Why I Love Saving Throws

1. Saving throws solve all the problems with hit points.

Yes, all of them. As long as you are at least willing to grant some degree of abstraction to combat and hazards. Are you put off by the idea of high level characters being able to jump off of towers without fear because they know they have the HP to absorb any damage? In my game, a high fall is a saving throw versus stone (failure meaning death) rather than HP damage. Saving throws (coupled with critical hit tables) are even the best way to model serious injuries (allow a save versus critical hit when HP drops to zero or whenever your system of choice would threaten an injury).

Some examples:

In answer to the predictable genre response: if you’re playing a wuxia or superhero game maybe you want players to be able to do that HP calculation for jumping off towers. Here, I’m interested in a more human scale. Being able to not worry about falling requires something wondrous, like a levitation or fly spell.

2. Progress without certainty.

The essence of the traditional saving throw is progression with level. What this means is that better saving throws are a reward for surviving a long time. However, even if your saving throw is really good (down in the single digits), there is still a nontrivial chance of failure, and failing a saving throw is often fatal. The best saving throw value in Men & Magic is granted to high level clerics (saving against death rays or poison is 3). But that’s still a 10 percent chance of failure. Are those good odds for a character which may have multiple real world years of history? Thus, it is almost always a good idea to avoid recourse to the save, so skilled play is always rewarded. This is in contrast to fate point mechanics, or even hit points, which serve as a quantifiable buffer before there is any real danger.

3. Proactivity.

Saving throws are proactive in the sense that they are something the player does. They get to do something in order to avoid some potential bad outcome. This is mostly psychological (as the math of a passive defense and an active save might be the same), but psychological does not mean unimportant. For example, in Fourth Edition, attacking a PC’s reflex defense is something the referee does. Whereas in earlier games, the player gets to make a save versus wands or a reflex save. This is also good design, because the referee has enough dice to roll without rolling the player’s saves too.

4. Atmosphere.

This is a minor point compared to the others (which in my opinion are critical to traditional Dungeons & Dragons), but it is still worth mentioning. The saving throw categories in original D&D are:

  • Death Ray or Poison
  • All Wands – Including Polymorph or Paralization [sic]
  • Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Staves & Spells
This communicates a tremendous amount of information about the setting and the challenges that are present. If these categories don’t match the challenges that characters are likely to face in your campaign, I would recommend changing them. In fact, that would be an excellent way to customize the game. Consider for example a hypothetical game set in mythological China with a save versus bureaucracy. Or the save categories in Mutant Future: energy attacks, poison or death, stun attacks, and radiation.

11 thoughts on “Why I Love Saving Throws

  1. Anthony Casaldi

    So what if hit points were just equal to your CON score and every class had an defense save that increased with level and before they took any damage they got to roll their defense save? I guess that doesn’t much look like D&D. I’m definitely in the camp of high-level HP totals take out any element of danger and would like to find a viable solution.

    1. Brendan

      That’s not a bad variation. Constitution as starting HP is still a bit high for me (expected value, assuming 3d6, is 10.5, which is approximately equivalent to a third level character in an unmodified game). But that’s sort of a separate concern and could easily be adjusted.

      I have also idly been toying with the idea of armor as a save, which is sort of a similar idea. Plate = 5, chain = 10, leather = 15, shield = bonus of 2. Or something. This is not something I think I would use any time soon, but it is interesting to consider.

      I’ve recently been playing OD&D, and the high level HP totals are much more reasonable. Expected HP for a 9th level fighter with exceptional constitution is 43.5 (34.5 with average constitution), and the fighter is the toughest class with regard to HP. So the totals are much more grounded.

    2. Anthony Casaldi

      The armor as save system sounds interesting and workable. I guess part of the problem with that system is It locks every player in to buying plate if they want the best save. I think an allowance for exceptional dexterity would have to be made for the sake of some variety. Plus I tend to hew closer to Conan so I’d want some benefit for characters who don’t wear armor, a la Epees & Sorcellerie’s armor system.

    3. jackstoolbox

      “I’d want some benefit for characters who don’t wear armor”

      I think that’s a key point to make. As it stands, characters are “locked in” to buying plate if they want the best AC, except for the benefits and penalties associated with various armors (and the fact that non-armor bonuses contribute to AC). That being said, it at least feels weird that you would associate penalties with a good Save; that’s not the case in any other situation, is it?

    4. Brendan

      I think the best way to make different kinds of armor viable is to be thorough about applying encumbrance and other armor penalties. Otherwise, plate armor is unproblematically better and players who can afford it and look at the numbers will choose it.

    5. ClawCarver

      Yes, movement rate is the big drawback of plate mail armour. Two sessions ago in my campaign there was a near-TPK. Two PCs and a bunch of retainers in plate were slaughtered by hobgoblins. The only survivors were the thief PC and his dog, because they could run faster.

  2. jackstoolbox

    “Saving throws solve all the problems with hit points.”

    I tentatively agree. I’ve been thinking about hit points a lot lately, and the more I do the more I feel that HP models some things well but has non-trivial holes (ie, minor damage, specific injury, and serious wounds). I don’t think there’s a problem with using HP as-is because more-complex systems (which would fill those holes) become more difficult to work at the table. An elegant Saves mechanic, though, seems to give a lot of return for a relatively small investment.

  3. Tony Demetriou

    In a no-resurrections-setting, I dislike “save or die” mechanics in most cases. But similarly, the PCs shouldn’t be jumping off towers without an appropriate risk.

    I’m a fan of “save or something-bad-happens” though. And “save-or-die-with-warning”
    i.e. before jumping off the tower, the DM can say “Whoa, the tower is like a hundred feet high. If you fall, the PC will die. Do you want to reconsider?” – and the player should be able to avoid the save-or-die option.

    If the player can’t avoid the option, they should be able to do a save-or-something-bad. If the tower was crumbling, and they’re going to fall either way. They can either jump or fall, so they have to make a save, it shouldn’t be save-or-die. It CAN be save-or-break-both-your-legs, and then they can have adventures where the other party members are trying to drag the PC on a makeshift litter, while the PC tries to contribute as best they can in their injured state. And, at some point, the PC can recover from the injuries in one form or another.

    But maybe I’m just a softy, and I don’t like taking away a beloved character because of a bad dice roll, if the player didn’t explicitly choose to make a choice that clearly risked their character. (Assuming they weren’t told that it was going to be a high-risk, death-heavy game from the start.)

    That said, I fully agree with the article, & the comments about how saving throws can be really good. That’s pretty much how we run games at our table, with hitpoints being rare, and valuable (you only get seven, and the more you’ve lost the *slower* they return) – where most actions result in a skill roll. Failure might lead directly to a consequence (broken arm, falling into the mud, dropping your iphone), or might lead to loosing some of those few valuable hitpoints. It seems to work well, and gives us a good way to roll a larger range of skills. And, psychologically, makes the players feel like their dice rolls controlled the outcomes.

    1. Brendan

      I’m a big proponent of making trade-offs clear, sometimes to the extent of telling players probabilities directly. For example: if you go near the waterfall, you will have a 2 in 6 chance of slipping on the wet and slimy rocks. While this might break immersion for some people, I think it is reasonable given the limitations of verbal description (i.e., PCs are likely to have a better sense of their environment than players ever could). I also always include clues for deadly traps (this is, after all, a game).

      That being said, I don’t think it is necessary to explicitly connect the warning to the hazard. Making that connection is part of the point of the game, to me. Example: the chamber is filled with lifelike statues in seemingly random positions is enough. I don’t feel the need to say: there is a medusa beyond, are you sure you would like to proceed?

      Communication, is, of course, very important. If you want to run a high-risk, permanent consequences game you should make sure your players know. Presuming that high-risk is also death-heavy assumes your players are not skilled though, so I would never say that.


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