Saving Throws

Saving Throws — die rolls used to attempt to avoid or ammeliorate some effect or situation — have been around in D&D since the dawn of time, but they change and morph and distort from edition to edition. They've kept some things in common though; they've all varied by both character class and level.

OD&D (the little brown books) used these categories:
  • Death Ray or Poison
  • All Wands - including Polymorph or Paralyzation
  • Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Staves and Spells
All fairly self-explanatory except for the somewhat cryptic "Stone" entry. Does it refer to stones hurled by giants or trebuchets? Does it relate to the chance of avoiding being turned to stone by a gorgon's gaze? Remaining cool under the influence of ganja? Or does it mean the chance of avoiding bashing your head on the low ceiling of a mine? Anyway, I never played OD&D so it was never an issue.

B/X D&D shuffled things about a bit with these categories:
  • Death Ray and Poison
  • Magic Wands
  • Paralysis and Turn to Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Rod, Staff or Spell

Again, I never played B/X. I just recently (last year, in fact) managed to get my hands on a copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopaedia, which is pretty cool I must say, although most of the illustrations are pretty boring.

My main contact with saving throws was via AD&D1e (and my bastardized combination of 1e and 2e), which had separate save categories for:
  • Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic
  • Petrification or Polymorph
  • Rod, Staff or Wand
  • Breath Weapon
  • Spell
The saving throw mechanism is all very well in its way; it's nice for the characters to know that they might, just maybe, be able to mitigate or even avoid the dire effects of a spell or glyph or something. It's a formalized Luck mechanism.
As it was presented in The Old Days though, it was all a bit arcane; the reasoning behind the categories was never actually spelled out. Exactly why a fighter should find it harder to save against an effect from a spell than against the exact same effect via a wand was never actually explained (as far as I know); it was left to the individual GM to rationalize backwards from the data. And it was open to ambiguity — if one was attacked with a wand that squirted out a roiling, roasting cone of fire exactly like red dragon breath, should one properly save vs. Wands or vs. Breath Weapon?

When D&D3e came along, all those effect-based categories were swept away, and instead three characteristic-modified categories replaced them:
  • Fortitude (modified by your Constitution bonus or penalty)
  • Reflex (modified by Dexterity)
  • Will (modified by Wisdom)
This system is much more rational and less arbitrary than the old saving throws, and it is a system much better suited to being applied to unforeseen situations. If an effect could be dodged, obviously a Reflex save would be appropriate, and so forth. Its fault, if fault there be, is that compared with the old saving throw categories, it's a little colourless — which tends to happen with any generic roleplaying system, I've found. The more genre-flexible a system becomes, the less evocative it becomes of any given genre. But I digress.

I don't play D&D4e (boo! hiss! spit!), so I don't know how saving throws are dealt with in that system.
Note: Geoffrey, in the comments,describes the D&D4e saving throw system. It has the sole virtue of simplicity, but it doesn't encourage me to bother with that glorified over-hyped version of Descent.

As I've mentioned before, my game of choice at the moment is Swords & Wizardry, which discards all saving throw categories and uses a single Saving Throw target number for each class and level.

I believe that in its 3rd printing it states that the save be modified against various effects according to class (e.g. a cleric gets +2 to their save against being paralyzed or poisoned). It's not a terrible idea, and it does help to further delineate the individual classes, but then to a small degree it also compromises the Single Save's main virtue, its simplicity and I don't use it myself.

Although I do miss the baroque splendour of the old AD&D Saving Throw Matrix, I've found S&W's single save number to be very workable and flexible in play. I tend to use it as a characteristic save a lot of the time; for example, if a character trips a trap in which he finds himself dodging a multitude of poison darts like Indiana Jones in the first movie, I can call for a DEX save and have the character modify the saving throw by his DEX bonus (or penalty). If they trip a mysterious, non-obvious magical trap, I can just ask for a saving throw.... and because there are no verbal clues (i.e. not a save vs. paralysis, or a save vs. poison, but just a save) it adds to the tension when nothing obvious happens.

I like the concept of the saving throw a lot. It means there's always a chance.... maybe a very slim chance, but a chance, and where there's hope, as they say, there's life.

For that reason, I'll almost never not allow a saving throw in any situation, no matter how hopeless it may seem. Even if it does no good in the end, it makes people feel better, and that means a more enjoyable game.


  1. Quoting from page 279 of the 4E Players Handbook:

    "...a saving throw, which is a d20 roll unmodified by your level or ability modifiers...Roll a d20, with one of the following results:

    Lower than 10: Failure. The effect continues.
    10 or higher: Success. The effect ends."

    In other words, every character of every class, race, and level has the exact same saving throw in every situation: You need to roll a 10 or higher on a d20.

  2. I like to think of Saving Throws as being analogous to the "Luck" attribute in the old Fighting Fantasy books.

    When planning and role-playing have failed, and it's a crap shoot about chances of survival, your last hope is a Saving Throw.

  3. Huzzah! Another vote for S&W's one saving throw to rule them all here. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." - Da Vinci.