A daring swing from a heavy chandelier. A flash of insight into a monster’s nature. Discovering secret documents in an all-too-predictable hiding place. These and more are demonstrations of skills in use. Almost everything an adventurer can do can be achieved through the training encompassed in skills, making them among the most versatile mechanics in the game.
And yet, from a mechanical standpoint, skills are somewhat lacklustre. In this article, we’ll look at what simple solutions exist to make them more exciting, and offer a revised version of the skills chapter.
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Rare is it that a session of D&D wraps up without at least one skill having been used. Whether it was a Strength (Athletics) check to clear a broken bridge or a Wisdom (Insight) check on a shifty NPC, skills are the most common rolls in many games. However, there are several persistent misunderstandings about skills that arise from ambiguous or misleading language in the rules that lead to people not getting the most use out of them, and the entire mechanic is somewhat simplistic in its execution.
Ability Checks, Not Skill Checks
It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘skill check’ in fifth edition D&D, but rather there are ability checks. Unlike in previous editions, where the game had 40+ skills that had explicit uses hard-written into their descriptions, such as the Ride skill laying out every action conceivable from guiding your steed without hands to falling off your horse without injury, or the Diplomacy skill instructing all parties in a negotiation to roll a contested check to determine who gains the advantage, skills in fifth edition are broad categories covering many different actions that might be undertaken in various ways.
For instance, a fighter might attempt to leap between two buildings with a single burst of strength, whereas a monk might pull off some dope wall running stunt. The former relies on Strength, the latter relies on Dexterity. In both cases, the physical training represented by the Athletics skill would be a benefit, and so the characters could apply their proficiency bonus to the check if they are trained in that skill. In the language of the game, this would be written as a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Athletics) check. At the DM’s option, the Acrobatics skill might also apply to the monk’s performance.
In order to be on the same page as the DM regarding what skill you might need to roll, it is important to be clear when you describe your actions. If the monk simply said, “I also jump over the gap”, it would be unreasonable for them to get frustrated when the DM asks them to make a Strength (Athletics) check instead of something else, like Dexterity (Acrobatics).
Fifth edition is notable for its relatively flat advancement. The advent of the proficiency bonus fundamentally changed character advancement, streamlining the concept of training and removing almost all of the bookkeeping involved with managing proficiency. This has made characters much easier to build, but somewhat detracted from their individual distinctiveness.
In third edition, you had a pool of skill ranks to assign each time you levelled up. You could invest these ranks in whichever skills you wanted, with a maximum number of ranks per skill determined by your level. Thus, a 5th-level barbarian with a Charisma of 14 could have a +10 bonus to Intimidate skill checks before any miscellaneous modifiers, such as from skill synergies or magic items. There was lots of room for personalization under this system, but it was granular to the point of tedium. Skills that weren’t part of your class list took twice as many ranks to improve, making it frustrating to plan out how to allocate your skill ranks if you gained an odd number that level. Functionally, most characters wound up with similar skill sections to fifth edition characters, as they would simply assign all their skill ranks to the same skills each level, causing them to accrue increasingly high modifiers to some skill checks, but not others. My first character, an 11th-level elf wizard in third edition, had +22 to Knowledge (Arcana) checks, but a –1 penalty to Climb and Swim checks.
But while the consolidation of most of the 40+ skills we once had into the 18 we have today has largely been a welcome change, there is something lost in character creation now that we lack the option to really specialize. My third-edition wizard’s +24 bonus to Spellcraft meant that he was guaranteed to succeed on any attempt to copy spells he was capable of casting into his spellbook. And if that meant that he floundered ignobly in chest-deep waves, then so be it; it was much more fun to roleplay a master of the arcane able to singlehandedly destroy a cavalry charge but who practically had to be carried through some half-sunken passages. That was why he had
One possible option to restore that feeling of becoming an unparallelled expert of a specific area is to include a new mechanic for ability checks. To avoid utterly breaking bounded accuracy, this mechanic more closely resembles the rogue’s Reliable Talent feature than the Expertise feature. The result is greater reliability of ability checks within that narrow focus, resulting in statistically higher average totals.
Skills are broad categories covering numerous areas of knowledge and practice, and not everyone who is proficient in a skill will focus on the same aspect of it. Within each skill are several narrow categories called specializations, focusing on a particular facet of that skill. The skill descriptions later in this chapter provide a list of specializations.
Specializing grants you more reliable performance reflecting your greater familiarity with that particular area. Whenever you make an ability check that uses one of your specializations, you can treat a d20 roll of 9 or lower as a 10.
You are specialized in a number of areas equal to your proficiency bonus. When your proficiency bonus increases, you gain a new specialization. Only one specialization is allowed per skill, and you can’t choose a specialization in a skill with which you are not proficient.
Test It Today!
As part of our project to create a 5.5e that is a faithful successor to the game (as opposed to whatever Wizards of the Coast thinks it’s doing), we have rewritten large parts of chapter 7, “Using Ability Scores”, in the Player’s Handbook. As part of this revision, we’ve clarified common misconceptions as well as incorporated this specialization mechanic, giving two to four different specializations for each skill. You can check it out below!
These rules are still in draft form and as such are written in pencil, not ink. Playtest feedback is needed to determine what, if any, changes are needed. At present, it’s okay if you don’t like everything about these rules. If you see something that you dislike, or if playtesting reveals a need for adjustment or expansion of some rules, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
Putting It All Together
Skills are an essential part of any D&D game but, through bland and sometimes misleading rules, the concept is rarely used to its fullest extent. Worse, many DMs are stuck locking skills into use with specific abilities. The rewritten rules above are meant to resolve all these issues by expanding the skills system with a new mechanic of specialization. Give it a try and let us know what you think!
Feature Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast