Friday, April 21, 2017

A Frequently Missed Point on Saving Throws

For most of my gaming career I've never really cared about the saving throw categories in old school D&D and AD&D. They're not really great for abstracting or expanding the concepts they cover. Well, okay, I've always loved that there is a save against 'Death Ray" in OD&D. But mostly the categories left me cold,

But what I noticed when I was looking at OD&D's saving throw table recently was the general trend of the numbers. Take a look.

Without getting fancy about it, the OD&D chart has a clear tendency to have lower numbers on the left side of the chart. Sure, it's a little backward with high level magic-users, but for the most part the easier saves are further to the left. And at the same time, these are the saves that are more likely to take a PC out of the game. A fighter with decent hit points can take a Fireball or the breath of a smaller dragon on the chin, but poison and Finger of Death are save or die. And polymorph / paralyzation is a remove-from-game save.

The charts in AD&D are surprisingly similar. The categories run: Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic; Petrification or Polymorph; Rods, Staves, and Wands; Breath Weapon; Spell. Basically Gygax re-shuffled the things that are on the right and left, keeping all of the ideas that take PCs straight out of the game on the left, and ones that mitigate damage to the right, with lower target numbers on the left side of the chart. B/X D&D follows OD&D in the placement of poison and Death Ray saves, but moves paralysis over to the middle with Stone. Still, we see the general pattern at work.

No attempt that I've seen to rationalize saving throws has followed Gygax in this. Saving throws organized by the result of failure seems counter-intuitive and overly fiddly, even though it has the effect that fighters have a 45% chance to save versus poison, as opposed to only a 25% chance to save versus a Charm Person spell thrown by an enemy magic-user. Using, say, the Swords & Wizardry single saving throw, a fighter has a 35% chance of either, even though the fighter's player may well prefer the extra 10% against poison.

This isn't intended to be a deep observation, but I find that it salvages the saving throw categories from the earlier editions. It's certainly changed my opinion, which (before I looked at the chart and noticed the trend) had been in favor of the single saving throw.


  1. In the second edition of Blood & Treasure, I used what you're talking about as the basis for the saving throw rules, applying a bonus for the saves against things that would take a character out of the game, plus a little bump against magic for the spellcasters.

    1. It's a good wrinkle for the saving throw system IMO, and a solid decision to follow Gygax on.

  2. The 1977 PC sheets from TSR are a curious mish-mash of OD&D, Holmes, and AD&D saving throws, and I've long thought that sitting down to dig into the category titles would be an interesting exercise.


  3. Despite the fact that you can make a number of useful analytical claims about the numbers (your claim is one of them), I've always liked them because they remain to some extent elusive and uncrackable. I'm sure this was probably an accident, but still. There's a sort of mystery about the chart that seems appropriate for adjudicating what can be, as you point out, life or death situations. A simple ability check seems almost too trite for such important matters. That sounds fluffy and pretentious, I know. But there it is.

  4. I've seen a few people mention this trend before. It inspired me to come up with a chartless approach to saving throws:

    Roll 1d20 greater than or equal to some target number. Death Ray = 12, Wands = 13, Stone = 14, Staves = 15, Dragon Breath = 16. Everyone gets a +2 or +3 bonus for every so many levels, using the same groupings found in OD&D

    Fighters suck against Staves & Spells (-1 penalty). They're REALLY good against Dragon Breath (+1 bonus at first, plus an additional +1 for every six levels beyond the first)

    Magic-users suck against Death Rays, Poison and Wands (-1). They're good against Stone (+1) and REALLY good against Staves & Spells (+1 at 6th-level, doubling every five levels thereafter [or maybe just +1])

    Clerics are good against Death Rays, Poison and Wands (+1). They also acquire divine protection against spells at 5th-level and protection from wands at 13th, but can only benefit from one of these at a time. Alternatively, if that seems too fiddly, just make them good against Staves & Spells (+1)

  5. The saving throws have rough correspondence (and seem extrapolated from) various 2D6 saves originally found in Chainmail for things such as poison, spells, and dragon fire. For example, a superhero (8th level fighter) saved against dragon breath on a 2D6 throw of 7+ (about 58%) and saves on a D20 roll of 10+ (55%). A wizard (11th level) has roughly the same chance.


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