Tests of Skill
Nothing can slow down or halt a Dungeons & Dragons game completely like a misfiring skill or knowledge check. The player or players with the most obvious capabilities missed their rolls and now everyone else flips through their character sheets, wracking their brains, to find some skill, any skill, to try. And nothing can go forward until somebody succeeds with something. Can I try to use my history skill to find the trail through the underbrush? No? How about Animal Handling?
Eventually, either a player makes some convoluted connection between one of their skills and the task at hand and manages to make a roll, the GM fumbles for some excuse to get things back on track, or the players find some way to circumvent the situation without solving the problem. While the last outcome demonstrates player ingenuity, none of them are optimal or efficient and the tortuous grind towards any of those eventual solutions just beats down any playing flow. We can do better.
To Check or Not to Check
I think it’s easy to fall into the habit of automatically asking for a check whenever a player suggests his character use a skill or a tool to do something. However, it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether the check is necessary.
Here is the skill difficulty chart from the PHB:
If time and resources are not issues,
Sometimes there is a tendency to needlessly gate information that we want, nay require, the players to get a hold of to proceed. If we need the party to know that the lost Keep of the Ancients is located somewhere in the Forests of Lethe then be generous, just tell them. This is not to say that you should circumvent roleplaying the situation but that, once a character demonstrates a plausible path to the answer, rather than gate the answer behind a die roll, just give it to them.
Anatomy of a Skill Check
A skill check has a handful of components:
the task at hand: opening a locked door, translating a scrap of ancient text, etc.;
the skill, knowledge, or tool being tested against the task: thieves’ tools, history or a language, etc.; and,
the intent behind using the skill: to open the door without alerting anybody on the other side, to find the location of a lost mine, etc.
The first two are fairly straight-forward and obvious: what a character is trying to do and how he’s trying to do it. The third, intent, is a bit less so.
Let’s grab an example from above to illustrate: trying to open a locked door. That, itself, is the what. How is picking the lock via the thieves’ tools. But what is the why? It’s a bit more than just the result of the action, in this case, opening the door. There are many ways to open the door, why is he choosing this way?
If we’re ever not sure, and even if we think we are, it’s never a bad idea to just ask. He might say it was one or more of these:
- to get into the room quietly
- to get into the room quickly
- to get into the room and lock the door behind them
In that intent is the jeopardy, the tension of the moment. It reveals the stakes: being quiet or not, quick or not, safe or not. Knowing that intent will help us determine the outcomes from the skill test results, particularly when dealing with failing or mixed success results.
On Being Skilled
What does it mean to be skilled in something? A skill defines both something descriptive that we can safely assume about the subject and something prescriptive about what the subject is potentially capable of.
For example: we can assume of someone who knows how to drive a car, that they’re capable of unlocking the car doors, turning on the engine, driving simple routes, etc. We can take it as given that they can do those things. However, do we know if they’re capable of driving a lap around the test track in under 120 seconds? No, we don’t. That’s something we’d want to test.
We want to separate our tasks into those we need to test and those that we don’t. Let’s focus on the tasks that matter and present jeopardy and just roleplay past the rest.
Let’s Play Jeopardy
Tasks that fit the profile of the first case do not need to be tested, those of the second case do require a test. The trick is figuring out which applications of a skill we can take for granted and which we can’t.
Making Sense of the Numbers
In terms of the game, the numbers next to the skills listed on a character sheet represent a mixture of competency based on natural aptitude and competency based on that aptitude (or lack thereof) augmented by training via proficiencies. In the real world, we would probably make a qualititative distinction between the two: calling the former something like a talent and the latter as a skill but, by default, the game doesn’t make any such distinction between the sources of a skill bonus. However, as proficiency is something that is tracked on the character sheet, we can use it as a tool to mitigate skill resolutions.
Know When to Hold ‘Em,
Know When to Fold ‘Em
The first question we need to ask right before we open our mouths to ask a character to roll a skill check is: do we really need to test the character’s skill?
It’s worth taking a moment to think about it. Sometimes there is a tendency to needlessly gate information that we want, nay require, the players to get a hold of to proceed. If we need the party to know that the lost Keep of the Ancients is located somewhere in the Forests of Lethe then be generous, just tell them. This is not to say that you should circumvent roleplaying the situation but that, once a character demonstrates a plausible path to the answer, rather than gate the answer behind a die roll, just give it to them.
If we’re dead set on testing the skill, let’s make it a test that we only have to run once and will, for good or ill, provide actionable results. How do we do that?
First, we need to think about the intent behind the test: not what the character is attempting but why trying to attempt it in the way he’s chosen? The answer isn’t always obvious and it might not be what you think it is so it’s never a bad idea to just ask the player why they’re approaching a problem using the skill that they’ve chosen. The intent is important because it sets up stakes for the test. With stakes, it becomes much easier to make meaningful rulings out of the outcomes of the test.
Let’s take, as an example, a party blocked by a locked door. The party rogue steps up to the lock and proclaims his desire to pick the lock. If we ask him why, the rogue might offer any number of reasons, including:
- to gain entry to the room quietly
- to gain entry to the room quickly
- to gain entry to the room and lock the door behind them
First, let’s take a look at how the game measures a task’s difficulty:
For a knowledge based skill, take the issue at hand and think about in terms of
Rewarding Knowledge and Skill
To reward a character for having appropriate skills
That the character sheet tracks which skills a character is proficient in will be useful in adjudicating skill tests down the line. The rulebooks don’t add much context to the numbers, summarized in the Ability Check chart on page 174 of the PHB. I’ve added some odds for meeting those scores, assuming only the bonuses granted with proficiency (which increase with character levels) and no ability bonuses:
|Difficulty||Min. Score||No Prof.||Prof. +2||Prof. +3||Prof. +4||Prof. +5||Prof. +6|
Under normal circumstances (ie. not under threat or other pressures), we can use the take 10 concept to take for granted any skill checks that the character has more than a fifty percent chance of succeeding at. Of course, often there are pressures or the difficulty of the task are too high for take 10 to apply.
In those cases, we can first look at proficiencies. The rules define a proficiency as a specific training in a skill. We can use that as our initial criteria when considering whether or not to test a skill or take it for granted: is the subject trained?