Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

Six abilities provide a quick description of every creature’s physical and mental characteristics:

  • Strength, measuring physical power
  • Dexterity, measuring agility
  • Constitution, measuring endurance
  • Intelligence, measuring reasoning and memory
  • Wisdom, measuring perception and insight
  • Charisma, measuring force of personality

Is a character muscle—bound and insightful? Brilliant and charming? Nimble and hardy? Ability scores define these qualities—a creature’s assets as well as weaknesses.

The three main rolls of the game—the ability check, the saving throw, and the attack roll—rely on the six ability scores. The book’s introduction describes the basic rule behind these rolls: roll a d20, add an ability modifier derived from one of the six ability scores, and compare the total to a target number.

This chapter focuses on how to use ability checks and saving throws, covering the fundamental activities that creatures attempt in the game. Rules for attack rolls appear in chapter 9.

Ability Scores and Modifiers

Each of a creature’s abilities has a score, a number that defines the magnitude of that ability. An ability score is not just a measure of innate capabilities, but also encompasses a creature’s training and competence in activities related to that ability.

A score of 10 or 11 is the normal human average, but adventurers and many monsters are a cut above average in most abilities. A score of 18 is the highest that a person usually reaches. Adventurers can have scores as high as 20, and monsters and divine beings can have scores as high as 30.

Each ability also has a modifier, derived from the score and ranging from 5 (for an ability score of 1) to +10 (for a score of 30). The Ability Scores and Modifiers table notes the ability modifiers for the range of possible ability scores, from 1 to 30.

To determine an ability modifier without consulting the table, subtract 10 from the ability score and then divide the total by 2 (round down).

Because ability modifiers affect almost every attack roll, ability check, and saving throw, ability modifiers come up in play more often than their associated scores.

Score Modifier Score Modifier
1 -5 16-17 +3
2-3 -4 18-19 +4
4-5 -3 20-21 +5
6-7 -2 22-23 +6
8-9 -1 24-25 +7
10-11 +0 26-27 +8
12-13 +1 28-29 +9
14-15 +2 30 +10

Advantage and Disadvantage

Sometimes a special ability or spell tells you that you have advantage or disadvantage on an ability check, a saving throw, or an attack roll. When that happens, you roll a second d20 when you make the roll. Use the higher of the two rolls if you have advantage, and use the lower roll if you have disadvantage. For example, if you have disadvantage and roll a 17 and a 5, you use the 5. If you instead have advantage and roll those numbers, you use the 17.

If multiple situations affect a roll and each one grants advantage or imposes disadvantage on it, you don’t roll more than one additional d20. If two favorable situations grant advantage, for example, you still roll only one additional d20.

If circumstances cause a roll to have both advantage and disadvantage, you are considered to have neither of them, and you roll one d20. This is true even if multiple circumstances impose disadvantage and only one grants advantage or Vice versa. In such a situation, you have neither advantage nor disadvantage.

When you have advantage or disadvantage and something in the game, such as the halfling’s Lucky trait, lets you reroll the d20, you can reroll only one of the dice. You choose which one. For example, if a halfling has advantage on an ability check and rolls a l and a 13, the halfling could use the Lucky trait to reroll the 1.

You usually gain advantage or disadvantage through the use of special abilities, actions, or spells. Inspiration (see chapter 4) can also give a character advantage on checks related to the character’s personality, ideals, or bonds. The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.

Proficiency Bonus

Characters have a proficiency bonus determined by level, as detailed in chapter 1. Monsters also have this bonus, which is incorporated in their stat blocks. The bonus is used in the rules on ability checks, saving throws, and attack rolls.

Your proficiency bonus can’t be added to a single die roll or other number more than once. For example, if two different rules say you can add your proficiency bonus to a Wisdom saving throw, you nevertheless add the bonus only once when you make the save.

Occasionally, your proficiency bonus might be multiplied or divided (doubled or halved. for example) before you apply it. For example, the rogue’s Expertise feature doubles the proficiency bonus for certain ability checks. If a circumstance suggests that your proficiency bonus applies more than once to the same roll, you still add it only once and multiply or divide it only once.

By the same token, if a feature or effect allows you to multiply your proficiency bonus when making an ability check that wouldn’t normally benefit from your proficiency bonus, you still don’t add the bonus to the check. For that check your proficiency bonus is 0, given the fact that multiplying O by any number is still 0. For instance, if you lack proficiency in the History skill, you gain no benefit from a feature that lets you double your proficiency bonus when you make Intelligence (History) checks.

In general, you don’t multiply your proficiency bonus for attack rolls or saving throws. If a feature or effect allows you to do so, these same rules apply.

Ability Checks

An ability check tests a character’s or monster’s innate talent and training in an effort to overcome a challenge. The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.

For every ability check, the DM decides which of the si 4 abilities is relevant to the task at hand and the difficulty of the task. represented by 3 Difficulty Class. The more difficult a task, the higher its DC. The Typical Difficulty Classes table shows the most common DCs.

Task Difficulty DC
Very easy 5
Easy 10
Medium 15
Hard 20
Very hard 25
Nearly impossible 30

To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier. As with other d20 rolls, apply bonuses and penalties, and compare the total to the DC. If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success-the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it’s a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.

Contests

Sometimes one character’s or monster’s efforts are directly opposed to another’s. This can occur when both of them are trying to do the same thing and only one can succeed. such as attempting to snatch up a magic ring that has fallen on the floor. This situation also applies when one of them is trying to prevent the other one from accomplishing a goal—for example, when a monster tries to force open a door that an adventurer is holding closed. In situations like these, the outcome is determined by a special form of ability check, called a contest.

Both participants in a contest make ability checks appropriate to their efforts. They apply all appropriate bonuses and penalties, but instead of comparing the total to a DC, they compare the totals of their two checks. The participant with the higher check total wins the contest. That character or monster either succeeds at the action or prevents the other one from succeeding.

If the contest results in a tie, the situation remains the same as it was before the contest. Thus, one contestant might win the contest by default. If two characters tie in a contest to snatch a ring off the floor, neither character grabs it. In a contest between a monster trying to open a door and an adventurer trying to keep the door closed, a tie means that the door remains shut.

Skills

Each ability covers a broad range of capabilities, including skills that a character or a monster can be proficient in. A skill represents a specific aspect of an ability score, and an individual’s proficiency in a skill demonstrates a focus on that aspect. (A character’s starting skill proficiencies are determined at character ~ creation, and a monster’s skill proficiencies appear in the monster’s stat block.)

For example, a Dexterity check might reflect a character’s attempt to pull off an acrobatic stunt, to palm an object, or to stay hidden. Each of these aspects of Dexterity has an associated skill: Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth, respectively. So a character who has proficiency in the Stealth skill is particularly good at Dexterity checks related to sneaking and hiding.

The skills related to each ability score are shown in the following list. (No skills are related to Constitution.) See an ability’s description in the later sections of this chapter for examples of how to use a skill associated with an ability.

  • Strength: Athletics
  • Dexterity: Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth
  • Intelligence: Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, Religion
  • Wisdom: Animal handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Survival
  • Charisma: Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion

Sometimes, the DM might ask for an ability check using a specific skill—for example, “Make a Wisdom (Perception) check.” At other times, a player might ask the DM if proficiency in a particular skill applies to a check. In either case, proficiency in a skill means an individual can add his or her proficiency bonus to ability checks that involve that skill. Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check.

For example, if a character attempts to climb up a dangerous cliff. the Dungeon Master might ask for a Strength (Athletics) check. If the character is proficient in Athletics, the character’s proficiency bonus is added to the Strength check. If the character lacks that proficiency, he or she just makes a Strength check.

Variant: Skills with Different Abilities

Normally, your proficiency in a skill applies only to a specific kind of ability check. Proficiency in Athletics, for example, usually applies to Strength checks. In som situations. though. your proficiency might reasonably apply to a different kind of check. In such cases, the DM might ask for a check using an unusual combination of ability and skill, or you might ask your DM if you can apply a proficiency to a different check. For example, if you have to swim from an offshore island to the mainland, your DM might call for a Constitution check to see ifyou have the stamina to make it that far. In this case, your DM might allow you to apply your proficiency in Athletics and ask for a Constitution (Athletics) check. So if you’re proficient in Athletics, you apply your proficiency bonus to the Constitution check just as you would normally do for a Strength (Athletics) check. Similarly. when your half—orc barbarian uses a display of raw strength to intimidate an enemy, your DM might ask for a Strength (Intimidation) check, even though Intimidation is normally associated with Charisma.

Passive Checks

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something Without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster.

Here’s how to determine a character’s total for a passive check:

10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check

If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. The game refers to a passive check total as a score.

For example. if a 1st-level character has a Wisdom of 15 and proficiency in Perception. he or she has a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 14.

The rules on hiding in the “Dexterity” section below rely on passive checks, as do the exploration rules in chapter 8.

Working Together

Sometimes two or more characters team up to attempt a task. The character who’s leading the effortior the one with the highest ability modifier—can make an ability check with advantage, reflecting the help provided by the other characters. In combat, this requires the Help action (see chapter 9).

A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone. For example, trying to open a lock requires proficiency with thieves’ tools, so a character who lacks that proficiency can’t help another character in that task. Moreover. a character can help only when two or more individuals working together would actually be productive. Some tasks. such as threading a needle. are no easier with help.

Group Checks

When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group. the DM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation. the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren’t. To make a group ability check. everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds. Otherwise, the group fails.

Group checks don’t come up very often. and they’re most useful when all the characters succeed or fail as a group. For example, when adventurers are navigating a swamp. the DM might call for a group Wisdom (Survival) check to see if the characters can avoid the quicksand. sinkholes. and other natural hazards of the environment. If at least half the group succeeds, the successful characters are able to guide their companions out of danger. Otherwise. the group stumbles into one of these hazards.

Using Each Ability

Every task that a character or monster might attempt in the game is covered by one of the six abilities. This section explains in more detail what those abilities mean and the ways they are used in the game.

Saving Throws

A saving throw-also called a save-represents an attempt to resist a spell, a trap, a poison, a disease, or a similar threat. You don’t normally decide to make a saving throw; you are forced to make one because your character or monster is at risk of harm.

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.

A saving throw can be modified by a situational bonus or penalty and can be affected by advantage and disadvantage, as determined by the DM.

Each class gives proficiency in at least two saving throws. The wizard, for example, is proficient in Intelligence saves. As with skill proficiencies, proficiency in a saving throw lets a character add his or her proficiency bonus to saving throws made using a particular ability score. Some monsters have saving throw proficiencies as well.

The Difficulty Class for a saving throw is determined by the effect that causes it. For example, the DC for a saving throw allowed by a spell is determined by the caster’s spellcasting ability and proficiency bonus.

The result of a successful or failed saving throw is also detailed in the effect that allows the save. Usually, a successful save means that a creature suffers no harm, or reduced harm, from an effect.