Which saving throw should I use?

Saving throw names are a biproduct of the very traditional dungeon crawling environment they were built for. As such, their names can seem awkward and difficult to assign to certain effects and traps.

The first thing to understand when determining what type of save should be given to the effect you are designing is to first consider if it should be a save at all.

If it’s a trap, don’t shy away from giving it a THAC0 instead and having it make an attack roll. AC already represents a characters ability to avoid harm, so why add further complexity. This should be the default design you use it the attack’s intent is simply directly to cause harm and little else (for example, arrow traps)

If it’s something that armour and dexterity aren’t going to be as effective against, then you move on to figuring out the appropriate saving throw.

The first thing to know is that the saving throws are listed in an order from ‘generally easiest to pass’ to ‘generally hardest to pass’. They are as follows.

  1. Death, Poison
  2. Wands
  3. Paralysis, Petrification
  4. Breath attacks
  5. Spells, rods, staves

You should assign an effect to the first category that fits.

Death should be given to things which have a high chance to instantly kill or inflict poison or other malicious bodily status effects. These saves are the easiest because of their lethality.

Wands should be given to any effect that requires a physical implement being aimed at the target. These saves are the second most easy because they telegraph themselves heavily in the fiction due to a device being pointed towards the target.

Paralysis and petrification should be given to any effect which alters or impedes a persons movement, such as pushing or shoving them, as well as more magical effects such as gorgon petrification, it is often assigned to falling rock traps under the idea of ‘pinning someone under the rock’. These are the middle ground of saves as there is often not an obvious telegraph that can be avoided, or if there is it has enough momentum to physically displace a hardy adventurer and so is not easily dodgable.

Breath attacks applies primarily to the lethality of dragon breath, but can also be applied to any other elemental effect which attempts to fill a room or large space. These effects are difficult to avoid due to their huge effective areas.

Finally, spells, rods, and staves. This should be assigned to any effect that requires little more than a device activating (but not being aimed), or a mage whispering an encantation under their breath. It’s not obvious who the target is, or what the effect will be, until it happens, making them the hardest of all saves.

If you make it to the end of this list without having concluded which saving throw is most appropriate. Make it a death save because saying “save verus death” is always going to scare players, even though it’s the easist save to pass. You might find this trivialises your very inventive trap, but if you’ve come up with something so complex that it doesn’t fit into one of the above categories, and you don’t already know what you are doing well enough to figure out a saving throw for it, you should probably consider swapping it out for something simpler to begin with.

The next obvious question is to ask what form the successful saving throw takes in the fiction. Sadly, B/X offers little advice on this front. Fortunately, the holy grail of OSR advice comes to our rescue in the form of the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide. It has this to say.

The term saving throw is common enough, coming to us from miniature 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 skill, luck, 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—fireball damage, poisoning, being turned to stone, or whatever.


Someone once sharply criticized the concept of the saving throw as ridiculous. Could a man chained to a rock, they asked, save himself from the blast of a red dragon’s breath? Why not?, I replied. If you accept fire- breathing dragons, why doubt the chance to reduce the damage sustained from such a creature’s attack? Imagine that the figure, at the last moment, of course, manages to drop beneath the licking flames, or finds a crevice in which to shield his or her body, or succeeds in finding a way to be free of the fetters. Why not? The mechanics of combat or the details of the injury caused by some horrible weapon are not the key to heroic fantasy and adventure games. It is the character, how he or she becomes involved in the combat, how he or she somehow escapes—or fails to escape—the mortal threat which is important to the enjoyment and longevity of the game.


A character under magical attack is in a stress situation, and his or her own will force reacts instinctively to protect the character by slightly altering the effects of the magical assault. This protection takes a slightly different form for each class of character. Magic-users understand spells, even on an unconscious level, and are able to slightly tamper with one so as to render it ineffective. Fighters withstand them through sheer defiance, while clerics create a small island of faith. Thieves find they are able to avoid a spell’s full effects by quickness…

AD&D 1e DMG, “Combat (Saving Throws)”

I don’t think I am capable of giving better advice for resolving the fiction than is given there in the AD&D 1e DMG. It is not the type of the save that determines the form it takes, but the nature of ther person making it.

Hit Dice as Hit Points

A character begins the game with one hit point.

Each time they gain a hit dice, they gain one max hit point.

A full days rest recovers one hit point.

When struck (an opponent successfully rolls to hit them, overcoming their armour class) the attacker rolls damage, the defender then rolls their hit dice repeatedly (adding their constition modifier to hit points each time) until the sum of the rolled values exceeds the amount of damage they have taken, the defender then loses one hit point for each dice rolled except for the dice that took them to a value greater than the damage dealt.

As an example, a great Halfling hero has found themselves face to face with the god Nerull. Nerull swings his scythe and strikes the halfling, he expertly passes his save versus death with the luck of a halfling, so only takes the weapons mighty 5d6 damage… 2+1+4+6+3=16. Nerulls scythe is a +5 weapon, so this deals 21 total damage to the poor halfling. Halflings possess a d6 hit dice, and this hero is powerful enough to have a +1 modifier to their hit points from their constitution. They begin rolling:


Their first four rolls brings their total to 18, which is not enough to surpass the 21 damage dealt. The final roll brings the value to 25, surpassing Nerulls scythe and allowing the halfling to surive. Four of their dice did not surpass the damage, and thus they lose four HP.

Our brave hero was only level 7, and took 2 hit points of damage on the way here. They now have only one hit point remaining (7-2-4=1). Extremely out of their depth, it’s clearly time for them to try and find a way out of Tartarus and flee the god of death.

Rules, Rulings, and the Flow of Adventure: Old School Philosophical Musings

A lot of philosophical discussions have been had about the old school style of play, but specifically here as in all posts on this blog I’ll be focusing on the basic and expert system, and specifically the OSE expansion to this system.

This should also act as a good guide to running a full session of an OSR game in the style I run in, if that’s something anyone wants to emulate.

My core philosophy is built around what I’ll be dubbing ‘the flow of adventure’. This is the general ordering and structure of an adventure, how that is impacted by the rules, and how it impacts my rulings.

I’ll clarify, that for my purposes games are generally sequential explorations starting out from a hub location: this is the genre explorative fantasy which gives context to all these blog posts, and is what I run.

So, each session is to be its own self contained adventure. I run this by thinking about the game in phases.

  1. The Pre-Travel Phase
  2. The Travel Phase
  3. The Destination Phase
  4. The Rewards Phase
  5. The Retreat Phase

Each of these phases has its own internal nuts and bolts, but understanding this breakdown should help the session run very smoothely.

The Pre-Travel Phase

In the Pre-Travel Phase, players determine their destination, figure out how they are getting there, hire retainers, and buy any equipment they might need.

Regarding equipment: they don’t need to buy every tent peg, or even tents at all. All adventuring groups carry about themselves in some fashion “General Adventuring Gear” which represents their tents and other such items any adventurer would be expected to have. The items on the equipment lists in the genre rules books feature a specific subset of items with purposes that players must prep, this includes food, water, light sources, and other significant items they may wish to pre-purchase before going out on their adventure.

The Travel Phase

The travel phase is one of the simplest parts of getting their, and breaks the entire journey down into a few quick easy rolls.

  1. Roll all the expected days of travel to check they don’t get lost, if they do, when they got lost, figure out the reprocusions of this.
  2. Roll all the expected days of travel to determine if any encounters occur. If an encounter would occur, figure out when in the day it happens (d6 beneath), and what the encounter is (d8, d12, monsters book). If the encounter doesn’t make sense, just don’t have it.
  3. Narrate the entire journey, stopping for any encounters.

The average travel day breaks into the following structure.

12 am til 6am, the morning watch
26am til 10am, the ready
310am til 2pm, the early march
42pm til 6pm, the late march
56pm til 10pm, the rest
6 10pm til 2am, the evening watch

If you need to determine who’s awake at any point in a watch, roll two people at random assuming there are 6 or more people in the group. If there are fewer than 6 people, roll someone at random.

In the ready, characters are eating breakfast, and preparing for the long 8 hour hike ahead of them, everyone is up, armouring, eating food, getting ready to journey, and packing down camp.

In the early march, the first half of the journey is covered. If you need to determine which hex the party is in in particular in the first half of their journey for an encounters just roll it.

The late march is the same as the early march, but is the back half of the journey.

The rest is like the ready, pitching tents, eating food, feeding horses, bedding down, campfire stories and general recouperation from the days hike.

The Destination

Run whatever their destination was supposed to be. A dungeon, a puzzle encounter, or whatever else.

This, or during travel encounters, is the most likely place the party will require rulings outside the bounds of the rules to be made.

As a general guide to rulings, follow the 1-in-6 philosophy. Without other circumstances or reasonable justification, the party has about a 1-in-6 chance of being able to achieve something reasonable. If the party can explain exactly how they do something, and it seems within reason, just let them succeed. If it calls into doubt their physical abilities, have whoever is leading the effort make some form of ability check.

Here’s where some of the more complex decision making comes into play. Write down a list of names of people on an adventure. If a success happens, roll a random person to determine who it happens to. Or, if you think success would be tied to competency in a particular ability score, have everybody (or all the relevant parties) roll and whoever rolls the highest while still passing is the person who succeeded (if nobody passes, that 1-in-6 just got a little bit lower arbitrarily).

Another important tool in your arsenal is the random chance d100 dice. It’s useful for “There’s a 45% chance this person is done with the parties nonsense” and “What percentage sleepy are these wolves”.

That last one is going to come in to an example I can give of all of this comign together, the worlds sleepiest wolves.

So I rolled 100% sleepy wolves. Decided they would have a 10% to wake up if a loud noise happened (remarkebly low for sleeping wolves). The party put the first batch of wolves into a magical sleep, so got them killed easily, then came the rest. Theifs took adventage of move silently to sneak in silently, then a 1-in-6 they would be quiet enough anyway (basic adventuring competency), then a 1-in-10 the wolves would wake up if they made a noise. This, if you ignore the move silently, gave about an 8% chance they woke any individual wolf while trying to kill them, while still feeling tense as they made their move silently rolls. In addition to this, I decided if the party didn’t deal enough damage for instant death then the wolves would cry out as they died, waking all the others. I let the party roll double damage (tripple for an assassin) to instakill and off the wolves without they making noise. If they didn’t overcome the wolves full HP, they’d still die anyway (adventurers are competent), but would cry out while getting their throat slit waking up all the other wolves (wolves are competent too).


Roll loot, figure out XP, hand it all out. Keep in mind the parties limited ability to carry stuff back. As a general rule, keep in mind armour, and how much slower a party will be if they are lugging at full carrying capacity (slower horses / mules, slower walking pace). Take this in mind when handling their retreat.


As with travel, but if the session is running low on time be prepared to be very liberal in ruling that an encounter doesn’t make sense for the sake of time.

So You Want to Buy a Person? Old School Musings on Retainers

Retainers are a core part of the old school D&D experience. Specifically here as in all posts on this blog I’ll be focusing on the basic and expert system, and specifically the OSE expansion to this system.

There are a number of rules I use to help make buying retainers go quickly. I use a fair bit of homebrew glue to run the kind of style of game I’m looking for, and hopefully this blog can provide an explenation for my reasonings.

Lets start with the contract.

The adventuring party promises to pay this individual an amount equal to the total XP to increase them from their current level to the next level, of their class, divided by one thousand, plus a half share of the loot.

The party is therefore expected to provide an estimate for the duration of the quest beforehand, a full briefing on what the quest entails, and pre-payment for this estimate.

The Free Labour Union of Adventuring Assistants

It is of course, possible to offer above market rates for a +2 chance to have the retainer accept the contract, or beneath market rates for a -2 chance to have the retainer accept the contract. To generate what would be fairly considered above or beneath market rates, half or add one half to the total amount expected, and round it to the closest convenient value.

For maximum level retainers, just double their previous pay grade, but really they ought to be adventueres rather than retainers by that point.

This gives the following rough numbers.


The logic behind this, is that a retainer who received no share of loot (which they consider unlikely) would like to level up over the course of a three year adventuring career, essentially for doing nothing more than would be expected of a normal human (carrying torches, looking after mules).

This does mean, like XP, that the cost of a retainer eventually stagnates. This is why it’s worth restricting retainer availability with a system like this. Yes they can hire a level 13 thief for the same cost as a level 9 thief, but only if they themselves are level 13, and have found a level 13 thief retainer willing to work for them.

You’ll be able to read more about my retainer attraction rules for an explorative fantasy game more on this blog when I finally get around to writing them up.

Oh, as a quick final note, if players want to hire a single day service with no chance of a share of the treasure, divide their XP cost by 50 instead of by 1000 to generate how much gold they want. You’ve found a level 6 cleric who can cast remove curse on you, but they want a 500 gold (25000/50) donation to their temple in exchange.

These numbers are all subject to change as I play around with them, but as of the date of publication these are the numbers I’m using.

Getting this site back up on it’s feet

So, basically, the old site’s database got completely screwed somehow, and being the moron that I was I had no backups. I’ll be taking backups of this one, and I’m working as quick as I can to restore any content of value.