Reliable Talent makes your proficient skills passive. Well, not really. It treats your rolls on proficient skills as a 10, if you roll worse. Passive skills function in much the same fashion, giving you a floor of 10 + modifier on your relevant skills under normal circumstances.
In order to see what you’re really getting from this class feature, you need to find out what skills already function passively, and what skills only function actively. Let’s examine passive skill treatment in the rules and analyze where each skill should fall.
At 11th level, Rogues get Reliable Talent, which sets the floor on their proficient skill checks at 10:
Passive skill scores are set by taking a base 10 and adding your skill modifiers:
The rules on hiding (vision, light, stealth) and exploration (travel) explicitly address passive skills. While both of these rulesets deal with passive perception, the rule is open to the possibility of other passive skills. We see that pop up in the feats, but let’s start with the classic example.
Perception is the most ubiquitous of the passive skills. It gets treatment in the stealth and travel arenas.
The nature of passive skills is that they’re always working. D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford explained how passive perception functions as a skill “floor” in his podcast explaining stealth:
“Passive perception is on whenever you’re conscious and aware.”
“It’s always on–that’s the baseline. Now, this brings up questions because then people were saying, ‘how it is when I make an active perception check I might get a roll that’s lower?’ Well, you aren’t. Yes, that roll is lower, but remember your passive perception is always on. So it really represents the floor of your perception.”
“If you make an active perception check, and get a number that’s lower than your passive perception, all that means is that you did a lousy job of this particular active search, but your passive perception is still active. You’re still going to notice something that blips onto your passive perception radar. Really, when you make that roll, you’re rolling to see, ‘can I get a higher number?’ If you fail to, your passive perception is still active. It is effectively creating that minimum.”
– D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford, D&D Podcast 4/27/2017 @ 22:14
If passive skill scores are always on, they function just the same as Reliable Talent.
The Observant feat shows us that Intelligence (Investigation) checks also function as passive checks. Since it functions the same as Wisdom (Perception), we can assume that both are “always on” like Reliable Talent.
Investigation is an interesting case because it has the feeling of a very active skill. If it’s possible to investigate passively, it feels comfortable putting most (if not all) of the other skills in the passive arena.
Conceptually, Insight is social Perception. In a situation where you’re skeptical, Insight may function closer to Investigation. In either sense, Insight should function as a passive skill, due to its similarity to the two skills with established rules on their passive application. This is seemingly confirmed by the existence of a passive Insight score on the D&D Beyond character sheet:
Passive Knowledge Skills
Most Intelligence skills have a very passive feel. Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion generally require that you’ve studied or gained the experience to implement them before the moment of the roll. A roll can represent whether the player has studied the relevant niche. However, if the narrative is too random it can conflict with character backstories.
Survival is the knowledge skill for Wisdom. While less bookish than the Intelligence skills, Survival requires a saavy that the character must already possess at the time they’re making the roll. The fact that the passive skill text references the exploration rules suggests that tracking and orienteering represent “a task done repeatedly.”
Athletics is the only skill that interacts with the Strength ability. Interestingly, some of its functions are governed by specific mechanics instead of passive Athletics skill. Since so much of the base function is handled passively, it makes sense that all of Athletics should have a passive floor. On the other hand, it feels sound that non-routine athletic feats are more subject to chance. Ultimately, I err on the side of passive because of the arm wresting thought experiment.
Climbing & Swimming
Climbing and swimming interact with movement mechanics, causing you to move at half speed. The DM can call for a check where circumstances are particularly difficult.
Jumping is built as a passive skill outside the framework of skill proficiencies. Your passive ability to (long or high) jump is tied directly to your Strength score. Your running long jump distance is equal to your Strength score. Your running high jump distance is equal to 3 + your Strength modifier. These distances are halved for standing jumps. The DM might call for a roll to exceed these limits or deal with an obstacle.
Passive Strength also appears in the context of carry weight. This is a design necessity, since making continuous encumbrance checks would be absurd. Drag, Lift, and Carry Weights are pegged at double your carry weight.
While no skill is explicitly excluded from having a passive floor, certain skills have a more active feel that they should always be a captive of the dice. Rules which set a DC 10 check imply that a passive check is not possible for those skills, since they would trivialize the mechanic.
Like most Intelligence skills, Wisdom (Medicine) checks play on prior knowledge at the time of the check. A rolled check can represent relating a symptom to a specific ailment or correctly performing a medical procedure. However, the base of knowledge required to perform a diagnosis or medical procedure makes this feel like the right fit for a passive check.
The rules don’t necessarily support Medicine as a passive check. One function of Medicine checks is to stabilize a dying companion. The stabilization rules require you to make a DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check to stabilize your ally:
If passive Medicine checks are possible, its only possible to fail with a negative Wisdom modifier and no proficiency. Since that seems unlikely, Medicine checks were probably intended to be active skills.
Thematically, Animal Handling should follow another Wisdom skill, Medicine. Both are skills that can be informed by prior knowledge, but require interaction with another creature at the time the check is made. Following the Medicine analysis above, Animal Handling should be an active skill as well.
Dexterity checks feel like active checks. An acrobatic maneuver, sleight of hand gesture, or stealthy movement are all active attempts to achieve a result against an environment or opponent. On the other hand, Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth are practiced activities. The gymnast, cutpurse, and ninja would all profess their skill in their craft, supporting the argument that a passive floor should apply.
The rules tend to suggest that Acrobatics is not passive. Consider the jumping rule in the Athletics discussion above. If you land in difficult terrain, you need to beat a DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check or land prone. This would be a triviality for any character without a negative modifier if passive Acrobatics exists.
Charisma skills feel like active checks. Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion are all incredibly situational. Since they require interaction with at least one other creature, it makes sense that the results are variable. On the other hand, something like Performance can naturally have a baseline, as an actor memorizes their lines, a musician gets a feel for their chord progressions, and a dancer learns their steps. The other Charisma skills can also be developed in this way, though the examples are less concrete. Ultimately, these still feel more active to me.
Passive vs. Active
Feel free to break down passive and active skills however you want. There’s great arguments both ways for most skills. Here’s a quick recap of the above:
As a house rule, consider giving the passive skill floor only to characters who are proficient in that skill check. While this will still provide a smaller benefit for the skill-heavy Rogue, Reliable Talent still works to offset passive disadvantage.
Of course, there’s an exception. Passive Perception is too ingrained in the game to be restricted by this mechanic, so its always going to exist. Investigation is more susceptible to homerule. The only rule affecting it is optional (the Observant feat). Thematically, Investigation feels like an active skill. It’s a good example of a skill that works passively for someone who is proficient.