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D&D 5E Are there actions not covered under a skill?


This is more of a philosophical question than a direct question. Let's say a player wants to do something and there is no skill directly related to it, should you just go straight with it being just an ability check. or should you look for the closest skill and just use that. (Not the closest skill the player has, but the closest skill in the game.) The question I am asking is every action covered under the skill system, or not? How far should a skill be pushed to cover something not explicitly stated by it?

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Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Yes, there are actions for which there is no skill proficiency that would apply to an ability check to resolve said action. Initiative is probably the most common. If there is no skill (or tool proficiency) that relates to a player's stated action, then the character's proficiency bonus will likely not apply to an ability check to resolve the action. Not every action is covered by a skill, and I don't see any need to stretch the system to make that the case.


This is a meta-conversation my group recently had. What it came down to was one person pointing out the "skill checks" don't really exist in 5e. Instead, everything is an ability check. First you determine the ability, then you ask if the character has something like a skill or tool proficiency that allows them to add their proficiency bonus, then you roll the dice. A skill check is just a shorthand for rolling one of the most common default ability/skill proficiency combinations. It doesn't limit what the DM can ask for or the players can suggest.

For example, in our game this week our group were investigating an urban worksite that people had disappeared from. I asked the DM if my character could roll Wis + Stealth to look at the problem from the other end and deduce "How would I sneak people out of here if I were trying to make them vanish?" He allowed it and a good roll got us pointed at the possibility of secret passages, which helped other PCs who were investigating the work equipment narrow their search.

So start with the ability. Ask yourself if there's a non-standard skill or tool that might apply. Ask the player in question if they have a proficiency they can justify using in the situation. And if there's really nothing, which should be fairly rare, then just roll a raw ability check.


Not all possible actions are covered by the skills and tools listed in the 5e system. Some of what isn't could be covered by optional systems (if desired) such as background proficiency, class proficiency, or race proficiency, while others simply are a test of raw ability where there's no skillful way to better accomplish one's desired goal.


To mirror what @Kurotowa said about other suggestions... character backgrounds, certain spells, and certain class features could all be offered as reasons why you might be allowed to add your proficiency bonus on various ability checks. It mainly comes down to you as a player being creative with what you know for your PC and justifying why your prof bonus could apply. Granted, some players find this idea of "skill fishing" to be irritating so you'll want check with your DM first and whether they want you to be creative in this way... but if they are good with it there's any number of ways what you know could apply.


Goblin Queen
As @Kurotowa points out, there is no such thing as a skill check in 5e. There are only ability checks, which can be modified by various bonuses and penalties, one of the most common of which is the proficiency bonus. A skill is a type of proficiency, which allows you to apply your proficiency bonus to ability checks made to perform certain tasks. So rather than considering whether an action falls under a skill first and calling for an ability check if it does not, it’s more aligned with the design intent to consider which ability an action falls under first, and if a skill is applicable, mention that proficiency bonus can be added for it.


If you look at the ability checks section of the PHB, it actually provides several suggestions for each ability that aren’t covered by the skills associated with those abilities (e.g. Tying knots with Dexterity or communicating without words with Intelligence, and so on).


Magic Wordsmith
The important thing to keep straight in my view is this:

A task is not an ability check, nor an ability check a task.

A task is something the character does in the fictional world. An ability check is a mechanic the DM uses to resolve uncertainty as to the outcome of the task when there's a meaningful consequence for failure. Because a task's outcome might be certain (i.e. trivially easy or impossible) and because there may be no meaningful consequence for failure, the task may not have an ability check at all.

If those two criteria are met, however, an ability check of some kind is appropriate. A skill proficiency may or may not apply to that ability check, if the player's stated approach to the goal reasonably suggests that the skill proficiency was employed in the task. This is the reason why, in part, you want to make sure the player is reasonably specific when he or she describes what the character is doing. This makes it a lot easier for the DM to judge whether (1) there is an ability check in the first place and (2) whether a skill proficiency may apply (as well as whether there's advantage/disadvantage and what the DC is).

the Jester

There are definitely instances where no skill or tool applies, in which case, I ask myself, "What kind of character should know about/how to do this?" Those types get to use their proficiency bonus. Usually, this is based on class, race, or background.

Li Shenron

I would say that if you have to push it, then don't, and just make an ability check.

For most DMs anyway, whether there is a skill or not for a certain action only makes a bonus difference, so it's not even that important: it changes the probability but not whether you can try.

I am, on the other hand, more stingy in allowing checks on something you're not proficient.

But even in my case, if the odd action in question is something that comes up for the first time and we haven't thought before, then this fact itself explains why there isn't a skill: it's something so rare and specific that nobody trains for it. Should it start coming up often, we'll make a custom skill and add it to the game


Jeez, I hope this isn’t a contradictory question. Of course there are actions not covered by a skill. This is a role-playing game involving real people, with a dedicated DM to handle this.

The whole point of the game is to have actions not involving a skill, or else it would simply be a matter of picking whoever has the highest modifier to press that “skill“.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I would have liked to see a sidebar about the DM adding/removing specific skill and tool proficiencies to support the feel they want for the setting.

For example, the Ravnica setting takes place in one city. Playing it, having a City skill to know various areas, be able to say "oh, I know a silversmith", etc. Or maybe in Eberron adding a Vehicle (Airship) tool proficiency.

To be honest I'd get around this problem by letting PCs become proficient in conceptual toolsets as well as just physical toolsets.

For example, one skill area that I wish the 5e designers had covered when designing the skill list was political and administrative. A skill that i could roll to manage an estate (or a kingdom!), read a captured ledger, run a trading caravan at a profit, understand which of the king's ministers I need to pressure to achieve goal X, know the political faultlines i can exploit in nation Y, etc etc. It seemed a bit silly to me originally when I looked at the Exalted character sheet and saw 'Bureaucracy' on there, but the more time has passed the better this design choice looks to me.

It's certainly not a gamebreaker that this skill doesn't exist, but it's an annoyance from time to time and just rolling Investigation/History/Insight whatever is sometimes a bit forced (and it requires huge proficiency investment from a player who wants his PC to be good at this stuff). But I'd certainly allow tool proficiency with 'administrative tools', for instance, or even 'political tools'. And that'd also mean that these skills, which are likely to be needed more at higher levels, are easier to obtain in play once a PC starts to need them. Tool proficiencies can be acquired as a downtime activity, whereas skills cant. So hidden plus side to handling it this way - the PC can learn these abilities as they grow.


Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
While I do ask for skill checks (it's easier and I don't assume people can read my mind in cases I'm not clear enough) if someone can come up with something reasonable on why they should be proficient in I'll allow it.

It's hardly going to break the game if they add a bit to their check. So frequently backgrounds, in-game experiences and downtime activities all come into play.

After all I want to reward players for all aspects of their character, whether it's their background and story or ability scores. The players aren't the ones doing the investigation or whatever they're trying to accomplish, it's the PC.

There is pretty much always a way to get a proficiency bonus applicable to an ability check. It just requires creativity on behalf of the player.

The player tells me what they want to do (and what tools if any they want to use to do it) and I determine if a check is possible, what the DC of that check is if so, and what Ability score it relies on, and if the player can apply the proficiency bonus to the check (based on their narration).

I loathe players asking if they can 'roll perception' or similar. My answer is always No. You (the player) tell me what your character is doing. I (the DM) will tell you if a check is required, what the check is and what ability score you can add, and if you get to add a proficiency bonus to the check on account of a tool, weapon or skill proficiency you may have.

The task of appropriately assigning the existing skills to any given task would definitely be some sort of knowledge check. Whether it is a matter of Arcana, History, Religion, Nature, or just a general intelligence check is debatable. But if the character had the Dungeon Master background I would let them add proficiency.

For example, the Ravnica setting takes place in one city. Playing it, having a City skill to know various areas, be able to say "oh, I know a silversmith", etc. Or maybe in Eberron adding a Vehicle (Airship) tool proficiency.
I think you're "supposed" to do that with backgrounds. If you have a background related to "I grew up here" Then "you know a silversmith". But, yeah, it should be more explicitly stated somewhere in the rules.

It bothers me that there is no streetwise skill. Survival is not the same thing. And aside from Arcana and related skills, there are no knowledge skills for stuff like heraldry, etc.

I think you're "supposed" to do that with backgrounds. If you have a background related to "I grew up here" Then "you know a silversmith". But, yeah, it should be more explicitly stated somewhere in the rules.

It bothers me that there is no streetwise skill. Survival is not the same thing. And aside from Arcana and related skills, there are no knowledge skills for stuff like heraldry, etc.

I've never really known why 'Finding a silversmith in town' would even require a check.

If there is one to be found, you would assume a person would find one in a matter of minutes of asking at most.

It should just be this:

Player: 'I head to a silversmith'.
DM: 'OK; after asking a few people you locate the silversmith in the merchants quarters of town. A short 5 minute stroll later, you enter a small building, guarded by a gruff Dwarf at the entrance. A small wizened Gnome looks up from behind a counter and politely enquires what it is that you want?'

And not:

Player: 'I head to a silversmith'.
DM: 'Make a DC 15 Intelligence City lore check to find one first!

If there is one to be found, you would assume a person would find one in a matter of minutes of asking at most.

Conan needs no direction!

Seriously, I agree with you on the silversmith in town: merchants aren't trying to be hard to reach. They even try to be CONSPICUOUS. The streetwise skills could have some use, though, perhaps to find a recreational drug dealer? The skill lists is designed to accomodate the more common character focus. Hence, not Tax Optimization skill, because your characters aren't supposed to devote a lot of time to set up trust funds in the neighbouring countries to mitigate the income tax over that dragon hoard. In some case you'd need to adjudicate actions without any appropriate skill in the list, for example if you find a merchant's ledger and identify any forgery. If your characters don't have the skill AND it's in the list, it's reasonable IMHO to consider that they are not proficient, but if NO skill in the list feels appropriate, I wouldn't necessarily conclude that the PC should make a "raw" ability check. If a task is rare enough it's not covered by the skill list, then it doesn't matter much from a game balance perspective to grant "extra" proficiency to some characters depending on their background if it fits.

If your game usually revolves around skills not found in the skill list, especially the lore skills (not everything can be reduced to History, Religion, Arcana and Nature), you'll need to adjudicate things more often than not, but in this case I'd deal with it during session 0 : if you're, say, planning an urban campaign where the PC won't ever leave the walls of Waterdeep, tell them beforehand that Nature and Survival skills won't be as necessary as proficiency in some professional tools and offer them example of tools that would provide proficiency in fields that might be put to good use in your campaign. I am not immediately imagining what Fencer's tools could be, but it could be useful.

You could use background proficiency variant, but you can't learn new background, while you can become proficient in tools.

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