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I'm new to D&D. I was reading about save throws in the Player's Handbook and saw this:

To make a saving throw, roll a d20 and add the appropriate ability modifier. For example, you use your Dexterity modifier for a Dexterity saving throw.

What determines what type of saving throw it is? The DM? The attack cast on the PC? Or do you add your highest ability modifier to the d20 rolled?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for clarifying, Dirk! And welcome to RPG Stack Exchange. I see from the Informed badge on another profile that you've already checked out the tour; thanks for doing that. Also, whenever you reach 20 rep, you'll be able to join us in Role-playing Games Chat. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Dec 6 '17 at 0:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you a player or a DM? The part of the answer you care about might vary based on that. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Dec 6 '17 at 2:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire I'm a DM. No one knows how to play D&D--not even the person who invited me; I have a feeling it is going to be chaos--so I'm quickly learning how to play the game before the session. \$\endgroup\$ – Dirk Brandon Dec 7 '17 at 1:43
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The effect specifies the saving throw required, but it's ultimately up to your DM.

When a saving throw is required, the effect that caused the saving throw specifies what kind of saving throw it is. For instance, the spell Acid Splash has the description:

You hurl a bubble of acid. Choose one creature within range, or choose two creatures within range that are within 5 feet of each other. A target must succeed on at Dexterity saving throw or take 1d6 acid damage.

So a dexterity saving throw is required.

Any effect described in the rulebooks which requires a saving throw always specifies the type of saving throw required... but the DM is the ultimate arbiter of the rules, and they are free to ask for a different kind of saving throw instead, or ask for saving throws due to circumstances of their own devising not explicitly described in the rules, if it makes sense to them, as described in the DMG's section about adjudicating saving throws (pg 238):

Most of the time, a saving throw comes into play when an effect - such as a spell, monster ability, or trap - calls for it, telling you what kind of saving throw is involved and providing a DC for it.

Other times, a situation arises that clearly calls for a saving throw, especially when a character is subjected to a harmful effect that can't be hedged out by armor or a shield. It's up to you [the DM] to decide which ability score is involved. The Saving Throws table offers suggestions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you're going to bring up the notion of the GM making a call on what ability to use via their judgment, I suggest referencing/quoting DMG p.238, "Saving throws." \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 6 '17 at 1:18
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The effect dictates the ability used for the save.

When you are forced to make a saving throw, it will specify an ability. For example, many spells or attacks will give you a Constitution saving throw to prevent the effects of poison, or a Dexterity saving throw to quickly dodge a fireball. The ability used is in the text of the spell or attack that is forcing the saving throw.

The DM tells you which ability to use for the saving throw. (If you are the DM, you tell the player which ability to use based either on the effect as it is written in the notes or monster stat block or based on your own judgment.)

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It is a combination of the rules that are written for the effect the PC is saving against, and a DM call.

For example, the Fireball spell says

Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. - PHB 241

So the spell that was cast defines what the saving throw is against. When it is a spell cast, the DC is determined by the caster's proficiency in the spellcasting ability for that spell.

For example, the Wizard class description says

Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for your wizard spells, since you learn your spells through dedicated study and memorization. You use your Intelligence whenever a spell refers to your spellcasting ability. In addition, you use your Intelligence modifier when setting the saving throw DC for a wizard spell you cast and when making an attack roll with one.
Spell save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier
Spell attack modifier = your proficiency bonus + your intelligence modifier

Therefore, when a Wizard casts Fireball on a PC, the PC makes a dexterity saving throw, against the DC set by 8 + the wizard's Int + their proficiency bonus.

For other effects, there is also a theme to their saves. For example, saves against the poisoned effect are generally constitution saves (Stinking Cloud, Ray of Sickness, Poison Spray, etc.) and are described in their effects.
Anything that doesn't have a specific description (for example an improvised trap) would be decided upon by the GM, likely following the already common themes.

So a trap that emits a burst of flame would likely be a dexterity save, as you attempt to dodge the burst. A trap that emits a cloud of poison would likely cause a constitution save, as you attempt to withstand the effects of the poison. However, your DM might instead ask you to dodge the poison spray, so a dexterity save is called for.

Or do you add your highest ability modifier to the d20 rolled?

NO, however, sometimes it is the action that you (the player) describe your character (the PC) attempts to do that would guide the save. Again, it is up to the DM to decide how your description might work in game mechanics. If someone tries to push you over, you might choose to try and dodge them (dexterity) rather than resist them (strength). Of course, the DM can decide that you are in no position to dodge, and therefore fail a dodge attempt by default.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you're going to go into how GMs might make the call for which ability to use when saving, I suggest referencing/quoting "Saving Throws," DMG p.238, which goes into detail on all of this. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 6 '17 at 1:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm Yes. Thanks for pointing that out. I've corrected them. \$\endgroup\$ – Luke Dec 6 '17 at 2:43

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