Personality Trait Saving Throws for OSR Games

One of my regular campaigns is Greg Stafford’s masterpiece, King Arthur Pendragon. For those unfamiliar with the game system, the game is notable for providing game stats for characters in the form of traits and passions. When a player wishes to determine how their knight would behave in a given situation, or when they are confronted by extreme circumstances, they roll against their character’s traits and passions to determine how their character would behave. Naturally, as ever when rolling dice in an RPG, players must abide by the results of dice rolls irrespective of how they may prefer their character to behave. This system simulates knightly behaviour in Malory and other primary sources, where, for example, Lancelot goes mad and runs off into the woods for two years in response to being caught in bed with another woman by Guenever. Although this may sound antithetical to the sensibilities of old school play, it works beautifully in practice and is key to Pendragon‘s success.

I have been toying with this thought as I have reflected on potential replacements for the traditional alignment system in OSR games:

So what if we tried to retrofit a mechanical system to simulate personality traits to OSR games?

Inspired by playing Pendragon, I propose the use of a saving throw mechanic based on the saving throws of OSR games. The basic idea is that whenever a player wishes their character to act against a personality trait for which that character is known, they roll a saving throw against that trait. If they succeed, they may act however the player would want them to act. If they fail, they are compelled to act according to their personality trait.

For example, a notably proud character’s honour is affronted while on a diplomatic mission. Given the sensitivity of the mission, the player would prefer it if their character swallowed their pride and let the matter pass for now without further comment, perhaps secretly swearing revenge in the distant future. The referee asks the player to roll a save versus their pride. The character fails, and immediately challenges the offender to a duel as a result!

These mechanics would only suit certain styles of campaign, of course, and I cannot claim extensive play testing, so I hope you will let me know your thoughts and feedback especially if you try them out at your table! In the spirit of the OSR these mechanics are intended for the referee to make rulings rather than as prescriptive rules.

Trait Selection

Every player character picks one or more character traits for which their character is known at character generation. The referee may choose to encourage the selection of traits with some sort of in character advantages – but it is suggested that player characters do not begin play with too many. Some example personality traits:

  • Proud
  • Lustful
  • Bigotted (against a race or group)
  • Generous
  • Honest

The chosen traits are recorded on the character sheet as a saving throw with a target number of 15.

Save vs Trait

When the referee or the player determines that the character’s personality trait is being tested by the situation, the player rolls a save versus the trait’s target number. A roll equal to or above the number succeeds, as per the usual saving throw procedure.

On a natural roll of 20, not only is the save made, but the character finds it easier to act against the trait in the future. Reduce the save’s target number by 1 for future saves vs this trait. If a trait is reduced to 1 in this fashion, the character has overcome the trait and need not save against it anymore.

On a natural roll of 1, not only is the save failed, but the trait becomes even more pronounced. Increase the save’s target number by 1 for future saves vs this trait. A trait cannot be increased beyond 20 in this way.

Gaining Traits in Play

Player characters often develop pronounced personality traits over the course of a long-term campaign. The referee may award the character a new trait (with a default starting value of 15) if they notice the character consistently exhibit a particular response/behaviour in similar circumstances. The character may also develop a new trait in response to a life-changing event. Such trait-saves may be more specific than those selected during character creation, for example:

  • Love for a brother
  • Hatred against a sworn enemy
  • Heartbreak over the death of a lover

Losing a Trait

Other than reducing the trait-save’s target value by rolling lots of 20s as per the above, a character may lose a trait through making a successful save vs that trait in response to a major event or extraordinary circumstance. For example, a very proud character who makes a successful save versus their pride and debases themselves in a very public setting may forever overcome their pride in so doing. A character may also lose a trait (especially a very specific one) if it no longer makes narrative sense for them to have it. For example, if a character with hatred for a sworn enemy as a trait kills that sworn enemy in single combat, the trait is eliminated. If the character finds out that their sworn enemy isn’t really their father’s murderer and the whole basis for their hatred was false all along, the trait might be eliminated – unless they have another reason to hate them that is!

Referee Advisory Warning

The referee will need to carefully consider the selection of traits and their suitability for the campaign in question. If the game uses the regular alignment system alongside trait-saves, then the referee may also wish to be careful not to allow personality traits which overlap with features of various alignments. It is better for personality traits to be selected which a player may occasionally wish to act against. This does not limit traits to “vices” as opposed to virtues, however. A virtue in one situation may be a vice in another. A notably honest character may wish to tell white lies or withhold the whole truth from time to time, for example! At the same time, it is better to avoid traits which the player will always wish to act against – this can lead to unnecessary conflict and arguments at the table as the player objects to their character being too regularly “compelled” to behave in a certain fashion by the dice.

2 Comments on “Personality Trait Saving Throws for OSR Games

  1. Love it..
    Oh – if you want to take a page from D&D 5e – have “failing” against a trait allow the character to gain inspiration (advantage on act.. roll2, keep highest) – So a “prideful” character, when falling to his pride, gets to be REALLY prideful and probably succeed at it… and make matters worse usually.

    Now to convince my players to use this 🙂

    • I like that idea. Possible modification: allow the advantage roll for deciding to act according to the trait without trying to save against it. It might only make sense with trait saves over a certain threshold (eg over 10).

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