Tactics and Tips04/11/2005

Worth Saving

The dragon breathes down upon the party. After the Dungeon Master has rolled his pile of dice and calculated his total, the players cast their own 20-siders -- the lives of their player characters hanging on the result of the roll. A staple of the D&D game is the saving throw, and this week's article discusses the characteristics of the three saving throw types, and ways to improve the survival chances of your PC.

"Make me a Fort save": Attacks or spells that require Fortitude saving throws are very often either save-or-die affairs, or effects such as poisons that damage ability scores. At low levels, poisons and disease are the most common Fortitude effects, and failing a saving throw will be an inconvenience, but a failed result usually doesn't immediately kill the character (though a strong poison might incapacitate her if an ability other than Constitution is dropped to zero). At higher levels, spells such as finger of death and disintegrate also target a character's Fortitude, and failing the saving throws in these instances may mean it's time to start rolling up your next character.

A number of options are available to enhance a character's ability to survive a Fortitude saving throw, depending on the nature of the effect.

  • If poisons are the problem, a flask of antitoxin (+5 on poison saves) is great at low levels (see page 128 in the Player's Handbook).

  • If your party includes a character with ranks in the Heal skill (see page 75 in the Player's Handbook), then the greatest danger of the poison is the initial damage, since Heal grants you effectively two chances to make the save.

  • Eventually, the delay poison spell (see page 217 in the Player's Handbook) becomes useful for providing temporary immunity to poisons, though it simply delays the inevitable.

  • By the time your PC encounters creatures using death effects, such as slay living or destruction, your party should have access to death ward (see page 217 in the Player's Handbook), which can protect those characters most susceptible to Fortitude effects.

  • Magic items such as the periapt of proof against poison (see page 263 in the Dungeon Master's Guide) and scarab of protection (see page 266 in the Dungeon Master's Guide) also help in such instances.

  • No specific protection bolsters Fortitude saving throws against certain spells, such as baleful polymorph and implosion, so wizards and rogues facing such situations may be best off just disappearing for a round or two.

"Make me a Reflex save": A failed Reflex saving throw almost always results in a significant amount of lost hit points. Many fighters and clerics can get away with poor Reflex save bonuses because they have either enough hit points or sufficient healing available to absorb a pile of damage. Even successful saving throws result in some amount of damage, except for those rogues with evasion. Since most effects that require Reflex saving throws have a consistent effect (piles of damage), you may find it easier to plan for the eventuality of the Reflex save. Characters with an abundance of hit points may discover that trying to improve a poor Reflex save is not worth the cost, whereas wizards or other typically fragile characters may want to invest in spells or magic items that help mitigate the danger.

Compensating for a low Reflex save bonus usually requires increasing a character's available hit points, either through after-the-fact healing magic or via increased hit points prior to the attack.

  • A few spells, such as heroes' feast (see page 240 in the Player's Handbook) and bear's endurance (see page 203 in the Player's Handbook) help in this regard, as does the vigor psionic power (see page 140 in the Expanded Psionics Handbook).

  • Another key component of most Reflex-based effects is the tendency toward energy damage, such as fire damage from a dragon's breath weapon or a fireball spell. With a bit of forethought, much of the damage can be negated using spells such as resist energy or protection from energy (see pages 272 and 266 in the Player's Handbook, respectively).

"Make me a Will save": Not always save-or-die, Will save effects usually feel as bad, and sometimes much worse. A failed Will save to a fear effect or two can send your character running away from an encounter, which while allowing you an opportunity to refill your soda, does little to help your party overcome the encounter. Even better are confusion, possession, and domination effects, where your party gets to beat you into unconsciousness ("better" is a relative term, here). Smart opponents use hold person or, better yet, Tasha's hideous laughter on the party muscle.

The good news is that characters can counter or remove most ongoing disabling effects that result from a failed Will save.

  • Remove paralysis releases a held character, and remove fear returns courage to a fleeing comrade (see page 271 of the Player's Handbook).

  • Protection from evil (see page 266 of the Player's Handbook) prevents a character from being dominated or possessed.

  • Characters can counter even harm and inflict wounds spells by using a death ward.

Increasing Saving Throws: Resistance bonuses, via spells or cloaks of resistance (see page 253 of the Dungeon Master's Guide), are a solid method of improving all saving throws. A character might multiclass, either taking levels in those classes that provide a "good" bonus on a currently poor saving throw, or stacking the good bonuses to make one save particularly high at the expense of the others. Each saving throw type also has its own feat that grants a +2 bonus (Great Fortitude, Iron Will, and Lightning Reflexes).

Consider that a standard saving throw DC will, in general, be somewhere between 10 + half your level and 10 + your level. Be familiar with the general types of results of a failed saving throw, and plan your character's career path and development accordingly.

And remember, despite all your preparation and due diligence, a natural 1 always fails.

Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, Expanded Psionics Handbook.

About the Author

Stephen Schubert, formerly a minion of a large computer services company, has written for Dragon Magazine, Star Wars Gamer, and the Wizards of the Coast website. He now works as a developer for roleplaying games and miniatures at Wizards of the Coast, and he has been involved in many products on the 2005 schedule.

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