Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ruling Skills in 5e D&D

My friend Eric has a great post on his blog that outlines where the rules for skills in 5e D&D fall a little flat for him. Eric makes strong points in his post, but I've already been using work-arounds for many of the issues he raises. Most of my rulings for how skills work in my games are based on the suggestions and variant rules in the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide. I figured I would share my methodology for skills in 5e here so I can refer players in my games to them as needed and to give an example of what I think are more effective ways to use the tools that the skill system already gives you for play.

Noting that the small range of proficiency bonuses granted over twenty character levels, Eric writes "For example, clerics are not that good at religion, since it is Intelligence-based. Nature is also based on Intelligence, making wizards better at it than rangers and druids." The problem that Eric is noting is that in these cases it is quite possible that a character's ability score modifier is outweighing their proficiency modifier for rolls that these characters should excel at.

I use a variety of solutions to sidestep this issue. Depending on a character's class or background, I probably wouldn't even have them make a skill check for something they should have no problem surmounting. For example, if a character grew up in a church I would never make them roll a Religion check to recall a mundane fact of their religion that should be rote for them. I might, however, make a character with no background make a Religion check to see if they know the same piece of information since it isn't in their sphere of familiarity. The Automatic Success variant could also have some bearing here on deciding who rolls and under what circumstances (DMG 239).

But what about moments that do require a roll despite background knowledge? I'm a big fan of mixing and matching ability scores and skills where it feels appropriate as outlined in these rules in the DMG: "Under certain circumstances, you can decide a character's proficiency in a skill can be applied to a different ability check" (239). Thus, if a ranger needed to make a Nature check, I'd likely give them the option of using either Intelligence or Wisdom as the ability score for that check. This is an area where asking for intent before the roll--as per games like Blades in the Dark or Apocalypse World--helps frame which ability score is germane in the moment. 

Since skills are somewhat vaguely described in 5e, you can also offer a player different skill checks based on their chosen approach in the game's fiction. The weird overlap between Perception and Investigation actually works to our advantage here, for once. This can also be used to get more versatility out of skills that seem narrowly focused as written. For example, if a character was examining the wounds on a corpse to figure out how the creature died, that might be an Investigation check...or it might be a Medicine check if they state that they're drawing on their medical training.

Speaking of more narrative-style games, I think the success at a cost and degree of failure rules can work wonders for adding variety to what is otherwise a very binary system that only allows for pass or fail as the results of a skill check (DMG 242). Asking a player to choose an outright failure or success at a cost is a neat little way of adding something like Blades in the Dark's "devil's bargains" into D&D. Using degrees of failure allows characters to be functionally more competent, but with added space for dramatic setbacks.

Eric also takes issue with the way that class features can render skill proficiency less meaningful: "Wizards do not have the option of being great at arcana; the Arcane Trickster is probably better (if that is what the player wants), since he gets Expertise, even if the Wizard casts more powerful spells." This doesn't bother me nearly as much as it does Eric, so I don't feel the need to really work around the potential issue. If an Arcane Trickster wants to blow their Expertise, which is undoubtedly better spent on more active skills, on Arcana...be my guest. (How does an arcane trickster even get Arcana proficiency?)

Which leads to my final suggestion: the difference between "decent" and "great" when it comes to skills is ultimately going to be defined by where you imagine the dividing line between success and failure to be and the rules you use to get at the desired utility of skills in your game. Think about that and set your methodology appropriately.