Recalibrating Saving Throws

For some time I’ve seen comments that the separation between good saving throws and poor saving throws is too big, and that it is difficult to find challenges appropriate to higher-level characters with different saving throw progressions.

Mathematically, I can see the argument for this. A high-level spell from a moderately optimized spellcaster will likely have a save DC in the high 20s. A Wiz17 with Int 28 (18 base, +4 from level bumps, +6 from an item; I have found in the last few years that this should be expected) casting a ninth-level spell will have a save DC of 28.

A good base save progression would give +10 at this point (17/2 = 8, +2); if the target has +9 for related ability score (cleric with Wis 28, rogue with Dex 28), +5 more for a cloak of resistance +5 — a total of +22 — he’ll need to roll 6 or better on d20 to make the save. +2 more for the appropriate feat (Great Fortitude, Lightning Reflexes, Iron Will) and he’s down to 4+ to make the save. Pretty good chances, but he’s pretty well tuned to make this save (good base save, topped out ability score, good saving throw item, and a precious feat). The guy who doesn’t tune to this extent (say, a bog-standard Ftr17 with Wis 12) has a total of +6 to his Will save. He’ll save on a… 22+, on d20 (ignoring the auto-20 rule). This drops to 17+ on d20 if he too has a cloak of resistance +5 — but shouldn’t these be uncommon, rather than standard equipment?

The spellcasters are a specific example, and one that I’ve seen as a problem. However, monster natural abilities usually have their save DCs based on ‘HD/2’ as well, and monster HD often is markedly higher than their CR (a CR17 creature can have 30 HD, for example, though those ones tend to be ‘mostly meat’ with few abilities that require saves to be made). Again, the character made to resist them will have a decent to pretty good chance, but everyone else is likely to suffer.

Considering how many of these abilities and attacks can be ‘save or die’, things can suck for the low-save guy.

Possible Solution

What if instead we try to make saving throw DCs so they’re generally about 50% for the ‘normal guy’, and let the people who should be ‘highly resistant’ be ‘highly resistant’?

There are a number of changes to the formula (normally “HD/2+mAbility”) that could work, but let’s try the simplest: the greater of “HD/2” (spell level, for spells) and the creature’s ability score modifier. For instance, a Wiz5 with Int 18 would cast fireball with a save DC of 14 (rather than the current 17).

The Ftr5 (poor Reflex save, Dex 14) has +3 to his Reflex save; he’d succeed on 11+, for 50% of the time. RAW, he would need 14+, succeeding only 35% of the time.

The Rog5, on the other hand (good Reflex save, Dex 20 — halfling) has +9; he’ll succeed on 5+, or 80% of the time (and has Evasion to boot). RAW, he would need 8+, succeeding only 65% of the time… for a character made to dodge damage.

Let’s consider higher levels, an Int 28 Wiz17 with meteor swarm (save DC 19 now, rather than 28 RAW). The Ftr17 (base Reflex +5, +4 from Dex — he’s upgraded some) will save on 10+, or 55% of the time (RAW he’d need a 19+, succeeding only 10% of the time). The Rog17 (base Reflex +10, +9 from Dex) would succeed on a 2+ (1 always fails), or 95% of the time; RAW he’d need 9+, succeeding only 60% of the time. The rogue can get it back up to 85% success rate if he has a cloak of resistance +5 (fresh consignment in at Mage-mart, I guess. Right next to the twilight mithral chain shirts).

Benefits of this Solution

  • Reduces vulnerability of ‘normal’ characters.
  • Lets ‘tuned’ characters actually be good at resisting bad stuff (the barbarian thinks nothing of quaffing anything because he’s tough enough to deal with it… almost always; the rogue doesn’t fear ‘physical magics’ because he can rely on his agility to avoid them; the cleric calmly faces down the horrors of the undead and the abyss because he knows his mind is pure and will unshakable).
  • Actually gives casters reasons to take Spell Focus and the like to push their save DCs up, or to more carefully choose their spells so they can target a variety of defenses as needed (I had a caster in my campaign who was happy to use area effect spells almost exclusively because ‘50% success’ — for the ones with good Reflex saves — doesn’t take long to get past).
  • Somewhat reduces imbalance of power between casters and noncasters (save or die — whether explicit in the spell, or because a failed save does so much damage — becomes much less scary, and much more meaningful when it happens).
  • Reduces dependency on cloaks of resistance (what high-level characters, RAW, don’t have these, or a comparable item?)
  • Might encourage SAD characters to spread their ability scores around a little. A high-level character no longer increases his spells’ save DCs based on a high ability score, so he may as well spread things out a little and become a more balanced character. Yeah, I’m dreaming a little here.
  • May encourage use of lower-level spells — lightning bolt and chain lightning have the same save DC, so unless you want the additional range, damage or affected targets (IMC you probably do, but let’s pretend) you might find that lightning bolt will do the job just as well.
  • Somewhat models earlier editions, where you will more likely fail saves at low levels (the big ability score modifiers give big save DCs; where saving throw numbers decreased in previous editions the higher-level spells often had saving throw penalties).


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