I like d&d but… What’s Going on with Skills?

Continuing my series on why d&d 5e isn’t perfect, and what I’d do differently. It’s the RPG blog equivalent of focussing on and criticising your partner’s flaws until they eventually leave you. The title maybe doesn’t do this one justice, but “why aren’t all d20 rolls equivalent” or “why doesn’t bless affect grappling” just weren’t very catchy.

When is an Attack not an Attack?

Here’s an example conversation from one of my sessions, and an example of my problem:

Player: For my second attack, can I try to shove them off that ledge they're standing next to?
Me: Sure, make an Athletics check.
Player: 17! What's the DC?
Me: It's an opposed roll...and they got 18. They manage to roll with your shove and avoid falling.
Player: Ooh! I have bless, so I can roll and extra d4.
Me: Sorry, bless only applies to attack rolls and saves.
Player: But this is an attack?...

And so on. Grapple rules in d&d are never simple (if you ever had to look them up in 3.5e, I’m so sorry), but this is an example of where 5e tries to be simple and consistent and then drops the ball in weird ways. Let’s go back to the start, and see where it all went wrong.

Roll 1d20 and add

Fifth edition d&d really has one main mechanic: roll 1d20 and add some stuff to it, see if that number beats the target DC. Most of the time the stuff you’re adding includes a stat modifier, and sometimes your proficiency bonus. The rules divide these rolls into: ability checks, attack rolls and saving throws. Skill checks don’t really exist, they’re a special kind of ability check, where you may get to add your proficiency bonus if it’s something you’re good at.

So a spell like bless affects attack rolls and saves, but excludes ability checks – I guess Helm’s blessing doesn’t extend to perceiving the enemy? The grapple rules then add a further wrinkle:

When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it, you can use the Attack action to make a Special melee Attack, a grapple. If you’re able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action, this Attack replaces one of them.
...Using at least one free hand, you try to seize the target by making a grapple check instead of an Attack roll: a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use)...

So you’re using the Attack action, but not making an Attack Roll, but if you can attack more than once the grapple replaces one of your attacks. And you’re not trying to hit their armour class any more, it’s now a contested skill roll. Oh, and these rules don’t necessarily apply to enemies – a Vampire Lord can just choose to grapple when they hit:

Unarmed Strike (Vampire Form Only)Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d8 + 4) bludgeoning damage. Instead of dealing damage, the vampire lord can grapple the target (escape DC 18).

So…yeah. This is silly.

Everything is an Ability Check

If I were to create my own 6e d&d, I’d eliminate all this and have one type of d20 roll: everything is an ability check. This seems like a minor change, and it is, but it frees all the various kinds of actions, saves, and skill checks and makes them the same. Trying to hit someone with a sword? Str check. Trying to push someone into a fire? Also a Str check. Resisting being pushed around by a Thunderwave spell? You guessed it – Str check.

Think of it this way: if you get a bonus to one type of roll, say 1d4 to Attack Rolls from Bless, then the most obvious and optimal thing to do is make an Attack Roll. Anything else – grappling, persuading, dropping a live grenade into their pocket – becomes secondary, and players feel like they can’t or shouldn’t do it. The game becomes stale.

“But wait”, I hear you say, “how do you determine when to add proficiency? Does my rogue just have proficiency on all Dex checks?” Aha, I have a solution to that…

Get Rid of Skills

Third edition D&D introduced skills as a finite list. Every time your character levelled up you got some skills points to spend on making your character better at stealth, athletics, arcana or whatever else. So by late game your typical rogue had +35 to their stealth skill, which caused some problems. 5e, with its bounded accuracy and simple proficiency bonus, got rid of skill points but kept the finite list of skills. I think that’s a mistake.

When you make your character, you choose a few skills from the list to be good at. My Ranger is quite outdoorsy, and knows what plants are good to eat and which ones will kill you, so that’s…Nature or Survival? My Bard knows their way around the local nobles and often charms little ‘gifts’ out of them, so…Deception, Persuasion or maybe Performance? And can anyone tell me if spotting a trap is Perception or Investigation? The list of skills are broad, and often cover too much, while also being discrete and not covering quite enough.

So I’d take a leaf out of GURPS, and have a much wider list of skills or advantages, written in more open language. These end up looking much more like background features and tool proficiencies. For example:

Hunter Gatherer
You add your proficiency bonus to any check made to gather food, track and hunt wild game, and identify dangerous plants and animals.
Courtly Suitor
You add your proficiency bonus to any check made in a high-society social situation, including dancing, flirting, etiquette, and any check to ingratiate yourself with the upper classes. At the GM's discretion this may help in lower-class surroundings too, such as the local tavern, depending on the situation.
You add your proficiency bonus to any check to steal or plant small items carried by someone without them noticing, or to notice items they have secreted on them. This does not include disarming them of a held weapon or item, but might include stealing a sheathed weapon or cutting/undoing a strap to make them drop something.

The downside of this is that the list of ‘advantages’ would be very long, and I’m sure some would be seen as far more useful than others – but isn’t that already the case, e.g. Perception vs Animal Handling?

I’d then extend this into all proficiencies! Hitting, grabbing or pushing someone is simply a Str (or Dex) check, and you add proficiency if you know what you’re doing. A fireball still requires everyone to make a Dex check to avoid the worst of it, but you might get to add proficiency to the check if you’ve got the ‘nimble escape’ or ‘shield master’ advantages. There’s no need for a separate category of d20 roll.

And whether you’re attacking, grappling, or trying to convince them that their way of life is wrong, bless would let you add 1d4 to the roll.

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