Critical Saving Throws

In 5th Edition D&D, a maximum roll on a d20 only counts as a “critical” when attacking. But, rolling a 20 feels really good! So it stinks when you roll a 20 and you don’t get some extra mechanical benefit.

Many folks have mulled the merits (and drawbacks) of installing such a system in other parts of the game. Most often, this is discussed in the context of skill checks. That discussion kind of loses the forest for the trees; since you shouldn’t be calling for a skill check that a player can’t pass, a 20 should always be a success.

Now, I don’t have a problem with a little bit of narrative flavor, but it’s tough to drive the narrative home if you don’t have some mechanical bite. All that 20 earned you was a few extra fancy words.

What if there were some rolls that players had to make that could use a little extra mechanical bite to make that 20 not feel “wasted”? Well, there’s one type of roll. And critical successes have already snuck in!

Saving Throws

I’m talking about saving throws! Players need to make them. They don’t get any benefit when they roll a 20 vs. rolling a 19.

Death Saving Throws

Sneakily, this mechanic kinda already exists in the game. When you roll a death saving throw, and you roll a 20, you automatically regain 1 HP, taking you out of the death saving throws mechanics. You can participate in the battle again! That’s a huge mechanical benefit!

Critical Saves

If we can apply benefits like this to normal saving throws, then we can install some of that excitement back into rolling a 20! Here’s my homebrew suggestions for benefits you can give a player rolls a 20 on a saving throw:

See description for text version of table.

Save Fumbles

On the opposite side of the coin, we have fumbles (rolling a 1). While I’m generally not a fan of mechanical teeth to fumbles (as they are more punishing to competent characters), saving throw fumbles don’t suffer from some of the same multiattack quandaries as attack fumbles.

So, if you want to add save fumbles to your game, what I suggest doing is adding criticals back! Wait, what? Well, when you picked a spell with a saving throw instead of a spell attack, you lost your chance to score a critical hit and roll twice the damage die. You can just add double damage (dice) against creatures that roll a critical fumble on a save.

Save Fumbles

Note that this will juice up the power of AoE damage spells, which trigger saving throws, versus targeted attack spells, that can already benefit from a critical hit. It’s very possible this was taken into account when benchmarking AoE and targeted spell damage. So, there are balance concerns with save fumbles.

Inequitable Implementation

While you can certainly apply these rules equally to PCs and monsters, I would suggest only giving these benefits to players.

Critical saves are a little fiddly, so they’ll just increase DM workload for monster management. On the player side, they’re already sitting there doing nothing, so they’ll be happy to hold on to their little nugget until their turn rolls around. 20s don’t feel as good for DMs as they feel “oof” so we’re not really losing out on the good feels we’re trying to capture for the player.

Save fumbles can be dangerous to PCs, as a big spell damage roll can easily result in a dead PC. Also consider the impact to AoE spells above. While I’d be wary implementing save fumbles in the first place, I would be doubly cautious applying them against PCs.

If you want some more saving throw hacks, check out Death Saves Revived or Meat Grinder Mode. Support us on the ThinkDM Patreon, where you can get additional content, early releases, and personalized help on your own design. If you have any suggestions for different critical save benefits, please let us know in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “Critical Saving Throws

  1. So, in my campaign, we do this already, sort of. Rolling a “1” on a spell save means you automatically take maximum effect; if the spell does no damage or has no random feature, then the GM usually accentuates the effect of the spell. For example a Nat 1 on Toll the Dead inflicts 12 damage, but a Nat 1 on Charm Person means they *don’t* know they were charmed when the spell ends.

    On the flip side, we give out “Luck Points” when you roll a Nat 20 for any reason. These Luck Points are generally required to be spent on your next d20 roll within this encounter, basically giving you advantage,(Conversely, in addition to other effects, a Nat 1 gives you an Unluck Point, causing disadvantage.) A Luck Point can be used on any d20 roll before the end of your next turn; an Unluck Point is always used on the next one.
    [You can meta the Unluck point, though, perhaps using your Action to Help an ally, so you don’t roll dice that round…]

    So we don’t give critical effects on skills, 20 is just 20, but it is also a Luck Point. And sometimes, if you are freaking awesome, a 1 doesn’t miss… but it is still an Unluck Point.

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  2. In our game rolling 20 on saving throws grants 1/4 damage or extended resistance (auto save vs. ongoing effect the next round) and a fumble does 1.5x more damage or extended effect (auto fail vs. ongoing effect the next round). This simple addition gives crits and fumbles more weight without breaking encounters.

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  3. This kind of defeats the purpose of saving throws, in my opinion. Most saving throws still deal half damage on a success, which balances out the hit, crit, or miss aspect of attack rolls. I think a natural 20 on a saving throw should just be accompanied by a flavorful description of how epically the player saves, right in the face of the creature who forced the save. Nothing more.

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  4. doubling damage on a critically failed saving throw is a *bad idea*. primarily because attack rolls, on their own, don’t *do* a whole lot on a crit. You’ve doubled the damage dice (not even the full attack, the modifier remains single!), neat. that’s 5-20 extra damage this turn depending on what type of creature (or player) you are, which is substantial but not full-health-to-zero. Sudden double damage on a spell like *Disintegrate*? That’s your character sheet ripped up and burned from one bad roll, unless the DM feels like deus-ex-machina-ing a 17th level cleric in to true-res the character (or a 10th level cleric spams divine intervention but whatever)

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    1. Nobody, in my rules we don’t double the damage, but we do maximize it. So that 10d6+40 disintegrate you mentioned does 100 damage instead of its average 75 – no more than it is capable of in a perfect circumstance. (I’ll point out that if it were doubled like a critical melee hit, it would do, that would only average 110 damage, a mere 10 extra points… but could swing up to 160.)

      And on a nat 20, you take MINIMUM… and then benefit from whatever the save actually does. So a Nat 1 on a Fireball does 48 dmg; a Nat 20 on a Fireball does 4 (minimum 8, plus save-for-half).

      For save-based cantrips, if the target makes its save with a Nat 20, the target is immune to that person’s version of that cantrip for the encounter!

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    1. If the spell has no damage, then I (DM call) enhance/minimize the effect.

      Like in my answer to Nobody, a “Nat 1” on a save is the spell working as perfectly as possible. Maybe the target of a Hold Person doesn’t get a save every round (or maybe just doesn’t get one next round). Maybe the Charm Person doesn’t leave a residual “OMG I’ve been charmed!”. Maybe an offensive Plane Shift leaves the target disoriented/dazed/stunned when it arrives.

      Likewise, a “Nat 20” on a save is the spell working as absolutely poorly as possible. Most no-damage spells that grant saves are “nothing happens if the target saves”, but some are “it only lasts 1 round”, or has some lesser effect (like dazed instead of stunned). Usually, I will make Nat 20 “the spell has no secondary/reduced effect”. (If the spell was simply “Save or Suck”, then a Nat 20 maight be “The target is immune to this spell, from you, for the encounter.”)

      Mostly, though, we have “Nat 1 = disad on next d20 roll within 1 round”, and “Nat 20 = advantage on next d20 roll within 1 round”, so the die rolls have their own benefits in my campaign, regardless of any other effects they might have. So for simplicity, IN PRACTICE, spells with saves but no damage/randomness are just “It really failed, you have advantage”, or “it really worked, and you have disadvantage”.

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