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When writing or GMing an adventure, frequently there will be situations that test the PC's physical abilities to cope with a threat.

Examples include:

  • The building the party is in is collapsing, and the fighter decides to prop up the roof with her body.
  • The rope bridge the party is crossing shakes violently, and they need to avoid being pitched off.

As a GM, when should I call for a Strength Saving Throw versus a Strength (Athletics) check, or a Dexterity Saving Throw versus a Dexterity (Acrobatics) check?

Specific guidance from the rulebooks would be best if it exists.

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Ability checks are intentional, Saving throws are reflexive.

An Ability check is...

when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure.

PHB 174

A Saving Throw...

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.

PHB 179

And there you can see that difference rather plainly. An ability check is an intentional act--something a character voluntarily elects to do in order to try and accomplish something. A Saving Throw is a reflexive response to something trying to do your character harm.

So, in your specific examples...

In the first, the fighter is intentionally choosing to try to prop up the ceiling. This will be an Ability Check. In the second, the rope bridge abruptly shakes and the characters are forced to react to not fall off. This will be a Saving Throw.

To clarify some things mentioned in the comments...

Grapple checks are an Opposed Check. Resisting a grapple is not something that is a reflexive action. One may flinch when someone goes to grab you, but out-muscling them (Athletics) or twisting free of their grab (Acrobatics) is something you have to do on purpose. (Speaking from experience as a Martial Artist, here). Thus, it is still an ability check. It is an intentional thing that a character chooses to do in order to accomplish something.

Perception, likewise, is something a character elects to do. They are actively looking for hidden threats, looking for hidden doors, etc. And, in combat, a Perception Check is treated as an Action. Passive Perception represents your character's ongoing intentional attempts to look for trouble.

Again, in both of these cases, the character is intentionally choosing to do these things. Hence, they are Ability Checks.

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I'd say to always use the Athletics/Acrobatics (whichever is appropriate to the situation), unless it's called out as a saving throw (e.g. for a magical effect). Or maybe use whichever is better for the creature in question.

If the character does not have proficiency in Athletics/Acrobatics, or in the relevant save, then it doesn't matter; it's the same roll. If the character does have a relevant proficiency, then it's a part of his character and he has spent resources to have that, and I think deserves the full benefit of having done so.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer could be improved by adding references to relevant rules, particularly if there is a rule suggesting that the DM should let creatures use "whichever is better." If there is no such rule, it would be improved by an acknowledgement of such and an explanation of why that house-rule should be made. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim C Jan 26 '18 at 3:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Relevant rule referenced: "unless it's called out as a saving throw". Acknowledgement that there is no such rule about letting creatures use whichever is better: "Or maybe use ...". Explanation of why that house-rule should be made: "... it's a part of his character and he has spent resources to have that, and I think deserves the full benefit of having done so". Everything is there. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Boncer Jan 26 '18 at 5:56
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An ability check is when they're trying to climb up the rock.

An ability save is when the rock crumbles down and is about to crush them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer would be improved by providing an explanation of why you believe each of these examples falls into that category, with citations to the relevant rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim C Jan 26 '18 at 3:12

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