How do you translate saving throws in old schoold D&D to other systems?

Hey folks!
I’m updating my monsters conversion guide for Cairn with some advice on using old school Saving Throws to glean a bit more about what a monster might be like in Into The Odd and its descendents. I’ve recently found this article about how best to interpret saving throws and found it very helpful as well.

I’ve mapped out the following table as a result:

Death or Poison STR
Wands DEX
Paralysis or Petrification WIL
Breath Attacks DEX or STR
Spells, Rods or Staves WIL

So for example if a creature stat block from the OSE SRD looks like this:

Armour Class 5 [14]
Hit Dice ½* (2hp)
Attacks 1 × spell (curse)
THAC0 19 [0]
Movement 60’ (20’) / 180’ (60’) flying
Saving Throws D12 W13 P13 B15 S15 (E1)
Morale 7
Alignment Neutral
XP 6
Number Appearing 3d6 (5d8)
Treasure Type S

The Cairn conversion appears as follows:

2 HP, 2 Armor, 4 STR, 16 DEX, 11 WIL, spellbook

I’d love some feedback about this.


@ktrey and @GusL I’d especially like to hear your opinions!

The really neat thing about the traditional Saving Throws for me is that they are disassociated rolls. We can use them to determine how a danger was avoided, after knowing the results. So a gout of drakeflame could be avoided by a Fighter crouching stalwartly behind their shield, the nimble Thief could dodge away, a Cleric is briefly bathed in Holy Light, while the Magic User activates a single-use talisman to sheathe themselves in a frosty field, etc. Since they’re tied to level instead of Scores, a Clumsy Halfling doesn’t have to dodge but can still avoid the danger another way and since it’s tied to level, the Scores are less important here.

Naturally, with Monsters we tend to be a little more concerned with the binary pass/fail than the fiction generally, and in Cairn I think it makes more sense for the Warden to not have to do this kind of thing “on the fly,” but instead have something consistent to rely upon when these situations come up. I’m sure that a quick ruling based on the situation, should it be unusual, still might be required from time to time, but I think your mapping looks like it would work out fine for the Cairn scores. I do tend to focus a bit more on the Saves that Monsters are most likely to make (Spells, Wands, being the big ones…but some effects do trigger the others occasionally, and who knows? Players might get ahold of some Poison etc.)

My only (minor) concern is that STR (as well as the other scores) in Cairn can be reduced or damaged and in those cases, would you use the “full” value or the current?


I would use the PCs current score, if only to be consistent with other rules.

I’m comfortable with ruling based on the fiction (with or without such guidance, usually) but with conversions my primary goal is to ensure that I am recreating as close to the original intent of the author as possible without using the system it was written for (silly premise, I realize). I have a suspicion that most saving throw lines are not given much thought (which is a shame, as you point out); however assuming I give the writer the benefit of the doubt it would be nice to have just a bit more to work with, you know?

On the NSR discord someone showed me this:

Which maps a bit differently (for instance, STR for paralysis). I could amend my reference table a bit as well, I suppose…


I don’t think that’s silly. I feel that I’m coming to the same conclusions myself lately. I’m translating B2 to RISUS, specifically the random encounter tables. (Once I’ve done the first one I think I’ll start translating and put it on my blog) RISUS is vastly different since it doesn’t use stats or HP or anything like that, so I have no choice but to take the approach you are taking and it’s kind of liberating.

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I do kinda picture Paralysis/Petrification as STR sometimes of course: Flexing those muscles to shake off the creeping numbness or shatter the rapidly forming layer of calcium racing toward your heart, etc.

But again: I usually leave it up to the players/Ref to make the results of the Save dictate what happened these days.

I went ahead and dug up my old house-rules from ages ago where I tinkered with them a bit, and sure enough, I had mapped it to STR as well :slight_smile:


(and also added another category for that pesky symmetry by breaking out Death)


Yeah, makes sense!
I’ll do either or, depending on the flavor of the creature.

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So I’m close to @ktrey here regarding how they work but I think they need to remain distinct for best effect. Saving throws are useful to the degree that they are distinct from stats. What’s even the point of having them if they are just stat checks? Instead of saying “make a poison saving throw” just write the poison as “Xd6 v. CON” or “D20+X under CON”.

Classic Saving Throws based around class and level work because they offer an alternative method of attacking a PC - usually lethally, making any attack or obstacle that invokes them scary (just as labels like “death ray” and “poison” suggest they should be). They also help mitigate stat inflation. If an 18 DEX helps you shoot arrows better, dodge attacks better and avoid X kind of lethal attack better - why everyone really needs an 18 Dex, which in turn means more and more that adventure designers need to build challenges around the idea that characters will have exceptional scores (or that players will basically automatically triumph over anything that attacks using saves/stat checks set for “average” scores).

For me it’s important to keep saves and stats very distinct, or limit the modification of saves to a single stat that doesn’t do much else (traditionally WIS). Because they are distinct they form another point of class distinction - clerics resist paralysis/stone and magic-users spells etc. I think messing around with the D&D matrices to emphasize this is worthwhile, but again it’s something that switching to stat based saves loses.

Finally the naming of those Saving Throws does a fine bit of implied world building - what are the gravest dangers of early Gygaxian D&D: poison, Being turned to stone, death rays, spells, wands, staves and dragons. It gives as feel. For Apollyon I wanted something less swords & sorcery so converted them to: poison, device, possession, spells and explosion. Same saves, different feel.

Now if you don’t have a saving throw system, perhaps something along the lines of a universal 2D6 + 1/2 level roll high with bonuses for certain classes (a 1d6 might work if your level limits are low). I.E. a spell requires 10 or higher with MUs gaining a +1 per level and thieves a 1 per 3 levels. This of course could be individually determined by challenge or by category (either stat based category or danger type?). Modifiers could still be added for high WIS and/or difficult/easy saves, but would be correspondingly granular. Also maybe the 2d6 is better as a d12 for a flatter distribution.

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Yeah. With Cairn (ItO based), Saves are really pretty central and perform a little bit of double duty as “task resolution” and “risk avoidance.” Since they’re tied to the Abilities (STR, DEX, WIL) for the players (and we unfortunately don’t get anything else like HD to leverage for Monsters) they’re probably the closest fit.

I think that it will always be at least somewhat discretionary (and most Saves for the Monsters would be “re-active” anyway). For this reason, the “STR or WIL” approach (mapping it to “2” instead of one) seem a little better to bake-in that freedom a little, and having some “go to” advice for conversion on the fly is always good. I do love the “Categories” and how they can telegraph the dangers in the world in those games (staring up at you from your character sheet: Here’s how you might meet your untimely end!), but I think for Cairn we’d more be looking at Spell Effects/Magic Items/Creature Attacks to try to figure out the “category” and then apply the conversion advice to perform the Save on one of the Scores.

I do love those microscopic stat blocks, so inflating them with another “Save” stat just seems a little weird to me but I think for a particularly “resistant” monster or something a “bonus” to certain kinds of Saves could still show up as an “ability” (Fire Salamanders are immune to Fire, etc.)

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I think a lot of ultralights have a bit of a similar problem, not that early D&D is exactly intentionally designed (well OD&D might be but I suspect it’s functionality is mostly a wonderful accident), but by trimming away things that feel superfluous (level/class based save by category, or 6 3-18 stats) there’s a real loss of alternate ways to limit or attack PCs beside HP or something only in the fiction.

Doesn’t seem like a lot of good options here.

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Since my purposes are trying to glean the authorial intent, I actually think this is all very helpful. Honestly I may end up recommending folks just use the narrative phrases over simply folding it into abilities, e.g. “Wand saving throws = fast reflexes” of something. Similar to what @ktrey was saying about the Salamanders, but adding a purely fictional component.

In summary of what I understand from others in this thread and the articles you linked that the intent of old school saves is to act as a speed bump other than straight hit points.

Into the Odd has always suggested to me instead of slowing down just apply more pressure. Keeping to your map a monster with high saves indicates to me a larger weapon die in regards to strength and/or extra weapon die in regards to dexterity. A monster’s will targets player effectiveness which translates to an enhanced attack modifier.

Anyways, just my thoughts to keep it simple. I also agree with using narrative phrases to help frame the fiction. Fun topic!

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As far as authorial intent - I’m almost positive that Saving Throws are a legacy of Chainmail’s Saving Throws, another piece of accretive design. Perhaps even a “ghost mechanic”, though a useful one.

In Chainmail I understand that powerful single models like wizards, heroes and dragons didn’t have HP the way units did (each unit member was one HP), but instead saved vs a flat target number to avoid death each time they were hit. I think the logic flows pretty smoothly to the D&D version from that, a chance to survive something that is inherently deadly. The question though I think gets into how Gygax and Arneson perceived characters and D&D working – were they thinking of it as sort of a skirmish game with characters as slightly better pieces then the pawns of basic troops? A board based mini-game for Chainmail wars? Were they approaching it as what we think of as an RPG now, with characterization and a sense of character as avatar of the player?

I should perhaps add that I think it’s pretty hard to determine what the intent of D&D designers was, or even to really gain an authoritative grasp of what early D&D campaigns were like. We have some records of course and witness testimony, but both have been occluded at least by time, the failing of memory, the intentional misrepresentations or exaggerations of the games creators during their legal conflicts and of course the highly individual/subjective nature of RPG play. We can know how the rules read, but given the way the game evolved rapidly, the way that Arneson and Gygax split, distinct play cultures evolved very quickly, it’s not entirely clear to me that we can know what they “meant”. I think there’s interesting history there of course, but I tend to avoid arguments from nostalgia or a sort of “rules originalism” in favor of looking at the system or individual rules and seeing what they do for my game, making adjustments as needed to bend my house rules to best support the parts of the game I want to emphasize.

If we dig: Tony Bath had 'em in the 50s. I believe Chainmail probably inherited them from 1966’s Rules for Medieval Wargames

“City militia may only attack heavy infantry if they can throw a 5 or 6. If attacked by them they must throw a 4, 5, 6 to stand, otherwise break and are diced for… If fighting takes place, one throw per 5 men, militia lose half total, no saving throw, cavalry lose one-quarter, saving throw of six.”

It does seem that Chainmail style Saving Throws appeared as “figure protection” before Hit Points in those early days (even though I think Hit Points might appear earlier in other games, like in Fletcher Pratt’s 1933 Naval War Game). In Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign we see some evidence of this being something player driven in terms of design intent.

I think there’s some interesting info here:

"We had to change it almost after the first weekend. Combat in Chainmail is simply rolling two six-sided dice, and you either defeated the monster and killed it … or it killed you. It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have. The initial Chainmail rules was a matrix. That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.

I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow."

I think one thing Saves do that’s very interesting is they build in Exceptions to themselves. There are some things (like the cold touch of a Wraith, or certain draws from a Deck Of Many Things) that stand out has explicitly having No Save.

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Great find, I think this 2D6 combat system is sounds a bit like the rules of DUNGEON! (or perhaps some contemporary games with universal mechanics). I would have expected the HP for single characters to have come from Gygax (who if I remember right was the one playing around with naval games - Don’t Give up the Ship?) though I guess they were both interested.

I’d honestly expect Blackmoor to develop more along the lines of DUNGEON!, proto-typed in '72 (or at least wondered if that was where Megerry got the Strategos style combat result table from)? Darn now I want to see if OD&D combat might work using a combat results table with retreats, wounds and such based on the Strategos table

It’d make for quite a dangerous and light combat system.


Trying to piece together how those early games were run is certainly some fun speculation! There’s weird hints scattered throughout some published materials, and of course mountains of (potentially unreliable) eyewitness/player accounts. Early Ref’s were notoriously stingy with their rules in dev it would seem though, and the haze of time has a way of clouding memory.

According to Svenny in Blackmoor 2d6s were being thrown for combat in Blackmoor at least (~1970). Arneson was in the MMSA and that lovely Table T was in Strategos N which they were using in the Twin Cities so it’s not unlikely that there were some roots here as well. I think it’s very likely Megarry borrowed/simplified this for DUNGEON! which came out of the brief underworld jaunts that had taken place in Blackmoor. From there it seems things got very Arnesonian though (1-100 scores, hit location, all that fun stuff you’d assume you’d see come from Caltech honestly). :slight_smile:

But I think the Saves still probably came first in terms of individual “figures.” Blackmoor’s original “Save” at one point in development might have even been a 2d6 throw vs AC(!) made after every hit (there’s weird references to “defensive bonuses” in stuff like the Temple of the Frog). But the “all or nothing” doesn’t appear to be something the player’s enjoyed as their sole form of “hit protection.”

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To go back to the OP, I think this split works best. Death Saves on Str, everything else split between Dex and Wil. It does make effects which require Death saves potentially a lot more effective since Str is likely to be lower, but that might be ok, how often do PCs get to trigger a Death Save anyway?


I love the symmetry between early D&D heroes and ItO Divisions.

HP, AC, Levels and Saves were added on to individual units in oD&D to make them as powerful and durable a units of troops were in Chainmail.

Then in Into The Odd you have a couple of tweaks to the rules to allow Divisions to be statted like heroes, because it’s easier.

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That’s definitely an interesting consideration. Using the OSE Fantasy Cleric/Magic User Spells as a rough guide I come up with the following “rough” approximations of Save distribution:

Save versus Death: ~6 (Cloudkill, Air Elemental and Tornado Whirlwind, Death Spell, and Disintegrate and possibly the Snakes from Sticks to Snakes)
Save versus Spells: ~20
(there are a few more wrinkles l like HD limiting the efficacy of Sleep/Hold Person or INT factoring into Charm Person durations, but those are probably just best handled via ruling honestly)

No Breath, Wands, or Paralysis Saves are explicitly called out in the Spell List, but could still come up infrequently through Magic Items (specifically Wands, but most seem to call for a Save versus Spells on a casual glance). And once you get into adapting other materials from these older sources, all bets are off of course :slight_smile:

One key thing I always try to keep in mind about the Categories that’s served me well is that they are in a very specific order on the Character Sheet. If it’s a Spell, it’s nearly always going to be Spells. When in doubt about which one applies because the Save isn’t explicitly called out (If say, you have a Wand of Petrification) just start at the top and work down, using the first applicable Save.

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