Skills aren’t magic

“I’m going to chat up the barmaid. I roll Persuasion – look, it’s a natural 20. I get her to come outside with me, and then I kill her and I get a free attack because she’s surprised because I rolled that natural 20.”

Summary of incident at early session run by my son

Sound familiar? It’s an extreme example, but I’d be very surprised if you haven’t encountered something similar at your table. It’s such a common anti-pattern, such a common misunderstanding of D&D skills. And yet it’s so wrong.

When I started playing D&D with the Basic boxed sets, there were no Skills checks. There were just the six ability scores Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, and it was up to the DM to decide what might happen. There were few guidelines and it was pretty much a case of making it up on the spot. And more often than not (at least in my case) that didn’t involve any sort of dice roll – I just put myself into the character of the NPC and imagined how they might react.

The gazetteers started introducing skills, but they were quite specific and more generally related to professions than adventuring – skills like Advocacy, Barrelmaking, Gemcutting, Wheelwright – so although players might try to shoehorn their skills into the situation, there wasn’t the expectation that everything would be resolved with a skill check.

Coming forward to fifth edition, we now have the eighteen Skills checks. These are much more general, and between them seem to cover most situations. Because of this, and because everyone has a value for the skill even if not proficient (we’ll come back to this later) it rather encourages their use. The section on Ability scores actively encourages this interpretation:

An ability check tests a character’s or monster’s innate talent and training in an effort to overcome a challenge. The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.

Basic Rules Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

Which brings us back to the understandable but erroneous interpretation which leads abuse like in the introduction.

What’s wrong with it?

Let’s look at several things wrong with it.

  • The player doesn’t get to decide that what they’re doing warrants a skill check. That’s the GM’s prerogative. See above: “The DM calls for an ability check…” Probably the barmaid sees that sort of behaviour all the time and is well inoculated against it.
  • The player has no idea what the difficulty class would be. Again, that’s up the GM to decide.
  • There’s no critical success on a skill check. A natural 20 doesn’t mean anything other than a base roll of 20 (check it out). There’s nothing in the rules as written suggesting any significance to the amount by which a skill check is succeeded.
  • The player doesn’t get to decide what success looks like, again that’s the GM’s prerogative. Although the rules as written doesn’t attribute any meaning to the amount by which a check is passed (or failed), there are homebrew suggestions to allow shades of grey – such as this article from Sly Flourish – and I have been known to use this. But it’s up to me how the NPC responds (while taking the result into account), not the player.
  • Someone going outside with an individual they don’t know and have only just met won’t be so much off their guard they are automatically surprised.

The most fundamental problem with it, though, is the assumption that a successful persuasion check is like an exceptional Charm Person. That a Skills check (which you can do many times in a day with no cost) is more powerful than a spell (which is strictly limited).

If you look at Charm Person, it just says:

The charmed creature regards you as a friendly acquaintance.

Basic Rules p221

Note: acquaintance. Not even “friend”. (This is actually a weakening from the Basic set, which does say “…the victim will believe that the magic-user is its ‘best friend’…”). And the target gets a saving throw.

Looking at charmed:

A charmed creature can’t attack the charmer or target the charmer with harmful abilities or magical effects.
The charmer has advantage on any ability check to interact socially with the creature.

Basic Rules Appendix A: Conditions

A normal person’s Persuasion can’t have greater effect than that, however silver their tongue.

So how should it be handled?

First, the player says what their character is going do rather than jumping to mechanisms (“a character…attempts an action”):

“I’m going to chat up the barmaid and try to persuade her to come outside with me.”

Now the GM gets to decide what happens and how to resolve it. Only when “the outcome is uncertain” do “the dice decide the result.”

Maybe the GM just decides the barmaid has had a bad day and will react grumpily to any advances. Maybe she’s happy to chat to him but prefers women. Maybe she is on her last warning from her boss and daren’t say anything. Maybe she really really loves to talk and will tell any character the far end of her life story given the least chance, but isn’t interested in listening. In all cases, no dice roll needed.

Say the GM does decide a Persuasion check is appropriate, what effect could it have? Well, I’d be inclined to get the player to be more specific about what they’re trying to achieve and what approach they’re taking.

  • He might be able to persuade her to knock a bit off the price of the drink.
  • He might be able to persuade her to let them have a room for the night after all.
  • He might be able to persuade her to give some information she wasn’t intending to give.

But “come with me”? Absolutely not, unless the player can come up with a really convincing explanation as to why she should, and even then I’d make the DC very high.

Unless the GM actually wants this to happen, of course…maybe there’s some story hook for this – maybe she will try to rob him, or maybe she will lead him to a gang of roughs looking for a victim, or to a vampire who pays her for new blood. But the important thing is that it’s the GM’s decision. The player only gets to play their character, not the NPCs.

In my previous blog post, I go through the different Skills, discussing what each one means, and what is and isn’t appropriate for each one.

What’s the point of proficiency?

There’s a further paradox if you adjudicate everything using skills checks. Proficiency in a skill means you get to add your Proficiency bonus to the check. Which is +2 for levels 1-4, and only increases by 1 (5%) for every four levels. This means beginning characters only have a 10% (2 in 20) better chance than someone without any training but with the same ability score. Which can lead to some very strange outcomes.

Say the party are trying to cross a river on a plank bridge. The GM decides this is fairly easy, but there’s a chance of failure – DC10.

  • Marcella the trained Acrobat (+2) with 17 Dexterity (+3). She rolls a 3, giving her an aggregate of 8 and falls off,
  • But clumsy Josua the bookish wizard with 5 Dexterity (no proficiency, -3) rolls a 16, giving an aggregate of 13 and gets across easily.

That acrobat training didn’t really count for much…

In the bridge example it’s obvious all characters have an independent success or failure. There’s a further problem where it only really needs one party member to succeed for the whole party to succeed. That can lead to everyone trying their chance, which is like a super version of Advantage.

For example, say the party are trying to identify a sigil on a temple shrine. The GM decides it’s a DC15 Intelligence (Arcana) check.

Pieter had a 60% chance of success on his own (needed a roll of 9 or more). Moskva had a 65% chance of success. Freja had a 20% chance of success (needed a roll of 17 or more). What was the chance of success of the group? We need to look at the aggregate chances of failure (100% – chance of success).

  • Pieter the 5th level Cleric has proficiency in Arcana and an Intelligence score of 16 for a total adjustment of +6. He rolls an 8 giving a score of 14. No idea.
  • Moskva the 5th level Wizard also has proficiency in Arcana and an Intelligence of 18, for a total adjustment of +7. They roll a 5, giving a score of 12.
  • Freja the 5th level Barbarian has an Intelligence of 6 for an adjustment of -2. She rolls an 18 giving her 16. Somehow she’s the one who can dredge up the memory of Ba’alzamon and the tongues of fire…

Just Pieter and Moskva between them have a 40% x 35% = 14% chance of failure, or an 86% chance of success. Adding in Freja (80% chance of failure) still brings the overall chance of failure down to 11.2% or almost a 90% chance of success.

So how do you make proficiency feel like it means something?

Remember you’re the arbiter of how the situation is resolved and how Proficiency plays into that. Maybe proficiency means you automatically succeed – this might be appropriate in the case of crossing the bridge, for example. Or maybe proficiency makes the task one level easier – subtract 5 from the DC for characters with Proficiency. Or give them Advantage (which works out about the same).

Or maybe you need Proficiency to have any chance of success – this might be appropriate for cases like the Arcana check. Either that, or I might bring in the rules on working together or on group checks.

  • working together: one character can help another and “The character who’s leading the effort–or the one with the highest ability modifier–can make an ability check with advantage, reflecting the help provided by the other characters.”
  • group checks: “To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds.

Another way to make Proficiency mean something for something like an Arcana check is the level of detail the character can get on success. Maybe the Barbarian would only get “you remember something about a someone called something like Balz or Bahmon”, whereas the Cleric might get “you remember a scroll which mentioned Ba’alzamon, a creature with eyes of fire. It had this sigil on it.”


So in summary:

  • The player just describes what their character is trying to do.
  • The GM decides how to resolve this – whether it’s a skill check and if so what the results of success and failure would be.
  • Consider giving additional benefits to characters with proficiency in a particular skill, from automatic success if you have proficiency to increasing the detail characters with proficiency receive to requiring proficiency to have any chance at all.

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