On Saving Throws

One of the things that we see in some OSR games is a consolidation of saving throws into a single roll. In fact, this came up in the Tenkar’s Tavern chat Wednesday night, so I thought I might explore the question in a little more detail. Specifically, why are there different saving throws for different classes in 1st edition AD&D? Let’s look at the table itself:

Let’s see what this tells us, remembering that in 1E, you want to roll high for saving throws, so a lower number on the table is better.

Clerics have great saving throws at low levels. They’re better than every other class but thieves across the board except spells, and they’re tied with thieves in three out of the five.

Fighters are the worst across the board at low levels, bar none. They’re as good as magic-users at sucking the venom out of wounds, but that’s about it.

Magic-Users are middling at low levels. They’re better against spells and wands (as might be expected), but only so-so against the rest.

Finally, thieves are great at saving throws at low levels. This is probably attributable to their main strength, which is dodging and other dexterous activities.

Which sort of brings up a point. What, exactly, do saving throws represent? What does it mean when you make your saving throw? It’s not explicitly stated in the 1st edition rules, but I’ve always thought of it thus:

  • Paralyzation/Poison/Death Magic is a combination of sheer force of will (at resisting the effects of paralysis and killing spells) and physically sucking venom out of wounds. It makes sense that Clerics would be good at this, because their prime attribute, Wisdom, is essentially willpower, and their facility with healing would make sense in the context of dealing with poisons.
  • Petrification or Polymorph is a combination of knowledge of spellcraft and dodging. It could be that you were able to shake off the effect of a polymorph other spell, or you could have pulled your arm out of the way of the ghoul before you were paralyzed. That explains why everyone except fighters are good at it.
  • Rod, Staff, or Wand is either arcane knowledge or dodging. If you can’t avoid the effect, at least you have a chance of getting out of the way of the blast. Thus, magic-users are best, but thieves have a decent save.
  • Breath Weapon is less dodging than getting the hell out of the area at full speed. Thus, at higher levels, fighters are better at it, because they’re physically more fit and can run faster, or if you prefer have better instincts for quickly getting the hell out of the way of vast amounts of harm. You can only dodge and tumble so far.
  • Spell is avoiding the effect of a spell through arcane knowledge. At higher levels, even a fighter can shake off the effects, but it’s a slow slog.

So to my mind, having saving throws dependent on class is a reflection of the various strengths and weaknesses of each class. In pure game terms, they also serve to act as a balancing factor; a fighter might have the most hit points at early levels, but a thief or cleric is going to have a better chance of avoiding a whole slew of common perils. When you have a single saving throw mechanic, you lose both of those factors. Whether simplicity in that sense is worth the loss of balance and class individuality will of course depend on the game and the players, but to my mind, I find the variability to be a level of complexity I’m prepared to accept.


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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

2 thoughts on “On Saving Throws

  1. My feeling is that the saving throws represent coming up with the sort of “get out of jail free card” unlikely tactics or lucky coincidences that authors come up with to get their protagonists out of a jam. Sometimes, that can be simple things like the above, but it’s also luck, stupid ideas (“If I jump into this open well, hopefully I can hold on to the wall while the dragon flame passes above me harmlessly! Or at least it had better, because here I go!”), minor magical abilities, and so on. That’s one reason I don’t much like the “rationalized” saving throw system that the WotC editions pioneered. As for a single save, I can live with it as a luck throw, with some classes getting bonuses to cover their special areas of knowledge.

    Also, an AD&D Thief is a minor magic-user, since they were developed to emulate the Grey Mouser, mostly.

  2. I’ve always seen saving throws not representing anything more than a game mechanic. Throw if you look the word up is another way of saying “roll of a die”.

    In the last few years I’ve begun to view Wisdom in a different way on why it is giving a bonus. In my game I have a wisdom’s bonus applied to all saves. Looking at the game and the views of the writers and when it was written, I’m not so sure it’s meant to represent willpower or luck. Instead it’s more religious in tone, hence the cleric. You have wisdom because you either follow the word of God or you are favored by the gods (like a Greek mythic hero). So a character with a high wisdom could be viewed or played as religious or has a “guardian angel” on his shoulder looking out for him.

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