21 June 2009

Saving Throws as a General Task Resolution System

All classes in S&W have a single saving throw that may be used as a general ‘task resolution’ mechanism.  Under this system, when attempting a particular task, the player rolls 1d20, applies any relevant attribute modifiers (a bonus of +1, a penalty of -1, or no modifier, depending on the attribute score), and any additional modifiers that the GM judges appropriate.  Very easy, but not automatically successful, tasks might receive a bonus of +10, while extremely difficult, but not impossible, tasks might receive a penalty of -10.  Less extreme modifiers should apply to rolls involving tasks of intermediate ease or difficulty.  The difficulty modifier is applied to the character’s saving throw roll.  (It is up to the GM to determine whether the player has knowledge of this modifier.)  If the modified roll equals or exceeds the character’s saving throw number, the task is successful.  An unmodified roll of a 20 always indicates success, and an unmodified roll of a 1 always indicates failure (otherwise, there is no point in making the roll in the first place, and the GM should simply decide that the character automatically succeeds or fails). 

For example, Nibold the Purple, a bold roguish warrior, is attempting to swim across a dangerous rushing river.  Because Nibold is a fifth level fighter, his base saving throw number is 12.  The GM judges that superior strength would assist anyone attempting such a feat, and thus allows the player to apply Nibold’s strength bonus, in this case +1, to the roll.  Because the river is flowing swiftly, and contains dangerous rocks and currents, the GM assigns a -2 penalty to the player’s roll.  Finally, the GM notes that Nibold’s background is that of a sailor, and therefore grants the character a +4 bonus to the roll.  This leaves the player with a net +3 bonus to his roll for Nibold.  The player rolls a 10 and adds 3 for a total of 13.  Since that exceeds Nibold’s saving throw number of 12, Nibold successfully swims across the river.  If the player had failed his roll, the GM may have decided that Nibold suffered 1d6 points of damage from being bashed about the rocks by the stream’s strong currents.  A roll of a natural 1 may have resulted in Nibold being knocked unconscious, and likely drowning to death, unless rescued by his compatriots (assuming that he has some nearby!).

Finally, GMs should always exercise discretion when using this system.  It should not replace common sense or player creativity.  If the task in question is one that any normal human being would typically succeed at accomplishing, then a roll should be unnecessary.  Avoid having players roll to determine if their characters can climb a ladder, jump across a three foot crevice, or swim across a calm pond.  Moreover, if a player comes up with an ingenious plan to overcome some difficulty or challenge, the GM may want to reward that player by allowing the plan to succeed without a roll, or, if the GM thinks that the plan is risky enough to require a roll, with a positive modifier.  Interesting and daring plans make the game more exciting for everyone, and thus generally should be rewarded by GMs.  (Foolish plans, on the other hand, are rightfully mocked!)

(Published in Knockspell #2.)

EDIT: In the third printing of S&W, fighters and magic-users both start with a saving throw of '15,' and improve by 1 per level until level 11.  Clerics retain their original saving throws.


  1. How do you explain wizards always being better than fighters and thiefs?

  2. Thanks for your comment, FFB. Thieves, or rather my version of thieves, have the best saving throws (they start at 14).

    That aside, I have to confess that I have no deep justification for why fighters lag behind the other classes. Perhaps thieves are naturally 'skilled' and 'lucky', and magicians have a lot of 'knowledge'?

    However, I am considering simply giving all characters classes the same saving throw number. It would start at 15 at level one, and improve by one per level, to a maximum of 5 (at level 11). Magicians would receive a +2 bonus versus spells, Fighters a +2 versus poison and disease, and Thieves a general +1 'luck' bonus that can be applied whenever the GM deems appropriate.

    Actually, I don't think that would be a bad idea ...

  3. Or, to simplify things, I could just give fighters the same saving throw number as magicians (15 at first level, improving to 5 at level 11). Thieves could keep their slightly better saving throw (14 at first level, etc.), given their 'skilled' and 'lucky' nature.

  4. I don't know that you have to chalk up thieves' improved saving throws to luck; presumably, they got their thieving skills through a lot of trial and error, and so are better at avoiding and dealing with error, at least relative to their thieving skills, than fighters or mages. Since there is such a broad range of thieving skills, it makes sense that thieves get a general better saving throw than mages and fighters.

  5. I prefer to keep the ST mechanism separate. I see STs as a sort of last ditch effort to avoid bad things. I also don't like to use a d20 for anything but attack rolls and STs.

    What I do for task resolution is roll 3d6 with a target number (TN) of 5+ for Easy tasks, 9+ for Average tasks, and 13+ for difficult tasks. If the task is not related to the character's class or background, use 7+/11+/15+ as the TN instead. The Ref can add additional modifiers if he deems them necessary. The appropriate ability modifier is applied to the total before comparing to the TN. Meet or beat the TN and you succeed; otherwise you fail. Trip 3s always fail and trip 6s always succeed.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).