On Saves, Skills, and Design

I wrote an awful lot about skills once. I've also written about saving throws. Some people have been talking about the same things.

My thoughts lately have become somewhat distilled.

Save or die

Saving throws are the chance to avoid a consequence; All save or die traps are actually just die traps. But the first time that happened, someone probably felt like a dick, so saving throw.

Anyone who complains should be listened to and the save should be removed.

Natural or Magical

A great many things are not improved by improvement. Why give players a system where they can be more 'skilled' in searching or surprise when scaling those systems causes problems?

Mundane systems (like surprise, trap setting off, drowning chance, door opening) that are modified situationally (Strength, armor worn) ground the game making the world more threatening and real.

Constant Improvement in Both Difficulty and Skill is Illusionary

It is also pretty trivial common knowledge now that subjective improvement has many consequences over objective improvement. A ninth level fighter saves on a 2 because he has a lot of opportunities to face instant death. If he has the same 60% fail rate he does at first level, then he isn't really ninth level now is he?

This goes double if you turn it around for monsters. Wizards push their save and monsters succumb. Trivial common knowledge


Games need to be designed, and since nobody really knew what gamers were doing with their home campaigns, this was hard.

An example. I have this post here where I completely trash the appraisal skill.

I run +Numenhalla here where appraisal is a key skill on a very short list of skills. 

Why? Because "How do we get the treasure out of the dungeon?" is a key pillar of play. So for that game design a mechanic of, "Do we know how much this is worth?" is crucial.

This results in systems with too many skills. The skill list should be an indicator of what the players are going to be spending time doing in the game, not a cohesive list of everything that might be possible for a player to try. Fewer choices are also better for the players.


  1. "All save or die traps are just die traps." Pretty much, yeah. That's how I've come to view it.

    Mostly because of you.

    You probably don't want to let my players discover where you sleep.

  2. I found that emergent skill choice was fun and engaging. In games where player characters could be fleshed out during the first few sessions, I loved the moment when we found a fine silk tapestry. Nobody knew what quality the work was, or how expensive it might be. Then I got to scribble something on my sheet and claim that my plate-clad pit-raised fighter had summered as a seamstress' aide, and thus had Weaving as his weak skill. Made for a memorable choice--much moreso than "I max out Athletics and Heal. Done."


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