Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saving Throws, part 1

So I've decided it's time for some more cross-edition analysis like I did with starting gold & equipment or bigass monsters. This time I'm looking at saving throws. I've been thinking about doing one or more posts on saves for a while, but it was comparing 1st edition Oriental Adventures to Mike Davison's Ruins & Ronin that finally got me to set to work on it. One of my minor nitpicks with Ruins & Ronin and the Swords & Wizardry rules that it supplements is the single saving throw they employ. You could easily construct an argument that the D&D saving throw system makes no sense whatsoever, but that doesn't mean I'm prepared to reject it without looking at what the present system actually does. Today I'm going to start this analysis with simply listing the categories of save for each edition that I have within reach as I type this.

Death Ray or Poison
All Wands -- Including Polymorph or Paralization [sic]
Dragon Breath
Staves & Spells

Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic
Petrification or Polymorph
Rod, Staff or Wand
Breath Weapon

Holmes Basic
Spell or Magic Staff
Magic Wand
Death Ray or Poison
Turned to Stone
Dragon Breath

Moldvay Basic & Cook/Marsh Expert
Death Ray or Poison
Magic Wands
Paralysis or Turn to Stone
Dragon Breath
Rods, Staves or Spells

Rules Cyclopedia
Death Ray/Poison
Magic Wands
Paralysis/Turn to Stone
Breath Attack

HackMaster 4th
Paralyzation, Poison, Death Magic
Rod, Staff, or Wand
Petrification, HackFrenzy, HackLust, Polymorph
Breath Weapon

Labyrinth Lord
Breath Attacks
Poison or Death
Petrify or Paralyze
Spells or Spell-like Devices

Basic Fantasy
Death Ray or Poison
Magic Wands
Paralysis of Poison
Dragon Breath

  • One of the interesting things I see here is how the various categories evolve, couple, and de-couple. Poison and Death/Death Magic/Death Ray are always the same category of save, but Wands may or not have anything to do with Staff.
  • I could totally see an OD&D referee using the Stone category for non-petrification attacks. "You hit a tripwire and several blocks of granite fall from the ceiling, save versus Stone or take 3d6 damage." And you could use the ODD Staves category for Robin Hood-style quarterstaff throwdowns, maybe a save versus Staves to avoid tripping or being knocked out.
  • Death Magic is okay, save verus just plain Death is widely applicable (a fact I exploit in my Labyrinth Lord house rules), but nothing beats making people save versus Death Rays.
  • A saving category called Dragon Breath implies that non-draconic breath weapons don't allow a save unless specifically indicated. This is a special case of the broader principal that may or may not inform your own game. I tend to assume that the category names Mean Something, in that if an attack form doesn't obviously fall under one or more category on the chart then the implication is that a save isn't allowed.
  • In most editions Wands are the second save listed, but AD&D they're third. This matters when I run because of a rule of thumb I use. Some attacks fall under mutliple possible saves. Like a dragon breath attack that is poison gas or a wand of paralyzation. Sometimes the monster/item/whatever description tells you what to save against, but sometimes it doesn't. In the latter case I give precendence to saves listed earlier on the chart. So a Staff of the Gorgon (which I just made up) would use the Petrification column. I'm pretty sure I read this rule somewhere years ago, maybe an old Sage Advice? I dunno.
  • Man, HackMaster is weird.


  1. I'm used to seeing the saves apply broadly; doesn't the example dungeon in Mentzer's Basic uses a save vs. wands to avoid a blade trap? At any rate, we always allowed some kind of save unless the situation was specifically called out as not allowing saves. E.g. energy drain from undead

  2. In the latter case I give precendence to saves listed earlier on the chart.... I'm pretty sure I read this rule somewhere years ago, maybe an old Sage Advice? I dunno.I remember that too. I think it was canonical during the 2e era.

    Also, every edition should have a Save vs. Apology.

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  4. This is very useful. I've been trying to figure out what to do about saves in my S&W game; one universal save is pretty good for newbies/speed but at some point I want something a little more sophisticated. Trouble with that was, I only had the vaguest idea of how D&D handles things. So this is pretty handy, seeing it all laid out like this.

    I'll admit, though, that I'm considering adding a "radiation" save. Not so much with the purity.

  5. Saving throws are one of those systems in all version of D&D that I'm just not that happy with (even in Moldvay!). I just don't like the categories "as is".

    Maybe I'll go with something like just using: death; traps; magic - and having each modified by a separate ability score (Con, Dex, Wis) and racial bonus (Dwarf, Hobbit, Elf) or even class (Cleric, Fighter/Thief, Wizard). Not sure about Breath Weapons though... maybe that's like the hardest save because it combines elements of death, trap + magic?

    Anyway - yeah, saving throws are one of the sysetms I'm going to change. :)

  6. I use saves for each stat, plus one more that's pure luck. Getting turned to stone might require different saves depending on what the source was: Dex save to avoid the cockatrice's tail, Con save to avoid succumbing to the Krag Spider's poison, or maybe just Luck save to avoid the basilisk's gaze. I'm not sure that it's any better or worse than the traditional D&D categories, but I'm more comfortable with making on-the-fly rulings based on it, and that's what counts.

  7. On the whole, I prefer the idea of a single "saving throw" as a broad category with narrower subcategories stemming from it, rather than several discrete "saving throws". I have had cause to analyse some of the numbers in the past, so will be following this series with interest.

  8. Guess I'm the "lazy" bastard of this bunch! I've been fine with saves the way they are in each incarnation of the game I've been running and playing for the last 29+ years....

  9. I've become partial to 4th Ed's "Defenses." In a way defenses are the exact opposite of saves, but I really like how they are consistent with AC.

    My only problem is that 4th's Defenses become passive. No longer does your half elven thief narrowly avoid the pit trap, no the trap misses your elf. There is something just not as satisfying in that. Perhaps it's time to come up with a system where AC is a "save" rather than Saves being "Defenses".

  10. i like your blog its just like mine

  11. Settembrini3:45 AM

    I´m a full-blown 3tard in regards to saving throws. Those categories make sense to me, and allow easier ad-hoc rulings than the older saving throws. That said, I always map older saving-throw arrays to attributes a la 3E, so I can ad-hoc them without changing my preconceptions.

  12. I'm with Settembrini when it comes to saves: Fort, Ref and Will just make sense to me on an intuitive level; wands and/or spells as distinct from the effects they create is a "wuh?" moment.

    That said, "save vs. Death" is just kewl.

  13. Settembrini8:07 AM

    My favorite 3e Rules is the one that grants you "Evasion" when hiding behind cover. That´s mechanically evolved & improved Gygaxian Naturalism "in your face" on several different levels.

    I wish there was stuff for Fort and Will saves of that ilk, too. In fact, if a player comes up with a quick thinking reaction, I ad-hoc such stuff. Roleplaying a saving throw is awesome. just think of the petrification gaze attack special rules == the shizzles!

  14. As much as I dislike 3rd edition, the Fort/Reflex/Will save makes much more sense to me than any of the other groupings - Settembrini said, it just makes logical sense and is easier to adjudicate on the fly. It's one of the only things I like to port into my older edition games.

  15. I'll have to agree with MJ Harnish on this one. Saving Throws never made any sense to me as they were laid out. What the heck is the difference between a Wand, a Staff and a Rod that causes you to avoid or resist them differently? For that matter don't they release spells? Why are they seperate from spells? Image a Staff of Green Dragon Breath - do I save vs. Staff, Breath Weapon or Poison?? Bleh.

    Avoid by shaking it off if physical, avoid by dodging if its coming at you or avoid by resisting if its mental is all that's needed. Fort/Reflex/Will. Everything else is, to me, one more way D&D makes itself less accessible and causes you to look up a chart again and again. Not for me.

    Barking Alien

  16. It's a impossible cause to make sense of old D&D saves. It was built upon step by step in the original miniatures battles and trying to sort it out wont work, since there is no method to sort out!

    I see two possible ways to handle saves and have them make sense.

    1. have a bunch of saves, and base each off a different stat.

    3. go the 3rd ed way and grab a few general cases, like ref/fort/will

    I vastly prefer the 3rd ed way.

    Or, just play the old ones as is and don't try to make sense of it. :)

  17. Does something need sense if it just "works"?

    Anyway, I also like d20 saves. But the old-school ones are just fine.

    Wands going separate adds the flavor that they are weaker magic.

  18. Settembrini12:53 PM

    A fine point, Santiago! The actual save progression, that´s where the secret is buried!

    OK, the Jury is still out on that one it seems. Eagerly awaiting installment No. 2.

  19. Anonymous2:47 PM

    I've never played the single Save approach of OD&D until now in S&W White Box. I love it.

    There's always going to be at least some arbitrariness and overlap with any system (though admittedly some are better than others in this regard) but the single Save scheme avoids that all.

  20. I also think that the 3 saving throws first seen in 3E are the best implementation. It make adjucating on the fly a snap, and think that porting it to an old school system would be fairly trivial.

  21. I find it odd that you interpret saving throws to mean that if it's not listed, you don't get one. I always interpreted it as, if it's not listed, then you don't NEED one. The attack hits, or it don't. If there's a saving throw listed, it's because the attack was so dangerous that even if it missed, you can still die from the splashback.

  22. I posted my comments here:

  23. I'm a big fan of the way that Castles and Crusades does it...I know that it ties loosely to their "SIEGE" system, but the idea that attributes are tied directly to "saves" just makes sense. (jamused had the same suggestion)

    I also like the idea of a single saving throw that is modified by stats in any given situation.

    Example: Trapped under a statue....make a save and add strength bonus. Avoid the scything blade trap...make a save and add dex bonus. This also places a little more emphasis on strong attributes, for better or worse.

  24. Fully agree with you, Dude.

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  26. I also commented @


  27. Hmm. Taking a closer look . . .

    Although AD&D 1st Edition places "Petrification or Polymorph" before "Rod, Staff, or Wand" on the list, the footnotes on the table (p.79 of the DMG) indicate that polymoprh wand attacks do not use the Petrification or Polymorph column (and thus implicitly that they use the Rod/Staff/Wand column).

    So, original AD&D had the same precedence as given by using the OD&D, Moldvay, or Rules Cyclopedia lists in order.

    AD&D 2nd Edition moves the columns so that "Rod, Staff, or Wand" appears before "Petrification or Polymorph", giving the same order as OD&D/Moldvay/Rules Cyclopedia, and reprints the 1st Edition footnotes.