Year of 4E: Defenses

There is so much to talk about when it comes to 4th Edition but I want to move into article two with one of the things that, mechanically speaking, immediately earned my love: defenses. I will (mostly) ignore or gloss over saving throws here and focus strictly on “roll to hit” defenses. But I do want to say that this iteration of saving throws also contributed to my love of 4E mechanics. Today will mostly focus on my opinions and less on using things in 5E, but this is one of the earliest, most prominent design concepts in my mind moving from player / DM to designer.


Before 4E

Okay let’s start with a brief background for those who are pretty new to D&D, because there are a lot of you out there and even 5E has been out for more years than I often think. So what are we talking about with defenses? Armor class or AC is the primary defense throughout the editions but that doesn’t mean defenses haven’t seen some of the most changes between them.

In earlier editions there was a table-based system where armor augmented a target number to hit. This was not the scalar method of modern times but created ACs ranging from -10 to 10 which was a bonus to the attacker’s roll. That, combined with any other bonuses. was added to the d20 roll…sort of. You see, the AC augmented a THAC0, or “to hit AC 0”, score. That number was used in a table to determine your target roll. You then rolled and added your bonus and determined if that roll met or beat the table’s number. At least that’s how I remember it. I have precious little AD&D experience and that is a few years old now.

Armor from the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook

In 3rd Edition this was simplified into a system more similar to 5E. Your base AC was 10 and you added or subtracted from that based on certain modifiers like armor, dexterity, or being flat-footed. Attackers also added and subtracted modifiers, such as strength or magical item bonus. This was great because it standardized AC in a single thing while getting rid of negative ACs. Where it became problematic is all the new math. Even though most of it is done out of the game session, there are a lot of things to consider. Item bonus, Dex bonus, armor and it’s limitations, natural armor, magical item bonus, etc. Pathfinder works this way as well, but they’ve taken an additional step of creating spots for Touch AC and the like to take even more surprise math away.


Saving Throws of Old

Here is where I need to mention saves due to their influence on 4E. In earlier editions many save equivalents were percentage based. Your stats gave you increased chances to save but everything was a percent chance to succeed. A high Constitution would increase a poison resist from (arbitrarily for example purposes) 30% to 40%. Poison saves would be rolled as d100 and a roll of your resist or lower would be a success. The score was, literally, your chances of overcoming these things. Many games treated and still treat a lot of mechanics like this because it is easily translatable into likelihood.

In the 3rd Edition we went to something that could be adjusted by creature power, spell level, and more. Like other mechanics in that edition, there were target numbers based on bonuses (like creature stat or CR) and the saving throws had bonuses (from things like ability score or magic item). These were meet or beat rolls that created a more dynamic resistance system. The only problem? We needed enough saves to cover everything that wasn’t a “versus AC” roll without going overboard. Reflex, Fortitude, and Will were what we got and they covered everything well enough, but I always had some problems with certain aspects of the system.


Enter 4th Edition.

Now we get to it. 4th Edition and my favorite take on defenses yet. Yes, as much as 5E works I think that 4th Edition had defenses done right. And don’t get me wrong, I would love to see a better way to integrate and define what HP is and what it represents but that is its own conversation. What 4E did was simplify saves into a roll that stopped ongoing conditions. This roll was a slightly better than 50/50 chance with 10-20 being a success and 1-9 being a fail.

This is great because it doesn’t care about stats or conditions. If something is continuous, but can be ended, there is a saving throw and you know exactly what you need. More than that, the mechanics were built around having basic bonuses rather than multiple sources contributing. So any roll, ANY ROLL, could get a +2 bonus if something could help you. Simple as that. Where does that leave the old saves and all the resistance rolls? As defense target numbers!

Armor Class still covered your ability to avoid physical damage but you also had 3 others in 4E. And they’re going to sound familiar. Reflex, Fortitude, and Will. Arguments about putting more rolls in players’ hands or not, this was a great change in my opinion. It regulates what is going on and standardizes defensive mechanics. Standardizing was one of my favorite aspects of 4E (and as I have mentioned one of the “video-gamey things”).

2009’s Sherlock Holmes by Warner Bros.

This wasn’t what really won me over though. It was the recognition given to Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma in respect to defense. I LOVED this. Sure your immune system fights poison and cold but your brute strength can overcome the effects of these things as well. Agility can aid in dodging but so can being able to see where something’s trajectory is in order to move the right way. Moreover, willpower can resist mental intrusion but so can force of personality and defiance. That is what I loved about 4E defenses. You got to use the stronger of two stats for each defense. Not only does this diversify and empower various character types but creates new role-playing opportunities. I can’t help but picture wizards dodging reflex attacks in a very RDJ Sherlock Holmes style!


Why 5E? Why?!

Writing this I had to pause and make a tweet thread. You can find that thread here, but the point is 5th Edition has failed me. At least in all the ways that 4E defenses gripped my imagination and design preference. I hate that there are bad saving throws. It is even used to define classes in a balanced way. Give them one good save and one bad save that make sense for the class. But it isn’t that useful. Very little uses Strength saves and it weakens the stat, especially given the lack of Strength skills. But 4E’s method solved that problem.

That thread outlines my current thoughts on it, but I think 5E could have gone with a 4E methodology without much trouble. Yes, there are a lot of strange considerations to take. Especially when we start talking about big monster effects and spells. But honestly, I think it could be done and most of it could be done with little effort. After this article I have some serious thoughts about this possibility. As I work on my setting material I will seriously consider reworking 5E defenses. It is probably the most contentious consideration I will make both personally and for anyone else looking into my settings and stuff.


When it comes down to it I LOVE 4E defenses and think 5th Edition took steps backward. I understand why, but only to a point. As I make my own material, reworking the system is a serious consideration and my mind is swirling with ideas. Needless to say I am very excited about how this series is getting me to think this year.

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