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Preliminaries.

Some reactions have triggers which are tangible events in the fiction of the game. For example, feather fall's casting time is:

1 reaction, which you take when you or a creature within 60 feet of you falls.

This is something tangible within the fiction: feather fall's trigger is something perceived and understood by both the player out of game and the character in game.

On the other hand, some reactions have triggers which are intangible within the fiction of the game: they are perceived only by the player out of game, and do not actually reflect anything about the character's knowledge in game. For example, the Artificer's Flash of Genius ability says:

When you or another creature you can see within 30 feet of you makes an ability check or a saving throw, you can use your reaction to add your Intelligence modifier to the roll.

Another example is the Oath of the Watchers Paladin's Vigilant Rebuke ability:

You’ve learned how to chastise anyone who dares wield beguilements against you and your wards. Whenever you or a creature you can see within 30 feet of you succeeds on an Intelligence, a Wisdom, or a Charisma saving throw, you can use your reaction to deal 2d8 + your Charisma modifier force damage to the creature that forced the saving throw.

Both of these abilities allow the character to take a reaction in response to another character making a saving throw.

But passing, failing, or even attempting a saving throw are not something characters know about. Characters don't even know what saving throws are. This is clear from the spellcasting rules in the Player's Handbook:

Unless a spell has a perceptible effect, a creature might not know it was targeted by a spell at all. An effect like crackling lightning is obvious, but a more subtle effect, such as an attempt to read a creature's thoughts, typically goes unnoticed, unless a spell says otherwise.

These two questions go into more depth about detecting saving throws:

The Scenario.

Suppose the evil Archmage casts scrying on one of our party members, in an attempt to secretly spy on them. Scrying calls for a wisdom saving throw. The party (in the fiction) would normally have no idea this was going on, no idea someone was making a saving throw, and no idea if that saving throw succeeded or failed (see rule about perceptible spell effects quoted above).

But what if we have an Artificer or Watchers Paladin around?

Rules as written the artificer or paladin would be able to use their respective reactions in response to the saving throw for the Archmage's scrying.

Do the artificer and paladin characters know in game that they used their abilities in response to the saving throw against the scrying spell?

Obviously, they don't know what a saving throw is, and won't know that it is a scrying spell at work. But do they know that something is afoot and that they used their ability?

I am asking this from the perspective as a DM trying to help my players manage player meta-knowledge as they make decisions in character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When you say 'characters don't know...', you should be aware that that's very much a matter of playstyle and that, as far as these rules are concerned, it's expected that characters do know. It's obviously fine to decide that for your game characters don't know, but it shouldn't be surprising that a ruling like that (just like the converse) requires some adjustment to rules that expect the opposite. \$\endgroup\$
    – user66659
    Nov 25 '20 at 17:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user66659 "Unless a spell has a perceptible effect, a creature might not know it was targeted by a spell at all. An effect like crackling lightning is obvious, but a more subtle effect, such as an attempt to read a creature's thoughts, typically goes unnoticed, unless a spell says otherwise." -PHB. The rules are quite clear that you would not know you were targetted by a scrying spell. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25 '20 at 17:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right, but different parts of the rules have contradictory expectations. \$\endgroup\$
    – user66659
    Nov 25 '20 at 17:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user66659 Im not sure what that means. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25 '20 at 18:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user66659 I think that's exactly the question here? These mechanics don't imply that characters know anything in particular--your Paladin doesn't need to know that someone just attempted a Wisdom saving throw and he used his reaction to deal force damage. "Saving throw", "reaction", and "force damage" are all gameplay abstractions. The question is whether he needs to know that anything is happening. You have a choice about whether to activate Vigilant Rebuke, but are you limited by in-character knowledge, or is that a metagame decision? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Nov 25 '20 at 18:21
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How it reads, Rules-As-Written

Nothing in the rules for reactions indicates that the trigger must be perceptible:

Certain special abilities, spells, and situations allow you to take a special action called a reaction. A reaction is an instant response to a trigger of some kind, which can occur on your turn or on someone else's. The opportunity attack, described later in this section, is the most common type of reaction.

In fact, Flash of Genius and Vigilant Rebuke can both trigger on saving throws, which are inherently not perceptible. The only perception requirement for both abilities is that you can see the creature that is making the saving throw (or ability check).

Both abilities are active abilities that the characters choose to use, not just the player on a meta level (emphasis mine):

Starting at 7th level, you gain the ability to come up with solutions under pressure. When you or another creature you can see within 30 feet of you makes an ability check or a saving throw, you can use your reaction to add your Intelligence modifier to the roll.

You’ve learned how to chastise anyone who dares wield beguilements against you and your wards. Whenever you or a creature you can see within 30 feet of you succeeds on an Intelligence, a Wisdom, or a Charisma saving throw, you can use your reaction to deal 2d8 + your Charisma modifier force damage to the creature that forced the saving throw.

So, as written, there is no restriction against using the abilities in this case, and because of the active nature of the abilities, the character would know they used their ability (i.e. not just player meta-knowledge) even if it is unclear what it was used for.


How I would rule it

The above is the rules as I see them, but to me it just seems a little ridiculous for cases where the character would have no clue something was going on, such as the example with the scrying in the question.

Because the abilities referenced are both used actively, the character (not just the player) must choose when to use it. If the event causing a saving throw has no way to be known to the character, they have no information to go off of in order to choose to use the ability at that time.

So, I would personally rule that unless the character has reasonable knowledge that the saving throw happened (or in-game context that something is wrong, a perceptible spell being cast, trap triggered, etc.), they would have no way to know to use their ability in that instance. RAW successfully saved spells do not have perceptible effects unless specified in the spell's description, so this would obviously be up to the DM's discretion to determine when something is perceptible/noticeable to the character, but it seems like a more logical approach to me.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm gonna pull this to chat because I have a feeling it could get quite wordy \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25 '20 at 21:29
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Yes, but the knowledge of the trigger can be given to players, not characters

As you correctly point out, RAW a character does not know that they have been targeted by a scrying spell. But if that character has an ability that allows them to react to just such a targeting, or allows them to react to something that forces a saving throw they don't know about, there is just the difficulty or contradiction you describe.

As a DM in this situation, you have a few choices.
1. You can not describe the triggering event and thus keep the character from using their ability. While this does adhere to rules as written, you are basically deciding a rules contradiction in favor of the NPC and against the character. Of course, it goes both ways, and the characters can do this in their own scrying. But given that the features you mention are class-specific, and the players likely chose their class with certain features in mind, it would not be surprising if some of the players feel that you are unfairly 'nerfing their character', since it will limit them every time and limit the NPC's only in the rare case that you have made them a class with one of these abilities.

2. You can assume that the character feels something on the subconscious level, and decides to use their ability without being aware of it - no character knowledge of the trigger is needed. While this at least allows the character to use their ability, it robs the player of the agency in making the decision.

At 15th level, you've learned how to magically chastise anyone who dares cast unwanted spells at you and your wards. Whenever you or a creature you can see within 30 feet of you succeeds on a saving throw against a spell, you can use your reaction to deal 2d8 + your Charisma modifier force damage to the spellcaster.

Since there is no per day / per rest limit to the use of this ability (it may be used 'whenever') it seems at first glance that one way out of requiring character knowledge is just to say 'Your paladin does this instinctively. It is a reaction, after all, and most reactions happen faster than thought. We can assume that any time something forces a save on you or your allies, you use this ability if you can, even if you don't realize that you used it.' That may often work narratively to spare you having the character actually know about the saving throw. But even if you do this, each PC gets only one reaction per round. Action economy means that sometimes their would be a choice between using this ability or taking another reaction. Do they punish a minion for casting a spell on an ally, or take an opportunity attack on the Big Bad?

When you or another creature you can see within 30 feet of you makes an ability check or a saving throw, you can use your reaction to add your Intelligence modifier to the roll. You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

Here the stakes are even higher. Not only does the player have to consider the opportunity cost of making a reaction within the action economy, but they have to decide whether or not to spend a resource that is limited to a few uses per long rest.

3. You can tell the player as much as you like about what is happening, and expect them to compartmentalize that knowledge from the character. It might be as explicit as "Okay, someone is trying a divination spell on one of you that gets a save - does the paladin or artificer want to do anything about it?" and then you trust that they don't start trying to actively find magic that blocks divination. Or it could be as subtle as "Your subconscious mind detects the presence of malign forces of which you are not consciously aware - do you have an intuitive response to protect yourself and your allies?"

You know your table and you know how you want to run your game, but obviously I think option #3 is the way to go. Removing that decision from the player because their character would not realize a save was being made says you can't trust your players with metagame knowledge. Telling the player 'I'm going to give you just enough information so that you can fairly make your decision, but in return you have to have your character act as if they don't know what save was made within the boundaries of allowable metagaming at our table' says that you trust the players to keep their end of the social contract. I believe the DM should provide the player with just enough information to make reasonable decisions, even if that player then has to pretend that their character didn't know exactly what is happening. Not allowing players access to the information they need to use their abilities robs them of agency. Ultimately it is the players who are making the decisions, not their characters.

Decisions are made by players, not characters

Players can try to think in terms of 'how would my character react / decide based on just what they know', and this can add depth to their role-playing, but ultimately it is still the players making the decisions, and some degree of metagaming is inevitable. Different tables have different styles of play, from min-maxers playing a strategy game with the Monster Manual open at the table, to story-tellers where the DM rolls all the dice, including for players, in secret (or rolls are made by players in advance and handed to the DM at the start of a session) so that players don't know how well they did beyond the narrative. The amount of 'pretending to not know' varies between groups, but even at tables that greatly restrict player knowledge, some metagaming is inevitable. This question has some interesting discussion of a kind of reactionary metagaming, where the players are trying so hard to show that their characters don't know some things that their behaviors become nonsensical within the context of the game world.

There is lots of in-game assistance for those who enjoy a style of play that focuses on in-character knowledge and motivation. For example, spells and abilities often are described with in-character 'fluff' first and game 'crunch' after. Consider the description of the bard's ability to use Cutting Words:

you learn how to use your wit to distract, confuse, and otherwise sap the confidence and competence of others.
(versus)
When a creature that you can see within 60 feet of you makes an Attack roll, an ability check, or a damage roll, you can use your Reaction to expend one of your uses of Bardic Inspiration, rolling a Bardic Inspiration die and subtracting the number rolled from the creature’s roll.

The second part is what the player knows, the first part is what the player pretends the character knows. It is not what the character actually knows, though, because the character doesn't actually know anything. The character is a fiction. The player pretends the character knows or does not know things in order to achieve a certain style of play.

Consider the OP question's statement that "Characters don't even know what saving throws are." Now imagine your wizard deciding in-game whether or not to learn "Mind Sliver" without admitting character knowledge of saving throws:

You drive a disorienting spike of psychic energy into the mind of one creature you can see within range. The target must succeed on an Intelligence saving throw or take 1d6 psychic damage and subtract 1d4 from the next saving throw it makes before the end of your next turn.

Some players are content to say "Spells that debuff saves are great, I'll take it!" Others may find themselves saying "The first part of the spell damages the psyche of my opponent and the second...makes them...unlucky...when they are challenged by certain...things they have to resist."

This same wizard who doesn't know that saving throws exist, nevertheless knows that two mind slivers won't make someone more 'unlucky', but a mind sliver and a bane together will make them 'worse at resisting things'. You can keep pretending they don't know what a saving throw is, but it does become burdensome if you need to talk in-character all the time.

But in neither case are we talking about character knowledge - we are talking about how a player wants to portray character knowledge. Find a style of description that is the most fun and fair for you and your players. Find a style that works at your table, and don't worry too much about whether RAW a character knows something.

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