Sage Advice : 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.
Can you get a critical hit on an ability check? For example, on a grapple attempt, does a critical win, or the highest number?
Ability checks don’t score critical hits. Attack rolls do.
Is a 1 on an ability check an automatic failure?
Rolling a 1 on an ability check or a saving throw is not an automatic failure. A 1 is an automatic miss for an attack.
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?
No. 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.
Written by Jeremy Crawford (Sage Advice Compendium v2.5)