Monday, May 16, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Saving Throws

There are some major discrepancies between Holmes and Cook when it comes to Saving Throws. For example, Cook has Thieves begin with worse saving throws than Holmes, but the opposite is true when it comes to Dwarves and Halflings. Cook does answer a pressing question in Holmes — what do Elves save as: Fighting Men or Magic-users? Cook has them somewhere in between (a logical conclusion given Holmes' justification for Elves having a d6 for HD — it falls in-between the d4 of Magic-users and the d8 of Fighting Men).

While all of this is interesting, these discrepancies don't really mean much. Whether or not one chooses Holmes or Cook to begin with, eventually one can only really go with Cook because he is the one who provides saves for higher level characters.

Nonetheless, Holmes does give us a fascinating take on what a Saving Throw is:

Even when a magical spell has been properly thrown, it does not always work. Anyone subjected to magical attack rolls a special die to see if the magic took effect (see below). This die roll is called a "saving throw" because if you roll the correct number (given in the chart below) or any higher number, you are unaffected or "saved."

Note those two very intriguing words: magical attack. Indeed, when he describes Dwarves, he states:

They are sturdy fighters and are especially resistant to magic as shown by their better saving throws against magical attack.

Given the fact that Dwarven saving throws are better across the board than any other class, this means that every time a character makes a save it is against a magical attack.

In other words, the bite of a giant spider and the breath weapon of a dragon are not natural — they are magical. This throws a gigantic wrench into the assumed naturalism used by Gygax, Arneson and their progeny (like myself). It also adds credence to the notion that the Dungeon is a magical, otherworldly place that has its own agenda.

This view, however, doesn't stop me from asking a few questions and making some assumptions from a naturalistic POV. Ignoring the demi-humans for a moment, Clerics have the best saving throws to begin with. The non-spell casters (Fighters and Thieves) have the worst. If one looks at the name-level of each of class, however, while Clerics still have the best saves, Magic-users have the worst.

This seems to indicate that being associated with divine magic consistently makes the Cleric more resistant to magical attacks than any other class. In contrast, while it initially gives them an advantage over non-spellcasters, being associated with arcane magic makes Magic-users more susceptible over time to magical attacks than any other class.

This reinforces the idea that the arcane magics of the ancients, while powerful, are dangerous. It also continues to suggest that civilization has made a move away from paganism towards some kind of Christianity — being strongly associated with the Church helps protect one from the nasty magical effects of the pagan (and ultimately evil) ancient civilization that still plague the world.

This pattern also holds true in context of the demi-humans, where the one race most closely associated with arcane magic (the Elf) is the most vulnerable to magical attacks. It begs the question, however, why demi-humans are overall more magic-resistant than humans.

One simple answer is to assume that the ancient civilization so closely related to powerful arcane magic (and the turning away from God to produce an evil slave economy) was a human civilization. The very close association humans had for so long with such powerful arcane magic made them all far more vulnerable to magic attacks than the demi-humans — especially those that never dabbled in magic like the Halflings and the Dwarves.


  1. I follow your argument about divine vs arcane magic and the historic narrative it might imply (which is really an intriguing idea that I've been seeing in your blogs), but I wonder about the part that all saves (if I understand your meaning) are essentially saves versus magical attacks. Yes the Dwarf has good saves all around and resists magic for unexplained reasons, and so does the Cleric. But though they save vs. magic especially well, I'm not sure you can turn that around and say that giant spider venom is not mere poison, but magical poison. The save vs store-bought poison is the same thing, but I wouldn't call that magic poison.

    The other bit is that for Moldvay/Cook (I don't have Holmes so fill me in here), there's a bonus to magic-based saves for having a high WIS. On p. B7 (summarized on Cook's X2) we have:

    "Adjustments to magic-based saving throws do not apply to saving throws vs. Dragon Breath. They might (or might not) affect saving throws vs. Death Ray or Poison, depending on whether the attack is magical. These adjustments do affect a saving throw vs. Turn to Stone, vs. Wands, and vs. a Rod, Staff, or Spell."

    If you are a very wise magic user you'll have a few better saves, but not across the board. As WIS is the Cleric prime attribute, I'd say that there must be something about the cleric that makes it more resistant to unfortunate turns of events, but it's not only because of a general protection from arcane magic.

    Personally I think the sense of the Wisdom attribute as representing a general sensitivity to the physical, spiritual, and social environment accommodates the better saves. On the other hand, I feel that some other innate or historical explanation for Dwarf saving throws (e.g., they were created by arcane magic, they were NOT created by arcane magic, they have toiled in misery for millennia, they're just beef jerky-fied humans, etc) could explain their good saving throws without referring to a unifying explanation that might be inferred from the mechanics.

    Well that's a hell of a long comment. Thanks for your blog, I've been getting a lot of great inspiration from it in the last few months!

  2. @Spawn

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I would absolutely agree with your assessment; however, one of the "rules" of this thought experiment is that Holmes is "superior" to Cook. In other words, I am using Holmes' attribute bonuses, NOT the ones from Moldvay/Cook. Sans a Wisdom bonus for magic, and given that the ONLY description for what a Saving Throw is comes from Holmes (Cook merely informs his reader that they get better as characters get to higher levels), one is left with trying to understand Poison and Dragon Breath as magic...