Of Saves and Attacks

In theory this should be a marvellously creative and inspiring (or at least literary and vaguely amusing) post about my Vampire Counts army, but I’m just not in the mood at the moment (sitting around with all my proverbial balls in other people’s courts will do that to me), so here’s a quicky about my D&D house rules instead.

AD&D had a ‘save vs. X’ mechanic, where X = something specific like ‘instant death’, ‘petrification’, ‘magic wands’.  You’d have a number that you needed to roll in order to save your character from instant death, petrification or joining the Magic Circle, and if you happened to be a DM and want to make up a new mechanic you’d either be folding it into an extant category or making up a sixth, or seventh, or umpty-fourth one.

In one of its Fundamentally Good Moves, d20 did away with this system and introduced generic saving throws instead.  Fortitude was used to save against stuff like poison, diseases, frostbite and so on, Reflex for things you could dodge or grab onto or otherwise cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof your way around, and Will for things that made your character behave in a manner other than that of your choosing (very approximately). Unfortunately, in one of its Frequent Bloaty Design Choices, third edition also introduced scaling difficulty for saving throws. My compleynt with these be two-folde.

Firstly, they remove agency from the players.  If the players know what they need to roll they are inherently more invested in the rolling and the assemblage of modifiers onto that roll via play choices than if they are forever looking to me to ask if a fourteen is good or not in this case, in that case, in the other case, and then forgetting and having to ask me again next round.

This should indicate something about the players I have available.  I’m sure yours can remember all the DCs for common actions off the top of their heads.  Mine cannot.  I offer as evidence the ease and fluidity of “eights nines and tens are good” vs the “how many do I roll?” aspect of our Vampire games.  The less maths and the less remembering we have to do, the better.

Secondly, it’s another bastard number that I have to remember and take into account and either look up or make up when some player decides to do something I hadn’t pre-determined the DC for. Yes we have screens for that, I know, but I’d still rather not be wasting my spoons on numbers when I’m running the game and need to keep the NPC voices distinct and tactically out-wit the five devious brains gathered on the other side of the screen.

This should indicate something about the kind of GM I am, etcetera etcetera, go up two paragraphs.

When I first sat down to actually run D&D rather than playing in one of its computerised incarnations or having someone else make all the complicated decisions for me, I had to come up with my own way of doing it that’s sort of halfway between the two.  It has the single set target number that I like from AD&D (incidentally, I had a bolt-from-the-blue moment last week where I suddenly ‘got’ THAC0) and it has the variable-by-character-statistic one-mechanic-fits-all approach that I like from d20.

How I do it now is ‘save with’.  You have a saving throw number, you have these stat-based modifiers.  Say you’re dodging a fireball – save with DEX.  Roll a d20, add your DEX modifier, knock off any modifiers I feel like imposing, compare to your always-the-same saving throw number, job done.  Resisting an attempt at Mental Domination?  Save with CHA (force of personality).  Fear?  WIS.  Poison?  CON.  Cthulhuesque ‘sanity’ damage?  Save with INT (the group I ran for over Christmas called it the Protective Rationalisation save).

That was at Christmas.  Now, the other day I had a revelation.  Squirrel and I were chatting about the upcoming AD&D rerelease (he’s well pleased) and the topic of THAC0 came up and… bugger me if it didn’t suddenly make sense, in the context of this thinking about saves and the changes made by d20.  In d20 the target number is external, part of what your character is trying to do.  In AD&D the target number is internal, part of what your character can do, and so everything that affects what your character can do exists as a modifier to that internalised target number – including armour class.

It was learning to see AC as a modifier rather than a target that made the difference.  Now I want to do attacks like I do saves.  One ‘attack roll’ number, and you ‘attack with’ a given stat depending on what you’re trying to do. STR for hitting, DEX for shooting, INT or WIS for spells, CHA for psionics and undead turning.  I have yet to find a way of attacking someone with CON, but I’m working on it. Roll yer d20, add or subtract stat modifier and target’s armour class, compare to the target number on your sheet, bosh.  Or not bosh, if you miss.

This also works well for skill-type rolls if they’re needed – if it’s something that’s contested against another character you both roll attacks and if one of you hits and the other doesn’t, whoever hits gets what they want.  Both hit – contest goes on, ratchet up tension with narration.  Both miss – something happens that breaks the contest up.  If it’s not contested, the save mechanic is used, ’cause all that matters there is if the one person passes or fails.

If I were to get all mechanistic about the terms I’d call them the Active and Passive rolls – ‘attacks’ are Active and involve doing things unto others, ‘saves’ are Passive and involve having things done unto you.  ‘Active’ and ‘Passive’ are not terribly interesting or memorable terms to describe bits of character sheet though, so ‘attack’ and ‘save’ it remains.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

7 thoughts on “Of Saves and Attacks”

  1. I think what you’re partly talking about is something I’m going to touch on in my upcoming Sunday Sermon, and that is the Locus of Control people feel around any given situations. People like to feel empowered to make decisions generally. Not have them foisted upon them in a bewildering fashion. Sounds to me like you’ve found a good mechanic that passes some power and control back to the players mental, while maintaining enough external locus to maintain drama and tension. Kudos Von. :)

    1. Thassit, really. Agency and transparency are key, arbitrariness is bullshit. Even GM fiat should be explicable (though not necessarily explained). I just like it when people know what they have to roll (if nothing else it saves me asking ’em).

  2. BOO on comparing this to THACO, the ultimate evil. BOOOO I say.

    I like the idea of “save with” at least in theory. In practice I would need to see how it played out.

    Less is more? Design=weird.

    1. Y’know what? I’m intrigued. ‘Evil’ is a strong word for a game mechanic and I notice a lot of hatin’ around the place for this one in particular.

      What, in your opinion, is so evil about THAC0?

      Even your cautious approval for a D&D mechanic is welcome, though. Maybe I should arrange an opportunity for you to test it? :p

  3. Oh, dear me.
    I know know what ‘To Hit Armor Class Zero’ means, and this post made sense, sort of.

    Is it safe to say that the ‘save with’ mechanics you mentioned seem logical and even somewhat intuitive to me?
    ‘Generic’ saves would seem awkward in any game, and modifiers and variables add important flavor that not only helps pull one into the spirit of the game, but add tactical considerations as well.

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