Friday, May 24, 2013

Saving Throws: The Originals

Saving throws have been around for almost 40 years now. I've been fighting with them quite a bit while trying to design my own D&D-variant and eventually decided that a "historical survey" would be helpful. Here's what I learned, starting with the original game from 1974:
Death Ray or Poison
All Wands - Including Polymorph or Paralization
Dragon Breath
Staves and Spells
For people who grew up with B/X or BECMI or AD&D there are quite a few surprises here:
  1. The "polymorph or paralyzation" category was originally the "wands" category instead of being a separate "effect" category (the effects just being examples of wands).
  2. Whereas a successful "death ray" saving throw means "no effect," a successful "poison" saving throw means "half of the total possible hit damage" instead; whether this means that the character could still die (half of maximum hit points) or not (half of current hit points) is not really clear.
  3. The description for "spells" seems to imply that a successful saving throw means "no effect" at all, which is at odds with the description of "wands (and staves) of cold, fire ball, lightning" causing one-half damage if the saving throw is successful; presumably "spells" was meant as "all spells that don't otherwise cause damage"?
Next we have Holmes Basic from 1977:
Spell or Magic Staff
Magic Wand
Death Ray or Poison
Turned to Stone
Dragon Breath
Aside from the different labels, the descriptions are pretty much the same as in the 1974 game, including the "save against spells for no effect" approach. Note that complete absence of "polymorph or paralyzation" from this set of saving throws. Let's skip AD&D from 1979 for a moment and continue along the "basic D&D" line first, with the B/X sets from 1981:
Death Ray or Poison
Magic Wands
Paralysis or Turn to Stone
Dragon Breath
Rods, Staves, or Spells
First note that we're now back to the order in which saving throws were given in the 1974 game. Next note that "paralysis" has moved from the "wand" category into the "effect" category of "turn to stone" but "polymorph" is nowhere to be found (still covered by "wands" I would presume). Finally note that "rods" finally make their appearance (Holmes included the Rod of Cancellation as a magic item but there was no corresponding saving throw). Neither the BECMI sets from 1983 to 1985 nor the Rules Cyclopedia from 1991 change the saving throw categories further in this line of D&D development.

Let's look at AD&D, the first edition from 1979, next:
Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic
Petrification or Polymorph
Rod, Staff or Wand
Breath Weapon
Here we have a number of significant departures from the original 1974 game and it's "basic set" offshoots:
  1. Paralyzation moves from the "wands" category into an "effect" category just like in B/X, however instead of moving to "turn to stone" it ends up moving to "death magic" which is the more inclusive revision of "death ray" from 1974.
  2. Polymorph is back from 1974 and also moves from the "wands" category into an "effect" category, but this time into "petrification" which is the move inclusive revision of "turn to stone" from earlier editions of the game.
  3. Wands are no longer separate from rods and staves, implicitly giving rise to something like a "magical device" category (even though it's unclear whether this was actually the intention).
  4. Spells are now their own category, further implying that there's a distinction between effects from devices and effects from actual casters.
There's some advice that "petrification and polymorph" should not be used for such effects from wands, that "breath weapon" should not be used if the breath causes "petrification or polymorph," and that "spells" does not apply when another saving throw has been specified (presumably in the spell description). I have to say that "breath weapon causing polymorph" is something I do not recall any monster for, so maybe I should design one? AD&D also goes into a lot of detail about saving throws for items, something that does not concern me here (except to point out that B/X and BECMI handle those with just the normal saving throws).

Ten years later we get to the second edition of AD&D from 1989:
Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic
Rod, Staff, or Wand
Petrification or Polymorph
Breath Weapon
Interestingly nothing really changed from 1979, they are even using just about identical footnotes to the saving throw tables. Not much innovation there! (I guess it all went into removing devils and demons?)

In 2000 with the third edition of (A)D&D we get the infamous "streamlined" saving throws: Fortitude, Will, and Reflex. In 2008 with the fourth edition we get something I don't even understand, but I know I don't want it. So we'll just ignore those strange developments here.

What can be learned from this?
  1. Only the "breath weapon" category remains the same across the various revisions, although it does start out as "dragon breath" and thus got generalized a little with AD&D.
  2. AD&D lowered the power level of staves and rods by lumping them together with wands instead of regular spells. This could be seen as a "magical device" category.
  3. The "3P" effects of "paralyzation, petrification, polymorph" jump around a lot over the years. If we prefer them as distinct effects (rather than basing the saving throw on the source of the effect) then the AD&D version arguably makes the most sense: both petrification and polymorph are "radical changes to the body" and lumping them together based on that seems appropriate; paralyzation, on the other hand, simply takes the victim out of the game much like "death rays" or "poison" might.
Personally I still prefer the B/X revision when it comes to saving throws, mostly because I like the idea that wands are easier to resist than staves. However, the AD&D revision is a close second.

(You may also be interested in this followup article covering various clones of the original rules discussed above.)

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