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Ability Checks

An ability check tests a character’s or monster’s training and talent to overcome a challenge. The Narrator calls for an ability check when a creature attempts any action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When an outcome is uncertain, it is determined by a roll of the dice.

For every ability check, the Narrator decides which of the six abilities is relevant to the task at hand and the difficulty of the task, represented by a Difficulty Class or DC. The more difficult the task, the higher its DC.

To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier. Apply any other bonuses and penalties, and then compare the total to the DC. If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success and the challenge is overcome! Otherwise, it’s a failure.

A failed ability check means a creature either makes no progress toward its objective or makes progress but with a setback determined by the Narrator.

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


When a character attempts an ability check, the Narrator may decide that a specific skill is relevant to the check. If a character is proficient in that skill, they may add their proficiency bonus to their ability check. For instance, if a character is attempting to fool a palace guard, the Narrator might call for a Charisma check using the Deception skill. For this ability check, a character proficient in the Deception skill may add their proficiency bonus to their ability check. A character not proficient in Deception simply makes a Charisma check.

Any skill can be used with any ability check, although some pairings are more common than others. For instance, the Deception skill is commonly used with Charisma ability checks, although a character who is attempting to encode a written message might instead make an Intelligence check using the Deception skill.

Sometimes the Narrator will ask for an ability check using a certain skill: for instance, “Make a Charisma (Deception) check.” Other times, a Narrator may ask for an ability check, and a player might ask whether one of their skills applies to the check. The Narrator is the sole arbiter of which skill, if any, applies to an ability check.

Skill Checks

The rules sometimes refer to a check with a skill but no ability specified—for example, “Your character has advantage on Deception checks.” This refers to all ability checks using the Deception skill regardless of which ability score is used.

Passive Checks

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any die rolls, instead representing any of the following circumstances:

  • The average result for a task done repeatedly or continuously, such as taking in the details of a room on first sight.
  • When a character is under no pressure and can take as long as they need, such as opening a locked chest in a safe location during downtime.
  • To determine a character’s knowledge or awareness (possibly in secret) without rolling dice, such as recalling a local culture’s legend or noticing an ambush.

To determine a character’s total for a passive check, add 10 + all the modifiers that normally apply to the check.

If the character has advantage on the check, add 5, and if they have an expertise die add 3. If the character has disadvantage , subtract 5.

The most common use of a passive check is a passive Wisdom (Perception) check. When a character first experiences a new scene or location, the Narrator describes what they sense based on their perceptiveness. A highly perceptive character might automatically detect dangers a less perceptive character wouldn’t notice, such as hidden opponents or traps.


Sometimes one creature’s efforts are directly opposed by another’s. This happens when two or more creatures are attempting the same thing but only one can succeed (trying to snatch a fallen magic ring from the floor) or when a creature’s actions are trying to prevent another from accomplishing a goal (such as when an adventurer is holding shut a trapdoor while a monster is trying to force it open). In these situations the outcome is determined by contested ability checks—a contest.

Participants in the contest make ability checks appropriate to their efforts and use an ability score chosen by the Narrator. They apply bonuses and penalties, but instead of comparing the total to a DC they compare the totals of their checks. The participant with the higher check wins the contest, either succeeding at their action, or preventing the other from succeeding.

If the contest has a tied result the situation remains the same as it was before the contest—neither creature grabs the ring and the adventurer keeps the door closed.

An initiative check  is a type of contested ability check to determine the order of action during an encounter.

Critical Success and Failures

When a creature rolls an ability check and gets a natural 20 or a natural 1 on the dice, it has a critical success or critical failure and there is an additional effect to the outcome of the action. Refer to Table: Ability Check Criticals at the end of this chapter to determine the additional effect.

Advantage, Disadvantage, and Expertise

When the Narrator asks for an ability check, it might be modified by circumstances, spells, features, or traits that grant advantage (roll twice and use the higher result), disadvantage (roll twice and use the lower result), or expertise dice

Working Together

Sometimes two or more characters work together to attempt a task. The character leading the effort can make an ability check with advantage , reflecting the help provided by other characters. In combat, this requires the Help action.

A character can’t attempt to help with a task that they couldn’t attempt alone. For example, trying to research a series of Draconic texts for a clue to a lost treasure is only possible if you can read the language. A character unable to read Draconic isn’t able to help with the research. Likewise, a character can help only when two or more individuals working together would actually be productive. Some tasks (such as picking a lock) are no easier with help.

Group Checks

When all individuals in a scene are attempting the same thing as a group, such as climbing a cliff or sneaking up on an enemy camp, the Narrator calls for a Group Check .

Proficiency Bonus

Every creature has a proficiency bonus determined by its level (for PCs) or its challenge rating (for monsters and most NPCs). The bonus is used for ability checks, saving throws, and attack rolls when a creature has a relevant proficiency.

When applicable, you add your proficiency bonus to a d20 roll. If two different rules say you can add your proficiency bonus to a roll, you still only add the bonus once.

Some rules might modify your proficiency bonus before it is applied to a roll; for example, a bard’s Jack-of-All-Trades feature halves the proficiency bonus before it is applied to ability checks where the bard wouldn’t usually add the proficiency bonus  at all. If multiple rules modify the proficiency bonus in the same way, you still only modify it that way once.

Saving Throws

A saving throw (sometimes called a save) represents an attempt to resist an effect being forced upon your character such as a spell, a trap, a poison, a disease, or similar threat. You don’t normally decide to make a saving throw; you make one because you’re at risk of harm. Although you typically will not want to, you can always choose to fail a saving throw.