The saving throw is largely considered a gameplay mechanic, but I've broadened its scope in the games I run to serve as a prompt for spontaneous roleplay at the table (or online). I'm beginning to empower my players to even use it to inspire creativity themselves, particularly in instances where they struggle to determine "what their character might do" in a complicated situation.
I'd like to start with an approach to the two main "types" of saves, as this method mainly applies to the "mental" stats. You could easily apply it to the physical stats as well, resulting in extra slapstick-style humor (likely something most tables already do).
Mental vs Physical Abilities
A character's primary physical abilities are determined by their Strength, Dexterity and Constitution scores, while their mental abilities are measured by their Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma bonuses. When introducing new players to the mechanics of D&D, I've always found this distinction helpful so the numbers are less overwhelming. It also helps us look at saving throws in a more creative and roleplay-centric way.
If a question or test arises largely involving physical phenomenon, i.e. jumping, climbing, grabbing, imbibing, enduring, this would obviously involve the physical stats. This can also be used (per the DMG) to prompt more interesting tests, such as Performance (Dexterity) when making an artistic rendering, or Animal Handling (Strength) to physically engage with/"persuade" a creature to bend to a character's will (worth a separate post).
Conversely, Mental tests occur largely within the confines of a character's own skull. These are of primary interest to players and DMs alike when it comes to answering the question, "How the hell would my character respond to this scenario?!"
Mental Saving Throws, aka "LOSING YOUR SHIT"
In 5E the differences between Wisdom, Charisma, or Intelligence saving throws are mostly arbitrary. Wisdom saving throws are by far the most common. Charisma saving throws are less common, as you can go a dozen sessions without seeing a single one. Intelligence saves are rare, but they can define an entire encounter and even a whole adventure arc (see: having your brain enfeebled).
Using spells as a guide, ALL these types of saves are used to determine how well your character is able to maintain control of themselves. All three govern a characters force of personality, awareness, and wherewithal. Accordingly, a failed Charisma, Wisdom or Intelligence save represents a loss of control in one way or another.
In magical terms, whether through spells or through monster abilities, this means a PC may be forced to turn on their own party, become possessed, frightened, deafened, or even have their soul-being wrenched from their body outright. In roleplaying terms, this can be utilized in a wide variety of circumstances to prompt character outcomes.
Playing to Your Strengths – or Your Weaknesses!
For this method, you'll usually just take a character's highest of the mental stats to simplify. This assumes that an intelligent character like a Wizard primarily leans into their intellect as a means to navigate the world, a Druid relies more on their senses and awareness of their environment, and a Bard depends on their natural charm and good looks to get by most of life's encounters.
However, you may be inspired to play to a characters weakness instead. Perhaps a scenario is highly triggering, such as seeing the dead body of a childhood friend recently torn apart by Hobgoblins. In that case, you could go with their lowest mental stat, implying that the character is having a particularly hard time keeping it together.
Teirfnoggen Shadowfast, a halfling hermit turned unexpected warlock adventurer, is brought before the Local High Magister for "misdemeanors and wanton avarice towards the crown" after being overheard insulting the emperor of the magocracy at a recent harvest festival. While the "trial" is largely a performative gesture to instill complacency in the public, this is the first time the misanthropic halfling has ever been brought before any formal court in his life.
Given the circumstances and character's background, the player decides to leave it up to fate to see how Teirfnoggen responds to the scenario.
Playing to Teirf's Strength: Charisma
As a talkative merchant-turned-warlock, Teirfnoggen usually leads with his mouth (perhaps why he ended up making a not-so-entirely-bad Deal with a Devil). The player decides this isn't a terribly triggering circumstance, so we play to his strength and make a Charisma saving throw to see if they can keep from "losing their shit".
Upon a success, Teirfnoggen rises to the occasion, perhaps summoning some inner power from their infernal patron to embolden their responses to the Magister – likely overcompensating for their lack of confidence. This prompts the player to roleplay in that direction – bolstered, inspired, forceful of will in denouncing the charges. Perhaps he gains the respect of a local lord waiting in the chambers for another trial… while also gaining the ire of the Magister of the Court !
Upon a failure, Teirfnoggen really starts to lose their shit. Every word of the Magister pounds through the halfling's skull like the judgement of a celestial being that's finally caught up to him, eager to administer divine justice for his true crimes against the gods. He begins to sweat. His voice is muffled and cracks apprehensively. The magister grows more suspicious. Finally Teirfnoggen snaps. "I ADMIT IT! I DO! YES, I CALLED THE EMPEROR A DONKEY !@#$ER, OKAY!? BUT I'M REALLY SORRY. PLEASE DON'T REPORT ME TO THE ALLHAMMER." With that, muffled laughter is heard, charges are summarily dropped after a written apology is submitted, but perhaps a future encounter with a local lord may go differently having seen the halfling squirm under the eye of authority.
Playing to Teirf's Weakness: Intelligence
The player (or DM) decides that subconsciously, Teirfnoggen relies on their charisma to compensate for their glaring lack of actual real-world knowledge, and this seemingly-trivial misdemeanor court scene triggers that insecurity to the full. Teirf has absolutely NO idea how the court works, or politics, or the empire, or even MAGIC for that matter – despite relying on spells almost entirely to be remotely successful at anything in life so far. Based on that, we pick his lowest mental stat, Intelligence, and make an Intelligence saving throw instead.
The results in this case can largely parallel the above when using Teirf's Charisma, but now Teirf has a higher chance of failure. Since the player also decided to play to Teirf's weakness intentionally, this serves to open the door for dialogue with other party members, as they pick up on Teirfnoggen's unexpected silence and the caving in of their personality when put before a judge. After all, the halfling never really talks about the fact that he honestly has NO IDEA how any of this Empire business works. This grants a perfect opportunity for another player to hop in, prompted by that failure, to offer tutoring lessons on basic politics, geography, perhaps the sociology of spellcasting, while on long rests with Teirfnoggin.
This is something I've seen at various tables, but since it's becoming something I want to establish directly with players with specific (simplified) rules, I thought I'd share here for feedback. Cheers & keep fightin the good fight fellow DMs!
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More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Player-Driven Saving-Throws as Creative and RP Prompts" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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