Saving Throws

Dungeons & Dragons and its derivates, or clones, have some special mechanics that other roleplaying games do not have, and one prominent example of those special D&D things are “Saving Throws”.

But what are they, and how do you use them, and when?
This question was explored in this blog post here, but I want to go a bit further by looking at the variety of saving throw nomenclature available.


How to use them: Rather simple. If you get hit by something dreadful, you usually can have a saving throw, a last ditch escape from the negative impact. Not always, though! Sometimes a spell or a monster has it in the description that “no saving throw is possible”. In the end, the decision lies with the GM .. and that will often be necessary because the names of the saving throws vary from edition to edition, and they never quite seem to encompass any and all situations.

How exactly

What you do in partucular is you roll a d20, and you roll it high. Hit the target number or above, and you dodged that particular bullet! (or at least halved the damage)

Looking at the details, saving throws can look very different.
Let us look at a number of systems old and new.

Saving Throws through the ages

OD&D or 0e had the following saving throws:

  • Death Ray or Poison
  • Wands, Polymorph and Paralyzation
  • Petrification
  • Dragon Breath
  • Staves and Spells

We see that this is weirdly specific, making a clear distinction between Paralyzation and Petrification. In general, they go from easier to avoid to more difficult to avoid. Death Ray and Poison is the stand-in for anything that can kill in one go, so it would be the thing to roll for a gunshot wound too, not only for science fiction Death Rays. Dragon Breath is often taken as a stand-in for area of effect, so lobbing a grenade at a PC would necessitate an Dragon Breath save on his part to half damage. Many GMs use Petrification saves to avoid falling from a narrow ledge or similar situations. That is often debated, but it makes sense, I think, so I do it like that as well.

In general: With an all or nothing save (death; being turned to stone; turned into a frog…) a successful save means that nothing happens. If the result of the threat is a deduction of Hit Points, then a successful save means the loss is halved.

Holmes had:

  • Spell or Magic Staff
  • Magic Wand
  • Death Ray or Poison
  • Turned to Stone
  • Dragon Breath

Holmes organised the multitude of rules-variants into one, and he obviously wondered why Paralyzation and Polymorph are not with the other spells. He changed that and put all spells together.

As is Holmes’ custom, he did not order the saves. Death is put in the middle, but it is still the “easiest” save. Magic Wand is second, Stone third, Dragon Breath fourth, and Spells are hardest to dodge. Holmes must have liked to mix things up — he also had a five-point alignment system.

For the falling, we would now use “Turned to Stone”, but the argument can be made for “Dragon Breath”, as it is close enough to a quick physical reaction.

B/X (and, by extension, OSE) use the following:

  • Death Ray or Poison
  • Magic Wands
  • Paralysis or Turn to Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Rods, Staves, or Spells.

Tom Moldvay had to wrestle with the placement of Petrification and Paralysis as well! And he had “Rods” now, to add perceived complexity to the distinction between magic sticks. Perceived, but not really, as the numbers are the same. As is Moldvay’s custom, he re-introduced order after Holmes’ re-shuffling, once more ordering the saves from easiest to most difficult, and also restoring the proper [sic!] 3-way-alignment.

Maybe making things clear and easy is why people sometimes say B/X was the kid’s version for the ten-year olds, and proper teenagers should go over to AD&D. Which would make Apple phones the kid-version and scientific pocket calculators the cool gadget for teens.

The popular, and usually excellent, OSE (Old School Essentials) goes a bit too far by explaining these saving throws in a rather “on the nose” way:

M-hm.. what does wand mean? Ah! Wand means wand. What does Spells, Rods or Staves mean, though? Ah! It means a spell, a rod, or a staff.. Good to know, good to know. Death or Poison, though? Ah! Death Ray or Poison.

Well… OSE is great, I like it very much, but this particular entry goes too far in the ways of simplicity. Luckily, there are books that trust us to do some heavier mental lifting.

AD&D 1e has:

  • Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic
  • Petrification or Polymorph (excluding Polymorph Wand attacks)
  • Rod, Staff, or Wand
  • Breath Weapon (excluding those which cause Petrification or Polymorph)
  • Spell (excluding those for which another saving throw is specified)

In classic Gygaxian 1e manner, saving throws are referenced multiple times in the Player Manual, but never with a clear page number, only a title in bold capitals, to make players work for it and read all the book until they find … that it is not in it at all. In fact, the Saving Throws are not hidden in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, like most interesting entries of that edition, and the Dungeon Master is advised to keep them secret from the players. So the Player Handbook serves to hint at forbidden knowledge, thus motivating players to grow and one day become a fully developed Dungeon Master!

Not that they are so easy to find in the DMG … but they sit on page 79. So! I said it and spoiled some of the joy of exploration. Sorry.

Even in 1e, paralyzation still keeps mystifying the reader by taking on new shapes and forms. And AD&D 1e goes ahead and takes away the Death Ray to replace it with Death Magic. No more lasers, phasers and disruptors! Science Fiction must move to the back seat in Advanced D&D. Also, typical of Gary Gygax, everything is listed in a less obvious table with more columns, definitely more lines, bigger spaces between the entries, irregularly spaced coloured bars, and even footnotes with stars and footnotes with tiny letters that explain that the Paladin is, in fact, a type of Fighter, and the Illusionist a type of Magic-User.

What’s more: Saving throws themselves are no cakewalk any more: No measly 16 — a 19 on a d20, and a 20! It becomes very hard indeed for a fighter to duck an explosion or to avoid the effects of a spell. 5% must suffice. Coddling time … is over!

Then, one page later, there is another, new saving throw table for items and how they will withstand a variety of effects.

Obviously, the spacing is all different from the earlier player table.

Going ever deeper into Gary’s frame of mind, the item saves are explained in detail right after the item table, while the character poison saves are explained after the item explanations, that is to say, as far away from the actual table as possible while still keeping it in the same section of the book.

Sure, modern day editors would send this design back to the drawing board. But Gary Gygax wanted you to earn your play! No participation trophies, roleplaying was serious stuff back then, separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

We even hear Gary Gygax talk sternly in our minds when we read these words, with certain parts capitalized for emphasis:

Other saves are not explained.
Although three are at least mentioned in the Player Manual:

which may count. These mentions are the appetizers on the stony path to DM-dom, so it makes sense that they don’t actually give us a lot of hard facts.

After the poison explanation follow some extra save explanations for targets in armor … small wonder that AD&D 1e fans are amazed that they still discover rules they were not aware of, fresh and new after 40 years of playing the game. This edition is a maze of wonders that never stops giving.

What to roll against falling or against a theoretical gunshot?
I can’t say for sure – ask your DM!

AD&D 2e puts the saving throw back into the Player Handbook, but buries it on page 133 to keep it fresh.

2e keeps the exact same nomenclature we have learned in 1e, it only switches the order of Wands and Petrification … and it completely changes all the numbers.

Faithful in the facts, even down to the footnotes! But everthing is easier to find. Even the detailed explanation of the saves is all in the same book and right after the table. We see why some people question 2e’s validity as an OSR game. It makes things too easy, almost like the Basic games, nay, even more so, as 2e introduces modifiers that make saving easier under the right circumstances. [but let’s be fair: also harder in less than ideal situations!]

Of the retroclones, Swords & Wizardry goes 100% anti-Gygax inasfar as it tries to simplify things. It has just 1 kind of save, for all possible situations. 1 Saving number to roll for, whatever may come knocking. That certainly gets rid of any doubts about which save to use in a particular situation.

Swords & Wizardry saving throws, therefore, need no names – they are just saves.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess:

  • Paralyze
  • Poison
  • Breath
  • Device
  • Magic

LotFP, based off of B/X, also tried to remove doubts by ordering the saves by use. That means, for one, that Lamentations puts the Saving Throw explanation into the same section as the character generation. That is quite a decision, going against long-learned habits of putting them farther back after combat or even into different books!

Lamentations, once more, changes the order of saving throws, but it explains why:

That is fresh territory in clarity, pretty close in simplicity and clarity to Swords & Wizardry’s single number.

Paralyze: Anything connected with movement. (Falling! Petrification! Sticky goo! Spiderwebs! Hold Person!)

Poison: Anything that kills or K.O.s regardless of HP count. (Poison! Cloud Kill! Assassins stabbing you in the back or cutting your throat! And yes, the laser weapons and Death Rays are back, even if not named explicitly.)

Breath: Area of Effect. (Explosions! Flamethrowers! Avalanches!)

Magical Devices: Wands and staves, united for once! No longer is the small magic wand ridiculed as a weak loser by the strong and mighty staff.

Magic: This includes all spells that are not part of earlier categories, and innate abilities of some monsters.

To make things even easier for the GM at the table, to book has all the save numbers on the inside of the back cover for quick reference. A sad capitulation in front of a lesser generation: No longer must players of true mettle earn their knowledge through days and weeks and months of dedicated study; the Flame Princess gives even casual “referees” the tools to wing it with little effort. Boo!

Now we jump to the elephant in the D&D room:

5e threw out all the weird names and just tied saves to attributes.

  • STR
  • DEX
  • CON
  • INT
  • WIS
  • CHA

Do you duck it? DEX. Do you suffer through it? CON. Do you push against a force? STR. Etc.
Easy. Save against certain social spells or effects, CHA. To make sure that nobody is stumped, usually spells say outright that the target must make a [X] save against a target number of [Y].

Can it get any easier?

By the way, this has been foreshadowed way back in 2e:

Different game systems sometimes have things they call saves, but that work differently.

Into the Odd / Electric Bastionland is very close to the D&D, but asks players to roll UNDER, not over. Which makes sense with the mechanics, as this gets harder when you lose attribute points. And there are no separate saving throws – like in 5e, you save against an attribute.

Maze Rats states that you ususally don’t roll .. only when there is trouble threatening. In other words, you rarely even roll skills or attributes. If you do, it is difficult, and it is called a save, because you only roll when you are in danger. Again, we take a page out of 5e and go with attributes, not special names. 2d6 plus attribute modifier, reach 10 or more. Easy, but far removed from the original D&D save.

So, that was long enough!

I rest my case and hope that all questions about saving throws and their use at the table are answered.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s