Hack the game: improved skills in 5e

D&D is more popular than it has ever been. Part of the reason for this is fifth edition itself, which in many ways streamlined the game without losing the flavour that made it ‘feel’ like D&D.

I am generally very happy with the changes 5th edition made to the game but feel that skill checks is an area that needs work. In this article, I plan to look at some of the problems with skill checks in 5th edition and offer a solution of my own. 

The problems

Before we start, let me get one thing straight: there’s a lot that I like about skills in 5th edition. I don’t miss the long skill lists of previous editions or the bookkeeping of tracking skill points. I like the way in which bonded accuracy keeps the numbers low and manageable: even at 20th level, a character might only be rolling +10 or +11 to a d20. I also like how DMs are empowered to interpret skills in a way that suits the story. And I like how DMs can devise their own DCs. It’s not necessarily helpful to codify how skills are ‘meant’ be used.

My main issue with 5th edition skills is how unevenly useful they are. Some skills are unnecessarily specific, and rarely come into play, while others are used so frequently that it is almost foolish for a player character not to be trained in them.

As an illustration: when you play, how often do you make a Religion roll? Or a Performance check? Or (after 1st level) a Medicine check? I suspect the answer is: very rarely.

Conversely: how often do you roll Perception, or Insight, or Stealth? Or, if you’re a DM, how often do you check a player’s passive score for one of these skills? The answer, I suspect, is ‘all the time’. (Perception, in particular, can feel like the ‘god stat’ of 5th edition skills. If you could only be proficiency in one skill, surely this would be it.)

Then there’s the messiness of tool proficiency. Many players new to 5th edition get confused about lockpicking and disarming traps. ‘Where’s the skill for that?’ Answer: there isn’t one. It’s a tool proficiency. And it’s in a completely different chapter of the PH, too. I understand the rationale that skills are ‘a specific aspect of an ability score’ whereas a tool ‘helps you to do something you couldn’t otherwise do’, but the distinction is applied inconsistently. If bagpipes are a tool proficiency, why have a skill called Perform? And if lockpicking requires thieves’ tools, do you not need tools to perform medicine? I love the flavour that comes with being able to brew beer or win at dragonchess, but, in my opinion, tool proficiency is an unnecessary complication in what could be a much clearer, cleaner system.

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There’s also the issue of superfluous or overlapping skills. Do we need a separate skill called ‘Sleight of Hand’ when there’s already a skill called ‘Stealth’? Don’t Nature, Animal Handling, and Survival cover a lot of the same ground? And if there’s already a variant rule for ‘skills with different abilities’ (PH 175), then how is Acrobatics different from Dex-based Athletics? There’s some cleaning up to be done here, I think.

In summary, I generally like how skills work, but I’m looking to do three things:

  • Bring skills in line with each other so that each one is about as useful as any other
  • Reform tool proficiency
  • Reduce redundant overlapping

Current solutions

It’s worth noting at this point that there is already a fair amount of flexibility built into the skill system. For example, the PH gives the option of combining a skill with an unusual ability, such as a Constitution (Athletics) check or a Strength (Intimidation) check. I’m fine with this. In fact, I would go one stage further: to emphasize the point, I am going to list skills without the associated ability score. Let the situation dictate the appropriate ability modifier.

There are also three alternative approaches to skills in the Dungeon Master’s Guide: ability check proficiency, background proficiency, and personality trait proficiency (pages 263–264). None of these are quite right to me.

ThinkDM has reduced the 18 skills down to five: fitness, speechcraft, stealth, awareness, and knack. I admire this very much, but it possibly goes a bit too far for most tables. Justin Alexander agrees with much of ThinkDM’s approach and offered a route to 13 or even just ten skills.

So what do I recommend? What follows is my reasoning: scroll to the end for a final skill list. 

My solution

First of all, I would ditch Perception as a trainable skill. In a way, there’s already a precedent for this as Initiative is essentially an untrainable Dexterity check. If combat readiness is a matter of raw ability, why should perceptiveness be any different? (If players want their characters to be more perceptive, there are still options available, like the Alert feat.)

Given that Insight is essentially just Perception for social situations, I’m tempted to do the same here. Let’s treat both as untrained Wisdom checks.

‘But stop!’ I hear you cry. ‘If you remove Perception and Insight, then Stealth and Deception are suddenly unopposed skills!’

My solution? Treat Stealth and Deception like almost every other skill: instead of rolling opposed checks as a contest, just roll against a DC determined by the DM. If this seems sacrilegious, consider that it’s pretty much exactly how stealth and trap detection worked in 2nd edition AD&D. Thieves rolled against a percentage target and either succeeded or failed. It would work absolutely fine. It’s also how social interaction works in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide (pp 244–245).

While we’re on the subject of Stealth, do we need separate skills for Stealth and Sleight of Hand? I’d say no. Roll one into the other. Similarly, I see no reason major issue with Deception, Intimidation, and Persuasion being one big skill. ThinkDM calls it ‘Speechcraft’. I like it. And as Justin Alexander points out, there’s nothing to stop you from approaching Speechcraft as an Intelligence-based skill (witty repartee) or even a Strength-based skill (physical threats). 3rd edition had a skill called Gather Information, which was useful and seems sorely missing in 5th edition. Speechcraft could cover the same territory.

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We’ve now whittled down the list from 18 to 13. As I pointed out earlier, the option of combining one skill with different ability scores makes the inclusion of Athletics and Acrobatics rather redundant. As Justin Alexander points out, one of these is Physical Stuff + Strength, and the other is Physical Stuff + Dexterity. Let’s just call it all Athletics. Now we’re down to twelve.

If we’re keeping tool proficiency, then Perform needs to go. If you know how to play the lute, it’s bizarre that you could be ‘unskilled’ in how to perform on the lute. I’m almost tempted to say the same of Medicine, as it seems pretty interchangeable with the herbalism kit . . .

While we’re on the subject of tools: do we need all of them? There are five gaming sets, eleven musical instruments, 18 artisan’s tools, and six other tool sets like the disguise kit and thieves’ tools. Would it be terrible to cut down on the noise here? Justin Alexander points out that there is already precedent for this: you can be proficient in ‘Vehicles (Land)’ without specifying wagons, chariots, carts, etc. I’m going to lift Alexander’s list entire:

  • Alchemy
  • Art
  • Craft
  • Gaming
  • Music
  • Thievery
  • Vehicle (Air/Land/Water)

As a slight quibble, I think Art can be folded into Craft. I would also remove ‘Gaming’, but, hey, if it’s important to you, keep it.

If you miss the granularity, you could always allow players a number of ‘specialisms’. A character trained in Music could be a singer or a flautist. A character trained in Crafts could be a smith, a carpenter, a glassblower . . .

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The last area I want to look at is what I still think of as the ‘knowledge’ skills: Arcana, History, Nature, Religion. I like the idea that players can use ‘knowledge’ skills to learn about monster abilities. This is a practice that started in 3rd edition (3.5, technically), and there’s precedent for it in 5th edition, too: the Arcana skill refers to ‘the planes of existence and the inhabitants of those planes’, which covers celestials, elementals, fiends, and maybe fey or even aberrations. Similarly, Nature refers to ‘plants and animals’ (ie, beasts).

One of the things I like about this approach is that these skills are traditionally associated with Intelligence, and Intelligence is probably the most neglected ability score in 5th edition. (And for good reason: of the 361 spells in the PH, for example,only 16 require an Intelligence check or save, and unlike Dexterity and Constitution which affect AC and hit points among other things, you can dump Intelligence with very little consequence.)

If we follow this approach, I think a bit of clarity is needed as to which skills cover which monster types.

  • I’m happy for Nature to cover beasts and plants, and I’m tempted to add fey, giants, and oozes. That might seem like a lot, but plants, oozes, and fey are pretty rare. I might move giants, though. I’m also happy for Nature to cover the Animal Handling and Survival skills. (People will probably get upset about this, but I think there’s a lot of overlap here.)
  • Religion doesn’t seem to cover any of the monster type to me. The PH describes it as ‘lore about deities, rites and prayers, religious hierarchies, holy symbols, and the practices of secret cults’. Do we include undead here? It seems like a stretch.
  • If we carry on using Arcana for creatures from other worlds (celestials, elementals, fiends), do we include aberrations? And do we use Arcana for magical or unnatural creatures (constructs, dragons, monstrosities, undead)? All of a sudden, Arcana has become a bit of a catch-all skill. Maybe we should tone it down a bit.
  • I’m going to create a spin-off skill, Planes Lore, which covers celestials, elementals, and fiends, and retain Arcana for aberrations, constructs, monstrosities, and undead.
  • That leaves one monster type: humanoids, probably the most common type in most campaigns. Neither History nor Religion feels like a perfect fit here. 3rd edition had a skill called Knowledge (local), but I’m not sure I necessarily want players to be tied down to a particular region. I’m tempted to go with something like ‘Realms Lore’ which can cover knowledge of towns, people, faiths, and so on. For now, let’s call it Society. Got a better name? Let me know in the comments.

I haven’t covered Investigation. This, to me, is one of the most misinterpreted skills in D&D. It is explained in the PH as ‘when you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues’ (emphasis mine), but it is frequently treated as an alternative to Perception, or as the 5th edition equivalent of a ‘Search’ skill. If we take away Perception and Insight, I worry that Investigation could be inadvertently come to replace them. And again: if combat readiness is deemed to be a ‘raw’, untrainable skill in 5th edition, is deductive reasoning not somewhat similar? For now, I’m going to omit it, but I can see an argument for retaining it in certain campaigns.

The final list

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Well done for surviving this far. I hope you enjoyed the ride. Here we are. My alternative skill list of twelve skills:

  1. Alchemy
  2. Arcana
  3. Athletics
  4. Craft
  5. Nature
  6. Perform
  7. Planes Lore
  8. Society
  9. Speechcraft
  10. Stealth
  11. Thievery
  12. Vehicle (Air/Land/Water)

Is it perfect? Of course not. Will it make people upset? Probably. But I set out to do three things: to reduce redundancy; to reform tool proficiency; and to bring skills in line with each other so that they are (roughly) as useful as each other. And on these three fronts, I don’t think I’m going to make much more progress than this.

You would obviously need to tinker with the fabric of the game a little to make this work. We’ve gone down from 18 skills and 40 tools to just twelve skills, some of which would have been ‘tools’ in the previous system. Some skills have been amalgamated into others; some have been removed completely; one has been divided into two (Arcana and Planes Lore). All have been ‘consciously uncoupled’ from their ability score pairings.

This is, as yet, unplaytested! Let me know what you think in the comments. If you like it and decide to put it into practice, I would be delighted to hear how you get on.

Next week: problem players. Are you one of them?

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2 thoughts on “Hack the game: improved skills in 5e

  1. Hi! Great work on hacking the d&d 5e skill system. I share a lot of your criticism towards how skills are presented in this edition.
    I’m very much in favor of removing Perception as a skill, as it is more of an ability IMHO than a skill, and the consolidation and elimination of several other skills.
    My view on Perception brings me to my main point here:
    I feel a lot of the skills in 5e aren’t so much “Skills” as they are abilities. Also, the skill system itself is pretty lackluster when it comes to actually being able to succeed at doing stuff (Still mostly determined by the dice and ability bonuses). That’s why a lot of classes and subclasses have special abilities that help them be better than others in actually performing certain tasks associated with specific skills (such as the Rogue’s Expertise).
    So with that in mind, I think we can do away with more general “skills” that any adventuring party member should be able to do with a fair chance of success, and make skills be something a bit more unique and diverse. Something that players choose as part of their class skills, and aren’t “must haves” like Athletics, Stealth, Perception, Persuasion, etc.
    That’s why I would actually keep a lot of the more esoteric skills, such as Survival, Animal Handling, Medicine, Knowledge skills and Tools (though I agree that some of them can be consolidated – especially the music and gaming tools).

  2. I kinda arrived two years late to the party, but I’m more than happy that more people share the same perspective I have of the skill system in 5e.

    It seems they wanted to solve the problem that skills had in 3e by just halving their amount, which wasn’t a bad move, but they also halved the amount of skill proficiencies you get, so instead of having 40+ skills and like 6-7 skill ranks per level now you instead have 18 skills and 4-5 skill proficiencies. The only problem solved here is that instead of having a character sheet with 40+ blank slots for those 40+ skills, you now have a character sheet with 18 blank slots, but %-wise you are as unskilled as you were before.

    I created my own skill variant to consolidate skills and tools. It’s here for those that would want to check it out: https://homebrewery.naturalcrit.com/share/_yCXN7P65cAo

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