So, every 6-12 months, I see a thread pop up on RPG sites around the net. The concept is one of Active Defense. What does this mean? It means that, instead of monsters making hit rolls against PCs, the PCs are making defense rolls against monster attacks. Seems simple enough right? Right. So why does it keep popping up around the net but we don’t see a lot of rule sets designing their games around the concept? Well, first of all, we actually do see a lot of games using this approach. However, they’re not doing it directly or consistently so sometimes people don’t even notice that it’s already happening. The other reason is that over time, many games have been moving away from the concept and I think that even though gamers didn’t know they were already doing it, they are noticing it now that it’s gone.
This being a blog that concerns itself at least partially with D&D in general and 4E D&D in particular, lets start by looking there. 4E D&D is a good example of a modern ruleset. There are a lot of advances that 4E has taken advantage of. In this context, one that we care about was actually started in 3E. It was called “The Core Mechanic” or “The Unified Mechanic”. The idea behind it was one of simplicity and predictability. If you design a system where most cases require a similar type of resolution (In this case, D20+modifiers vs. target) then you can learn the system faster and have fewer impediments to the real action. Even though this had already been done to varying degrees in systems like Traveller or Alternity, 3E D&D was somewhat revolutionary in that it pushed the concept into the mainstream. Combine D&Ds popularity with the 3E OGL and you have literally dozens of games and rulesets popping up, all using this or similar unified mechanics.
In service of this unified goal, 3E did something else pretty significant. They added more defense scores. Instead of just having AC, you now had Fortitude, Reflex and Will. You may be asking yourself why this mattered? The answer is simple, but not obvious. They needed numbers that would work for a D20 roll. Previously, you didn’t have multiple defenses, you had AC and you had “saves”. These were similar to defenses but were based on the type of attack, rather than what the attack targeted. It’s an odd reversal but vital in game design terms. Looking at it this way, saving throws were the first and earliest types of active defenses.
In order for the unified mechanic to exist, they needed to eliminate traditional saving throws and replace them with numbers that would interact nicely (by this I mean they needed to create the probability curves necessary for the game to work) with a D20 roll, thus the mechanical unification. Oh, they’d still call them “saves” to avoid confusion and so people would be less likely to reject them as “different and alien” but they wouldn’t REALLY be the same. They’d now be based off of 10 rather than an arbitrary number or a 3D6 distribution. When you start with 10 and then add modifiers, you create a number scheme that is compatible with rolling a D20. You also create a situation where attacking someone, avoiding something, or attempting something all feel the same. And thus, saving throws died and the modern incarnation of Active Defenses were born.
4E then came along and said, well, if a little of a good thing is good, a lot would be even better. They set themselves the goal of unifying the mechanic even further. This unification came in the form of who was rolling the dice, not just which dice were being rolled. Instead of the 3E way where somebody, either the attacker or defender was rolling a D20 + Modifiers, 4E pushed it to the next logical phase, where the SAME person was doing the rolling. And guess who they decided? That’s right, the attacker. So, in learning from 3E, 4E took the core mechanic even further, making it even simpler to know how to resolve. In 2E and older, we frequently found ourselves asking the question, “Is a high roll good for this, or a low roll?” or perhaps, “Do I want to get OVER a 14 or UNDER a 14?”. 3E made those questions disappear. HooRay! for a unified mechanic. But in 3E, you still had to know who makes the roll. Do I make an attack roll against your defense or do you defend by rolling against my a target DC generated from my level and the level of my spell…or whatever? 4E made that problem disappear. Never again would you have to ask that question because the roll is ALWAYS made by the attacker. Unification: Complete. Easy right? Simple right? But did it go to far?
Maybe. But I would argue that line was crossed with 3E. Once you decide a core mechanic is a goal worth striving toward, you necessarily need to put other things at lower priority. And those things are often nothing more than “but how does it feel?”. A core mechanic is a good idea. It makes the game simpler and faster for new players to learn. It makes games run smoother and there are fewer things to memorize or look up during the course of play. There is no question that a unified mechanic has major benefits. But it has drawbacks, too. Using the same resolution for everything makes different parts of the game feel like more of the same. Should an attack roll FEEL the same as a skill check to pick a lock? Maybe, but then again maybe not. Should a roll for initiative FEEL the same as a roll to smash down a door? Maybe, but maybe not. For me, RPGs are not just about rules and story. They’re about how they make me feel while you’re playing them. And sometimes, a varied set of rules make the world FEEL like it has more variation. To me, that’s not always a bad thing. Does this justify all the quirky oddities that existed with the dozens of various resolution mechanics present in early D&D? Certainly no. But it justifies many of them. And when you design a game as popular as D&D, you have to ask yourself, “Why was this game popular?”. Was it despite a non-unified ruleset? Was it because of it? Or something in between. If you follow modern game design up to and including 4th edition D&D, you’d know that designers most definitely came down in the “in spite of it” camp. I think they were wrong. And I think that’s a big reason 4E struggled. But that’s a story for a different post. 🙂
Think about this. Assuming unification of mechanics is always good, what if we took it even further towards unification. What if your STR,INT,DEX,WIS,CON,CHA were generated with a D20 roll? What if all weapons used variations of a D20 roll for damage? What if HP was generated with D20 rolls? I hope these questions make it obvious that unification isn’t always the best way. Or at the very least, that unification comes at the expense of other things. I think some game designers would be happy to design games exactly this way, to keep it as simple as possible. But they know the masses would mostly reject the loss of the sacred cow of 3D6 for attributes for example or various dice for weapon damage. Yet, this same thing occurred in the design of 3E and 4E as they moved the roll from various saves to D20 based defenses to ultimately no defense rolls, only attacks.
So, here we are, nearly 15 years later and people are noticing that they don’t get to roll defenses anymore. Well, they’re right. We don’t. And guess what? It was kind of fun to do it! Putting the player in the drivers seat of defense can be fun! Players don’t always just want to sit there and wait to get hit or not. They may want to actually dodge or slip or whatever based on their own roll instead of the attackers. Is this reversal so much fun that we need to eliminate all attacks? Of course not. We’d only be recreating the problem but from the other direction. So what is the answer? The answer is to BRING BACK SAVING THROWS! Saving throws allow the game to work both ways. Sometimes the monster is active and attacks and sometimes the player is active and defends. Is this perfectly unified? No, it’s not. But over time, through 3E and 4E, I think we’ve learned that unification is only good up to a point. That point is when we start placing unification as a goal above other priorities, like is that resolution actually fun? Is it rewarding? Does it make sense for different activities (spell casting vs. sword swinging for example) to resolve themselves in different ways? I think the answer is yes.
So, lets get practical for a second. What if you decided you want to bring back saves in 4E? Well, first, you could create an arbitrary table that assigned numbers based on the probability you desire. But that would be a fair amount of work and require some design ability in order not to muck up 4Es excellent game balance. The other option would simply be to reverse the die rolls from monster to player (monsters would not be actively defending in this case because they don’t need to have as much fun). But how would this work? There’s a couple of ways to do it mathematically, but in my opinion, the easiest is simply to use the core mechanic. In 4E this would work by taking the monsters to-hit bonus and adding 22. This would be the DC of the attack. The target PC would then make a D20 roll and add his or her defense number to it. For example: Let’s say a vicious Orc is attacking with a wicked great axe. His attack bonus is +11. His targets AC is 23. Normally, he would need to roll a 12 or higher to hit. This would leave him missing on a roll of 1-11. To reverse it, you would say the Orcs attack DC is 33 (11+22). Now the target PC makes a D20 roll and adds his or her defense. Lets say the roll comes up 13. The result would then be 36 (AC23+13). This would be a miss because it met or exceeded the Orcs attack DC of 33. In this case the Orc would be missing on a roll of 10-20, the same probability as before of missing on a 1-11. The last thing we’d need to do is redefine crits and fumbles depending on how we wanted that to work. Again, a topic for another post.
My last thought on this is a somewhat selfish one. All this talk about Active Defenses ignores something important. DM’s like to have fun too. The concept of Active Defenses actually removes a fair bit of dice rolling from the DM. In many ways, that’s a good thing. It can free up some time and mental energy for story telling, rather than dice rolling and math. But, what if your DM likes to roll dice as much as you do as a player? Well, that adds an entire new layer of complication. But I think this moves the conversation decidedly into the realm of preference, rather than game design. Some DMs (like me!) probably love to roll dice. Others probably don’t want to be bothered because they are storytellers first and foremost. The dice are simply tools of the trade, introducing probability weighted randomness where and when necessary. But I think it’s probably worth trying if for no other reason than to see how it feels for you and your group.
So what do you think about Saving Throws and Active defenses? How do you use them in your games? Would you or could you make a change? Would it make your game better? It’s something to think about. I hope they’re really giving this a lot of thought in the testing tables for D&DNext.