereal plane at times.

  2. Thiatas Ashadarawesh

    “The feel comes from a sense that the player controlling the most active character should roll the dice. D&D could drop to-hit rolls in favor of saves versus swords, but that feels wrong.”

    I would personally dispute this claim, active defense on this end would very much feel better for characters (I would know, I have done it before in my games).

    The issue that it creates is that it simply bogs down combat, which is what many players live and breathe for these days as opposed to the actual role play aspects of the game.

    “One area of inconsistency irks me.

    “Why should plate armor protect against the incorporeal, life-draining touch of creatures like specters and wraiths? Here, tradition and feel led the D&D designers to use attack rolls in a place where saving throws make more sense. If insubstantial creatures forced a target to make a dexterity saving throw, their life draining would imitate third edition’s touch attacks without a single extra rule. Plus, these undead would play like more distinct and interesting threats. Forget the feel of a to-hit roll, incorporeal creatures should force saving throws.”

    These inconsistencies, I would think, ultimately come from the creators trying to satisfy multiple spectrum’s of players all at once.

    You either have streamlined mechanics and combat, or you have simulationist realistic combat. There are large numbers of players on both sides of that spectrum.

    Not that the two are completely disparate from one another, this is just what it looks like when you don’t meld the two together very well, which is indeed a rather difficult task.

    If you want to complicate the argument further, in reality, armor doesn’t prevent you from getting hit, it simply reduced the kinetic force of the attack, making the injury received less lethal (i.e. damage reduction), so why bother adding in armor at all to a characters defense? Shields maybe, but not plate armor which obviously encumbers a person keeping them from being able to get out of the way of an attack in general than it would for someone wearing no armor at all (yes, I understand I am oversimplifying this argument to a moderate degree, for any of those who have done HEMA or the like).

    There is yet another inconsistency in the system that seems to irk me even more though: Hit Points.

    Seriously, is it a characters Stamina/ability to keep fighting? or is it the characters actual injury level? Seriously, make up your mind d20 system!

    1. Sapphire Crook

      I think it’s because 5e’s rules compressed Max Dex Bonus and regular AC into a single value, and thus makes it harder to properly ‘capture’ touch attacks without hoopla.
      I mean, keeping track of 3 different AC scores is something the RP-focused group would probably get angry at.

  3. Evan

    another thing to keep in mind is probability of success vs. failure. We could potentially flip this system on its head but currently save dcs in 5th are set to 8+prof+stat mod (primary or secondary), while an attack roll is set to d20 (average 10.5)+prof+stat mod (generally primary). as a result an attack is more likely to succeed in many scenarios than a creature is to fail a save, unless you can target a weak saving throw of the character. Now in 4th ED we found that static saves tended to be lower than AC, and it did make it easier for the DM when the player targeted a group of creatures. The issue I tended to notice when running such games is that generally all the monsters would either be affected or not. While with rolling saves since each monster gets its own save some may be affected and some may not. This actually changes the challenge of a fight, perhaps your fireball won’t kill all of the gnolls you are fighting for example.

    1. Cam

      I may be wrong here (my 4e knowledge is limited to listening to a podcast), but if you cast an AoE in 4e, didn’t you have to make an attack roll against each enemy?

    2. Myk

      RAW each affected creature of an AOE ability has a different attack roll, the damage is the same but the Attacker has to make an attack roll for each individual target. So it is still Saves, but reveresed.

  4. rbpublishing

    Your points are definitely logical, but as you pointed out, it all boils back to a matter of control. Many players want the feel that they have some semblance of control over their fate and, to remove that, makes them feel acted upon and abused. In short, I think your average player would be less happy about simply being hit versus given the chance to save

  5. timothypark

    As alternative rather than argument, my sense from back in the 70s when we played more by “oral tradition” than RAW was that saving throws in OD&D and 1E were something of a check on the referee.

    The environment was different then. (I am specifically not judging better or worse, just letting folks know “how it was for us”.) The odd dice were expensive, the rules were hard to find and the difference between RAW and “rules as played” had gotten to be considerable. Also, coming from the wargaming community, it was fairly common that the referee of, say, a miniatures battle was the fellow who wrote the rules and had the figures and terrain that went together. We were used to only having one or two copies of the rules, learning by doing, and trusting the referee to guide us in the choices we were making as we sorted things out on the table.

    In that environment, we were just fine with the then common practice of the D&D referee having the only copy of the rules and doing all the dice rolling. Frequently our dialog of what we were doing and hearing what was happening in consequence from the referee was punctuated by the patter of the cheap dice into the box lid for the rule books. There was less “meta-game” because we didn’t know the language of the rules themselves well enough to bother with most of what you hear now. My typical participation in a round of combat was something like “I will continue to swing my two handed sword.” Patter of dice. “You wound the orc seriously.” That was it. Next player.

    Most players now would be offended by having to trust the DM so, I think, and being so “in the dark” would be frustrating. (And in some ways I regret the loss of the mystery.)

    And in truth we were pretty sure the referee would often “fudge” the dice results for any number of reasons. *And we were all right with that.* But periodically when something very out of the ordinary occurred, there would be a *saving throw*. The evil wizard cast a lightening bolt through the party. Breaths held at the ominous rattle of 8 bar dice (classic white and black pipped d6’s — heavier than the cheap plastic of the odd polyhedrals and making a much more ominous sound in the cardboard box lid — all. those. dice….) the damage would be announced.

    And! If anyone had more than half the damage number in hit points the referee would usually ceremoniously place the box lid in plain view and roll a save for each of our characters that had a chance to survive. (And, yes, I keep saying “dice” because even for a save there were two. The first dice sets that came out had two d20: one pink and one white with black numbers for percentile rolls. To get 1-20 we’d roll one of those and a d6. 4-6 and 10 would be added to the d20. Oh, the d20s were numbered 0-9 twice.)

    The rest of us were often digging out our 3d6 and starting to roll the next character or reaching for the next index card in the stack (what we used for character sheets back when). And that didn’t bother us. We rarely survived to 5th level in those days. Lightening bolts and fireballs and dragon breath were TPK events. Frequently. That was just how it was.

    And the first time I remember actually touching anything other than my 3d6 for my stats was when one referee allowed us to roll our own saves.

    The feeling then — although I can’t remember anyone actually saying it — was that where normally the referee held our fate in hand, when it came to the massively deadly things the saving throw existed to mitigate the fantastic and outrageous possibilities of these representations of legendary forces. Death in melee was a routine thing. The round by round process of relatively mundane conflict was fine to “fudge”. Not that different from pulling a number of figures off the table under musket fire in other games.

    Sudden death, possibly to the whole party, was another matter. One that shouldn’t be referee judgement or whim. And while we weren’t quite sure what the chances were, that there was a *chance*, even if slim, for something amazing and heroic to happen in the midst of disaster, that moved things into a different mechanic. One that the referee was also bound by.

    So while scant, the saving throw then seemed to be a bit of a check on the possible whim of the referee. A 4th level party couldn’t be wiped out by simply saying “The evil magic user has surprise. He casts fireball. You’re all dead.” (And, yeah, we were kids. It happened.) With a saving throw it might still happen, yes. It did happen.

    But sweet are the memories of the adventures where in the midst of his fallen comrades a much singed dwarf warrior still stood. Half amazed and half in grief and anger the foe was struck down. And while he usually couldn’t manage to do more than retrieve one of his fallen fellows for the priest back at the village to revive, the survival of those two was worth something.

    I certainly appreciate the history of the game mechanics. Laying out the foregoing makes me mindful that some of the survival of these mechanism is also due to the psychological and social effects. From that angle there has been, and I think remains, some sense that saves and other “fossils” in the mechanics should remain.

    Right or wrong, the main culture in which D&D is played, hangs onto a belief that there is always some hope. Saving throws for certain things paired with “a 20 always succeeds” may simply be how that belief is expressed in the game.

    (You know I always wax on: so I’m not going to apologize. 😉 )

    Keep up the good work.

  6. aaron

    Did 4e really prove d&d works without saving throws? 4e had a saving-throw-like concept, which it literally called saving throws.

    1. campaignunderdeconstruction

      Yes, but 4e saving throws don’t work like the saving throws in any other edition. They do not prevent an effect from being applied, they determine how long the effect lasts.

      So in 1e, if you fail a saving throw, you are paralyzed (for example) for, say, 1d6 rounds.

      But in 4e, if an attack hits, you are paralyzed, but you can make a saving throw each turn, and if you succeed the condition ends.

  7. simontmn

    Have you ever been the GM when a 4e caster ‘attacked’ 16 enemies with a Fireball? Then you’ll understand why the went back to Saves, The 4e approach with player rolling attack dice and damage, and trying not to forget the damage as you both go through the critters, is terrible. It takes IME several times longer than the GM rolling 16 saves while player only has to roll the damage dice.

    1. John Davis

      My experience is it isn’t much different – you rolled damage once in 4E, and then made the attacks. It usually only became an issue if there was a critical rolled. That could slow things down.
      With saves the same number of dice are being rolled, just by the GM rather than the player. Everybody else at the table still gets bored.

  8. ManChild

    Why have undead make attacks instead of forcing a relfexsave?
    My thoughts
    1. Save for half, most things that make you roll a reflex save, you take half damage if you pass, now the undead hurt you every turn…
    2.Rogues, evasion would make them take half damage from all of these attacks(or none if they pass)

    1. greatwyrmgold

      Not all Reflex (well, Dexterity) saves deal half damage on a failed roll. If they did, my cleric would have a decent damage output with sacred flame. It’s a save-by-save decision, just like with all saves.

      The real reason is either “consistency between monsters” or “designers didn’t give it a second thought”.

  9. DM Xanu

    Great article. I was surprised that 5E brought back saving throws in the form of ability score save. I still call them by their 3E names, so now my players constantly jab at me when I ask them to make Reflex saves.

    Something else that this article brought to mind: The Unearthed Arcana supplement for 3.5E had an interesting variant rule called Players Roll All the Dice. In some ways, it was the predecessor for the 4th Edition defenses. Enemy saving throws were replaced by a static DC that the players needed to roll to overcome, just as they would for a melee or ranged attack.

    In contrast, each attack coming at the players became a fixed DC, so your armor class effective became your armor “saving throw” modifier. The DM could literally go through combat without touching a d20. The only thing they would roll was damage and opposed checks.

    I never used this variant rule as it completely eliminates the DMs ability to fudge dice rolls, and for some reason I thought this was a problem.

    1. Sapphire Crook

      Depending on the kind of game you run, fudging may be critical to your GM style. I’ve seen good GM’s run terrible games by relenting to the player that insists they play open with all rolls, because they’re so used to fudging so that every player gets a moment in the spotlight.
      Oh, and what a strange coincidence that the guy who wanted the open rolls happened to be the character min-maxed for that particular set of encounters!

  10. S J Grodzicki

    Saves are more fun, like you say, the pcs fate is in the players hands. The numbers are also different, your save is often static in older editions, while attack rolls variable. Also always making attack rolls is simply more boring. Unified mechanics are not always a good thing, they get old quick.

  11. John Davis

    I really didn’t understand the need to change the defences system from 4E, other than a sop to the old style players. It was a lot better than the current save system. Having 4 Defences (Armor, Reflex, Will and Fortitude) is less complicated than having 1 defence, and 6 Different saving throws. There were times in 4E where I did miss saves, usually an Attribute check (or occasionally a skill check) could easily replace a save.
    Tonight I encountered something strange with Saves – several PCs are playing casters (in 5E) for the first time, and they’re finding me ,the GM, rolling for the monsters saves to be a little odd – they miss making attack rolls. Having played a caster myself as well, there is something a bit underwhelming when you use a spell, and then all the agency is taken out of your hands as the GM determines whether it works or not.

  12. Will

    I enjoy reading any and all posts about D&D. I’ve been DMing since the Original D&D paperback was published. ( You mathematicians can – do the math).
    A nod to timothypark- must be close to my age- wax on, wax on! Couldn’t have expressed it better- THE MYSTERY of it in those early days of D&D. Particularly your first character! (Pala-din-din for a dragon after what seemed hours of character creation…..5 minutes of playing! NOT KIDDING!)

    I believe role play gaming is supposed to be different than any other gaming. In other games, players are trying to beat other players. D&D Role Play is about having fun, working together, experiencing a play as active participants, shaping the story WITH the DM, no matter the end game. Dice rolls, with number targets,(and stats) give the play a certain randomness. It is supposed to be FANTASY, not reality. Logic is not a primary factor in D&D. Magic, in particular is random. There are no guarantees of success.

    My point? It’s up to the group to decide what ‘rules’ you want to follow. I give my players as many chances -due- them, to survive, based on their play. If we’re all having fun, sure i’ll fudge a roll to keep the play going. It’s no fun having your character turned into a Pala-din-din, and sit at a table until your ride is ready to leave. Unless you’re in a tournament which makes it a pvp. (Yes, i computer game as well, but prefer actual RPG games, tabletop or computer.)

  13. Nat 20

    Another thing to consider is what it would take to have static defensive values based on the core six ability scores in 5e. 4e and previous had unique saving throw values but 5e rolled them into the 6 abilities, removing an extra puzzle piece and rewarding players who don’t totally min/max. But to have those act as passive defenses we’d need a separate, static score based on each (Passive Strength, Passive Dexterity, etc.) or do the mental math of “Okay, he’s casting flaming hands so he has to target 10 + my Dex mod” each time. (Or spellcasters would have to use an entirely different scale of bonuses to target the full ability score.)

  14. Lance Dyas

    I think consistancy and players liking ther rolls would be served by having players make well all the rolls I read about it in the 3e unearthed arcana … ie someone attacks you make a parry/dodge/defense check. You might even be able to do something more detailed like moving to improve the defense for a price. What they did was TRADITION service.

  15. Forrest Pugh

    In the older editions the saves were more specifically tied to the class, so it made choosing a class a bit of an enriching experience as opposed to a simplified formula to min/max for a given situation.

    1. Kevin the Barbarian

      I was going to say this also. Your Save sometimes defined a class at certain levels. Fighters (or Fighting Men if you prefer), for example, were the master of Saves at high levels. It was part of any class balance they were trying to achieve. You still get a small bit of that in how certain Ability Modifiers are better for certain classes, thus making them experts at that Ability’s Saves.


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