Saving Throws or Defying Danger

This post began as I was working on my Translating Old School Items to Dungeon World post. And while it was published first it was inspired by that post. I would also recommend taking a look at nerdwerd’s Saving Throw = Defy Danger post. It was written prior to my post, but I didn’t know about the post until it was pointed out in the comments.

Thinking about old school character sheets. In particular the mental cue that the Saving Throws give.

  1. Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic
  2. Rod, Staff, or Wand
  3. Petrification or Polymorph
  4. Breath Weapon
  5. Spell

These are a litany of the dangers a character might face. And those dangers are very specifically called out on the character sheet sitting in front of a player.

Contrast with Dungeon World. The character sheet doesn’t give any indication of the dangers you will face. It is a collection of things that you can very specifically do.

And throughout the materials facing the players – the moves sheet in particular – there is the Defy Danger move. It describes that characters can defy dangerous things, but doesn’t give much of an inkling of what those dangers might be.

A Few Examples for Contrast

In old school games on both sides of the GM screen there is a clarity regarding when poison and magic take effect; This is how I might describe a spider attack in an old school game.

The spider bites you as it begins spinning a web around you. Take 1d4 damage and make a saving throw versus poison.

The attack describes that in order for the poison to take effect, the character must fail their saving throw. And before the narrative proceeds we need to know the results of the saving throw.

In Dungeon World things are more murky. Below are two sequences that are equally valid.

The spider bites you; take 1d4 damage. You immediately feel the burning sting of the venom as the spider begins to spin a web around you. What do you do?

The spider bites you; take 1d4 damage. Its venom weakens you as the spider begins to spin a web around you. What do you do?

In the former sequence the player is given an opening to respond to the venomous bite. In the latter sequence the character is already suffering from the venom. In both cases the character will likely need to defy danger in an attempt to break free of the webbing.

But does the player know that they could defy the danger of the poison?

Conclusion

I much prefer the Dungeon World sequences – though I would entertain other examples for the old school sequence instead of my straw men. The Dungeon World sequences very obviously begin and end with the fiction. They are inviting the player to respond.
But this comes with a cost as well – the GM must remember the danger of the poison.

In the old school example, the poison is quickly resolved. And perhaps that is its brilliance.
Old school games were originally run for half a dozen or more players. That is a lot of fiction for a GM to juggle.

I shudder at the thought of running a Dungeon World game for half a dozen or more players. It would be too much fiction to hold in my mind; I would need procedures to handle that.

Dungeon World games focus on the fiction. Old school games focus on exploration. And for exploration you really want to know the dangers that are ahead of you.

4 thoughts on “Saving Throws or Defying Danger

  1. Thinking “juggling fiction” for early D&D may be a major flaw in your analysis of it. It was, at its origins, a set of minis rules The fiction arises from the game state. Unlike DW, where the game state arises from the fiction.

    The D&D DM didn’t juggle the fiction, just presented threats and situations; for many groups, it was (and for some, still is) A minis game with rule for between battles, not a game of stories. The story arises entirely after the fact, just as it does in W40K, Command Decision, SFB, or Striker.

    • Definitely a good point, and I perhaps including “juggling fiction” was not quite the right description.

      I was thinking that D&D’s Saving Throw allows me to immediately resolve the poison. There are few early examples, to my knowledge, in which poison doesn’t take an immediate effect.

      In this way, when running an OSR game, I call for a saving throw and the fiction is immediately resolved. They pass or fail.

      I would also insist that presenting the threats and situations is “beginning with the fiction”. There are simply different methods of moving from the fiction to the mechanical adjudication.

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