What Do We Do With Saving Throws?

What do we do with saving throws? I have been looking at the saving throws in various roleplaying systems and I am trying to figure out the best way to handle them. The basic idea is the same in most systems:

Encounter an effect (spell, dragon breath, trap, etc). Roll a d20 and add/subtract appropriate modifiers. If your number is too low, you fail and suffer the full effect. If your number is high enough, you either avoid the effect entirely, or you suffer a lesser version of the effect. Generally, each character class has a slightly different saving throw progression.

However, the saving throws themselves are a little different in each system. ACKS is most similar to the oldest editions of D&D because it uses 5 categories of saving throws: Petrification & Paralysis, Poison & Death, Blast & Breath, Staffs & Wands, and Spells. Swords & Wizardry just puts everything into a single saving throw. 3.X/Pathfinder has 3 categories: Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. Finally, 5th Edition has one saving throw tied to each statistic: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

In order to figure out the best way to use saving throws, a question must be answered. What does the saving throw actually represent?

As far as I can tell, the saving throw represents the ability for a character to avoid or mitigate a non-attack threat (not swords, arrows, or kung fu kicks from Diemon Dave). Essentially, every non-weapon threat to the continued existence of the character.

Fear the judy chop!

While the categories in ACKs make sense in terms of the types of threats an adventurer will encounter, I have trouble imagining how a character resists being paralyzed being different than how a character resists a death spell effect. These are the traditional-ish categories of saving throws and I while I appreciate tradition…I just do not see why these categories are the ones that should be used.

Swords & Wizardry does something unexpected and simply reduces everything down to a single saving throw (with the occasional modifier, such as a monster’s spell giving characters a -2 to their saving throw). This simplifies play immensely. This is a nice system because anything that speeds up play is a plus in my book.

3.X/Pathfinder has, in my opinion, the best saving throw system. The three saving throw types make sense. Fortitude save represents the character’s ability to resist effects that target their body. Paralysis? Petrification? Disease? High Fortitude save will take care of that. The Reflex save covers getting out of the way. When the trap goes off in your face or when the dragon’s breath fills the hallway, a high Reflex will get you out of that situation with just some singed eyebrows. Finally, the Will save represents your ability to resist effects that target your mind. I find that this system makes the most sense conceptually because it is easy to figure out what kind of category a given threat will fall into. Also, it allows characters of different character classes to have some differentiation in how good they are at certain saves. A rogue might have a high Reflex save to represent how good they are at avoiding dangers and a fighter might have a high Fortitude save to represent how gosh-darned tough they are.

5th Edition. What were they thinking? Say what you will about 3.X/Pathfinder, but the one thing that system did better than previous editions of D&D is to make the saving throws make sense. 5th Edition feels like step backward. Creating a saving throw attached to each stat makes some sense until you sit down to play. What the heck is a Charisma saving throw supposed to represent? While the Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom saving throws make sense (essentially just renamed Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saving throws), the other ones do not make much sense. I think the 5th Edition designers understood this, so they made each class good at one of the saving throws that make sense (Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom) and one of the saving throws that does not make sense (Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma) in addition to rarely using the nonsensical saving throws.

Is there another system that does saving throws better? Or is 3.X/Pathfinder the undisputed champion of saving throws?


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