Bone Hill & Saving Throws

One thing that struck me when reading Bone Hill was how Lakofka writes about saves. For example, in the description for room BA:

Any person on the ladder below the falling individual will also be knocked off unless a save is made (rolling one’s dexterity or less on a d20).

And then again:

8c: The trapdoor from above is iron reinforced and barred 50% of the time. The trapdoor down to level b is made of iron and is wizard locked. If it is opened for more than 10 seconds it will cause a trap to activate. One person moving rapidly can easily get through before the trap is sprung. A second person must roll Dexterity or lower on a d20 with -2 on the roll, a third save vs. Dexterity with no penalties or modifiers, a fourth save vs. Dexterity at +3, on the roll, and a fifth person will not succeed at all.

What is this save vs. dexterity? Clearly, in the older games, a save is something broader than the mechanic associated with the per-class saving throw table. A save is any kind of check used for a last chance escape. And it has something to do with abilities, at least in this example, but it also has something to do with experience (for saves that use the level-based table in the core rulebooks). Saving throws are explained narratively in many different ways, and this changes based on the ruleset in question. Some samples:

Basic (Moldvay) B26:

A saving throw represents the chance that a special attack may be avoided or will have less than the normal effect.

Expert (Cook/Marsh) X24:

As characters advance in levels of experience, saving throws become easier to make.

2E PHB (page 89):

Saving throws are measures of a character’s resistance to special types of attacks–poisons, magic, and attacks that affect the whole body or mind of the character. The ability to make successful saving throws improves as the character increases in level; Dexterity and general mental fortitude aid in honing combat senses. Experience makes saving throws easier.

Ibid. (page 100):

More often than not, the saving throw represents an instinctive act on the part of the character–diving to the ground just as a fireball scorches the group, blanking the mind just as a mental battle begins; blocking the worst of an acid spray with a shield.

The d20 system uses three saving throws, all based on the capabilities of the character rather than the threat to be avoided; fortitude (modified by constitution), reflex (modified by dexterity), and will (modified by wisdom). From the SRD:

Generally, when you are subject to an unusual or magical attack, you get a saving throw to avoid or reduce the effect. Like an attack roll, a saving throw is a d20 roll plus a bonus based on your class, level, and an ability score.

Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox (page 32):

From time to time, a spell or some other kind of hazard requires you to make a “saving throw.” A successful saving throw means that the character avoids a threat or lessens its effect. Each character class has a saving throw target number which gets lower and lower as the character gains levels.

Labyrinth Lord revised edition (page 54):

All characters and monsters can make”saving throws” to avoid the full effects of spells or certain attacks. Characters and monsters will have a number for a saving throw category, and when affected by a type of spell or attack which requires a saving throw, the player or Labyrinth Lord will roll 1d20.

LotFP uses saves by class and level (the save numbers are included on the experience progression charts), but saves are also adjusted by ability score bonuses and penalties. I couldn’t find a simple description of the idea behind saving throws in the Grindhouse rules, but they seem to be B/X-based with a little d20 SRD flavoring (the ability adjustments).

So: by level, by ability, or by level with ability modifiers? That is the question. And as for most things related to D&D, there is already an extensive conversation about this on Dragonsfoot. After reading Bone Hill, my initial inclination was to do away with the saving throw tables, on the basis that the numbers are a major portion of a character record, and a more minimal character sheet (all other things being equal) is better. One less set of numbers to keep track of. However, one of the posts in that Dragonsfoot thread makes an important point:

This seems like it would create too much of a focus on ability scores, making those with low stats much worse than before and those with high stats better.

I think that is absolutely the main problem with doing away with the saving throw tables. Using an ability-centric mechanic for saves makes abilities more important, and we all know where that leads (bonus inflation, min/maxing, heavier chargen, etc). Also, there is a certain feeling to Dungeons & Dragons, and the saving throws, with all their baroque categories, are part of that. Having a specific save against death rays says something about the expected tone of the game. On the other had, the downside to using level progression saves is the power curve: high level D&D play can sometimes feel like playing superheroes, and while some people might like that, I don’t think most people come to D&D looking for that kind of experience. I suspect (though I am not sure) that that is part of the reason why James Raggi recently wrote that he might do away with the level system if LotFP gets another edition.

After all that comparison and analysis, I will leave you with this: a simple “save vs. dexterity” to partially avoid dragon breath, “save vs. constitution” to survive poison, or “save vs. wisdom” to shake off a charm spell seems mighty attractive. This does, however, make ability scores more important, and I generally dislike that. (This is not an either/or proposition, obviously. The two styles of saves could be blended in various ways and with varying levels of complexity.)

See also the commentary over at Jeff’s Gameblog (the changing set of categories is also interesting, though peripheral to this discussion) and Talysman’s comparison of different approaches here.

5 thoughts on “Bone Hill & Saving Throws

  1. Ian

    Also psionics in Suppliment 3 has its own saving throws associated with it, too.

    Seeing as “throw” literally means a throw of the dice. I interpret saving throw as any roll made to avoid disaster.

  2. RedHobbit

    I’ve always preferred the big 3 Saves in 3rd ed as I had always found the little inconsistencies, say Save vs Wand versus Save vs Spell to be a bit silly. One thing I never considered and which you brought to my attention was that the presence of certain saving throws tells a bit about the gameworld and if there’s one thing I love it’s indirect world building.

    Having a save vs Dragon’s Breath means that not only is Dragon’s breath special than any other kind of voluminous wave of death but that certain classes (fighters as canonical dragon slayers) are better at. Something that Reflex save just doesn’t encompass. Although I have to admit I am quite partial to having a single base save then having modifiers like +2 vs fire, or +1 vs fire resistance or +3 vs blaspheme which is all dependent on your race, class, and gear. Something like what Malcadon suggested here:

    Enlightening article.

    1. Brendan

      Spells has always connoted general magic power to me (like charm person) whereas wands is for something more physical (dodging or absorbing lightning bolts). But I agree it is ambiguous and not very well defined.

      I think that one save plus mods is more or less what Swords & Wizardry does (though the mods are not very flavorful, they could be). Practically speaking though, all those mods are a lot of info for the player to communicate to the referee or vice versa. To make it workable, you probably need a somewhat formalized schema such as the damage types in 3E and 4E (elemental fire, necrotic, shadow, radiant, etc).

    2. RedHobbit

      Very true, while I like the idea I’d be a bit hesitant to apply it to a game since there’s a lot of legwork to be done. Elemental types like you mentioned, perhaps spell categories like mind affecting or more specific like enchantment and various other things that you wouldn’t immediately think of in game terms. It wouldn’t be very helpful for your cleric to have +2 vs blaspheme if such a thing isn’t present or mentioned in the rules.


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