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Mechanically, they both seem to be d20 rolls with an added ability modifier to overcome some type of challenge. Why call it a "saving throw" and not just present it as a passive ability check?

The reason I'm confused is that I'm coming from 4th edition, and they were completely different mechanics in that game. The use of two terms to describe what is basically the same thing seems confusing to me here.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's interesting to note that saving throws in 5E are a lot more like the editions to prior to 4E. 4E's saving throw mechanic was something else entirely, and so was the one using the term in an unfamiliar way. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Riverso Jan 4 '15 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, 4E's redefinition of a saving throw into a "duration of effect" mechanic is the culprit here. To this day, I wish they had called it something else. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil B Jan 5 '15 at 11:08
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They are different for 2 reasons

  • Many spells buff ability checks but are not meant to buff saving throws. Because saving throws are mechanically distinct it is easy to simply call-out ability checks without having to say "but not checks to resist spells, traps, or other attacks."
  • Saving throws have proficiency bonus added for specific throws based on those granted from your starting class.
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They're different so that other rules can affect them differently. For example, a rule that lets you add your Proficiency bonus to Strength checks doesn't add to Strength-based saves precisely because they are separated in that way. If Saving Throws were defined as just a type of Ability Check, this granularity would be unavailable to other rules.

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In-play, my use of it boils down to saving throws being for things affecting your character, while ability checks are for things your character initiatives.

This also makes it easier to remember which one to ask my players to roll :)

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They are different so that magic items can be granular.

For example, you can have an item that adds to saving throws but not ability checks or skill checks.

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We use saving throws when you have to react to something without preparation, vs planning or initiating something yourself. So a character who intentionally tries to slide across a slick surface makes an Acrobatics check, vs a player who suddenly slips on a Grease spell makes a Dexterity save.

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