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.