5e: Ability Checks vs Saving Throws

Written by Ethan

Ethan is a storyteller, GM, and all-around nerd. He spends his time introducing all of his friends to D&D and creating hard magic systems for upcoming novels.

In D&D, you roll a lot of dice. Two common types of dice rolls that determine your character’s success or failure in certain tasks are called ability checks and saving throws. But when do you roll an ability check? When do you roll a saving throw? What’s the difference between them?

Ability checks and saving throws are both dice rolls used to decide your success or failure at certain tasks. Ability checks are for when you attempt a challenge; saving throws are for when you resist external factors—like spells, traps, or poisons. Though there’s slightly more to it than that.

What are Ability Checks?

An ability check is a dice roll used to determine whether or not you succeed at a certain challenge. This could be anything from trying to break open a barred door to attempting to remember some lore about a specific part of the world.

Each ability check that you make is pulled from one of the six ability scores every Player Character (PC) has. Try to do something that requires strength, and you’ll roll a d20 and add your strength modifier. Attempt to be charismatic, and you’ll roll a d20 and add your charisma modifier.

However, your DM won’t ask you to make an ability check to do simple things, like walk forwards, speak, chew your food, or undertake other ordinary tasks. Simply put, the game would never progress as you constantly roll ability checks. 

Instead, these checks are reserved for when you are attempting something challenging. Any time you are attempting to do something—that’s not an attack—and there is a real chance of failure, the DM will call for an ability check.

When you make an ability check, you don’t add your proficiency bonus unless your DM determines that you can. While a Strength check is a strength-based activity, you may have never attempted to break open a door before. Since proficiency represents training you have undertaken, you can only add it if your DM determines that you have experience in such a challenge. 

This is where the bard’s ability Jack of All Trades shines. This ability allows you to add half your proficiency bonus to every ability check. Even if it’s something you’ve never attempted before, you’re still good at it if you’re a bard.

Other Important Ability Checks

Some common ability checks that are made in D&D that aren’t classified as skills are the following:

  • Initiative: When you roll initiative at the beginning of combat, you roll a Dexterity check. You can add your proficiency bonus to initiative rolls if you are in the aura of an Oath of the Watchers paladin (7th level).
  • Counterspell/Dispel Magic: If you cast either of these spells and you are targeting a higher-level spell, you must make an ability check using your spellcasting ability. You don’t add your proficiency bonus to this check unless you’re a School of Abjuration wizard with Improved Abjuration (10th level).
  • Tool Checks: Trying to use a toolset such as thieves’ tools, glassblower’s tools, or cobbler’s tools requires an ability check. Unlike the others in this list, many features grant you proficiency with a certain toolset.

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What are Skill Checks?

Instead of a DM determining on-the-fly whether or not you are proficient in a certain ability check, common uses of the six abilities have been condensed into skills. Skills are specialized ability checks that are important and common enough activities that characters can train in them to become proficient.

More often than not, you’ll be asked to make a skill check instead of an ability check. When this happens, roll a d20, add the corresponding ability modifier and your proficiency bonus—only if you are proficient in that skill. Otherwise, it’s just the d20 and your ability modifier.

Saving Throws

A saving throw is a dice roll used to determine whether or not you avoid the brunt of a particular effect, such as a spell, trap, or poison. When you are targeted by such an effect, your DM will ask you to make a saving throw based on one of the six ability scores (Strength, etc.). 

This represents how you are resisting the incoming effect by physically moving out of the way, generating enough strength to hold your ground, or willing yourself to resist.

Succeeding on a saving throw against some effects—such as cantrips or so-called “save-or-suck” spells—results in taking no damage or being affected at all. Other effects make you take half damage if you succeed on the saving throw. 

Being able to resist either effect can save your life in D&D, meaning that saving throws are much more important than ability checks.


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The Six Types of Saving Throws

  1. You make a Strength saving throw to resist external physical factors, such as bludgeoning damage or forces that might knock you back (like a strong wind).
  2. You make a Dexterity saving throw to physically get out of the way. Effects that deal acid, fire, force, lightning, piercing, or slashing damage typically require this saving throw.
  3. You make a Constitution saving throw to resist internal physical factors. Effects that deal cold, necrotic, poison, radiant, or thunder damage typically require this saving throw.
  4. You make an Intelligence saving throw to resist psychic effects and see through illusions
  5. You make a Wisdom saving throw to also resist psychic effects and most charm effects.
  6. You make a Charisma saving throw to resist magical compulsions, and things mess with your existence (such as Banishment, or being possessed).

Saving Throw Proficiencies

While characters gain skill proficiencies from their race, class, background, feats, and other training, there are fewer ways to gain proficiency in saving throws

Each class starts with proficiency in two of the six saving throws. Some class features give you additional proficiencies, like the monk’s ability Diamond Soul (14th level) or the Gloomstalker ranger’s ability Iron Mind (7th level).

Unfortunately, you do not gain additional saving throw proficiencies simply from multiclassing (more on multiclassing here). 

The best way to gain an additional saving throw proficiency regardless of your class is through the Resilient Feat, which grants you one proficiency and a +1 bonus to the relevant ability score. There are other relevant feats, and I discussed them class-by-class here.

This may seem disheartening but keep in mind that what’s true for you is also true for many of your enemies

You may be facing incredibly powerful foes, but they will only have good saving throw bonuses for a couple abilities. Even the mighty Tarrasque has a +0 to its Dexterity saving throw.


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Natural 20s and Natural 1s on Ability Checks and Saving Throws

A “Natural 20” (nat20) is when you roll a d20 and the outcome is 20. A “dirty 20” or “artificial 20’ is when the outcome of the roll plus modifiers is 20. 

When you roll a natural 20 on attack rolls, you score a critical hit, doubling your damage dice. It’s a high point in any battle for a character to roll a 20. Conversely, rolling a natural 1 on the die results in a failure regardless of modifiers and AC.

In 5e, however, there are no official rules that make a nat1 or a nat20 on an ability check or a saving throw a guaranteed pass or fail

Of course, your DM (or you) may think that’s a waste and decide that something extra should happen. Some DMs will reward a nat20 on an ability check by letting you do something supernaturally heroic but not game-breaking. Rolling a natural 1 might simply mean that you have a comically poor performance of the task at hand.

Your DM might be tempted to make rolling natural 1s on both ability checks and saving throws to have additional adverse effects. However, this can throw off the balance and tone of the game if you take double damage or if you accidentally chop a finger off.

Your DM might decide that rolling a natural 20 on a saving throw negates all damage or rolling a 1 deals double. 

Regardless of what your table agrees to, ensure that it always works both ways for both adventurers and monsters. Maybe a monster will accidentally chop its own finger off.

Summary

Ability checks and saving throws are similar dice rolls. The key difference is that ability checks are used when you are attempting a challenge while saving throws are used to resist an external effect.

  • Both types of rolls use a d20, add the relevant ability modifier, and add proficiency bonus (if you are proficient).
  • You don’t add your proficiency bonus to an ability check unless the DM determines you can or if it is a skill you are proficient in.
  • While skill proficiencies can be gained from your race, class, background, and feats, saving throw proficiencies are much rarer, with few class features giving you extras.
  • Since saving throws can save your life from powerful effects like being disintegrated, saving throws are more crucial rolls than ability checks.
  • Nothing in the rules declares what happens on a natural 1 or 20 on an ability check or saving throw. However, many tables have house rules in these cases. Ask your DM what the rule is at your table.
    • A natural 20 is when your d20’s result is 20. A dirty/unnatural 20 is when you add the dice roll with relevant modifiers.
  • Each Ability governs particular challenges. (See above)

Now that you know the difference between the two checks, you can use this knowledge to your advantage. If you have an awesome bonus to a skill, ask your DM if you can use it when it’s relevant. 

Size up your opponents and attack them with spells that require saving throws that they’re probably weak against. And try not to freak out when, without warning, your DM asks you all to make a Wisdom saving throw.

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