Improve Your Game By Removing Save Ends

by Sndwurks (David Buresh) on September 26, 2011

In the years since 4e D&D was first released Wizards of the Coast has tweaked and adjusted some of the rules in an effort to improve the game. Several vaguely worded powers were cleared up. The action economy of Solo and Elite monsters has taken steps towards becoming a challenge again. Different methods of power advancement, outside the AEDU (At-will, Encounter, Daily, Utility) model were attempted with mostly successful results. Despite these many improvements to the game, there is one aspect of 4e D&D that continues to hold it back – allowing PC to wield powers with save ends effects. I believe 4e would be a better game if we took save ends effects of out the hands of PCs and made it exclusive to monsters.

While this suggestion may seem a little extreme, there are good reasons for at least considering this change. In the hands of the DM, effects with a duration of save ends heighten the drama of the game for the players. It is another dice roll on the table and rewards players who are either favoured by luck or by proper planning. There are several powers which interact with saving throws, either by granting them or by granting a bonus to them, as well as several key class features and feats. As such, any character can effectively plan around suffering and shaking off effects with a duration of save ends. It is an empowering mechanic for PCs, because it places the power to save themselves firmly in their hands.

For the same reasons, save ends effects may seem to be good in the hands of a PC as well. However, the truth often proves to the opposite. The DM is already keeping track of multiple effects, recharge abilities and hit points of several creatures in an encounter. Players only have to keep track of their own character. Making certain to roll every saving throw for an effect on a creature can be distracting and frustrating to the DM. Worst of all it can slow combat down which can lower the dramatic tension of an encounter. It can lead to the combat turn of Team Monster taking longer and longer, focusing on the parts wherein they have the least interaction with the PCs. Slowing the game down is a cardinal sin in 4e, and works against what makes the game elegant and fun to play.

The additional randomness of save ends effects also are an illusionary benefit. Without the ability to inflict saving throw penalties, an effect that a saving throw can end has only a 45% chance at best of lasting until the end of the PCs next turn. In the case of Elite and Solo monsters this chance is even further reduced. This alone can make an effect that has a guaranteed duration of until the end of the character’s next turn more commonly effective against an enemy. A player could answer this problem by building in saving throw penalties to their effects, but those can stack fast. All it takes is a -11 to saving throws, which is possible by mid-Paragon, to turn an average effect that a save can end into a fight stopping power.

Finally, while PCs have a variety of options in how to mitigate saving throws, only Hobgoblins and Deities have common ways of dealing with such things. While Elite and Solo monsters receive saving throw bonuses, Team Monster only has a few select way of handling save ends effects. While these do include saving against certain effects at the start of the turn, or being able to move or shake such effects as part of an attack action, they are uncommon. The presence of such powers move the monster in question towards denying the use of a power, which may make such a power feel even less effective. This can lead to players having less fun at the table.

While there are ways to reduce the burden save ends effects have upon the game, it is a simpler and more elegant solution to remove nearly all save ends duration effects from the hands of the players. Place them solely in the domain of Team Monster. The exception to this would be ongoing damage, as that is often a means by which certain striker-types can inflict out-of-turn damage on their targets. Instead of an effect having a duration of save ends, either a set duration or a sustain effect would be the best. Soft control powers, such as attack and damage penalties, could best be handled through a sustain minor. Stronger soft control effects, such as combat advantage and speed penalties, could best be handled through sustain move.

Hard control effects, such as dominate and stun, have a much stronger impact on the flow of combat. A rounds or two of hard control can be all it takes for the players to win an encounter, and this should be reflected in their powers. Hard control effects should have a set duration, typically until the end of the PC’s next turn or end of the monster’s next turn. This allows the power to have its impact, potentially swing the fight for the PCs in the crucial first turns of a fight, and then end. Ultimately it makes the powers more strategic in nature, as having a set duration makes them a more known factor to both the PCs and the DM.

As any DM who has had to deal with a perma-Dom Bard or Stun-Lock Wizard will tell you, effects with a save ends duration in the hands of PCs can be powerful enough to completely upset the dramatic tension of combat in 4e D&D. Likewise, unless a character is specifically built to abuse the save ends duration, the powers are less used than their set duration counterparts, due to them being ultimately less reliable. Aside from ongoing damage, effects with a duration of save ends should be removed from the hands of players, and placed in the hands of monsters. The game will be better for it.

What are your thoughts on removing save ends effects from PCs? Have you played at a table where someone has optimized their PC around saves and save end conditions? Do you think powers with save ends are (or can be) too powerful in the hands of the PCs? When choosing powers for your PCs, how heavily do you weight powers with save ends conditions against other powers with set durations?

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 froth September 26, 2011 at 10:50 am

nah, i will keep it. thats a massive nerf on pcs, and i dont find it slows anything down bc face to face i use masterplan which prompts me on all conditions, and online it still doesnt really slow anything down for me

2 iserith September 26, 2011 at 11:38 am

I’m not sure I’d change a fundamental aspect of the game because one or two players might come to my table with something that might “ruin” an encounter. The simpler solution is better encounter design on the part of the DM or, failing that, a frank discussion with players who knowingly bring a troublesome build to the table.

As far as tracking, I’ve never had much of an issue with it, especially since we also use an online interface. But even before we went that direction, a little marker on the mini and a little vigilance was all it took to remember to make that save.

I see where you’re going with this and it’s not a bad idea, but I think there’s other simpler solutions that may be implemented a lot easier.

3 C. Steven Ross September 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I salute your willingness to embrace change and challenge the very fundamentals of the rules! I plan on giving this option a whirl as soon as possible. Do you have any suggested quick fixes to universally alter save ends powers? I worry that a simple ban on all (se) powes is a little inelegant and cuts out a whole lot of the game’s available options.

4 Quirky DM September 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Stun and dominate seem to be the large violators here. Getting rid of everything else is more for book keeping savings. I can see the advantage in reducing the clutter, but I don’t know if I’m as concerned with it here.

In fact, I might instead look at ADDING more book keeping to avoid the saving throw lock, at least for the worst violators. Let the monsters (or players) keep track of their cumulative saving throw. Whenever it hits 20, you consider the save to be made. The cumulative total is wiped out if you stack another similar effect on top that would normally be ignored. This gives some incentive for stacking effects on. I would only bother with this when a potential lock condition is in effect, or if a game changing effect such as dominate or stun would cause a player to possibly sit out the entire fight.

5 Kiel Chenier September 26, 2011 at 1:38 pm

This makes sense.

Any D&D “players” who disagree clearly don’t understand what it means to be a DM.

Anything that encourages the feelings and sensations of “powerlessness” in my players helps reinforce the idea that death is not just something intended for skeletons, goblins, and other monsters living in the dark places of the world. They aren’t super heroes. They’re courageous mortal men and women…who can be hurt and killed.

Too many 4e players forget how common it was for player characters to be absolutely rendered powerless or enfeebled (not as an unfair “Haha! I’m the DM and I’m killing you” way, but more “The world you’re playing in has things in it that are stronger than you. Never forget that”).

Most 4e powers/abilities/tactics are far too overpowered, but such is the nature of the game as its currently designed. I say good riddance to ‘save ends’.

6 froth September 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I dm twice a week and disagree with you, as well as your snarky tone

7 iserith September 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm

@ Kiel
I’m not sure why a player who disagrees with ending save ends effects as a feature of the game doesn’t know what it is to be a DM. As a DM for 20 some years now, I have found that you don’t have to change the game to deal with troublesome character builds. You just have to make your encounters more interesting to challenge the character. If your encounter consists of one monster than can be stun-locked and then Game Over, that’s *your* fault, not the player’s – he or she had no hand in the encounter design. Sure, that’s a pretty cheesy build for someone to bring to the table, but it’s not an I-win button. The DM has a vast array of options – far more than the player – to create a suitable challenge for these builds.

Also, it’s important not to forget that in your game, the characters might be mere mortals, fragile and imperfect. In my game, they’re over-the-top pulp action serial heroes who aren’t cut from the same cloth normal men. Or not. Enforcing a feeling of powerlessness is certainly a valid means of setting a tone for your campaign. But changing the mechanical consistency upon which players base their character builds or in-game decisions is the cheap way out. It’s certainly a valid discussion in the abstract; in practice, it seems punitive and unnecessary.

8 Ameron (Derek Myers) September 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Before I jump in with my comments I want to remind our readers that our goal with any article is to try and improve your D&D experience. Whether you agree or disagree with our ideas or suggestions, I often find the ensuing discussion provides valuable feedback. So for everyone who has already commented, thank you.

I like the idea of removing save ends effects from the hands of the PCs a lot but I’m not totally sold on such a radical change. I have absolutely no problem with monsters using powers that are save ends. When I build characters I often choose feats and powers that allow me to make saves off-turn or that provide a bonus. Sometimes it means giving up other “combat heavy” feats, but that’s just my preference.

When it comes to Team Heroes, I really like the suggestion of making powers last until the end of my next turn or maintain minor rather than save ends. If I use a power that dazes the monster and his turn is right after mine in the initiative order, he could (and often does) save thereby gimping my power. If I know that the power would last until the end of my next turn or that I could even maintain it I’d be a lot happier. On more than one occasion I’ve had to delay until after the monster attacks before jumping back in the initiative order and using my daze attack. This ensures the rest of the PCs the most possibly benefit out of the daze effect.

@froth
I respect your decision to disagree with the options presented. I assume “Masterplan” is an online tool that helps you keep things organized and running soothingly. My DM uses something similar. If you’re using an automated tool then there’s certainly no need to change if the only reason you’re doing so is to speed things up or reduce book keeping. But for those of us who DM with just pencil and paper I do see some merit to the suggestions Sndwurks discussed in his article.

Was your comment about tone referring to Sndwurks (the author) or one of the people who commented?

9 Pedro Rodrigues September 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Agreed; particularly like the alternatives given.

On a related note, would also remove random power recharge effects, substituting them either with similar given conditions above or triggered conditions as a few monsters already have; less dice rolls necessary=less time wasted.

10 Dungeonmaster Johnny September 26, 2011 at 5:03 pm

WotC has tried to remedy this situation with Action Recovery-the monster ends most on going effects at the end of thier turn. Another great option is from SlyFlourish which is called Brutal Shake-off: Solos and Elites can choose to take some damage instead of on going effects

11 froth September 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Ameron, first yes its a campaign management tool that has a combat tracker. Second I was referring to the dude kiel that claimed you couldn’t be a dm and disagree with a massive across the board nerf to pcs

12 Brian September 26, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Hmm, interesting concept but I’m not sure I’m sold. In terms of conditions being difficult to track, we don’t use any electronic trackers and don’t really have any problems. Rather, I’ve created small rings of bent colored paper clips and if a monster (or PC) is subjected to a status effect the mini (or token, these days) gets a ring placed on it (or next to it). When I DM, if I don’t remember what the ring means I’ll ask the player, and clarify whether or not it’s save ends. Usually those are Daily powers though, and it’s usually pretty obvious if a player just used a Daily (in other words, whether an effect is UEoNT or save ends tends to be intuitive). As a player, I’ll remind the DM of all of my effects whenever the monster’s turn comes up. It speeds the game along, gives the DM less to worry about, and ensures that whatever I’ve inflicted on the monsters is fresh in the DM’s mind so he doesn’t forget about it :)

Speaking directly about save ends effects, in general a PC not built to hand out save penalties will NOT be breaking the game with save ends effects; as has been stated before, they’re actually LESS powerful than UEoNT effects, on average. In order to make them worthwhile, players need to invest resources into penalizing saves, and those resources could have been spent elsewhere. Also, most save penalties these days only apply to the first save made, making “stun-locking” far less game-breaking than it used to be. Given that Elites and Solos have save bonuses, it’s much tougher to guarantee that they’ll be locked down. Given a choice, I’d stun 4 standard monsters before attempting to stun a solo, because each of those monsters is less likely to make their save.

Finally, the dichotomy between save ends and UEoNT provides variety. Even though I primarily play controllers I tend not to optimize save penalties that heavily (and my power selection generally reflects that), and that provides a different play experience compared to a player that does. But even if I do use a save ends power, it usually has a zone or some other effect tied to it, so I expect the actual status effect in question to be less effective than an UEoNT effect. In other words, I operate under the assumption that the monster will make their first save. Since some level of randomness is fun, I still use some save ends powers, and end up pleasantly surprised when monsters fail saves by luck of the dice. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a monster fail it’s 4th save in a row due to sheer bad luck, as I cackle madly while secretly thanking Avandra for my good fortune.

13 Dave September 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm

As a DM for a very sociable group (read: gets distracted often) I find 4th edition effects with durations can become a huge pain. I agree with the above problems associated with PC save-ends effects, but I find monsters with save-ends effects can be just as bad. My player often forget to roll their saving throws on their turn, and it really disrupts the flow of combat when someone announces that they’re retroactively rolling a saving throw. We play for fun, so I’m not going to be a hard-ass and say, “Too late. Try again next turn.”

Trying to solve this problem made me pay closer attention to all effects with non-instantaneous durations. This lead me to notice that from the perspective of a single character, the effects affecting him can all be ending at different times (save-ends, at the end of a monster’s turn, at the end of an ally’s turn, at the start of his next turn, etc.). Keeping track of when to deal with which effect seems more complicated than it should be.

Some games have the concept of an “upkeep phase” where you deal with such things, and then you don’t think about it anymore until your next “upkeep phase”. Has anyone tried something like this with D&D? I’m tempted to try it. Another alternative I’ve thought of is to make it so that all effects last until a particular action has been taken. For example, a stunned effect could last until you spend a turn to shake it off and ongoing fire damage could last until you spend a minor action to put out the flames. Certain actions could require a “saving throw” to be effective. This might make more sense, but it could also end up complicating things instead of simplifying them.

14 Swordgleam September 27, 2011 at 9:43 pm

I’m now distracted by trying to come up with other things that are common to “only Hobgoblins and deities.”

15 Sunyaku September 29, 2011 at 2:41 am

I’m a fan of variable or sustained durations. On hit, I would certainly support certain powers requiring a d3, d4, d6 etc. roll to determine how many rounds the effects play out. On the “receiving end”, perhaps the target could have a single save to reduce the number of rounds? That way save bonuses on Elites/Solos would still count for something.

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