Saving Throws Solve Many Problems With Hit Points
As long as you are at least willing to grant some degree of abstraction to combat and hazards, saving throws can mitigate some of the edge case problems inherent with hit points. 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 perhaps 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).
- Robert Fisher: Classic D&D Injury Table
- Trollsmyth: Playing with Death & Dismemberment
- Delta: Critical Hits
If you are 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.
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.
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.
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]
- 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.