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D&D 5E Asking for Ability Checks, not Skills?

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I also find the standard 5e character sheet is poorly set up for using skills with different abilities. I let my players use whatever they want for a character sheet as long as it makes sense for them, but I always provide a character sheet with a blank space to write in proficiencies they actually have instead of the default list of skills, for anyone who wants it, because it makes calculating your bonuses with any ability/skill combination easier at a glance.
Yeah, we use DndBeyond. Great for newbies in some ways, it would be nice if they had a customize layout option.
 

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IIRC, during one of the playtest packets this was suggested. I think it was dropped as the default because it does add a bit to every check, as the players try to find an acceptable proficiency. My experiences would lead to players trying to wheedle any potential proficiency for the bonus, no matter how ridiculous. I would have no issues with this at all with my current group, but I also find they don't try to limit their actions based on their proficiency either.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
IIRC, during one of the playtest packets this was suggested. I think it was dropped as the default because it does add a bit to every check, as the players try to find an acceptable proficiency. My experiences would lead to players trying to wheedle any potential proficiency for the bonus, no matter how ridiculous. I would have no issues with this at all with my current group, but I also find they don't try to limit their actions based on their proficiency either.
It was how it worked for the whole playtest, and technically 5e too. That’s the reason the rules call them ability checks instead of skill checks and when specific DCs are provided they’re written “Ability (Skill).” But people wanted space on the sheet to write their total bonuses for the most common Ability (Skill) combinations.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
IIRC, during one of the playtest packets this was suggested. I think it was dropped as the default because it does add a bit to every check, as the players try to find an acceptable proficiency. My experiences would lead to players trying to wheedle any potential proficiency for the bonus, no matter how ridiculous. I would have no issues with this at all with my current group, but I also find they don't try to limit their actions based on their proficiency either.
The problem there is rooted in players (or DMs) thinking they can add to their action declaration after the roll is called for. They can't. The ability check and DC was already decided based on what they said, not what they are going to say simply because they now know their action declaration will be resolved with an ability check.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
These have all worked fairly well, but I find myself missing skills and proficiencies players really want to use. For example, the rogue in my game noted that I rarely call for an Acrobatics check. And the Barbarian said he rarely gets to use Survival.
Have the players describe what they want their character to do first. If they describe their actions in a way that makes sense for them to use acrobatics or survival, let them.
What I'm thinking of doing is only calling for Abilities, not Skills. I'll call for a Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma check, and then the Player will choose whatever Skill or Proficiency is appropriate.
They will inevitably only ever use their best skills and/or tools.
For example, if a character wants to look for something, I call for a Wisdom check. It's up to the player if they are using, say, Perception, Investigation, Survival, or some appropriate Tool (with DM approval, of course).
Those are wildly different activities. Perception, Investigation, Survival, and tool use. Are you looking for tracks, that's survival. Are you trying to recognize a tree from quite a long way away? That's nature...perhaps limited by perception, i.e. their total bonus to the roll for nature can't be higher than their perception.
Player: Vanger the Ranger tells the goblin boss to retreat before he gets his clan killed.
DM: Go ahead and make a Charisma Check.
Player: Can I use Persuasion?
DM: Yep!
I allow strength to be used with intimidation. It just makes sense. Persuasion is different from intimidation, which are both different than deception. Starting by telling the player which stat seems backwards. It would make more sense to have the description of what they're doing inform the skill and stat pick.

Meaning if the player describes their barbarian showing off their muscles and threatening the goblins (trying to get them to retreat), having them make a strength (intimidation) check makes sense. You could make the same argument for a rogue using dexterity. Or a wizard flicking a few fire bolts and using intelligence. Some combos just don't make sense though.
Player: What does Wornok the Warlock know about these ruins?
DM: Go ahead and make an Intelligence Check.
Player: Can I use Arcana?
DM: Eh, that wouldn't be appropriate for this roll.
As you point out. Some skills just don't apply to certain circumstances.
Player: Bartimer the Artificer wants to help guide the wagon over the bridge without hitting any rotting boards.
DM: Go ahead and make a Dexterity check.
Player: Can I use my proficiency in Vehicles?
DM: Absolutely!
Strength also makes sense. As would animal handling. To me, you're putting the cart before the horse. The description of what the character is doing comes first. The what, the why, and the how. Without those you can't make a call on what the appropriate skill or stat combo to use. But once the player describes their action, that will tell you exactly what stat and skill to use. Or you tell them no, that doesn't make sense. "Sorry, Bob. You can't flex at the librarian then expect to use strength and history to intimidate them."
My goals with this would be:

1. Giving players more agency and control with using their skills and proficiencies.
2. Allowing the characters to be heroic and do things they are good at more often.
3. Sharing the narrative burden with players.
Good description of actions from the players up front accomplishes all three in spades.
One thing to note is that, in general, I trust my players not to "game the system" and try to use Athletics for every single check.
This will change quickly. If you let them do whatever, they'll laser focus on their best stats and skills all the time, every time. You'll have to argue with them to get them to stop.
At the same time, if they have invested heavily in Athletics, I want to reward them for coming up with creative ways to solve problems using Athletics.
Absolutely. Just front load the situation. Have them describe what they're doing first, and if they describe their character solving the problem with athletics, let them roll it. It puts the onus of creativity on them, lets them be creative, but also limits their ability to game the system by making them try to justify some combo first...rather than asking permission, then trying to explain it.
What do you think? Do you think this would work?
If you flipped it around and had them describe their actions in detail first, you'll know what stat and skill they want to use.
Do you usually call for skills, abilities, or both?
I have the players describe things first. Based on the players' description, I call for skills and abilities. The players learn pretty quickly that if they want to use a stat or skill they have to describe it in a way that makes sense up front. Just double check with them to confirm. "That sounds like you're trying to use [stat] with [skill]. Is that right?" Based on the answer, work it out from there.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
I also find the standard 5e character sheet is poorly set up for using skills with different abilities. I let my players use whatever they want for a character sheet as long as it makes sense for them, but I always provide a character sheet with a blank space to write in proficiencies they actually have instead of the default list of skills, for anyone who wants it, because it makes calculating your bonuses with any ability/skill combination easier at a glance.
I agree, I use my own modified character sheets where instead of a fixed skills list you simply have a box where you write your short list of proficiencies.

The skill section of the official 5e character sheet is a relic of older-edition thinking.
 

Mordhau

Adventurer
The game is basically designed to work like this. I get the impression they didn't really want to include a specific skill list in the game but the playtest process basically forced their hands (and I get why, in some respects having defined skills is empowering to players).

It would work better if there were no skills, only backgrounds, or if the skills were broader and less obviously tied to specific ability scores.

The basic dynamic is, I think, supposed to be.
1) Player describes what they are trying to do
2) DM calls for an appropriate ability check (only abilities are really defined in regards to what they cover)
3) Player considers what their character is proficient in and nominates an appropriate proficiency to add
4) DM accepts of rejects that nomination
5) Player rolls.

The advantages of this system would be that the GM only has to worry about if the player's actions fit against one of six things, rather than the whole skill list and the player would be able to be creative with proficiencies.

DM: Ok so you're intimidating him then? Ok that's a Charisma roll.
Player: I'm proficient with daggers, I flick my dagger expertly between my fingers as I threaten him - can I add that?
DM: Sure, roll Charisma with proficiency.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
The game is basically designed to work like this.

It depends. I'm not saying it's forbidden, and for sure some checks required are ability, but when looking at the rules and the section about ability check, they are fairly well categorised and the skill is almost always mentioned in the core books as well as in the published adventures.

Don't get me wrong, I like the principle of being free to chose, but let's face it:
  • At least 90% of the time, the ability used with a given skill (and vice versa) will be the standard one.
  • 5e was designed to be "newbie friendly" which means a simple game where the link ability-skill is fixed.
And this has proven beneficial for the game, while still not preventing people to play the way you like it by expanding the game just a little bit.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
I also ask for ability checks when the players state they are doing something, but usually I will also offer up an appropriate skill to attach to it if it seems fairly obvious (just to speed things along.) As I use the alternate ability score variant rule and am fine attaching any ability score to any skill as which seems appropriate, I have no issue with players coming back to offer another skill option besides the one I offered if their reasoning is sound.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
I also ask for ability checks when the players state they are doing something, but usually I will also offer up an appropriate skill to attach to it if it seems fairly obvious (just to speed things along.) As I use the alternate ability score variant rule and am fine attaching any ability score to any skill as which seems appropriate, I have no issue with players coming back to offer another skill option besides the one I offered if their reasoning is sound.
This works well too. The main reason I don’t do this myself is that I know I’ll tend to offer skills in favor of tools or other proficiencies, and I figure if I suggest a skill up front they’ll be more likely to just say yes they have it or no they don’t than to suggest an alternative, especially a tool.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
This works well too. The main reason I don’t do this myself is that I know I’ll tend to offer skills in favor of tools or other proficiencies, and I figure if I suggest a skill up front they’ll be more likely to just say yes they have it or no they don’t than to suggest an alternative, especially a tool.
Heh... my way to get around this is to basically always use an amended skill list for each campaign that includes new skills that supercede Tools altogether. I really don't like Tool or Musical Instrument proficiencies and ignore them as often as I can. :)
 

Mordhau

Adventurer
It depends. I'm not saying it's forbidden, and for sure some checks required are ability, but when looking at the rules and the section about ability check, they are fairly well categorised and the skill is almost always mentioned in the core books as well as in the published adventures.

Don't get me wrong, I like the principle of being free to chose, but let's face it:
  • At least 90% of the time, the ability used with a given skill (and vice versa) will be the standard one.
  • 5e was designed to be "newbie friendly" which means a simple game where the link ability-skill is fixed.
And this has proven beneficial for the game, while still not preventing people to play the way you like it by expanding the game just a little bit.
Well yes. Once you have fixed skills it all becomes kind of pointless. Of course you would add stealth when you're sneaking up on things.

But in 13th Age or Shadow of a Demon Lord which work in a way 5e seems to have been intended, it's different because the game doesn't have a fixed list of skills and the GM doesn't have to remember what the player has written on their character sheet.
 
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Yaarel

Mind Mage
I'm thinking of shifting the way I ask for Ability Checks / Skill Rolls in my 5e game.

Currently, a player will describe their character's action, and, if appropriate, I will then ask for an ability check, naming a specific skill or tool and the associated ability.

For example:

Player: Tarzarian the Barbarian wants to track where the orcs came from.
DM: Go ahead and make a Survival Check.

(In this case I don't call for an ability since Survival defaults to Wisdom.)

Player: Vogue the Rogue wants to listen for any creatures beyond the door.
DM: Go ahead and make a Perception Check.

Player: Zirwad the Wizard wants to identify this strange glowing herb.
DM: You can make a Nature Check or an Arcana Check.
Player: Could I use my Herbalist Supplies?
DM: Sure!

Player: Biter the Fighter wants to find a way to bend the mechanisms of the porticullis in order to jam in.
DM: Go ahead and make an Athletics Check, using Intelligence instead of Strength.

These have all worked fairly well, but I find myself missing skills and proficiencies players really want to use. For example, the rogue in my game noted that I rarely call for an Acrobatics check. And the Barbarian said he rarely gets to use Survival.

What I'm thinking of doing is only calling for Abilities, not Skills. I'll call for a Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma check, and then the Player will choose whatever Skill or Proficiency is appropriate.

For example, if a character wants to look for something, I call for a Wisdom check. It's up to the player if they are using, say, Perception, Investigation, Survival, or some appropriate Tool (with DM approval, of course).

Here's how this might look:

Player: Vanger the Ranger tells the goblin boss to retreat before he gets his clan killed.
DM: Go ahead and make a Charisma Check.
Player: Can I use Persuasion?
DM: Yep!

Player: What does Wornok the Warlock know about these ruins?
DM: Go ahead and make an Intelligence Check.
Player: Can I use Arcana?
DM: Eh, that wouldn't be appropriate for this roll.

Player: Bartimer the Artificer wants to help guide the wagon over the bridge without hitting any rotting boards.
DM: Go ahead and make a Dexterity check.
Player: Can I use my proficiency in Vehicles?
DM: Absolutely!

My goals with this would be:

1. Giving players more agency and control with using their skills and proficiencies.
2. Allowing the characters to be heroic and do things they are good at more often.
3. Sharing the narrative burden with players.

One thing to note is that, in general, I trust my players not to "game the system" and try to use Athletics for every single check. At the same time, if they have invested heavily in Athletics, I want to reward them for coming up with creative ways to solve problems using Athletics.

What do you think? Do you think this would work? Do you usually call for skills, abilities, or both?
Asking for an ability check: I think this is the way we are "supposed" to do it in 5e.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Heh... my way to get around this is to basically always use an amended skill list for each campaign that includes new skills that supercede Tools altogether. I really don't like Tool or Musical Instrument proficiencies and ignore them as often as I can. :)
I love 5e tool proficiencies. It represents narrow applied knowledge, rather than broad theoretical knowledge. A character can know anything relating to the tool use itself, including creating the tool and crafting items with the tool, using the tool in surprising ways, and so on, but nothing beyond it.

I treat Instrument as a tool proficiency. The instrumentalist can do a Performance masterfully, but not necessarily know how to sing.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
When asking for ability checks probably add:

• Strength
• Constitution

• Dexterity
Athletics (run, jump, fall, climb, balance, tumble, dive, and other mobilities)

• Intelligence
Perception

• Charisma
• Wisdom
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
For what it's worth, the Basic Rules present checks in this order:
" . . . 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 . . . "
" . . . the DM decides which of the six abilities is relevant to the task at hand . . . "
" . . . Sometimes, the DM might ask for an ability check using a specific skill—for example, “Make a Wisdom (Perception) check.” At other times, a player might ask the DM if proficiency in a particular skill applies to a check."
So yeah, if you've been asking for "Perception" checks, you've been doing the badwrongfun.

Interestingly, they suggest that attack rolls don't follow the same rules as ability checks. But the attack roll uses a relevant ability and adds your proficiency bonus if you're proficient with the weapon...so I'm not quite sure what that attack disclaimer was about.

. . . the skill is almost always mentioned in the core books as well as in the published adventures.
Leave it to the people who played 3e and 4e for years and years.
Don't get me wrong, I like the principle of being free to chose, but let's face it:
  • At least 90% of the time, the ability used with a given skill (and vice versa) will be the standard one.
  • 5e was designed to be "newbie friendly" which means a simple game where the link ability-skill is fixed.
And somewhat less than 90% of the time, the PC will actually have the proficiency the DM is asking for. Which of these thought processes are easier?

  • The DM called for a Wisdom check. I'll roll it. I wish I had proficiency in Perception.
  • The DM called for a Perception check. I don't have proficiency in Perception. Its relevant ability is Wisdom. I'll roll that instead.

Linking all skills and abilities may be simple, but it creates a problem: what happens when the action you're attempting isn't related to a skill? Or worse, when it's not related to an ability?
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
All this is making me realize that there are times when a specific skill is called for, like a Stealth check in order to hide, or a Perception Check in order to see someone hidden.

But otherwise I should really be letting my players pick what proficiencies to use (within boundaries)!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
All this is making me realize that there are times when a specific skill is called for, like a Stealth check in order to hide, or a Perception Check in order to see someone hidden.

But otherwise I should really be letting my players pick what proficiencies to use (within boundaries)!
Yes, and those boundaries are that the proficiency they choose to apply must be in line with the description of what they wanted to do that they stated before you asked for the ability check. None of this, "Oh, I have to roll? Okay, I also do X so I can now apply Y proficiency." Sorry, the time for that has already passed.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Yes, and those boundaries are that the proficiency they choose to apply must be in line with the description of what they wanted to do that they stated before you asked for the ability check. None of this, "Oh, I have to roll? Okay, I also do X so I can now apply Y proficiency." Sorry, the time for that has already passed.
I don't think that'll be a problem with my group.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
All this is making me realize that there are times when a specific skill is called for, like a Stealth check in order to hide, or a Perception Check in order to see someone hidden.

But otherwise I should really be letting my players pick what proficiencies to use (within boundaries)!
Yeah. Treat Perception (and Athletics) as if abilities for an ability check.

Wisdom is more about willpower and empathy.

Strength is more about Strength tests - like breaking down doors, throwing encumbering weights, and so on.
 
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