D&D 5E A Brief History of Saving Throws, the Original Plot Armor

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
There has been a recent thread discussing the original (1e, OD&D) saving throws, and I thought it would be helpful to examine the ways in which saving throws (and the conception of saving throws) have changed over time. As a general concept, I would say that the original conception of saving throws was pretty simple- saving throws were the original 'plot armor' in D&D. Over time, and through play, they have become something slightly different- saving throws are now a purely game mechanic that allows an easier calibration of challenge (difficulty to character) to power (character's ability to overcome challenges).

In order to understand this evolution, it's necessary to understand the history of the saving throw.

1. The pre-history of the saving throw.
We are so poor, we don't even have a language! Just a stupid accent!

Saving throws arose out of the context of wargaming. The idea of saving throws is inherent in many games, and the term itself is referenced in Tony Bath's 1966 Rules for Medieval Wargames. "City militia may only attack heavy infantry if they can throw a 5 or 6. If attacked by them they must throw a 4, 5, 6 to stand, otherwise break and are diced for… If fighting takes place, one throw per 5 men, militia lose half total, no saving throw, cavalry lose one-quarter, saving throw of six." This is where we can see the concept of "saving throw" to mean, well, exactly what it sounds like: attackers roll to hit, and then defenders "throw" the dice to see if they can "save" some of the units.

The precursor to D&D, Chainmail, continued the concept of the saving throw. As one example, if you dropped a rock against besieging attackers climbing ladders, the rock would kill the first climber, and you would roll a die to see if the others would survive, with certain rolls "saving" the other climbers. Of more pertinent interest to D&D, certain characters (such as Hero Types and Super Heroes) could get a roll to see if they were "saved" from the missile file of a Wizard. Similar rolls could be made to see if certain character types could be saved from the breath of a dragon, or petrification from a basilisk, and so on. At this time, there was no unified save tables. However, if you look at Chainmail, you can see a theoretical beginning to the saving throw tables:
Wizards (Spells)
Basilisk/Cockatrice (Petrification)
Giants Spiders / Insects (Poison)
Dragons (Breath Weapon)

By the time of OD&D, the saving throws were codified into a form that is looking more familiar in the Saving Throw Matrix of Men & Magic:
Death Ray or Poison
All Wands- Including Polymorph of Paralization (sic)
Stone
Dragon Breath
Staves & Spells

Notably, OD&D was not a model of clarity, with the rules stating that a failure meant that the weapon (?) had full effect, while a success meant that the weapon has either no effect, or one-half effect.

This type of "universal save" was further complicated in the rules by the numerous carveouts; you knew something was super-duper important when there was NO SAVE. The touch of a lich (no save), a poisonous cloak (no save!!!),a Queen of Spades or Clubs in a Deck of Many things (no save), and so on.


2. The 1e/AD&D saving throw as plot armor.
I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.

By the time of 1e DMG, the saving throw tables had changed into a slightly different form. Now, we had the following:
Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic
Petrification or Polymorph
Rod, Staff or Wand
Breath Weapon
Spell

As an aside, this might seem pretty strange to people who did not grow up with it; but the idea of these separate categories persisted from 1974 - 2000, so they were very well ingrained by the time that 3e changed them to the ability-based saves we have now.

But what I find more interesting than the specific categories (or even the category switching, like moving staves to rods and wands) is the why of saving throws. The PHB described is (not exactly correctly) as this- "The chance to avoid or partially negate magical and breath attack forms is known as the save." PHB 105. What is far more interesting, and illustrative, is the extended section on saving throws written by Gygax in the 1e DMG on pages 80 and 81:

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. The various saving throws are shown on the appropriate tables - for characters, monsters, and items as well. When someone or something fails to roll the number shown, or better, whatever is coming comes in full. To better understand the concept of the saving throw, the following is offered:

As has been often pointed out, AD&D is a game wherein participants create personae and operate them in the milieu created and designed, in whole or in part, by the Dungeon Master and shared by all, including the DM, in imagination and enthusiasm. The central theme of this game is the interaction of these personae, whether those of the players or those of the DM, with the milieu, including that part represented by the characters and creatures personified by the DM. This interaction results in adventures and deeds of daring. The heroic fantasy which results is a blend of the dramatic and the comic, the foolish and the brave, stirring excitement and grinding boredom. It is a game in which the continuing epic is the most meaningful portion. It becomes an entity in which at least some of the characters seem to be able to survive for an indefinite time, and characters who have shorter spans of existence are linked one to the other by blood or purpose. These personae put up with the frustrations, the setbacks, and the tragedies because they aim for and can reasonably expect to achieve adventure, challenge, wealth, glory and more. If player characters are not of the same stamp as Conan, they also appreciate that they are in effect writing their own adventures and creating their own legends, not merely reliving those of someone else's creation.

Yet because the player character is all-important, he or she must always - or nearly always - have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who do are what the fabric of the game is created upon. These adventures become the twice-told tales and legends of the campaign. The fame (or infamy) of certain characters gives lustre to the campaign and enjoyment to player and DM alike as the parts grow and are entwined to become a fantastic history of a never-was world where all of us would wish to live if we could.

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 firebreathing 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.


And that's an important concept. Much like hit points, saving throws were conceived of as 'plot armor' for the characters. Which brings up an important issue-

If these rolls are meant to "save" the character, and to indicate the helpful hand of divine providence (plot armor), then why did they get used so often? And so randomly? This brings up to a slightly different issue.


3. The best saving throw is the one you never roll.
"In English, a double negative forms a positive. But there isn't a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative."
"Yeah, right."


Do you ever have (or remember) those annoying conversations with people that were older than you- your well-intentioned parents, or older siblings? And you, looking for sympathy, would say something like, "I can't believe that I didn't get that job. I was five minutes late because I had a flat tire and the subway workers were on strike."

And they would look at you, and clear their throat (because this type of instruction would always require throat clearing) and say, "Well, if you really wanted that job, you would have made sure you were at least 5 hours early, and you would have checked your tires the night before."

...and you wanted to strangle them? Yeah, well, that's old school (sometimes referred to as 'skilled play') D&D can sound like! When you look to the fatality of poison, or dragon breath, or a spell, the response often would be, "Well, if you are playing the game right, then you don't get hit by the spell/dragon breath/poison."

And, in a Platonic conception, this should be true. If you hit the enemy spellcaster first, he doesn't get to cast his spells. If you know that there is a Medusa in the area, then you plan on not looking at her. If there's a dragon, then stealth is in order. And so on. The saving throw isn't meant to be a regular part of the game, so much as it is an additional "relief valve" for when your careful preparation and play has failed.

But that's not at all how it worked in play, for most groups. Saving throws became a regular part of the mechanics- similar to hit points, they were a buffer that got better as you leveled up. The continued to be "plot armor" in a sense ... in the same sense that hit point were ... but they no longer effectively functioned as the type of deus ex machina as they were originally described. Saving throws simply became a core mechanic of D&D, with the concept of the the roll "saving" your character becoming lost in the same way that people aren't quite sure why "class" is used in Armor Class.


4. 5e, and resisting effects.
Resistance is futile.

5e simplifies the concept of saving throws. "A saving throw - also called a save - represents an attempt to resist a spell, a trap, a poison, a disease, or a similar threat. You don’t normally decide to make a saving throw; you are forced to make one because your character or monster is at risk of harm."

The game has gone all the way around to recognizing what was formerly implicit - the saving throw is no longer some special type of plot armor, some last-ditch roll to "save" your character. Instead, it is part of the balancing of the game and implies the active ability of your character. Rather than any whiff of deus ex machina, it is resistance, active defense. It is, for lack of a better term, those things that your character is best at defending.

There's no real grand conclusion here. I don't think that there is anything profound about this change. I would say that the origins of the saving throw are interesting, and I do think it's remarkable to look back at how many of the mechanical concepts we use today arose from these early attempts at providing plot armor.
 

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Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
Great resume, thank you for that.

I find the old saves amusing and quirky, but as far as game mechanics go, I prefer the new ''resistance'' type saves.

But I would love to have conditions and effects that provokes that feeling of ''last ditch effort'' from the character. Since this thing already exist in form of the Death Saves, I would be thrilled if some effects other than falling to 0 hp, forced to immediately make a Death Save, a failed one not disappearing after the next long rest.

Like, you are hit by a vicious poison and fail your CON save? Start making death saves for X rounds or until cured, even though you are still technically standing. Hope an ally has an antidote or lesser restoration prepared! This would make resistance to poison or spells like Protection from X or Remove X be more desirable.

i.e
Finger of Death
7th-level necromancy
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous
You send negative energy coursing through a creature that you can see within range, causing it searing pain. The target must make a Constitution saving throw. It takes 7d8 + 30 necrotic damage on a failed save and must immediately make 3 death saves which only disappears after the target complete a long rest. A successful save deal half as much damage and does not provoke Death saving throws.

A humanoid killed by this spell rises at the start of your next turn as a zombie that is permanently under your command, following your verbal orders to the best of its ability.
 
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turnip_farmer

Adventurer
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 firebreathing 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.
I read several references to this scenario, the man chained to a rock surviving the dragon breath, in early issues of White Dwarf. Didn't realise it was straight from the DnD rulebook!
 


squibbles

Adventurer
[...] I would love to have conditions and effects that provokes that feeling of ''last ditch effort'' from the character. Since this thing already exist in form of the Death Saves, I would be thrilled if some effects other than falling to 0 hp, forced to immediately make a Death Save, a failed one not disappearing after the next long rest.

Like, you are hit by a vicious poison and fail your CON save? Start making death saves for X rounds or until cured, even though you are still technically standing. Hope an ally has an antidote or lesser restoration prepared! This would make resistance to poison or spells like Protection from X or Remove X be more desirable.

i.e
Finger of Death
7th-level necromancy
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous
You send negative energy coursing through a creature that you can see within range, causing it searing pain. The target must make a Constitution saving throw. It takes 7d8 + 30 necrotic damage on a failed save and must immediately make 3 death saves which only disappears after the target complete a long rest. A successful save deal half as much damage and does not provoke Death saving throws.

A humanoid killed by this spell rises at the start of your next turn as a zombie that is permanently under your command, following your verbal orders to the best of its ability.

I like the idea of reusing death saves for a wider range of purposes, especially to raise stakes.

It's a little bit clunky, due to the number of extra rolls, but look at Flesh to Stone:

Flesh to Stone
6th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S, M (a pinch of lime, water, and earth)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
You attempt to turn one creature that you can see within range into stone. If the target's body is made of flesh, the creature must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, it is restrained as its flesh begins to harden. On a successful save, the creature isn't affected.
A creature restrained by this spell must make another Constitution saving throw at the end of each of its turns. If it successfully saves against this spell three times, the spell ends. If it fails its saves three times, it is turned to stone and subjected to the petrified condition for the duration. The successes and failures don't need to be consecutive; keep track of both until the target collects three of a kind.
If the creature is physically broken while petrified, it suffers from similar deformities if it reverts to its original state.
If you maintain your concentration on this spell for the entire possible duration, the creature is turned to stone until the effect is removed.

Change "Constitution" to "Death", and its basically the same mechanic.


But more on topic:
It's a bit of a headscratcher that D&D is bifurcated into two opposite resolution mechanics--1.) Attacker rolls to hit against AC and 2.) defender rolls to save against DC. Why? Holdover from an older paradigm of play.

It would make better sense to have most spells use attack rolls instead of saving throws and retain saving throws only for especially nasty and/or unusual spell effects. I mean, it would be easy enough to change save for half damage to missed spell attacks deal half damage.

But--of course--that's never going to happen.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
But more on topic:
It's a bit of a headscratcher that D&D is bifurcated into two opposite resolution mechanics--1.) Attacker rolls to hit against AC and 2.) defender rolls to save against DC. Why? Holdover from an older paradigm of play.

It would make better sense to have most spells use attack rolls instead of saving throws and retain saving throws only for especially nasty and/or unusual spell effects. I mean, it would be easy enough to change save for half damage to missed spell attacks deal half damage.

But--of course--that's never going to happen.
Aside from in 4th ed? ;)

I think it's because players seem to prefer the feeling of rolling to "save" themselves/their characters. It feels more like their fate is in their own hands. It has some of the thrill of gambling. Whereas the DM just rolling to hit feels more out of your control, despite the math being identical. The drama is greater when the DM says "The beast's foul fangs, dripping with greenish venom, sink into Dame Tabitha's forearm! Roll to save!"

I do think 4E handled this really well, with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves replaced by Fortitude, Reflex, and Will Defenses, the Non-AC Defenses. And Saving Throws were for Death or a few other "avoid it or don't" effects (like that Petrification mechanic), and basically always a 10+ on a d20.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
In 4e, saving throws where always "d20, roll a 10+ to pass". There where only a handful of ways to get a bonus to it, and where basically part of "ongoing conditions".

So it would be like "immobilized (save ends)".

Meanwhile, a dragon fire breath would be an attack vs your Reflex defence.

---

There are games like dungeon world, where the players roll the dice.

When you fight monsters, you roll dice; a good roll means you hurt the monsters, a bad roll means they hurt you.

In such a system, the dragon would breathe fire, and the PCs would decide how to deal with it. Dodge it? Tough it out? Conjure an ice wall to block it?

Each would result in a different reaction by the PC.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Aside from in 4th ed? ;)

I think it's because players seem to prefer the feeling of rolling to "save" themselves/their characters. It feels more like their fate is in their own hands. It has some of the thrill of gambling. Whereas the DM just rolling to hit feels more out of your control, despite the math being identical. The drama is greater when the DM says "The beast's foul fangs, dripping with greenish venom, sink into Dame Tabitha's forearm! Roll to save!"

I do think 4E handled this really well, with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves replaced by Fortitude, Reflex, and Will Defenses, the Non-AC Defenses. And Saving Throws were for Death or a few other "avoid it or don't" effects (like that Petrification mechanic), and basically always a 10+ on a d20.

People often overlook the way things feel as opposed to just the math of a situation. For example, the vast majority of tables prefer to roll for damage, even though you could simplify things by just giving out average damage.

I think you're correct in analogizing it to gambling.
 

2. The 1e/AD&D saving throw as plot armor.
I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.

By the time of 1e DMG, the saving throw tables had changed into a slightly different form. Now, we had the following:
Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic
Petrification or Polymorph
Rod, Staff or Wand
Breath Weapon
Spell
These are quite thematic. They evoke, right away, the dangers your characters will face in the world: poison traps, dragon's breath, basilisks's that petrify, and evil wizards that use spells...or staffs...or wands...or even rods! I feel like this could be leveraged for other genres. Like a post-apocalyptic survival setting where you have a specific save vs thirst, or a planescape game where you have save vs portal effects


Yet because the player character is all-important, he or she must always - or nearly always - have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who do are what the fabric of the game is created upon. These adventures become the twice-told tales and legends of the campaign. The fame (or infamy) of certain characters gives lustre to the campaign and enjoyment to player and DM alike as the parts grow and are entwined to become a fantastic history of a never-was world where all of us would wish to live if we could.

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 firebreathing 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.
This is almost a story-game mechanic? Or plot armor as you describe, but this is discordant with a game that's otherwise about "skilled play"
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is almost a story-game mechanic? Or plot armor as you describe, but this is discordant with a game that's otherwise about "skilled play"

There is a frustrating dichotomy that can be at the heart of early D&D; almost a Manichean aspect of it that manifests in a multitude of ways; wargaming minis or TOTM? Deadly real-life game of attrition and resource management, or narrative-driven creation of legends?

I think that a large part of that is the fumbling attempts to try and codify what the RPG experience is, or should be. Which is why you have the saving throw as both plot armor and as an aspect of skilled play; in other words, an attempt to harmonize the concepts will always be unsuccessful because there was no grand design.

I think that it is quite possible that the earliest writers of D&D, and especially Gygax, were often attempting to synthesize both their wargaming/simulationist roots and their literary/fantasy backgrounds into an amalgamation that was neither of them.
 

Yora

Legend
It's a bit of a headscratcher that D&D is bifurcated into two opposite resolution mechanics--1.) Attacker rolls to hit against AC and 2.) defender rolls to save against DC. Why? Holdover from an older paradigm of play.
The original idea seems to have been that defenders also make an armor throw against the attackers attack score. Since you have to add AC to the die roll and the attackers attack value is the target number.

I think. I still don't understand how you made attack rolls for the first 25 years.
 


"Yet because the player character is all-important, he or she must always - or nearly always - have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction"

This. Players uber alles.
 

But more on topic:
It's a bit of a headscratcher that D&D is bifurcated into two opposite resolution mechanics--1.) Attacker rolls to hit against AC and 2.) defender rolls to save against DC. Why? Holdover from an older paradigm of play.

It would make better sense to have most spells use attack rolls instead of saving throws and retain saving throws only for especially nasty and/or unusual spell effects. I mean, it would be easy enough to change save for half damage to missed spell attacks deal half damage.

But--of course--that's never going to happen.

Well it also simulates particular targets being more susceptible to certain types of attacks without having to have a half-dozen different ACs calculated and listed.
 


turnip_farmer

Adventurer
There are games like dungeon world, where the players roll the dice.

When you fight monsters, you roll dice; a good roll means you hurt the monsters, a bad roll means they hurt you.

In such a system, the dragon would breathe fire, and the PCs would decide how to deal with it. Dodge it? Tough it out? Conjure an ice wall to block it?

Each would result in a different reaction by the PC.
And that's wrong! DMs deserve to roll too!

Though the idea of giving PCs options on how they respond is good, but you can have something like Hackmaster which really leans into opposed rolls (even where they are totally unnessecary). So every attack roll is opposed by a defence roll. GM and player both roll, and the attack hits if the attacker has the higher roll (after modifiers).
 

Save DC is one of my least favorite things about 5e. Players never write it down, don't know how to calculate it, and always get it wrong.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)

The original idea seems to have been that defenders also make an armor throw against the attackers attack score. Since you have to add AC to the die roll and the attackers attack value is the target number.
Sorry, what?

I think. I still don't understand how you made attack rolls for the first 25 years.
Pretty much the same way we do today. Just expressed differently.

In OD&D and AD&D 1E it was with a table lookup, but you're still rolling a d20 and trying to get high enough to hit the AC, though lower ACs were better. There was no auto-miss on a 1 rule or auto-hit on a 20 (I believe they first added those in B/X), but there was a series of repeating 20s at the upper end of the table so you still had a 5% chance for a while against the best defenses, though at some point it stopped and you simply couldn't hit.

In 2E they formalized THAC0 (it had appeared in the monster appendix of the 1E DMG but wasn't fully integrated), which got rid of the repeating 20s, and turned it into a simpler number scale, but the mechanic was still using attack tables/matrices. Check my level and class against the matrix to see what score I need to hit AC 0, then roll my attack adding any applicable bonuses for strength or dex, specialization, race or class abilities with a particular weapon, magic weapon bonuses, etc.

Say for example that I have a 2nd Ed AD&D 2nd level Elf Fighter with a +1 longsword and +1 Strength bonus to hit. I also get a +1 to hit with Longswords for being an elf; it was a racial ability. Looking at the THAC0 table my number needed to hit AC 0 is a 19. I roll a d20 and add 3. Say I roll a 12. 12+3 = 15, subtract that from my THAC0 of 19, and I know I've hit AC4 (which happens to be the AC of Chainmail + Shield).

Compare to 5E. A 2nd level Elf Fighter has +2 Proficiency bonus with his longsword (this basically replaces THAC0), and probably a +3 either Strength or Dex bonus to hit (AD&D was stingier with ability bonuses to hit). Roll a d20 and add +5. Say I roll a 12. That's 17. I've hit AC17. Heck, Chainmail & shield is 18 because they made shields better! Oh well, missed by 1. Unless I had that longsword (or rapier) +1, but I didn't include it as those are rarer in 5E.
 
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The Old Crow

Explorer
It's a bit of a headscratcher that D&D is bifurcated into two opposite resolution mechanics--1.) Attacker rolls to hit against AC and 2.) defender rolls to save against DC. Why? Holdover from an older paradigm of play.
I think saves were originally more akin to hp than AC. Hit points scaled with level and stood between a character and death; saving throws scaled with level and stood between a character and death, paralysis, petrification, poison, and a bunch of other effects.
 

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