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The description of the burning disarm spell says:

This spell causes a metal object to instantly become red hot. A creature holding the item may attempt a Reflex save to drop it and take no damage (even if it is not their turn), otherwise the hot metal deals 1d4 points of fire damage per caster level (maximum 5d4).

Is the Reflex save automatic, or can the target decide to hold on to the red-hot weapon?

The word may there seems to imply that the target has a choice, but it's a bit ambiguous.

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The creature that's holding the object that's the target of the spell burning disarm does have a choice

The creature holding the object affected by the spell burning disarm can either...

  • Choose to make a saving throw against the spell burning disarm.
    • Success means the creature drops the object targeted by the spell right now and the creature isn't dealt damage. Normally, a creature can only take free actions (except speaking) when it's the creature's turn. Success on this saving throw allows the creature to drop the targeted object even when it's not the creature's turn. (Such an act usually takes a free action.)
    • Failure means the creature retains its grip on the targeted object and is dealt damage.

...or...

  • Choose not to make a saving throw against the spell burning disarm. The creature retains its grip on the targeted object and is dealt damage.

Although it seems strange to succeed on a saving throw to drop the targeted object, doing so when the object's affected by the spell burning disarm spares the creature holding the object damage from the spell. Usually, avoiding damage is a good thing; in this case, however, being disarmed may be worse, so the spell allows the victim a choice, albeit a sort of Hobson's choice.

Neither failing the saving throw nor choosing not to make a saving throw prevents the creature from dropping the object normally on the creature's turn. (Bear in mind, though, that the duration of burning disarm is instantaneous, so there's no reason to drop the object subsequently unless fearing further burning disarm spells.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I always understood the spell in a way that by choosing to make the save you drop the weapon and the save is just to see if you drop it quick enough to not suffer damage. Are you sure that a successful save lets you retain the weapon? \$\endgroup\$ – Umbranus Dec 23 '16 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Umbranus The spell says A creature holding the item may attempt a Reflex save to drop it and take no damage…, otherwise the hot metal deals… fire damage… so the spell doesn't detail the exact effects of a failed saving throw attempt, I went with the more generous reading because I believe failing a saving throw shouldn't yield a worse (nor should it probably even yield a different) result than voluntarily giving up the saving throw! \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Dec 23 '16 at 16:18
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A character can always forgo a saving throw, as per the Magic Section(Saving Throw sub-section) of the Core Rule Book.

Voluntarily Giving up a Saving Throw: A creature can voluntarily forego a saving throw and willingly accept a spell's result. Even a character with a special resistance to magic can suppress this quality.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While this is accurate, it only tangentially addresses this question. The may applies to choosing to make the saving throw, not choosing to give up the saving throw. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 25 '15 at 16:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Choosing to not make a saving throw and choosing to give up the saving throw are the same thing. In both cases the target chooses to take the damage and not try to drop the weapon. \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage Aug 25 '15 at 21:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GreySage While the outcome is the same, the choice isn't. In this case, a rare opportunity is given either to not make the saving throw at all (which means, for example, effects that trigger on your next saving throw, like the penalty imposed by the spell limited wish, aren't triggered) or to make a saving throw, which can then, subsequently, be given up or made normally. It's a hair-splitting difference, but it's a difference that can have some game impact. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 25 '15 at 22:07

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