Atha, warrior of the Mountain People, had slain many enemies. The dead lay in piles about her, bodies hewn by her mighty blade. As the Serpent approached her, she raised her steel one more time, bracing against the flames she knew were to come…
How do you determine what happens next?
That’s basically the question we’re asking ourselves every moment we play the Game. We figure the chances of this, and the probability of that, and if we add in some role-play, we’ve got everything the Game is about. But what about in moments where Characters are injured, or facing insurmountable odds with a good chance of death? How do you calculate the chances of surviving the unsurvivable?
At first, it seems the best way is an Ability Test. Rolling against an Ability Score (or, in modern games, a Difficulty Class) allows the Character to perform some action in hopes of preventing their impending death. Atha in the example above might test her Strength to leap out of the way of the Dragonfire, or her Constitution in simply weathering the flames.
However, what if Atha fails to leap out of the way? Or finds the heat unbearable even to her heroic form? Is she simply allowed to die? Does a Character's life always hinge on a single roll of the dice? Or are these fictional beings a little more important than that?
The answer lies in the Saving Throw
Saving Throws have been around in games for a long time. The first game that is said to have a "Saving Throw" is the war game created by Donald Featherstone, where Characters who were about to die could sometimes roll (or “throw”) a D6 to see if they live, with different odds of survival determined by their armor. Tony Bath later created a set of rules for war games that also included a sort of Saving Throw, which Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren were inspired by when creating their war game, Chainmail. This is where the idea started that Saving Throws should be categorized by the thing the Character is being saved from, rather than by how the Character is being saved.
In Chainmail, only certain Monsters, Heroes, and Super Heroes could make any sort of Defense roll. Attackers roll against one of many Matrices measuring both the Attacker’s stats and the Defender’s, and success or failure are automatic based on the result rolled. However, if the Defender is one of those types of Monster, or a Hero or Super Hero, then, for Fireball and Lightning Bolt, and only those two attacks, the Defender can make an extra roll to try to Save themselves.
When working on Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax initially used the Chainmail rules for combat resolution. But they also included an "Alternative Combat System", which took this idea of a Throw to Save oneself and, coining the term “Saving Throw”, changed again how the actual mechanic worked so that now all Defenders benefitted from them, but only in certain circumstances, and at different ability levels. They also expanded the number of Attacks that could trigger a Saving Throw from 2 specific Attacks to 5 broad categories of Attack.
Some games frame the Saving Throw as a Luck Roll, or use a special mechanic or die to represent the chaos of life or otherwise alter the way that Characters can be saved from near-certain death. So long as the overall mechanism is based on chance, it is essentially the same thing. But, other systems for saving Characters near death are not the same thing - spending a specially-named point not to die, for example, is analogous to a second set of Hit Points, and not a Saving Throw.
Despite their mechanical and diegetic differences, all of the types of Saving Throw share one trait in common: they are an extra roll of dice to see if a Character is really dead, when the dice have already determined that the Character should die. This is the thing that makes Saving Throws different from normal Ability Tests, their last-minute nature. And this is the most often confused aspect of Saving Throws as well, in that many Players will use them in place of the initial Ability roll, rather than as a second roll to keep the characters from dying after the first has failed.
This misconception has led many to see Saving Throws in OSR games as a separate Ability, only used in cases of Dragonfire, or whatever the category may be. This is very much not the case.
Saving Throws are last chances, not the only chance.
The flames swept through the cavern, igniting the piles of bodies arrayed about the warrior. Atha's blade shielded her from the bulk of the fire the bodies did not, though her hair was burned clear to her scalp. The heat seared her skin, leaving it red and raw, covered in a thick sheen of sweat as she climbed atop the evidence of her conquest, readying her sword for attack...