On Abstraction and Saving Throws

Modern systems seem to assume a baseline representation - i.e. I rolled twice, so each roll represents a swing of my sword or I can possibly move up to 10' a second, so in six seconds I move 60'.

At first blush this seems to make a lot of sense, but if you look at it too closely the abstraction inherent in hit points and saves breaks suspension of disbelief. i.e. Hit points suddenly becomes literal wounds dealt by specific sword blows. There are 3 saves reflex, will, and fortitude, and they literally and in a direct and visceral way represent 'getting out of the way' 'resisting with your mind' and 'enduring with your body'.

But wait - you made that reflex save and you're still standing up? You failed that fortitude save and didn't fall to your knees? When the saves represent literal specific things then it breaks suspension of disbelief. The 'three categories' of saves also seem very trite and videogamey.

But what of old school saves you say? Abstraction, and this indeed is why they are cool.

A Dungeons and Dragons old school game is not like a aerial-view action RPG that we are simulating with dice—good gods, it takes hours to fight a single combat that way. Instead it is much more like the surface of an atom. We have a general idea of what's going on down there, and we get bursts of specific information (say location OR velocity) and we use our imagination to draw the rest in our minds.

Take old school saves for instance. Paralyzation/Poison/Death magic, Rod/Staff/Wand, Petrification/Polymorph, Breath Weapon, and Spells.

But what do these mean? What do they represent?

Why that's the coolest thing about them! Nothing specific at all! All we know is success or failure—the actual means of that is up to you. (and your classes general ability to handle that specific kind of threat is built into the numbers)

Let's say your wizard makes a save versus spells—he inscribed arcane counter-spelling runes in the air before him to disperse the magical energies. 
Let's say your paladin makes her save versus breath weapon—she holds her shield up and her gods divine grace splits the fire of the dragon in either direction.
Let's say your thief makes his save versus rods/staff/wand—he holds forth his reflective amulet and the beam hits it and bounces away.

The point is, that the game doesn't tell you how you make your save—that's part of the discovery of what's happening and the fun. Logistically it's a lot more fun to come up with answers for why things happen then trying to plot out a specific sequence of events that is occurring every six seconds. Also, you've got a lot more room for awesome and rule of cool in your descriptions.

So how to decide which save to use for a trap? Paralyzation/poison/death magic has to do with 2 things—toughness and divine grace.
Rod/Staff/Wand has to do with rays, artificial magic generation, and device based effects.
Petrification/Polymorph has with emotional and physical resilience. Self-control is a big factor here.
Breath Weapon has to do with area effects, luck, and grace.
Spells is a catch all category and the general domain of magic.

Clerics have the best saves versus paralyzation/poison/death magic.
Mages have the best overall starting saves and the worst high level ones
Fighters start off with the worst saves (by far) but eventually have the best saves.
Thieves start off slightly better than fighters, but end up slightly worse at 20th level.

This post was originally published on 12/29/10, and is linked on Links to Wisdom.


  1. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing this. I agree, the abstraction inherent in older systems is a feature, not a bug.

  2. Glad you approve. Certain comments made by people (Zak S) made me realize that this wasn't common knowledge. Spread the word

  3. I find it odd when things like a poison save are mapped to "fortitude" or whatever, implying your character is tough enough to resist the poison. IF poison is lethal, as it often is in older games, then how come it can't be avoiding the bite/sting/etc. in the first place? I'm not suggesting you didn't allow for that, just throwing it out there since nobody seems to ever address it. :)

  4. Regarding Anonymous's post: Well, it can't be avoiding the sting/bite/etc in the first place because that's already been testing. If it hit your AC and inflicted damage, you failed to avoid it.

    But I can understand what other options you might want to cover in not suffering the poison's effect. Perhaps the snake's strike just collided with you rather than was an effective bite to inject the venom. Maybe the stinger tore through just the outer layer of skin causing a painful minor wound but not enough for the poison to penetrate to the blood stream.

  5. I have a soft spot in my heart for old-school D&D, but I feel like all of the "edition wars" issues are over things that other games have done a better job at fixing precisely by throwing out a lot of these abstractions (IMO the revision of saving throws in 3ed was one of the only useful changes made). There's still plenty of room for GM-adjudication / abstraction, but it's a far easier system for players to understand.

    While I understand the idea / need / desire for abstraction in a fantasy game, it really only helps to address the issues inherent in systems that already use abstract concepts as primary tenets of their game design: hit points, armor class, saving throws, level, etc.

    It's obvious that you want to continue to play the D&D of your fondest memories with the most minor of alterations. More abstraction might work for today as it allows for more flexible GM-fiat in making rulings on actions. As a GM for 20 years, I understand that. As a game designer, I think there are better moves, they just might involve sidestepping D&D-like systems altogether.

  6. @Gavin, there's some misunderstandings in your condescension.

    It isn't the D&D of my memories, I never played 1st edition as a youth (2nd edition only), and certainly never B/X. Coming to them as an adult, I found their mechanisms useful, focused on play, and well designed. That can't be emphasized enough - the mechanics of the earliest games were not focused on 'realism', 'symmetry', or 'simulation'. They were focused on what kept play moving and what made people have the most fun at the table.

    Rediscovering that (and the associated abstractions) was what led me to move away from more 'modern' systems. (When you say that, you mean 4th edition? Apocalypse World? GMless games like Microscope? Dogs in the Vineyard? The Cortex system? Which of these games don't involve abstraction?)

    I've written over 20,000 words about how GM Fiat is not a factor in 'making rulings on actions' skill-light older games, feel free to peruse some of the theory articles for more information on that.

    The very idea of GM Fiat has to do with a pre-existing plan that must occur on the GM's part, and although it rarely occurs in old school D&D, I haven't played a 4th edition game yet that wasn't simply the GM telling me what was happening between the last battle and the next one, (see because you have to have four encounters, so you see it doesn't matter what you do. . .)

    In Old School games the only thing that matters is what you choose to do, the GM holds no dictate over the actions of the players. See the Quantum Ogre for more on that.

    There are different games, like chess is different then risk. What the move away from abstraction is towards or the kinds of games you mean when you say 'modern games' is somehow left abstract, which I find ironic.

    1. I never mentioned, ironically or not, "modern games", I mentioned "other games". Specific examples include oWoD and Shadowrun (as well as many others) which have done away with "Hit Points". Almost no games use saving throws or levels instead focusing on skills and attributes. You made straw man after straw man out of what I said.

      I didn't claim that an abstraction-less game existed, only that games with fewer abstractions exist. I'm on your side on a lot of this. Attacking me like I'm a 4e tactical gamer is silly since you know nothing about in what games I'm interested (and considering that aside from the curiosity factor, I'd not likely ever play or run a 4e game).

      I'm playing Labyrinth Lord and Heroes 5e, and am currently running Star Wars d6, Shadowrun, Werewolf (oWoD), and Paranoia. I consider myself a Story Teller first and foremost, my main goal in gaming is for all of my players to enjoy themselves and to tell them an interesting story. The cardinal sin of my GMing is railroading, and the worst thing a player can do at my table (aside from being a munchkin) is to rely solely on their character sheet and stats over their ability to simply "play the game". However, that does not stop me from critiquing a game's rules or a specific adjudication of existing rules.

      I think we both want a system that can stand back and let us tell a good story. I feel that having a less abstract system for saves is a positive move, easy to understand and more meaningful in the context of the game. I understand how a Paladin might hide behind his shield to avoid a dragon's breath while a rogue might acrobatically flip out of range, but I'd still rather adjudicate that on the fly (allowing the paladin's shield bonus as a bonus to his reflex save, or giving the rogue a +3 bonus for having a acrobatics score of 15+). That said, I'd far rather be playing a game that didn't require such abstraction at all (i.e. if the character is where the dragon breathed fire then he probably got hit, unless something interceded or a player used a held-action shield himself or to move out of range).

      Oh, and when I mentioned GM fiat I was completely misunderstanding its usage. I was referring to "an authoritative determination" regarding a ruling on an action or die roll.

      You should re-read my post with a more careful eye as well, as I have attempted to do for you.

    2. I think we might be saying the same thing different ways? or perhaps not?

      I would never say this: "I think we both want a system that can stand back and let us tell a good story."

      I wouldn't say it, because story (in the sense of heroic protagonist, character arcs, intentional reflection of theme in play) has nothing to do inside the mechanics of my D&D game, or outside it in the group dynamic and setup. To me, it is a game, about making choices. The 'authoritative determination' is group consensus about reasonable stakes and player choice to engage.

      To the main thrust of the article, an abstract save system allows the same thing you describe, only with more flexibility from the player's role in determining how they make their save. I.E. when the rogue makes her saves versus spells, she declares if she ducked out of the way, reflected it with her dagger blade, or used a secret mind technique to dissipate the magic. Then, instead of the disjunction between 'reflex' somehow not affecting the character, I can take their description and use it to determine positioning and game flow.

      The story isn't something that play is focused on developing. But when the unconnected events are related later, they can also take the form of one.

  7. I couldn't disagree more that a story is just something happens while the GM sits back and adjudicates. I absolutely tell a story when I run a game (and assume most other game masters do as well). I'm aware of potential character arcs and running themes, and I set up challenges that reflect that theme while never forcing the characters into them.

    Back to saving throws, I would rather the player declare what they are doing before rolling the dice than to just have them roll and make something up to fit. That's simply more interesting for them and me. However, now that I've heartily considered both systems it's pretty obvious that neither of the systems really allow for more "flexibility" than the other, as they are both rather "hard" systems.

    The reason that I favor 3rd ed. saves is simply due to the fact that they take the characters' stats into consideration. That means less abstraction, and therefore a more robust system. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree :)

    1. We are doing and talking about different things then. I believe that doing what you are talking about impacts player agency and moves what is happening away from a game and towards acting improv. Considerations are not solely on player choice and skill, but other concerns enter the game, like character arcs and themes, moving it away from agency, constraining player choice and freedom, and dictating in game activity.

      In 1e, character stats and race affect saving throws.

  8. Races affect it, of course, since they are considered classes in and of themselves, but wouldn't otherwise. Rechecking now, but I thought only high Wisdom affected Saves in 1st edition (and Saves vs Spells only).

    I don't think you understand the definition of "role-playing" as most people see it if you subscribe to such a minimalist approach to gaming. But, since that's your point of view I'll leave you here.

    1. I appreciate your comments.

      1e separates race and class.

      I would say that there are a couple commonly assumed definitions of role-playing in use, from the creative agenda to the Arnesonian ideal of making a choice in a situation presented being taking the role of a adventurer (or in diplomacy as a country).

      I would not assume to speak for what "most people" think. I know my definition is in line with many hundreds of people in the OSR.

  9. It's role, not roll. You roll a die, you play a role.

    1. Yeah. Typing too fast and not enough editing.

  10. I don't really get it. The three examples you gave could just as easily be produced from will/ref/fort rather than old school saves.

    "inscribing counterspell runes in the air" = will save
    "divine grace around the shield" = fort save
    "deflecting the beam" = reflex save

    1. It is a question of semantics. The big three saves imply 'player action' yet explicitly in their descriptions within the game mechanics forbid 'player action'. For example, making a reflex save to avoid a fireball takes no action - not immediate, not swift, and cannot change your state (prone/standing) and is not affected by cover. Yet the save itself explicitly states you're using your reflexes to dodge out of the way.

      This is not true of effect based saves.

    2. So are you saying that it's better if the saving throw does have some sort of mechanical effect based on how the player describes it? Like, if they say "I throw myself out of the way" then they are now prone? If they say "I deflect it with my amulet" then they now have their amulet in their hands instead of a weapon?

      That sounds like an interesting way to play, but it doesn't seem any more supported by old-school rules than it does by later editions. I don't think there's anything in the AD&D DMG that says you can do that.

      Have you read Neoclassical Geek Revival? That game does sort of the same thing but in the opposite order. If the player wants a saving throw, they have to say what they're doing (and quickly!) or else they don't even get to roll. I like it that way because in my experience players usually can't be bothered to narrate their actions unless they're going to get some sort of mechanical benefit out of it.

  11. Admittedly, I didn't read through every single comment, but the solution strikes me as rather obvious (and perhaps someone above already mentioned it - I wouldn't be at all surprised [rolls]... nope, not surprised). Have the old school saves be influenced by each character's ability scores. For instance, a magic-user's Paralyzation/poison/death magic save gets a bonus if he also has a high constitution. Likewise, he gets a penalty on Breath Weapon if he has a lousy dexterity. Make sense?


    1. Been done, actually, in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. Variant rules, page 266:

      Ability Scores and Saving Throws
      In the standard rules, the only ability score that can affect a saving throw is Wisdom (affects saving throws vs. spells). The DM does, however, have the option to apply ability score bonuses and penalties to other saving throws:
      Strength: Modifies saving throws vs. paralysis and turn to stone.
      Intelligence*: Modifies saving throws vs.mind attacks (charm, confusion, control, fear,feeblemind, sleep, etc.).
      Wisdom*: Modifies saving throws vs. spells.
      Dexterity: Modifies saving throws vs. wands and dragon breath.
      Constitution: Modifies saving throws vs. poison (but not vs. death ray).
      Charisma: No bonus to saving throws.
      * Combined modifier cannot exceed + / — 3.

  12. Good post. You make the distinction between these different approaches very clear, especially in your comments, like to Wiil B. above. That's an excellent explanation. Neither approach is wrong, they're based on different assumptions, and are effectively providing a means for the GM to adjust things based on what's actually going on at the table. Sometimes even when something hits full-on, the poison fails to work, or the effect doesn't fully take, or whatever. It's sort of the reverse of doing detailed tables for failures/fumbles/mitigating factors, instead relying upon an open-ended, interpretive bit of abstraction...


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