Saturday, April 13, 2013

On saving throws

The most popular article I've ever written on this blog is Save vs. Death Ray!. I love the fact that OD&D and the B/X line of Dungeons & Dragons had that saving throw category. But I've actually come to like Swords & Wizardry's single unified saving throw despite that.

What was important about saving throws in every TSR edition of D&D, and what's been copied along in most of the OSR games, is that characters improve their saving throws in absolute terms as they increase in level. A 9th level fighter is more likely to save versus any spell than a 1st level fighter. This is a significant factor in how TSR editions of Dungeons & Dragons made spellcasters less dominant. When the same spells were given in 3.x D&D, but with saves that get harder based on caster level, it made them more powerful. This was a serious design flaw, which helped contribute to casters being overpowered.

But the real reason I like S&W's saving throw is that it provides a good analog for the saving roll from Tunnels & Trolls. T&T had the unified saving throw 33 years before S&W did, although it was one based on the character's luck stat rather than their class and level, and it served as a handy roll for anything the referee or module designer felt was needed. While this isn't quite a universal mechanic, it's simple and flexible and good for many things other than dragon breath and death rays.

For instance, a saving throw with a Strength bonus may be used for when a PC is trying to hang on to a bar or ledge, while one with a Dexterity bonus could be used as a quick dodge roll. A particularly bad idea may call for a saving throw adjusted by Wisdom if the referee wants to be particularly kind. In more traditional D&D I've tried using the 5-category saving throws like this, but players get very antsy when you tell them to save versus dragon breath, and it loses the novelty after the second or third time. Other than dragon breath and death ray they don't generalize well and don't allow for enough interesting use cases, where a catch-all saving throw allows a blank canvas to invent uses.

Of course, some people and games like the Luck stat that T&T has, and I can't really blame them. But I think S&W's single save has more potential the longer I think about it.


  1. There's actually a paragraph in the 5th edition section on Saving Roll that explicitly suggests subbing in different attributes for LK depending on the circumstances of the Saving Roll. (And I think the bit in the combat rules about the hobbit hamstringing the giant assumes a DX Saving Roll, but I'd have to find my rulebook.) The solo adventures from the time did a lot of this subbing as well, so I think it was more or less a universal mechanic by 1979.

    1. I think you're right, it's just been a few years since I read T&T. I still think I prefer using S&W saving throws with various modifiers, the stat-based way in T&T was never quite right for me.

  2. I think there is a spectrum between saving throws that are entirely based on level (as the traditional ones were, functioning as a reward for skillful play) and saving throws that are entirely based on ability score (representing concrete character competence, making a low level wizard with high intelligence more likely to resist a spell than a high level wizard with low intelligence). The 3E system is a hybrid, using a level based target number that is adjusted by ability score.

    From a game point of view, the level approach has some important benefits, if you randomly determine ability scores. For example, if a constitution saving throw can vary between 3 and 18 totally apart from what the player does, is it fair to make a save versus poison (all that stands between a PC and death) a straight ability score save? Probably not.

  3. The problem with this is that S&W has no attribute bonus tables, and one would have to either use something like the universal attribute bonuses from B/X or make up your own system, say by using the Strength To-Hit Modifier as the generic attribute bonus. Or maybe just a +1 on any attribute over 12 and -1 on any attribute under 9.

  4. Saves versus 3.x spells were based on the level of the spell plus the caster related ability modifier so not strictly level based. The single save of S&W works well for introducing different save types as they come up without having to worry about a jillion other rules.


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