By Jeremy Crawford, Game Design Architect – D&D TRPG Studio
April 30th, 2015
Whether it’s a grand tale of intrigue, a long series of battles, or something else entirely, a D&D campaign inevitably relies on one of the three main d20 rolls: the ability check.
The Ability Check
Three d20 rolls are at the heart the game’s rules: the ability check, the attack roll, and the saving throw (as explained in chapters 7 and 9 in the Player’s Handbook). The attack roll is usually confined to combat and has the narrowest use of the three rolls, whereas the ability check and the saving throw occur in many different scenarios. The ability check, in particular, can pop up often—in combat, during a social interaction, and in the midst of exploration. Whenever the rules say you’re making a check using one of the six ability scores, you’re making an ability check. This is true whether or not the check involves a skill. A Strength check, a Dexterity check, a Charisma (Persuasion) check, a Wisdom (Perception) check—those are all examples of ability checks.
Are attack rolls and saving throws basically specialized ability checks? They aren’t. It’s easy to mistake the three rolls as three faces of the same thing, because they each involve rolling a d20, adding any modifiers, and comparing the total to a Difficulty Class, and they’re all subject to advantage and disadvantage. In short, they share the same procedure for determining success or failure.
Despite this common procedure, the three rolls are separate from each other. If something in the game, like the guidance spell, affects one of them, the other two aren’t affected unless the rules specifically say so. The next few questions touch on this point again.
If you cast the hex spell and choose Strength as the affected ability, does the target also have disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws that use Strength? No, the hex spell’s description says it affects ability checks that use the chosen ability. The description says nothing about affecting attack rolls or saving throws. This means, for example, that if you choose Constitution, the spell’s target doesn’t suffer disadvantage when trying to maintain concentration on a spell, since concentration requires a Constitution saving throw, not a Constitution check.
Curious about the spell’s intent? The spell is meant to be a classic jinx—the sort seen in folklore—that is useful in and out of combat. In combat, the spell provides some extra necrotic damage. Outside combat, you could foil a cunning diplomat, for example, by casting the spell and imposing disadvantage on his or her Charisma checks.
Does the bard’s Jack of All Trades feature apply to attack rolls and saving throws that don’t use the bard’s proficiency bonus? Nope. The feature benefits only ability checks. Don’t forget that initiative rolls are Dexterity checks, so Jack of All Trades can benefit a bard’s initiative, assuming the bard isn’t already adding his or her proficiency bonus to it.
When you make a Strength (Athletics) check to grapple or shove someone, are you making an attack roll? Again, the answer is no. That check is an ability check, so game effects tied to attack rolls don’t apply to it. Going back to an earlier question, the hex spell could be used to diminish a grappler’s effectiveness. And if the grappler’s target is under the effect of the Dodge action, that action doesn’t inhibit the grapple, since Dodge doesn’t affect ability checks.
More Spellcasting Questions
Is there a limit on the number of spells you can cast on your turn? There’s no rule that says you can cast only X number of spells on your turn, but there are some practical limits. The main limiting factor is your action. Most spells require an action to cast, and unless you use a feature like the fighter’s Action Surge, you have only one action on your turn.
If you cast a spell, such as healing word, with a bonus action, you can cast another spell with your action, but that other spell must be a cantrip. Keep in mind that this particular limit is specific to spells that use a bonus action. For instance, if you cast a second spell using Action Surge, you aren’t limited to casting a cantrip with it.
Can you also cast a reaction spell on your turn? You sure can! Here’s a common way for it to happen: Cornelius the wizard is casting fireball on his turn, and his foe casts counterspell on him. Cornelius has counterspell prepared, so he uses his reaction to cast it and break his foe’s counterspell before it can stop fireball.
Do you need line of sight to a spell effect to maintain concentration on it? You don’t, unless a spell says otherwise.
If a character has levels in more than one class, do the character’s cantrips scale with character level or with the level in a spellcasting class? Cantrips scale with character level. For example, a barbarian 2 / cleric 3 casts sacred flame as a 5th-level character.
Bio: Jeremy Crawford is the co-lead designer of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the game’s managing editor. He was the lead designer of the new Player’s Handbook and one of the leads on the Dungeon Master’s Guide. He has worked on many other D&D books since coming to Wizards of the Coast in 2007. You can reach him on Twitter.