Saving Throws have been around since the beginning of the hobby. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re always easy to understand. Sometimes it can be difficult to know when to call for a particular Saving Throw, especially in some older systems. Does a “Save vs. Spells” work for every spell? Can a “Save vs. Dragon Breath” be used to jump out of the way of an arrow trap?
The purpose of this column is not to answer those kinds of questions. Rather, it is to look at Saving Throws in general. We’ll look at three mechanical approaches to Saving Throws, not advocating any one over the others. Hopefully, this will be of interest for gamemasters (GM’s) who wish to homebrew their own systems or hack an existing one. For others, it may simply spur some thought and discussion on Saving Throws in your favorite system.
(For a more detailed look at Saving Throws at the beginning of the hobby, I recommend listening to a recent episode of the SaveOrDie podcast. You can find it here.)
DEFINING SAVING THROWS
For this article, we’ll consider Saving Throws to be mechanics whose purpose is to help player characters (PC’s) avoid damage, death, or other consequences. Their main function is to allow the PC’s to remain alive and in the game. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences or damage: just that they aren’t harsh enough to end the session for that PC. Generally, Saving Throws are reaction rolls, called for by the GM after something else has happened. They aren’t declared at the beginning of a turn. They may be called for after an opponent has hit a PC in combat, after a trap has been sprung, or after a spell or device has been aimed your way.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive, academic definition, just a working definition for what follows.
NO SAVING THROWS
Not every system has saving throws. For example, in combat you might roll to hit, then your opponent rolls to hit. That’s it. Armor may soak up some of the damage, but you have no other way to avoid it after the fact. When crossing a room with a trap, the GM might simply roll to see if the trap hits you, or use your action roll (“I’m walking slowly and gingerly across the room”) to determine the outcome. For spells and devices, the opponent or GM may roll to determine if you take damage or have other effects.
This approach may be more dangerous and deadly for PC’s, as there is no “last ditch” way to avoid problems. This may encourage players to be more careful in dangerous situations (which is just about every situation in some games). The main advantage of this approach is simplicity. Every situation is resolved in the same way. This is good for simple systems (like RISUS) and games that you don’t run very often. I use something similar for my homebrew system which I only run a few times a year. It’s easy to remember and adjudicate.
STATIC SAVING THROWS
Rolling to avoid every possible setback can take a lot of time. For example, some systems have a “Dodge” mechanic that’s rolled every combat round. This can really bog down combat situations (WEG Star Wars, I’m looking at you). To reduce die rolls, some systems adopt a static save, an unchanging, unrolled number that opponents try to beat. Armor class might be considered a form of STATIC SAVING THROW. Dexterity or reaction bonuses are usually factored in, simulating characters’ ability to get out of the way of blows. In games where spellcasters have to roll for their combat spells, a static magical defense might be used. The GM would roll to see if traps or defensive systems hit as well.
This variation isn’t much more complex than the NO SAVING THROWS option. However, it allows characters’ abilities to play a roll in avoiding damage. They may improve their defenses as they progress in experience. One disadvantage of this system is that some players prefer to roll these defensive rolls themselves.
ROLLED SAVING THROWS
Traditionally, Saving Throws are dice rolls called for as a reaction to possible damage. After it has been determined that some form of attack (mundane or magically) has hit, or that a trap has been sprung, the dice hit the table. A ROLLED SAVING THROW does provide more player control over the outcome. It also adds to the suspense of the game. It may prevent arguments because players were at least given a chance to avoid damage or an effect. The original intent may have been to prevent spellcasters or psionic characters from being too powerful.
However, more dice rolls can slow down play. This is especially true in combat if you have a “to hit” roll, followed by a “dodge” roll, followed by a “soak” roll, etc… Some games take a hybrid approach using an “armor class” or “defense” target number to speed up combat. In those systems, Saving Throws are reserved more for spells and traps.
Saving Throws have evolved over the years, and different games take different approaches. Some games use separate statistics like “Reaction” or “Will”, while others simply use skill or ability rolls. If you plan on homebrewing or hacking a system, you’ll have to consider how to handle Saving Throws. Would you prefer lots of rolls, static defense numbers, or some mixture of both? It’s probably best to keep it as simple and standardized as possible, but that’s certainly not your only option.
How about you? What version of saving throws do you prefer? What other options are available? Do you like them at all? Let us know below.
I like using rolled saving throws. They preserve the heroic, whew-that-was-close nature of the game. Saves should be kept relatively infrequent and simple, though, so the game doesn’t get bogged down in dice rolling.
In this regard I like the change D&D made as of its third edition. The classic set of 5 saving throw types introduced decades earlier had several confusing overlaps. For example, what if a spell causes petrification? What if a dragon’s breath is poison? It replaced those with three types of saves based on how a character avoids harm: Fortitude (resist it physically), Reflex (dodge the worst of it), and Will (resist it mentally).
Thanks Blackjack. I still play old school D&D, so have to often make a judgement call on which one is best. 5E streamlines it even more, simply linking it to the six attributes. Though 5E is still a little bulkier of a system than I like to run. Might just be familiarity.
Comment on the article:
I think no saving throws are good for game where no major differences is expected between the PCs and NPCs in term of their abilities to resist attack, spells, charms, magic and etc. The PCs and NPCs have no inherent resistance strengths and weaknesses.
Indeed, not using saving throws ignore the PC special abilities, attributes and skills; the PCs and NPCs resistance is the same for all threat. This could be frustrating ins some circumstances and break the consistency of the game world in others.
For example, using the same target number for a charm person spell on both the warrior and the illusionist and the mind flayer may seem unfair for the illusionist player (and seem weird for the mind flayer) but also break the expected consistency of the game world which would expect the illusionist and the mind flayer to be better at dodging mind affecting spell.
A good example would be a 1930s mythos investigation game for which all investigators would fare equally poorly against the various eldritch horrors.
Static saves reduce dice rolling but allow for differences between both PCs and NPCs, the latter however does increase the GM burdens to produce extra statistics for the NPCs. However, they are far more efficient at keeping up between PCs and NPCs with wildly different strengths and weaknesses as discussed above.
Comment for the gnome stew:
I really like the diving into design and mechanic articles but I think they should be more critical of the considered design strengths and weaknesses. Some designs are simply poor and/or effective in very specific circumstances.