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D&D 5E What are the pitfalls of eliminating saving throws in 5e?

squibbles

Adventurer
Hi all,

Over in the necroed thread about saving throws, posters past and present (post #8, sorta post #28) suggested a system to replace saving throws that is similar to the defenses in 4e:

Instead of a spell (or other effect) giving its target the chance to make a saving throw, the spellcaster rolls to attack against a fixed number, the target's defense. The innovation suggested in that thread is to have the defenses be a PCs ability scores, i.e. a wizard casting fireball has to roll above the targets' dexterity ability scores to deal full damage. Defenses would then naturally vary between 8 and 20.

Advantages of the house rule (from my point of view):
  • speed--instead of each affected target rolling to save, only the caster needs to roll
  • parsimony--there'd be fewer types of rolls in the game, just attack rolls and ability checks--and for all forms of attack, it'd be the initiator that makes the roll
  • simplicity--there'd be fewer numbers on the character sheet, and the spell list changes to implement the new rule would be minimal
  • dark and deadly magic--if I want to have spells that can miscast with horrible consequences (and I do), it's a lot easier to base them on a single caster-side roll
Disadvantages:
  • math issues--this change would alter the balance of a bunch of interactions and, for the most part, saves/defenses wouldn't increase by level
  • save proficiencies don't fit--do they still exist, how are they handled?
  • issues with existing items and class features--things that modify saving throws would all need to be changed
  • strange implications--do traps make an attack roll? that seems odd (I would probably treat some sorts of traps and hazards as ability checks on making this change--i.e. "make a dexterity (acrobatics) check to avoid the collapsing floor", not "collapsing floor rolls a 14 to hit you.")

What do you all see as a the pitfalls of making this change? Is the math functional? Is there a more elegant, better balanced, or otherwise more advantageous way to eliminate saving throws? Have any of you tried something like this?

And if you're attitude is "if it ain't broke don't fix it," well... fair enough, feel welcome to come and tell me off about it.
 

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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Hi all,

Over in the necroed thread about saving throws, posters past and present (post #8, sorta post #28) suggested a system to replace saving throws that is similar to the defenses in 4e:

Instead of a spell (or other effect) giving its target the chance to make a saving throw, the spellcaster rolls to attack against a fixed number, the target's defense. The innovation suggested in that thread is to have the defenses be a PCs ability scores, i.e. a wizard casting fireball has to roll above the targets' dexterity ability scores to deal full damage. Defenses would then naturally vary between 8 and 20.

Advantages of the house rule (from my point of view):
  • speed--instead of each affected target rolling to save, only the caster needs to roll
  • parsimony--there'd be fewer types of rolls in the game, just attack rolls and ability checks--and for all forms of attack, it'd be the initiator that makes the roll
  • simplicity--there'd be fewer numbers on the character sheet, and the spell list changes to implement the new rule would be minimal
  • dark and deadly magic--if I want to have spells that can miscast with horrible consequences (and I do), it's a lot easier to base them on a single caster-side roll
Disadvantages:
  • math issues--this change would alter the balance of a bunch of interactions and, for the most part, saves/defenses wouldn't increase by level
  • save proficiencies don't fit--do they still exist, how are they handled?
  • issues with existing items and class features--things that modify saving throws would all need to be changed
  • strange implications--do traps make an attack roll? that seems odd (I would probably treat some sorts of traps and hazards as ability checks on making this change--i.e. "make a dexterity (acrobatics) check to avoid the collapsing floor", not "collapsing floor rolls a 14 to hit you.")

What do you all see as a the pitfalls of making this change? Is the math functional? Is there a more elegant, better balanced, or otherwise more advantageous way to eliminate saving throws? Have any of you tried something like this?

And if you're attitude is "if it ain't broke don't fix it," well... fair enough, feel welcome to come and tell me off about it.
I think it can work, but it’s easier to adjust 5e to only attacks by having defenses calculated similarly to AC for each stat. This way, you can use more of the math that is already in 5e, items like a ring of protection don’t need any adjustment, features like monks gaining proficiency in all saves, etc, all continue to just work.

Juat replace “saving throw” with “Attribute Defense” or 4e’s “Non-Armor Defenses” (NADs).


Fun side note, the 4e Monk mostly made attacks against NADs. You punched and kicked people in their NADs.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
I agree with your assessment of the pros and cons (apart from maybe the miscasting thing as a pro, but hey, if it floats your boat!)

Let’s crunch some numbers on how this would affect the math, shall we? Converting ability saves to Non-AC-Defenses (NADs) is actually pretty easy. A NAD of 14 + Mod (+Prof if you would be proficient in the save) is mathematically identical to the 5e standard of save DCs being 8+ Mod (+Prof if relevant), just with the opposite party rolling. Comparing those target numbers to the target numbers for their equivalent ability-score-as-NAD, we get…

Ability Score“True” NADDelta
813+5
913+4
1014+4
1114+3
1215+3
1315+2
1416+2
1516+1
1617+1
17170
18180
1918-1
2019-1


As we can see, compared to “true” NADs, using ability-scores-as-NADs gives casters an advantage when targeting scores lower than 17, and a disadvantage when targeting scores higher than 18. The delta gets wider the further you get from 17/18.

I think the most noticeable result of such a rule would be that targeting an opponent’s weak stats becomes much more important! The lower an ability score is, the higher your functional bonus to hit it, so PCs would be heavily discouraged from dumping stats, and heavily encouraged to have spells targeting every stat (and to correctly guess what stat to target). It would also give casters a big buff against trash mobs, but bit of a nerf against big boss monsters. Of course, by the time you’re fighting monsters with multiple of stats over 18, there’s a good chance you’ll have some magic items buffing your spell attack bonus, so this might actually work out to be all-upside for PC casters. Though, you could compensate a bit by giving monsters lots of NAD proficiencies. Or, alternatively, by removing proficiency bonus from spell attacks.
 
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squibbles

Adventurer
[...] A NAD of 14 + Mod (+Prof if you would be proficient in the save) is mathematically identical to the 5e standard of save DCs being 8+ Mod (+Prof if relevant), just with the opposite party rolling. Comparing those target numbers to the target numbers for their equivalent ability-score-as-NAD, we get…
Awesome, thanks for that.

As we can see, compared to “true” NADs, using ability-scores-as-NADs gives casters an advantage when targeting scores lower than 17, and a disadvantage when targeting scores higher than 18. The delta gets wider the further you get from 17/18.

I think the most noticeable result of such a rule would be that targeting an opponent’s weak stats becomes much more important! The lower an ability score is, the higher your functional bonus to hit it, so PCs would be heavily discouraged from dumping stats, and heavily encouraged to have spells targeting every stat (and to correctly guess what stat to target). It would also give casters a big buff against trash mobs, but bit of a nerf against big boss monsters.
Those consequences all feel like good things to me, especially if players did their score targeting meta-game within the setting fiction.

Also, looking at it laid out that way, “True” NADs (and saving throws too) have a really anemic progression, even for proficient saves.

Of course, by the time you’re fighting monsters with multiple of stats over 18, there’s a good chance you’ll have some magic items buffing your spell attack bonus, so this might actually work out to be all-upside for PC casters.
Good point. But it's easy enough to avoid giving PCs those kinds of items.

Though, you could compensate a bit by giving monsters lots of NAD proficiencies. Or, alternatively, by removing proficiency bonus from spell attacks.
Huh. In the 8 + ability mod + prof mod setup, that would create an interesting symmetry between defensive and offensive progression, since both would come principally from ASIs--though I'm not sure I really like that.

Thanks for your reply, it's good food for thought.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I think the biggest issue is that this is only considering the question from the PC side of things.

Monster ability scores run the full gamut from 1 to 30. Essentially, this would either trivialize "saving throws", such that a 1 Int giant centipede always fails when targeted with the synaptic static spell, or a 29 Con ancient red dragon almost can't fail when targeted with stunning strike (sure they would otherwise use legendary resistance, but at least that's one less use of that ability). It somewhat subverts bounded accuracy in the game, by shifting the target numbers higher/lower than the game would normally allow.
 


vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Reading the title I got bait again, seriously making magic taking effect all the time,
sadly, it’s only a mechanic twist.
I would not be against auto-hit magic, with maybe some of them having some kind of save for half with a DC10 on a flat d20.

But the there should be some kind of balance to that, maybe by removing cantrips or making ranged/melee spell attacks use dex/str instead. Want to auto-hit with magic? Spend some slots!
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
I think the biggest issue is that this is only considering the question from the PC side of things.

Monster ability scores run the full gamut from 1 to 30. Essentially, this would either trivialize "saving throws", such that a 1 Int giant centipede always fails when targeted with the synaptic static spell, or a 29 Con ancient red dragon almost can't fail when targeted with stunning strike (sure they would otherwise use legendary resistance, but at least that's one less use of that ability). It somewhat subverts bounded accuracy in the game, by shifting the target numbers higher/lower than the game would normally allow.
But the ancient red dragon also has a 10 Dex, so you’d want to target it with things like lightning bolt rather than stunning strike.

It definitely does subvert the normal bounds of 5e’s accuracy. But I think that some DMs might still find these outcomes desirable.
 


Fanaelialae

Legend
But the ancient red dragon also has a 10 Dex, so you’d want to target it with things like lightning bolt rather than stunning strike.

It definitely does subvert the normal bounds of 5e’s accuracy. But I think that some DMs might still find these outcomes desirable.
Speaking in terms of the party, that is true.

Speaking in terms of the party monk, however, it is not. Most monks can't throw lightning bolts or cause effects with saves that target Dex.

Typically, games are played with each player controlling a single PC (or maybe two), rather than an entire party. I believe it's worthwhile to consider how this could impact each individual, in addition to the group as a whole.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
Speaking in terms of the party, that is true.

Speaking in terms of the party monk, however, it is not. Most monks can't throw lightning bolts or cause effects with saves that target Dex.

Typically, games are played with each player controlling a single PC (or maybe two), rather than an entire party. I believe it's worthwhile to consider how this could impact each individual, in addition to the group as a whole.
I mean, the monk would be better off attacking the dragon’s AC, and spending their Ki on Flurry of Blows and/or Patient Defense, if they don’t have the ability to target its Dex.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I mean, the monk would be better off attacking the dragon’s AC, and spending their Ki on Flurry of Blows and/or Patient Defense, if they don’t have the ability to target its Dex.
It's just one example though. One which illustrates a potential issue with the correlative scaling between Con and CR for monks.

Saying that a monk should focus on using their Ki in other ways for a given combat is arguably fine. However, if it's actually that the monk may as well forget they have Stunning Strike after a certain tier, that's not okay in my book. My gut says we're more looking at the latter case with this house rule, though I admit that I haven't tried graphing the correlation and could be mistaken.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
It's just one example though. One which illustrates a potential issue with the correlative scaling between Con and CR for monks.

Saying that a monk should focus on using their Ki in other ways for a given combat is arguably fine. However, if it's actually that the monk may as well forget they have Stunning Strike after a certain tier, that's not okay in my book. My gut says we're more looking at the latter case with this house rule, though I admit that I haven't tried graphing the correlation and could be mistaken.
I think it would just affect the way you’d have to design encounters. I don’t know how many high CR monsters have low Con, but even assuming there are very few, you can still challenge high level parties with large groups of lower CR enemies, of which there should be plenty with low Con. You won’t always be able to count on any given NAD-targeting spell or ability being able to be used effectively, but at every tier of play there should be times when it will be extremely effective.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re ok with the effects this rule has on accuracy math. What about the other potential issues?
  • save proficiencies don't fit--do they still exist, how are they handled?
Honestly, I think just leave them out and remove proficiency bonus from spell attacks.
  • issues with existing items and class features--things that modify saving throws would all need to be changed
I would say anything that would normally add a bonus to your saves with a certain ability instead applies a penalty to attacks that target that ability. So, for example, a paladin’s Protective Aura would change to “attacks targeting the abilities of allies within 10 feet of you have a penalty equal to your Charisma modifier.

I suppose you could apply the same approach to save proficiencies. “Attacks targeting your (proficient score) have a penalty equal to your proficiency bonus. But I dunno, for some reason that doesn’t feel as good to me.
  • strange implications--do traps make an attack roll? that seems odd (I would probably treat some sorts of traps and hazards as ability checks on making this change--i.e. "make a dexterity (acrobatics) check to avoid the collapsing floor", not "collapsing floor rolls a 14 to hit you.")
Some traps already do make attack rolls - arrow traps, for example, make an attack roll targeting your AC. But, for traps that normally require a save, I would absolutely have them call for a check instead.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
I’d add the pitfall that inspiration could no longer be used for defense if saves become a static defense.
Good point! You should probably also add “impose disadvantage on an attack targeting one of your abilities” as a way to use Inspiration.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I think it would just affect the way you’d have to design encounters. I don’t know how many high CR monsters have low Con, but even assuming there are very few, you can still challenge high level parties with large groups of lower CR enemies, of which there should be plenty with low Con. You won’t always be able to count on any given NAD-targeting spell or ability being able to be used effectively, but at every tier of play there should be times when it will be extremely effective.
Sure, that's an option.

But if you need to change your encounter and adventure design to accommodate it, then that's certainly a relevant consideration that ought to be taken into account before implementing this house rule.
 


loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff (She/Her)
If I was designing a game from the ground-up, I definitely would get rid of either attack rolls or saving throws, but doing it with existing 5E design seems like asking for bugs.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
If I was designing a game from the ground-up, I definitely would get rid of either attack rolls or saving throws, but doing it with existing 5E design seems like asking for bugs.
Using 14 + Mod (+Prof if you have it) as non-AC defenses would have no bugs whatsoever. The math is exactly the same. Using ability scores as non-AC defenses would change the math though, and that would definitely have side-effects, which some DMs may consider bugs or features.
 

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