5 Skill D&D

Why have 18 skills when you can have FIVE?

Give your players more agency over the narrative implementation of their skillsets by conjoining skill groups and highlighting alternate ability score associations.

Design Philosophy

Alternate Ability Skills

There’s a great variant rule in the Player’s Handbook that tells DMs to call for skill checks with alternate ability scores. For example, a player can roll an Intimidation check by adding their Strength modifier to their proficiency bonus, instead of the usual Charisma modifier. Not only does this make a more favorable roll for the strong-not-suave character, it paints a better story of how that character goes about their business.

Alternate Ability Skill Checks

The problem is that D&D’s tools are not designed to support this style of play. Players don’t think of skills modularly because the skill bonus is already pre-calculated on their character sheet. So, they get stuck in using their skill in the same mode all the time. Every time I ask a player to roll a non-standard skill check, I have to explain it and often wind up calculating their bonus for them. This is a failing of the system. It has a better way to do things and it knows it, but it sidelines it as a variant rule.

How can we get player thinking about their skills modularly? We need to divorce the skills from their presumed associations. But, that leaves a lot of skills to contend with.

Combining Skills

What we can do is combine these skills into broader thematic skills and let the ability scores do the narrative modulation. For example, instead of having different skills for persuasion, deception, and intimidation, you combine them all into one speechcraft skill.

You might be saying, “but deception is more than talking!” That’s right! Speechcraft only covers the talking part of deception. Passing off a disguise might come under Stealth, but you’re using a Charisma modifier instead of the usually-associated Dexterity modifier. This illustrates the value of the mix-and-match system. Skills can be “combined” but still manifest in different forms due to the combinations we’ve made available.

Trimming the Fat

In the course of analyzing and combining these skills, it becomes apparent that there’s certain skills which could be subsumed under other rolls, or handled some other way:

Performance. Performance is a largely redundant skill. Requiring characters to learn instruments on top of taking the performance skill seems to be an unfair proficiency tax. If you don’t have an instrument, your oration should fall somewhere under one of the other social skills.

Medicine. Medicine has two applications: practicing medicine and knowledge checks (such as a diagnosis). If you’re practicing medicine, it can be subsumed under the use of equipment: the Medicine Kit. As for knowledge skills, we have a plan for those…

Knowledge Skills. No person is proficient in all of history or art or music or magic or medicine or religion. The further you get into these fields, the more they are specialized. Get rid of all this granularity.

Split knowledge mechanics were supported by the narrative in prior editions, where you spend additional skill points representing the time you spent in study. The proficiency scaling of 5e does not support this narrative, because you just get better at all your proficient skills as you grow more powerful, regardless of whether you invest in them.

Further, there should be more encouragement to just tell the players the thing they want to know if they know it. Rolling a check to see if your player knew something is a frequently dissatisfying experience that can halt the narrative.

Running knowledge checks should be situational. If there’s a reason in the character’s history why they might have some knowledge of a thing, they get proficiency. If you prefer to grant advantage in such a situation, consider setting a more approachable Difficulty Class (DC) on your knowledge checks.

Advantage vs. Proficiency

As you can see from the chart, advantage is better than most proficiency bonuses against lower DCs. Proficiency not only moves up your average, but also raises the cap on how high you can roll. You can see this in action when comparing Resilient (CON) vs. War Caster.

Now that you have a method for handling knowledge checks, let’s dive in to the rest.

5 Skill System

The way this works is that you can gain proficiency in 5 skills: Fitness, Speechcraft, Stealth, Awareness, and Knack. When you have proficiency, you are proficient in all rolls you make with that skill. The variance comes into play based on the ability score that you associate with it.

The bullet points below are suggestions for implementing the current skills under a 5 skill system. The point is that the skills are not married to specific ability scores, but should be chosen by the player to support the narrative of what they want to accomplish. For example, just as I would a player now to roll Intimidation (STR), I would allow a player to roll Intimidation (CHA) under this format.

Fitness

  • Fitness (STR) – athletics
  • Fitness (DEX) – acrobatics
  • Fitness (CON) – endurance

The “endurance” skill is not canon, but it is useful when employing optional rules such as the Dash action limit under the Dungeon Master’s Guide’s chase rules.

Speechcraft

Speechcraft represents your skill with words.

  • Speechcraft (INT) – persuasion
  • Speechcraft (CHA) – deception
  • Speechcraft (STR) – intimidation
  • Speechcraft (CHA) – performance (oration)

Stealth

Stealth represents how sneaky you can be.

  • Stealth (DEX) – stealth
  • Stealth (CHA) – deception (passing a disguise)

Awareness

Awareness represents how attuned you are to your environment.

  • Awareness (INT) – investigation
  • Awareness (WIS) – perception
  • Awareness (CHA) – insight
  • Awareness (WIS) – survival

Knack

Knack represents the special skills of practiced hands.

  • Knack (DEX) – sleight of hand
  • Knack (INT) – medicine
  • Knack (WIS) – animal handling
  • Knack (CHA) – performance (instrument)

Knowledge

Knowledge represents study.

  • Knowledge (INT) – arcana
  • Knowledge (INT) – history
  • Knowledge (INT) – religion
  • Knowledge (INT/WIS) – nature
  • Knowledge (INT/WIS) – medicine

While the 6th category, this technically isn’t a skill. Knowledge proficiency should only be granted if something in the character’s background provides a basis.

The difference between INT and WIS for nature and medicine checks depends on where you gained the knowledge. If you read it in a book, that’s INT; if you learned it in the field, that’s WIS.

Implementation

Implementing something like this would require a significant rework of how many skills are available to different classes, races, backgrounds, and via feats. That’s a secondary balance issue, which would take significant time to properly curate.

As a very rough rule, divide all features that provide skills by two (rounding down). This gives you one skill from your background and one from your class (two for Rogues). The same division technique works for Expertise too, since it comes in pairs.

Features that provide specific skill proficiencies can instead provide advantage on those rolls. For example, consider how Dwarves get Stonecunning which gives them advantage on history checks to decipher the origin of stonework. The same concept could be applied to the Elf’s Keen Senses trait, which gives them proficiency on perception checks.

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10 thoughts on “5 Skill D&D

  1. One of the statements made in the article is that the rules make it more difficult for players to use variable ability scores for skills, but I think the problem lies more with character sheet design. In the interest of making it look neat and tidy, and avoiding making players do a lot of math for each roll, the character sheet groups them by ability. Having a character sheet designed around it would be (imo) a better solution.
    That isn’t to say that the rulebooks don’t also contribute to the problem. I have many times seen instances where they list an ability/skill combo that would have benefitted more from just listing the skill and encouraging flexibility, but I think that mentality comes from the early design concept that skills would be optional or secondary, while focusing instead on ability checks, though later design has become more involved with skills.

    On the other hand, divorcing skills from abilities may fall into the same rut facing tool proficiencies. How often do players actually use their tool proficiencies (other than thieves’ tools)? And when they do, how much time gets spent figuring out which ability score to use? I think the marriage of skills to ability scores is for simplicity, much of 5e’s design goal.

    This is an interesting take, but I think grouping skill proficiencies together and slimming it down would take a lot of player agency in exactly how they want to build their character. If they only get 2 of those skill groupings, it they are likely trading something that would enjoyably fit their character for something they may never use, or doesn’t make sense with the rest of their story.

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    1. >One of the statements made in the article is that the rules make it more difficult for players to use variable ability scores for skills, but I think the problem lies more with character sheet design.

      I said that. 🙂

      “The problem is that D&D’s tools are not designed to support this style of play. Players don’t think of skills modularly because the skill bonus is already pre-calculated on their character sheet.”

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  2. This article sparked a massive discussion in my dnd group! I really love the concept of this, as not a lot of groups use the variant skill checks. I think something like this would inspire more creativity in the game, instead of always looking through your skill list to find a way out of situations. Encouraging players into a more free style of play may not be a popular opinion for those who play the game for the rigidity and stability it gives, but I love the element of creativity this could give. I know that wasn’t necessarily the point of this, but it’s the main benefit I see in a system like this! Definitely would like to try a TTRPG with this set up, even if not DnD. Onyx, x

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    1. One thing I will disagree on; Performance is not limited to musical instruments, and can be an incredibly useful skill for a number of things. Especially if you have a creative DM (which we are lucky enough to). We have even substituted Performance for a kind of stealth, among a number of other things. Still, overall, love the idea.

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      1. I agree on this point, which is why I ultimately kept it. I do think you could fit speeches and acting into some of the oration-oriented social skills, but I still like calling for niche performance rolls in my game.

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  3. I like the overall approach. I would add Stealth (Intelligence) for camouflage. I agree with the problem description. I think DMs need to feel more empowered to “give” players success without a die roll if their deduction is compelling enough.

    As stated, it is a travesty when the bard with all the preparation and knowledge of the situation can fail and a sociopathic barbarian can roll a 20 and succeed at something they frankly lack the basic building blocks to accomplish.

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    1. “As stated, it is a travesty when the bard with all the preparation and knowledge of the situation can fail and a sociopathic barbarian can roll a 20 and succeed at something they frankly lack the basic building blocks to accomplish.”

      Interesting! I consider those instances in the game tremendous narrative opportunities. How DID the barbarian know how to do that? What in their past might have given them that knowledge? Alternatively, what unlikely situational context thwarted the bard but blessed the lucky barbarian?

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  4. I find the ability score-based system quite elegant: when the outcome of something is unclear, the DM can ask you to roll 1d20 and add one of your ability modifiers. If you have a relevant proficiency, such as a skill, saving throw, weapon, or tool, you also add your proficiency bonus.

    It’s definitely one of the largest misconceptions of the game that players and DMs alike run into, which is a shame. As stated in the article, the character sheet, unfortunately, encourages a false or incomplete mental model. When you download character sheets from Wizards of the Coast (https://dnd.wizards.com/character-sheets), there’s actually an alternative character sheet that tucks the skills and saving throws under each ability. which I think helps tremendously for promoting an accurate mental model.

    I, personally, wouldn’t want to implement the solution presented in the article, but I can definitely see the appeal of flipping the mental model: Add your proficiency bonus if you’re proficient in a relevant skill, then add a relevant ability modifier. Promoting creating thinking about how to leverage your character’s strengths is definitely one of my favorite things to do as a DM and a player.

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