Not a week goes by that we don’t see the question “Why is Intimidate based on Charisma?” This article will dispel the mystery around what you’re actually rolling when you roll a “skill check”.
Skills are one of the central mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons. Trying to push in a door? Make an Athletics check. Trying to haggle with the shopkeep? Make a Persuasion check. Any time you are rolling a die out of combat, chances are it is a skill check.
Or is it?
Ability Checks, Not Skill Checks
In point of fact, there are no “skill checks” per se in Fifth Edition. What you are doing is rolling an ability check to which you can apply your proficiency bonus if you and the DM agree that it is something you are trained in.
For example, if a character with proficiency in Arcana is attempting to discern the nature of a magical trap, the DM might ask them to make an Intelligence check and add their proficiency bonus (because they are trained in the field of study that would apply). This is often shortened as “Roll an Intelligence (Arcana) check” or, more often, “Roll an Arcana check”.
The skills that appear on your character sheet represent the training or practice in a set of techniques. They have commonly associated abilities, but they are not tied to those attributes. If your barbarian decides he wants to break a thick wooden club over his knee as a way to frighten someone, the DM could easily call for a Strength (Intimidate) check. If your rogue is writing a coded message, the DM might call for an Intelligence (Deception) check. Skills are designed to facilitate interaction with the world, not inhibit it.
Trained vs. Non-Trained
In some cases, the DM may decide that only someone with appropriate training can attempt something. Likely, the above example with the character using Arcana to identify a magical trap would be such a “trained only” case, as only someone who has studied magical theory should really be able to identify how a magical effect will function. Other examples of checks that would require proficiency might be to set a broken bone (Medicine), performing a religious ritual to specification (Religion), and turning an incorrectly positioned calf during birth (Animal Handling). Without the knowledge of how to perform the task, no ability check is applicable. You can’t just improvise complex, specialized tasks.
Most cases, however, do not require any special training. A character attempting to bust down a door with a shoulder check doesn’t need to have spent years training to do so, and the DM will probably just ask for a Strength (Athletics) check. Same with an Wisdom (Survival) check to follow a bear’s tracks or an Intelligence (History) check to remember details about the more famous leaders of your homeland’s history.
Certain tasks require specific tools. An alchemist must have her beakers and a blacksmith must have his hammer. Yet, tool proficiencies are far more than just how to pour contents from one container to another or how to swing a blunt metal object. Carpenters have to have a strong grasp of geometry and arithmetic in order to build things. Herbalists have to know how to get oil out of Castor seeds as opposed to simply prescribing someone consume them (a single seed can kill a child). Alchemists have to know not to mix certain ingredients (such as saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal) so they don’t blow themselves up (see the feature image of this article).
Ability checks using tools more commonly involve multiple attributes. If the blacksmith has to fold metal to remove impurities or temper steel to fix its hardness, they’re probably relying on Intelligence to guide their process. If the carpenter is carving delicate details, they’re probably relying on Dexterity to guide their actions. The next day, however, both individuals might use their tools in a completely different manner that relies on a whole other attribute. Talk with your DM about the nature of your activity to avoid confusion. And DMs… you can’t be experts on every trade, so be ready to take suggestions from your players if you are going to call for a check.
Putting It All Together
Don’t get confused when reading the character sheets: skills are not tied to specific ability scores. You are not rolling a skill check influenced by an ability, you are rolling an ability check and possibly adding your proficiency if it’s a task in which you are skilled. This is why the rules describe these checks using the format “Ability (Skill)”, emphasizing the role of the attribute first. Some skills would be harder to use with different abilities (it is kind of hard to justify using the History skill with a Strength check, for example), but that doesn’t mean the skill and attribute must always go together. It is perfectly fine to roll a Strength (Intimidate) check as long as you are using your brawn in a threatening manner; just be sure you roleplay it that way so the DM asks you to roll appropriately.
Have you experienced an interesting ability/skill combination? Do you have a horror story about the misapplication of ability checks? Share them in the comments below!