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Do characters know if someone else, who they can see, has failed a saving throw?

In particular, let's consider the following cases:

  1. a caster has cast a spell, that requires a saving throw, and that doesn't require concentration, on an enemy (not a damaging spell, let's consider the spell Command for example), at the moment of the cast, since this information can influence the strategy of the caster before the command is eventually executed;
  2. an ally is making a death saving throw, this can influence the priorities of the allied of that character.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am unclear about what you're asking. Is your question "Do you know when somebody around you fails a saving throw?" \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Apr 30 '18 at 7:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Adding that you can see, then yes \$\endgroup\$ – orcorco Apr 30 '18 at 7:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: In 5e are saving throw results detected by the opposing party? \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Apr 30 '18 at 7:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is 2 questions because spell effects and physical effects are different. A death saving throw is meta for 'being on the ground bleeding to death' and there is a physical manifestation that can be seen. A spell on the other hand doesn't have that physical counterpart but might have some other 'tell'. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Apr 30 '18 at 7:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri: I think I disagree, if I understand you. There isn't a difference between spell vs physical, there is a difference between "character noticeable effect" and "not noticeable effect". Which, of course, also answers the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Apr 30 '18 at 22:35
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Characters do not know what a saving throw is.

Characters have no concept of game mechanics, although for things they are proficient in or have relevant knowledge of it may be assumed they know about the effects. Relevant

eg. A character does not know that you missed your saving throw against a fireball, what they know is they saw you fail to get out of the way and take the full force of a fireball to the face.

Witnessing a spell being cast

Xanthar's Guide to Everything expands upon the particular circumstances of witnessing a spell being cast.

Other spells, such as charm person, display no visible, audible, or otherwise perceptible sign of their effects, and could easily go unnoticed by someone unaffected by them. As noted in the Player’s Handbook, you normally don’t know that a spell has been cast unless the spell produces a noticeable effect. (Perceiving a caster at work. XGTE p85)

Command Spell

The command spell is a one-word command that the creature must follow if they fail the save. One such effect is

"Grovel. The target falls prone and then ends its turn"

You would witness a one-word command. Was it magic? Is the person issuing the command just hoping to be persuasive/intimidating?

To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component. (Perceiving a caster at work. XGTE p85)

RAW, a character that witnessed the command has just 'perceived a spell being cast'. However, XGTE continues to stipulate how one might determine the spell that was cast.

If the character perceived the casting, the spell’s effect, or both, the character can make an Intelligence (Arcana) check with the reaction or action. (Identifying a spell. XGTE p85)

It does not outline anything that allows the character to know anything about the success or failure of the spell. It seems that RAW one cannot know the results of a saving throw without seeing them directly (Or perhaps later investigation/divination in the case of something that might bestow a curse for example).

Knowing that your foe just cast Command on an ally and told them to Grovel may help guide your next action. Knowing any more than that would be up to DM fiat.

Failing a Death Saving Throw

There is nothing RAW that speaks of a noticeable, physical effect of failing or succeeding on a death saving throw. Therefore it remains a saving throw that your character is unaware of. Your DM could decide that you can see the unconscious creature getting worse/better, but again, this is DM fiat.

In my (very limited) experience, having the knowledge to help prevent the death of a friends PC is always better (removing player agency due to RAW and letting your friend's work go down the drain is not much fun for anyone at the table)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Jeremy Crawford confirms this answer here on Twitter: "A spellcaster doesn't automatically know whether a spell's target succeeded on a saving throw against the spell, but with most spells, the effects are perceivable on the target." But adds: "If you're concentrating on a spell, you know when that spell ends, whether you end your concentration willingly, your concentration is broken, or the spell ends in some other way." \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 30 at 21:31
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PCs do not understand mechanics, players do not understand the game world

Mechanics represent something that actually happens in the game word. PCs respond to whatever it is that the mechanics represent, players respond to the mechanics.

To require the players to only react to what the PCs perceive and vice-versa is a category error - if the players know something in the mechanics then the PCs know the equivalent something in the world.

Now, spells are called out in the PHB as being imperceptible unless they are obvious. Therefore saving throws against them are imperceptible unless they are obvious. The results of a Command spell’s saving throw is obvious - fail they follow the command, pass they don’t. When is this obvious? On the creature’s next turn so tell the player then (or roll the saving throw then).

A death saving throw is also obvious - the creature gets a bit better or they get a bit worse.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't say either of those are 'obvious'. Just because a creature acts in a way that's consistent with following a command doesn't mean that they are being controlled. They may also choose to follow a command of their own free will for a variety of reasons. I'd also be suspicious that someone without medical training could easily tell whether or not a person is getting better in 6 second intervals just by looking at them (I figure this would be difficult even for someone with extensive medical knowledge). \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Apr 30 '18 at 15:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Cubic PCs know about combat wounds - they give and take them all day. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Dec 18 '18 at 6:09

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