The Definitive Guide To Old-School Saving Throws
Saving throw names in Old-School Dungeons and Dragons are often awkward and difficult to assign to certain effects and traps because they originated in a traditional wargamming and dungeon crawling environment. Because of this, it can be hard to decide which kind of saving throw to apply in certain scenarios.
When determining which type of saving throw an effect should have, it's important to first consider whether a saving throw is even necessary. If the effect is a trap that simply causes harm, such as an arrow trap, it's often better to give it a THAC0 and have it make an attack roll instead. This is because armor class already represents a character's ability to avoid harm, so adding a saving throw would be unnecessary complexity.
If the effect is something that armor and dexterity aren't effective against, then you can move on to figuring out the appropriate saving throw. Saving throws are listed in order of difficulty, from easiest to hardest:
- Death, poison
- Paralysis, petrification
- Breath attacks
- Spells, rods, staves
You should assign an effect to the first category that fits. For example, you would use a death saving throw for an effect that has a high chance of instantly killing a character or inflicting poison or other malicious bodily status effects. These saves are the easiest because of their lethality.
Wands should be given to any effect that requires a physical implement being aimed at the target. These saves are the second most easy because they telegraph themselves heavily in the fiction due to a device being pointed towards the target.
Paralysis and petrification saving throws should be used for any effect that alters or impedes a character's movement, such as pushing or shoving them, as well as more magical effects like petrification from a gorgon. These saves are in the middle range of difficulty because there may not be an obvious and clear indication that the effect is coming that can be avoided, or if there is, it has enough momentum to physically displace a hardy adventurer and so is not easily dodgable.
Breath attack saving throws apply primarily to the lethality of dragon breath, but can also be used for any other elemental effect that attempts to fill a room or large space. These effects are difficult to avoid due to their large effective areas.
Finally, spells, rods, and staves saving throws should be used for any effect that requires little more than a device activating (but not being aimed), or a mage whispering an incantation under their breath. It's not obvious who the target is or what the effect will be until it happens, making these the hardest of all saves.
If you can't decide which saving throw is most appropriate after considering all of these options, you can use a death saving throw because "save versus death" is always intimidating to players, even though it's the easiest save to pass. If you've come up with an effect that is so complex that it doesn't fit into any of these categories and you're not sure which saving throw to use, it may be best to simplify the effect.
In terms of determining the form that a successful saving throw takes in the fiction, the AD&D 1e Dungeon Master's Guide offers the following advice:
The term saving throw is common enough, coming to us from miniature wargames and D&D. It represents the chance for the figure concerned to avoid (or at least partially avoid) the cruel results of fate. In AD&D it is the same. By means of skill, luck, magical protections, quirks of fate and the aid of supernatural powers, the character making his or her saving throw takes none or only part of the indicated results—fireball damage, poisoning, being turned to stone, or whatever.
Someone once sharply criticized the concept of the saving throw as ridiculous. Could a man chained to a rock, they asked, save himself from the blast of a red dragon's breath? Why not?, I replied. If you accept fire- breathing dragons, why doubt the chance to reduce the damage sustained from such a creature's attack? Imagine that the figure, at the last moment, of course, manages to drop beneath the licking flames, or finds a crevice in which to shield his or her body, or succeeds in finding a way to be free of the fetters. Why not? The mechanics of combat or the details of the injury caused by some horrible weapon are not the key to heroic fantasy and adventure games. It is the character, how he or she becomes involved in the combat, how he or she somehow escapes—or fails to escape—the mortal threat which is important to the enjoyment and longevity of the game.
A character under magical attack is in a stress situation, and his or her own will force reacts instinctively to protect the character by slightly altering the effects of the magical assault. This protection takes a slightly different form for each class of character. Magic-users understand spells, even on an unconscious level, and are able to slightly tamper with one so as to render it ineffective. Fighters withstand them through sheer defiance, while clerics create a small island of faith. Thieves find they are able to avoid a spell's full effects by quickness…
— AD&D 1e DMG, "Combat (Saving Throws)"
Or to say it more simply: "It is not the type of the save that determines the form it takes, but the nature of the person making it."