Tag Archives: elegance

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.

How cover and tool proficiency reveal choices in fifth-edition design

In order to create a simpler, more elegant, version of Dungeons & Dragons, the designers eliminated most of the situational modifiers that appeared in earlier editions. See “How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game.” While these modifiers appealed to players who favored simulation, they slowed play and were often forgotten. Besides, simulation has never been D&D’s strength.

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

In fifth edition, when someone gains an edge, they gain advantage. When someone suffers a handicap, they suffer disadvantage. Most of the rarely-meaningful and frequently-forgotten pluses and minuses disappear.

But as the designers worked to purge situational modifiers, D&D, thieves tools presented a problem. In earlier editions, Rogues used thieves’ tools because they granted a +2 bonus thievery checks. But this new design had no room for that +2 bonus. Still, thieves’ tools have appeared in equipment lists since the early days. I’m certain the designers felt compelled to keep the tools in the game. But without a bonus, why should a rogue bother spending for the toolkit?

The designers arrived at an ingenious solution: tool proficiencies. By making the use of thieves’ tools a proficiency rather a skill, rogues still need to buy the tools to pick locks and disable traps.

When the designers worked so hard to eliminate the +2 for tool use, why did they bother preserving the +2 and +5 bonuses to AC gained by cover? These bonuses stand as virtually the only situational modifiers in the game. Why not just give disadvantage to someone attacking a target behind cover?

The modifiers remain because they combine with disadvantage. Multiple instances of disadvantage do not stack. If you suffer disadvantage from two sources you still only have one disadvantage. So if an archer suffered disadvantage because she targeted someone behind cover, and if she also suffered disadvantage from long range, she would still only suffer one disadvantage. The fifth-edition designers favored simplicity over simulation, but they weren’t ready to make hitting someone behind cover at long range exactly as hard as hitting someone just at long range.

How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game

In “From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance,” I discussed how the Dungeons & Dragons Next designers work toward a simpler, more elegant core game. This post describes some of the simplifications that appeared in the public playtest.

Advantage and disadvantage

Third edition D&D featured long lists of plusses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. D&D Next drops all the fussy calculation for the advantage and disadvantage mechanics: When characters gain a big edge, they gain advantage and use the highest of two die rolls; when characters suffer a handicap, they suffer disadvantage and use the lowest of two rolls. While less accurate than a tally of plusses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Fussy modifiers have appeared in every version of D&D, so when designers considered eliminating them in favor of advantage and disadvantage, they used the playtest to measure players’ reaction. The advantage and disadvantage mechanics gained broad approval.

Skills and ability checks

Other simplifications fell flat. D&D lasted 25 years without the complexity of skills, so designers tested a simpler game with just ability checks. Players rejected the simpler version, earning skills a place in the core system.

Still, when faced with choosing between richer rules and simpler rules, Next designers always opt for simpler. For example, using the same ability modifiers for ability checks and for attacks fails to distinguish exceptional characters from average ones, but the designers side with the flawed—but simpler—option of using the same ability modifiers for combat and for checks.


The last public-playtest rules try to get maximum use from proficiency. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools. Proficiency grants a bonus to attacks, saving throws, and checks, but not armor. The proficiency bonus starts at +1 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference will confuse some players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner. The designers must feel bound by the longtime use of “armor proficiency.”

Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The Next proficiency bonus jams all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus.

If this broad proficiency system reaches the final rules the final rules, then the bonus for all checks, attacks and saves will consolidate under the same formula:

ability modifier + proficiency bonus

Simple. Magic aside, all the other, fiddly bonuses that appeared in earlier versions of the game get replaced with the advantage-and-disavantage mechanic.

This change yields a simpler system, but it makes less difference in play than the advantage mechanic. Players only reference the tables for attacks and saves and so on when they level up. They enter the new numbers on their character sheets and move on. Once the game begins, the consolidation never comes up. Players who generate characters using a computer see even less impact. In comparison, the advantage-and-disadvantage mechanic eliminates half the tables on the DM screen—lists of bonuses applied to every attack and check. Advantage streamlines most rolls in the game.

The simplicity of a single proficiency bonus still offers advantages, but the proficiency mechanic influences every corner of the game. In my next post, I’ll examine all the repercussions.

Next: Proficiency and bounded accuracy

From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance

An elegant role-playing game gains maximum play value out of a concise set of simple rules.

Elegant rules…

  • apply broadly so fewer rules can cover whatever happens in the game.
  • play quickly with minimal math and little need to reference or memorize.
  • can be easily explained and understood.
  • produce outcomes that match what players expect in the game world.
  • enable players to anticipate how their characters’ actions will be resolved and the likely outcomes, something I call resolution transparency.

Rules-light role-playing games maximize economy by applying just a few rules across the entire game, but they sacrifice resolution transparency.

Dungeons & Dragons has never qualified as a rules-light system, but the game has grown more elegant by eliminating rules and applying the rules that remain more broadly. In “Design Finesse,” D&D patriarch Mike Mearls writes, “You’re more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.”

Elegant role-playing games start with economical rules, yet they still invite players into their characters, give them plenty of freedom to make interesting choices, and provide easy ways to resolve the actions so the outcomes make sense in the game world.

D&D started as an inelegant game: a bunch of mechanics that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax dreamed up as they refereed, which Gary then wrote in his stream-of-consciousness style. In “A Brief History of Roleplaying,” Shannon Appelcline writes, “In various early versions of D&D and AD&D, you had one system to model Strength (a range of 3-17, then 18/01 to 18/00), one to model all the other characteristics (3-18), one to model armor class (10 to -10), one to model thief ability (0-100%), one to model skill in combat (a to-hit number from 20 to 1), one to model clerical spells (7 levels of magic), one to model magic-user spells (9 levels of magic), etc.”

Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax

Why so many systems? No one knew anything about RPG design, because none existed. Also, during D&D’s formative years, Gary was an incorrigible collaborator, always willing to add a friend’s new rule to the mix. Each of Gary’s brown-book D&D releases features the work of a different collaborator. Even in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary couldn’t say no to additions like weapon speeds and psionics—additions he regretted.

In 1977 and 1978, role-playing game design took two huge steps: Traveller introduced a skill system. Runequest united all action resolution around a core mechanic. These two games charted a course for elegant RPG design, and virtually all games to follow built on their innovations.

Player's Handbook (2nd edition)

Player’s Handbook (2nd edition)

Second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons cut some rules that no one ever used, but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, designer Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.”

When 2E appeared in 1989, game publishers still limited new editions to corrections and tweaks. If a publisher wanted to create an incompatible new version of a game, they coined a new name, such as Megatraveller and Runequest: Slayers. Of second edition AD&D, Steve Winter says, “The [TSR] executives where terrified of the idea of upsetting the whole customer base and driving away customers, coupled with the idea that if we put out a new book, what happens to all the old books? We have stores with all these books. we won’t sell any new players handbooks for a year while we’re making the new edition because people will know what’s coming.” How different from the modern market, where people accuse publishers of issuing new editions just to spur sales?

It took the sale of TSR, and a new edition from Wizards of the Coast, to give D&D twenty-year-old innovations such as skills and a core mechanic. Third edition simplified by consolidating a myriad of different rules into the d20 check that gave the core system its name. On the whole, 3E isn’t simpler than AD&D, but it took the complexity budget earned through simplification, and used it to add depth to tactical combat and to character options.

Emboldened by the acclaim for the big changes in 3E, the 4E designers felt willing to outdo the changes. The designers attacked some complexities that the third-edition designers had kept as sacred cows. For instance, fourth edition eliminated traditional saving throws by consolidating their function with attack rolls.

Fourth edition tried for a simpler game by focusing on exception-based design. This principle makes trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering playable despite the tens of thousands of cards in print. The 4E designers built a system on a concise set of core rules, and then added depth by adding abilities and powers that make exceptions to the rules.

Even with 4E’s concise core, the thousands of powers and thousands of exceptions produced more rules than any prior edition. Still, no RPG delivers more resolution transparency than 4E. In sacrifice, the edition often fails to model the game world, creating a world with square fireballs, where you can be on fire and freezing at the same time, where snakes get knocked prone, and where you can garrote an ooze.

Among all the simplifications in 4E, only the use of standard conditions appear to remain in D&D Next.

Both 3E and 4E used more elegant rules to produce simpler core systems, but both editions grew as complicated as ever.  In “D&D Next Goals, Part One,” Mearls writes, “New editions have added more rules, more options, and more detail. Even if one area of the game became simpler, another area became far more difficult to grasp.” The D&D Next designers aim to deliver a simpler, more elegant core game, and then to add options that players can ignore if they wish. “We need to make a game that has a simple, robust core that is easy to expand in a variety of directions. The core must remain unchanged as you add more rules. If we achieve that, we can give new players a complete game and then add additional layers of options and complexity to cater to more experienced gamers.”

Next:  How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game.