Common Saving Throw Abilities: What Are They and Why Should You Care?
If you’ve spent any time on online forums, Reddit, blogs, or hell, even here, you’ve probably heard something about Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom being important ability scores in D&D 5e. This is because they are the most frequently used saving throw abilities in the game! Particularly for spell saving throws.
These three abilities are called for all the time so they’re generally treated as ability score royalty. You can’t disregard them without serious consequences!
I refer to this design concept frequently in both my Character Build and D&D Monster Monday articles, but I’ve never really gone into detail as to why I call this out or what it actually means. Sure, it makes sense that some ability scores are used in the game more often than others, but why do I put an emphasis on it?
So today we’re going to talk about why some of these ability scores are more important to have than others and how that impacts different aspects of D&D 5e’s design.
What Makes Them an Important Ability Score?
Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom are surely important ability scores. For starters, they are exactly 1/2 of the ability scores in the game so there’s a good chance at least one will be either your primary or secondary ability scores.
They’re also each attached to other aspects of the game. However, that’s not the reason that I refer to them as three of the more important ability scores in the game. Typically, I’m referring to them as such because they’re the three most frequently used ability scores for saving throws, specifically spell saving throws.
This alone gives these three ability scores a considerable amount of weight and influence in the game. Strictly speaking, if you’re going to be rolling saving throws with these ability scores on a regular basis, you probably don’t want them to be low if you can help it.
We Have the Data!
To help you visualize this phenomenon I went through the official spell list on D&D Beyond to do a quick census on spells that require saving throws. This may not be a 100% accurate tally depending on when you read this article, but it gets the point across well I think.
|Saving Throw Ability||# of Spells|
The data is telling. Clearly, Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom have earned their namesakes as primary saving throw ability scores. Each has 30-40+ more spells than Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma. This alone makes a significant impact in value for each ability score.
For example, if I was in a bind between choosing Intelligence or Wisdom for my dump stat, I’d probably choose Intelligence. I’m less likely to be crowd controlled, damaged, etc. by spells by dumping Intelligence as opposed to Wisdom. If my class, build, or role-playing doesn’t require either I’m going to default to whatever is the most optimal decision.
Also, 62 spells with Dex saving throws just adds to Dexterity’s value in 5e. It’s the saving throw ability for 11 more spells than Wisdom which comes in at 2nd place with 51! Seriously, Dexterity should never be your dump stat in 5e.
Saving Throws Influence a Spell’s Power
The damage, utility, and effect of a spell isn’t its only measure of power when someone is designing and/or balancing a spell. There are, of course, many different factors that the designer needs to take into consideration. For instance, the range of the spell and whether or not it requires concentration.
Even which saving throw is used makes an impact on how powerful a spell actually is. Think of it this way, a spell that uses a popular ability score is more likely to have the target succeed on the saving throw.
If that’s the case, you can give your spell a bit of a bump in power compared to a spell that has a less used saving throw. All of these tiny details make an impact when creating or homebrewing a spell. It’s part of why it’s so difficult to create a spell that’s truly well-balanced.
Spells That Require an STR, INT, or CHA Save Have an Advantage
Spells that call upon less utilized ability scores are more powerful than their counterparts that call for one of the primary saving throw ability scores. This is simply by virtue of the target(s) of the spell being less likely to succeed on the saving throw.
The more targets fail your spell, the more likely it is you’ll deal maximum damage or crowd control to the opposition. It makes casting a spell that requires an Intelligence saving throw, for example, a much more potent option.
Statistically speaking, it’s safer for your character to dump STR/INT/CHA simply because there are considerably fewer spells and effects that will require them for saving throws. So when you get hit by something that requires one of those three ability scores and you’ve dumped it, it’s probably going to hurt.
It may not be an enormous advantage, but a spell with a less common saving throw ability has at least that perk right out of the gate.
Who You’re Casting the Spell On
Now, your party composition is going to also make a significant difference as to how effective a spell is. For instance, a Fireball will be less effective against a group of high-dexterity characters because they’ll be more likely to make the saving throw on average.
As the DM you should make note of what your party is and isn’t skilled in. Pick a variety of spells to ensure that they’re not simply shrugging off what you planned to be a significant nuke.
Conversely, for players, the type of creatures you’re targeting will also have an effect on how potent your spell is. For example, if you’re slinging a Synaptic Static on a group of beasts, you’re probably going to do pretty well for yourself due to their typically low Intelligence.
Recognizing patterns in different types of creatures will certainly give your spellcaster a leg-up on the competition.
This Also Affects Saving Throw Proficiencies
Every class in D&D 5e has two saving throw proficiencies. Well, some gain a third or more through their archetype or as a feature later on in their class, but regardless every character is going to begin the game with two saving throw proficiencies.
While it’s true that the saving throw proficiencies are tied to the class’ flavor, the decision heavily rests on game balance/design.
Every class has proficiency in one common saving throw ability and one rarely used saving throw ability. Some classes will have better combinations than others, but that design aspect still holds true.
Knowing this also makes judging homebrew classes way easier. Generally speaking, if a class has base proficiency in two common saving throw abilities you can almost guarantee there will be many more issues with the class as you read through it.
Regardless, this class design makes sense. Each character should have a boon for a common saving throw ability.
Giving a character a second proficiency in a common saving throw ability is a powerful feature, and while it’s not out of bounds to eventually give a class an additional one it’s certainly too powerful for a level 1 character.
While every ability score has its purpose and perks in D&D 5e; Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom are by default extremely important to have as a creature or player character. In fact, they’re so important that you should try your hardest to ensure that these are not your character’s lowest ability scores.
That’s easier said than done sometimes, I know. If you have to dump one of them, make sure at least the other two are strong, though to be fair there’s a good chance that that’s going to be the case anyway.
The ability score called for in a spell’s saving throw makes a noticeable impact on a spell’s effectiveness. While the ability score used won’t make or break a spell, it can certainly make a spell more enticing to use if you can cast a spell that requires a common dump stat like Intelligence as opposed to one that requires Dexterity.
The saving throw abilities may not seem like a big deal, but they make a significant impact on how the game is played.
One interesting bit of history: In 3rd edition and 3.5, there were only three saves, Will, Fortitude and Reflex. I’m sure you can all guess what ability scores those were tied to.
It’s also interesting that each of the primary saves has another survivability benefit. Dexterity is a part of almost all AC options (the only exceptions being heavy armor and monster ACs which are basically designer fiat anyways), Con gives hit points, and Wisdom boosts your Survival, Perception, and Insight, which in different ways are the most important skills for avoiding a bad situation before you get into it. Wisdom gets the least benefit, but it’s also part of the monk’s AC option, and its responsible for most of the saves which are most unpleasant (if not always most dangerous) to fail.
Con is so powerful from hit points alone that just that and being a common save are enough to almost guarantee it a number two or three spot in every character build. Though interestingly it’s almost never the number one choice because it’s the only stat which never adds to attack or save DC (except for natural poisons or breath weapons, but those are rare for PCs), and attack bonus and save DC are used even more often than common saves.