A Single Saving Throw

Save v. Dragon BreathIncreasingly, I’ve noticed that new games being written in the OSR style have only a single saving throw. The GM doesn’t ask you to make “Your save against breath/poison/spells/et al,” because it’s all covered by a single target number. And after seeing this three or four times, and trying it myself once, I’ve begun to wonder what value there is in dividing the saves up in the first place.

Multiple saves are certainly more flavorful and more granular, but what benefits does that bring? Half the time I call for a save, I feel as though the flavorful name of the save has absolutely nothing to do with the thing being saved against. The save versus breath (sometimes called “breath weapon,” or in the ancient texts, as the save versus “Dragon Breath,”) is used to avoid a danger which quickly fills a large space, and typically results in half damage on a successful save. Aside from a dragon’s fiery breath, it might be used to avoid a volley of crossbow bolts set off by a trap, scatter-shot from a cannon, hot oil being dropped from the parapets of a wall, or many dozens of other things. In fact, the majority of things it will be used to save against will not be breath weapons. And don’t even get me started on Paralization, I don’t think I’ve ever had cause to call for that save when its name was actually relevant.

Saves against poison and spells are a little better, but the fact remains that some of the saves are so completely disassociated from their original purpose that their names have become anachronistic. But, perhaps it is important for each class to have some things it is good at saving against, and some things it is bad at saving against. Perhaps granularity is the reason for the system’s longevity. But, if it is, can someone please explain to me the logic which dictates what makes a given class good or bad at saving against something?

Why do wizards have a save of 13 v. poison, but 12 v. paralization? What makes clerics better at avoiding being turned to stone than everybody else? Some of these decisions seem more logical than others, of course. Wands having a lower save than Spells is cool, because it means a magical device will never truly live up to the power of a real caster. But, by and large, these decisions seem arbitrary.

Furthermore, I feel I must mention the amount of bookkeeping involved in having a multitude of saves for each character. When I’m making a new character, I need to record a number of my HP, a number for my AC, and far too many numbers for my saves–which will come into play far less often than the previous two numbers will. And the way they advance is so arbitrary that, for many characters, finding out what your new saves are might be the only reason you ever need to consult the book after creating your character. HP progresses according to your hit dice, AC progresses according to the armor you find, and saves progress a random amount at random levels. When I’m playing a rules-light game, nothing but spells cause me to reach for my books more frequently than saves do.

So I must ask: is there any good reason not to use only a single save for each class?

(As an aside, I should point out that if flavor and granularity are so very important, why not use Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder? The flavor for these saves is more broadly applicable, and they offer a reasonable amount of granularity with an easy-to-understand logic behind it. )

Edit: Some relevant reading:



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25 thoughts on “A Single Saving Throw”

  1. D&D “next” (and Dungeon World, for that matter) just make you roll the relevant ability modifier.
    For OSR, why not consider using 3d6 or 1d20, rolling under the ability?
    It is important to define the difference between effects that call for a INT, WIS or CHA save, but otherwise it should be fine.

    Then again, I’m not sure how pronounced is the save advancement, or if there’s ability advancement for OSR characters (I’m guessing there isn’t).

    1. Saves tend to advance significantly in an OSR style game, while most typically stats will remain unchanged unless the character encounters something exceptional.

      A 1d20 roll under for the save also offers a much greater chance of success than most starting saves do. A starter save might be 16, offering a 20% chance of success. An average ability score is 10 or 11, offering a roughly 50% chance of success.

      I wouldn’t be opposed to a game which used the ability scores as saves–but there’s some significant differences which I think makes it a less than ideal design choice.

  2. I think for me, it’s not about logic at all. It’s about the flavor of having multiple save categories and different classes being better at different types of saves.

    Clerics in general are a little better at most saves because of divine intervention, maybe? Fighters start out fairly average, but get better a lot faster because of their toughness and fine tuned combat senses as they go up in levels. I was never really bothered about WHY certain classes are better at certain saves, but the granularity and differences between classes certainly add a bit of variety and make the classes feel different.

    And really, looking up and copying five numbers from a chart onto a character sheet once every few levels is NOT a lot of work.

    As for 3E’s three saves system, it’s alright. It turns the focus away from what’s causing the save to the character’s abilities. However, the standardized advancement progression across all classes (either fast or slow) gives less variety.

    From what little experience I have actually playing with the single save, I think more is lost in terms of flavor than is made up for in simplicity of just calling for a save. Most classes have set bonuses to certain classes of saves (poison, spells, etc.), and it forces the players and DM to negotiate when the bonuses might apply, and adds a bit more [granted, very simple] math to the operation.

    In my Labyrinth Lord games, or when I run Classic D&D, if there’s a call for “save vs. X” we can just look right at the numbers we need then roll and know if we succeed or fail. With the single save, it was “make a save” followed by rolling, a slight pause, then a pass, fail, or sometimes “I pass if it’s against X or Y, otherwise I fail.”

    A single save may seem more elegant, but in practice I’ve found that it usually is multiple saves disguised as a single save. Also, the numbers in S&W at least seem to be based on the worst save possible, making characters a lot less likely to succeed. So I’m not so fond of the single save.

    1. You’re right that it makes the classes feel different, and there is *some* reasoning in play. I guess I just don’t think any of that is really worth the annoyances.

      And there’s no reason the classes need to feel the same with their saves. Personally, I’d have Rogues save on a 14, fighters on a 15, clerics on a 16 and magic users on a 17. Or some permutation thereof.

      You’re right that in single save systems, there are often specific bonuses which require some arbitration. However, most games with multiple saves ALSO have this. Dwarfs have bonuses against enchantments, or the like.

      1. Growing up playing Classic D&D, where Elf, Dwarf and Halfling are class options, I never had to worry about that. Only when we (rarely) played AD&D did it come up. And these days, we mostly play LL so it’s just like Classic in that regard.

        You’re right, though, it’s definitely more complex for certain versions of the game than others, and often the complexity is not worth the hassle.

  3. I think one save is too coarse.

    From my experience with Pathfinder, I think the division of saves into Fortitude/Reflex/Will is fine. It’s almost always grokkable which one to use. It’s also nice that they’re linked to different stats; high Dexterity lets you more effectively dodge while high Constitution lets you gird your loins against a poison. I think 4e actually took this a bit further, merging Fortitude with CMD.

    What I prefer to this is the Fate Core system, where skills are rolled both actively and reactively. Your Athletics score can be used to climb a wall as well as to dodge a fireball. Then you don’t need to look up the tables at all.

    1. @Charles

      In most games that use a single save, it’s actually more granular. Classes usually have a bonus to saves agains certain kinds of hazards over and above the base target number. In S&W, for example, thieves get a +2 bonus to save versus devices, including traps and magic items. This is a nice compromise between simplicity and granularity.

      (Messed up my email when trying to submit this comment before, so adding this text on the end to distinguish this response from previous phantom comment.)

      1. Games with multiple saves often have the exact same thing. Dwarfs will get bonuses against “enchantments,” or something. I’ve always found it frustrating to not only keep track of the saves, but also the bonuses which need to be applied to certain types of attacks which are covered by that save.

        At least when there’s only a single save involved, all the granularity is based on these individual bonuses; rather than having the granularity divided amongst the saves themselves and additional bonuses which tend to become a tangled and confused mess.

  4. It’s probably worth noting that the single save comes from Swords & Wizardry and games derived from it.

    Interestingly, the innovation probably came from legal considerations, to distinguish the game, back when the idea of doing a retro-clone was still uncertain.

  5. I’ve been using a three-save system, primarily to distinguish a class’s “good saves” and “bad saves.” That being said, I also have saves progress independently of class & other considerations – +1 every third critical.

    I wonder, though, about having a single save, but restricting its use by class – so only the wizard can save vs. magic, and only the thief can save vs. traps.

    1. +1 every third critical? I assume that’s rolling a 20 on a save, not an attack? Even so, that seems like it would lead to crazily OP characters pretty quickly. I imagine it doesn’t actually play out that way, but I’d be curious to know

      Restricting the save to a given class seems like a bad decision to me. If only MUs save v. spells, then everybody else is instantly charmed when charm is cast? Do monsters lose most of their saves too?

      1. Yeah, 20 on save. On average, this means your saves progress once every 60 saves, but of course it’s hugely swingy. I just started using it, so I haven’t seen it really play out, but it’s fairly even – even slow – so far. I implemented it in order to avoid having to calculate differences in save advancement with unrestricted multiclassing, and to have a character’s saves reflect the actual dangers they’ve faced somewhat.

        As for restricted saves, if I tried it out I’d use it in conjunction with a roll-to-cast style system, so that the save is an extra layer of protection rather than the only way to avoid the spell. But I agree, it could have some issues with people automatically getting poisoned, which would have to be compensated for somehow.

  6. I’ve actually been using Delta’s Target20 variant with a single save (d20+level+whatever mods) with Stars Without Number. Warriors get a +2 to save against anything physical, Physics +2 to anything mental, and Experts +1 to both types. Easy enough to remember while still having enough flavor for my group.

    1. The physical / mental / expert division is clever. I’m not a fan of variable target numbers for saves, but I could see myself using something similar to this.

  7. When I started playing D&D, I found it strange that Reflex and AC are two different things. After all, aren’t they both supposed to determine if something hits you? It was even stranger to me in 4th Edition where Reflex and AC were the same.

    I think Reflex/Fortitude/Will are just fine. One save is too coarse. With three, you can boil down any attack to one that needs to be aimed (AC, touch AC), one that deals area damage(Reflex), one that affects the body directly (Fortitude), or one that targets your mind (Will). I found it interesting that Numenera directly uses your ability scores. You have three ability scores: Might, Speed, and Intellect, and attacks can target different ones. Your ability scores are also used as your hitpoints.

    As for classes, I think it’s a balance and life style thing. Clerics are naturally more healthy and mentally resilient because their profession places them in a healthy environment that challenges their resolve.

  8. I started with D&D 3rd Edition and saving throws in the older editions never made any sense to me. Fortitude, Reflex, and Will are easy to understand and to apply, and you can make your ability scores matter. Now I am running Castles & Crusades which basically has six saving thrws. You simply make an ability check against the target number of the effect. Strength checks to break out of confinements, Intelligence checks against illusions, and Charisma checks against mind control. Works perfectly fine. I wouldn’t really want to have just a single save, but if the saves are grouped randomly and ability scores don’t affect them at all, there really isn’t much sense in spliting it up.

    1. I posted this above, but it’s relevant again, so here’s a post from -C which describes pretty well how I feel about the 3.x saves:


      To make it short: I’m not a fan of how specific they are to the means by which the character is avoiding whatever they’re avoiding.

      I also don’t like mutable target numbers for saves. That is far too much work for the GM in my opinion. Figuring out the DC for everything is a huge pain, and feels arbitrary. I’d much rather just tell the player to roll a save against their character’s personal target number.

  9. Personally I prefer the Fortitude/Reflex/Willpower saving throws from DnD3.5/Pathfinder, since they encompass pretty much any saving throw situation without being terribly bogged down.

    Certainly splatbooks and such bog them down, but knowing the basics (Fort = physical body, Reflex = physical movement, Willpower = mental endurance) means that, on the fly, if I don’t know what the exact ruling is I can adjudicate it. A volley of arrows from a well placed bunch of orcs? I’d rather place it as a DC (something I feel is right) Reflex save (1/2 damage if successful, unless you have Evasion etc.) than say… having to roll a couple dozen attack rolls on each member of the group.

    As long as your group is comfortable with your adjudication, I don’t see why you’d need any more than FortRefWill. Heck, in RIFTs (Palladium) there are like a dozen saves, from save vs. pain to save vs. magic to save vs. coma/death! Now depending on the level of severity you’re going for, that might be good, but I’ve found my group wants a good time telling stories and bashing the bad guys, if I killed them every time they miss a pit trap because it’s a 40′ drop, well, I wouldn’t have my group for long!

    I’d say three saves is just enough!

    1. I’ve linked it twice already, but since you may not read the replies above, please see this post for an idea of how I feel about Fort/Ref/Wil: http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2010/12/on-abstraction.html

      I also hate variable target numbers. When I was GMing Pathfinder, anytime I had an effect which might need to be saved against I felt like it was terribly arbitrary. Do I make the save 17? Is that too high? Is it unfair? This is supposed to be really hard, but they only have a +X at this level, so perhaps a lower save would be better? Maybe I should go over the class descriptions so I can work out the success %?

      With a static target number defined by the class, this is no problem. The character’s class determines their ability to avoid danger.

      I think we’re also playing two different kinds of games, here. If I didn’t kill my players after they missed a 40′ drop, they’d be upset that I was coddling them. =P

      1. One save is simple and quick. Use 17-level. Not a fan of using ability scores as it makes ability scores way too important, saves should hinge on level with at most a slight modifier due to ability. If going with 1 save, I think giving some characters a bonus can help with granularity – fighters +2 to physical saves, wizards +2 to mental saves etc.

        My group prefers the 3 save (MIND, BODY, DODGE) method, roll a d20 add their save bonus and if 20 or more they have made their SAVE.

        And I agree variable target numbers are horrible.

  10. This is what I do – I use Swords & Wizardry, which has one save. To make ability scores more relevant, I use the BECMI -3 to +3 ability modifier system, and depending on the situation, I tell the players to make a save with this or that ability modifier. If they’re avoiding falling, use Dex modifier. If they’re resisting something mental, use Wis or Int modifier, etc.

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