Looking at Saving Throws in BFRPG

In the last year or so, I have read quite a few different ideas about the nature of saving throws in RPGs. A few have just been flamebait (usually related to save-or-die effects) but all have got me thinking.

In his Musing on gaze effects, Philotomy says this about saving throws:

I look on saving throws as a “last chance” or a “disaster avoidance.” That is, your character is in a disastrous situation, but he gets a chance to slip out of circumstances which would spell doom for most men.

I think this is an important way of looking at things. Take a poison save for instance, say a character has been hit with a poison dart. Your average peasant is going to fall over dead, no question. A PC adventurer, even at first level is not your average peasant. He’s a hero. Granted, he’s only got a 10-20% chance of not joining the peasant, but it is a chance. And it gets better as he does up in level, as it should.

Check out these quotes from the 1E DMG (via Grognardia):

The term saving throw is common enough, coming to us from miniatures wargames and D&D. It represents the chance for the figure concerned to avoid (or at least partially avoid) the cruel results of fate. In AD&D it is the same. By means of luck, skill, magical protections, quirks of fate and the aid of supernatural powers, the character making his or her saving throw takes none or only part of the indicated results …

Yet because the player character is all-important, he or she must always — or nearly always — have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who do are what the fabric of the game are created upon. These adventures become the twice-told tales and legends of the campaign.

A couple of years back when I was playing more Neverwinter Nights than tabletop RPGs and researching all the maths and calculations around 3E, I found this discussion on Uncle Bear’s blog about saving throws. In it, he suggests that:

The very fact that saves increase as a character goes up in level implies that they are learnable and theoretically trainable.

I think that logic works perfectly well for d20-based games with all its skill slots and feats and all the rest. It doesn’t fit quite so well with the earlier games. I see it more now as some sort of “Hero Roll”. My character, as an important hero, has an inherent ability to avoid nasty things happening to him. This ability gets better as he goes up in the level because a higher level character is (for lack of a better way of putting it) a better hero.

Now in BFRPG there is already a one-table mechanism for such a thing, though it isn’t really expressed as such. It is the Ability Checks rule in the optional rules section near the end. With ability checks, you roll d20, add the ability modifier (if any) and try to roll a target number or higher which is functionally identical to a saving throw.

User Nazim on the dragonsfoot forums said:

It’s a sort of universal saving throw chart, and I like it a lot. Thanks.

So my plan is to get rid of saving throws as written and replace them the Ability Checks. Though I’ve referred to them as Hero Rolls here, I think that sounds really stupid and I intend to keep the term Saving Throw.

I had a look at the statistics and how the two systems compared. I took the average saving throw for each class at each level bracket and compared them to the Ability Check they could achieve. They are actually very close (and I guess that may have been what Chris may have been looking at when he wrote the rules). At 1st level, the average saving throws are about 3 points better than the ability rolls. This narrows down to even at 16th level, and even a bit better for the ability rolls above that.

Those three points at first level are significant, but given that they are ability rolls and get to have ability bonuses added to them I fell it should even out a bit. Every saving throw now has an ability adjustment (not just certain spells). I’m also thinking that we can allow each save to perhaps choose the best bonus available from a certain list. This idea is stolen from a 3.5-hack Kim D&D, but I still think it is reasonable.

  • Death Ray or Poison – STR or CON
  • Magic Wands – INT or DEX
  • Paralysis or Petrify – STR, CON or CHR
  • Dragon Breath – WIS, DEX or CHR
  • Spells – INT or WIS

Alternatively, a system like Erin Smale’s approach to saving throws could work. Not the mechanism, but the list of save types. For example, WIS for Charms. If there is nothing specific in a save description that gives a clue as to which ability to use, you could either rule that no adjustment is allowed or that the character may use the adjustment from their Prime Requisite (whatever that happens to be – I think this fits in nicely with the hero roll concept).

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’re asking “Why?”. Why replace one system (which has worked perfectly well for 30+ years) with one almost exactly the same? Two reasons. First of all, I like how it streamlines the process. That by itself isn’t reason enough, my second reason is that I can see the other side of Hero Rolls. That is, allowing characters to do amazing things just because they are heroes. But that is for another post.

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