Retiring the saving throw
Posted by Voyages in Eternity [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on Sat, 06 Oct 2007 09:47:23 +0000

(The moral of the story: When all else fails, rant about 30-year old game mechanics.  That’s usually good for a thousand words or so…)

Amongst the many D+D mechanics that were transferred over into CRPGs, MUDs, and MMOs that I would like to see retired (or at least given some career re-training), one of the big ones is the concept of the “saving throw”.  My reasoning, and a few potential re-imaginings, follow in the text hereafter…

Background

Dungeons and Dragons, since it was developed for the small group gaming situation, implemented a host of very abstract concepts to keep the basic mechanics relatively simple: after all, no one wants to have to do multiple derivatives or matrix multiplication each time they have their Barbarian take a swing at an orc.  There are a lot of little intricacies that just get folded up into the basic steps of the resolution processes in D+D: things like “to hit” rolls, damage rolls, and saving throws.

The saving throw concept itself was largely implemented to simply give the player some feeling of control over their character when attacked in ways that couldn’t be “realistically” modelled via the D+D hit point mechanic… mainly non-physical attacks like charms, confusion, fear, and so on.  The saving throw abstraction kept the flow of play relatively fast paced, while still offering the player some feeling/illusion of control.  It wasn’t the most precise mechanic in the world, and could lead to arguments and disappointment when players felt that circumstances should warrant a different result than the die roll indicated… but the GM was there to adjudicate such situations, and it mostly worked given the situation.

Like most of the mechanics of modern day computer RPGs, the saving throw abstraction was largely transferred wholesale from pen-and-paper gaming into the computer version of such games.  The range of possible values and intricacies of the modifiers to be applied might be adjusted somewhat, but the basic concept is largely the same: one random number check, pass or fail, often all or nothing, for nearly all non-physical stresses that a character might be exposed to.

However, two of the more important aspects of the original implementation of the mechanics have been lost in the translation from pen-and-paper to computer: 1) saving throws gave the player an illusion of control by having them roll the die/dice that would determine success or failure: no similar activity exists in most computerized implementations; and 2) there is no GM to overrule the random factor when it generates a result that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Alternatives

There actually has been some development on the concepts and systems related to the saving throw over time, although often relatively limited.  Players are often granted a measure of control over specific stresses via abilities or equipment gained during play: a “ring of charm resistance”, or an ability that makes the character immune to fear effects for a period of time when triggered.

Some games also appear to vary the duration of effect based on the level of success achieved on the random roll, modified for character level and other factors, again, allowing the player some measure of control and making it a little easier to suspend disbelief in those relatively rare situations where the results might otherwise seem off-kilter.

I would suggest, however, that a great deal of additional variety in gameplay might be obtained if the generic saving throw was set aside, and more robust systems used instead to adjudicate the situations it is currently used to handle.

Inspirations

This is not exactly a new concept.  Systems to allow finer control over “non-physical” stresses have been implemented in various systems even in pen-and-paper RPGs.  Examples include the Sanity score from Call of Cthulhu and/or the Humanity scores (same name, different impacts) from Cyberpunk 2020 and/or Vampire: The Masquerade.

The most obvious tactic to pursue is to simply duplicate the “hit point” mechanism, creating a separate pool of points for use against non-physical stresses, used in much the same manner as typical hit points are used for physical stress.  I don’t happen to like this one all that much, since it still usually leads to an all-or-nothing implementation if not further developed, but it does usually lead to options that restore some measure of control to the player.

An alternative system might be to reverse the above concept: instead of a diminishing pool of points, have a cumulative value representing the current level of effect being suffered, with no absolute maximums, but instead somewhat flexible “threshholds” of effect.  The player’s goal is to keep such accumulations as small as possible, bleeding off pools in various ways. 

It’s only a subtle change from the first option above, but since it is more likely to lead development away from an all-or-nothing implementation, I’d be more interested in it personally.  Watching a “Fear” indicator grow as the character cautiously explores the dark dungeon corridor, or seeing a “Rage” indicator spike as the opponent makes obscene gestures before combat, seems to be a possible way of evoking an echo in the player of what the character would be experiencing, tho a bit contrived. 

My “dream system” currently would use a combination of the above… a vaguely hit-point like mechanism determines whether each initial stress is sufficiently powerful to have a significant effect, then separate scores track the cumulative present totals of various possible effects, moment by moment.

Follow up and conclusion

What other ideas have people had for handling the types of situations that usually get covered by the ubiquitous “saving throw” concept?  I didn’t go into poisons and diseases, for example, in part because several different implementations already exist, but that was a concept that was originally wrapped into the saving throw mechanic as well: are there additional lessons to be learned from how those concepts have been developed over time in existing titles?  What games have I overlooked that experimented with these alternatives or others, and how did they work?




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