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

Mordhau

Adventurer
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.


Leave it to the people who played 3e and 4e for years and years.

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?
Everything that needs to be rolled is related to an ability. It has to be, or the system breaks down! In some circumstances you might want a pure randomiser, but generally if the characters ability or skill is involved the DM is basically just expected to make a best fit and ask for a roll.

Not being related to a skill isn't necessarily a problem. The system already allows for Tool proficiencies. It wouldn't really be a stretch at all to allow other things to apply proficiency - (Such as the soldier background to train toops). As proficiency is always the same number the system makes it very easy to handle. And of course sometimes you just don't get proficiency.

The issue with ability checks governing everything is that they're just not designed for that purpose so even if you are using backgrounds ther'es likely to be times when you just end up saying "Make me a Dex roll, plus any relevant stealth background" because it just saves time.

In Symbaroum, which does not really have skills (well it sort of does in a way but they work more like feats), there are eight abilities, and stealth and perception are separate abilities which cuts out the biggest problems.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
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.
Well, it’s not badwromgfun, it’s just not how the rule is written in the PHB. Of course, simply calling for “Perception” checks works just fine too.
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.
Well, first of all it’s procedurally different - a DM doesn’t call for a Strength (Longsword) attack, nor do they just call for a Strength attack that the player can ask to add their Longsword proficiency to. The DM simply calls for an attack roll, the specific rules for which instruct you to add both your Strength (or Dexterity in the case of a ranged or finesse weapon) mod and your proficiency bonus if you’re proficient in the weapon.

More importantly though, it matters that attack rolls aren’t checks for the purposes of things that affect one type of roll or the other. Bards with Jack of All Trades can’t add half their proficiency bonus to their attack rolls with weapons they aren’t proficient with because attack rolls aren’t ability checks (though Initiative rolls are, so you can add it to that). A creature affected by the Hex spell for Strength doesn’t get disadvantage on melee attack rolls, nor does a creature affected by the Enhance Ability spell for Strength get advantage on them. Etc.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
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.

Wow wow wow, please be careful how you use that word, it is totally irrelevant here, or at least use a smiley.

Leave it to the people who played 3e and 4e for years and years.

There are many examples even in the core books:
  • Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side.
  • the DM might have you make a Wisdom (Perception) check or an Intelligence (Investigation) check.
  • a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target's Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use).
  • To do so, it must succeed on a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check contested by your Strength (Athletics) check.
  • Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target's Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use).
  • , which requires a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check.
And this is just from a quick scan in the combat section.

There are almost no cases where a pure ability check is shown in the core rules without a skill being mentioned, just a few of them, and as far as I know no example where it's an ability check where the skill to be used is left as a blank.

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.

It's still easier to ask for a Perception check since everyone knows that it's wisdom and it's written on the sheet that way anyway. And it's still quicker because the player will just check that line on his sheet to see whether he is proficient (and he usually will know) rather than scanning the list of skills and see which one might be applicable, especially if you need to sort out which one pertains to which ability.

Moreover, I think the whole process is skewed here, it actually happens the other way around, with people knowing the skill and then trying it with another ability. Why ? Simply because the players are supposed to describe their actions, and these are done using verbs which usually correspond to skills, not to abilities.

Simple but clear example:
  • Player: "I try to intimidate the guy"
  • DM: "Roll a Charisma (Intimidation) check" (or actually, usually "Roll an intimidation check", honestly who, in real life asks for "Charisma (Intimidation)" rolls, do you guys even say the parenthesis ? :p
  • Player: "Since I'm puffing my chest and flexing my muscles, can I use Strength instead ?"
  • DM: "of course, go ahead"
Honestly, from the description of the action, you have a much greater probability to hit a skill than an ability, the cases where the ability is in doubt come second, and the cases where the skill is in doubt come very, ver far down the line, at least at our tables (I'm not sure it has ever happened, to be honest, if the players want to use a different skill, they do a completely different description of their action).

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?

Be honest, did this EVER happen in your game ? Because it never happened to us and we've been playing 5e at least twice per week since it came out and it never did. And in any case, it's 5e, the DM will make a quick ruling, so how is that a problem ?
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . .it actually happens the other way around, with people knowing the skill and then trying it with another ability. Why ? Simply because the players are supposed to describe their actions, and these are done using verbs which usually correspond to skills, not to abilities.
Players can use verbs corresponding to skills all they want. If you'll look at my Basic Rules quotes, you'll see it's the DM who calls for an ability check, not the player who calls for a skill check.
Simple but clear example:
  • Player: "I try to intimidate the guy"
  • DM: "Roll a Charisma (Intimidation) check" (or actually, usually "Roll an intimidation check", honestly who, in real life asks for "Charisma (Intimidation)" rolls, do you guys even say the parenthesis ? :p
  • Player: "Since I'm puffing my chest and flexing my muscles, can I use Strength instead ?"
  • DM: "of course, go ahead"
Not clear at all, because intimidating isn't an action; it's an effect. The first player line should be "I puff my chest and flex my muscles."
Be honest, did this EVER happen in your game ? Because it never happened to us and we've been playing 5e at least twice per week since it came out and it never did. And in any case, it's 5e, the DM will make a quick ruling, so how is that a problem ?
Yup. " I want to know what level that character is. " Which ability does that? What hasn't been debated in my game, but could:
  • PC wants to tie an opponent up. No more Rope Use.
  • PC tries not to puke after spinning too much. Hmm, no Constitution skills.
  • PC tries to spot tracks from a crime scene. But the module clearly says "PCs can use Intelligence (investigation) to discover tracks." If the module said only " Intelligence check, " the PC could proffer use of Perception proficiency.

The DM could and should make quick rulings. Those rulings would be quicker if D&D didn't impose skill usage at every available opportunity.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Players can use verbs corresponding to skills all they want. If you'll look at my Basic Rules quotes, you'll see it's the DM who calls for an ability check, not the player who calls for a skill check.

Did I say anything to the contrary ? My point is just that when describing what they do, the players are much more likely to use words corresponding to skills than to abilities, that's all. After that what the DM does is his business.

Not clear at all, because intimidating isn't an action; it's an effect. The first player line should be "I puff my chest and flex my muscles."

Not necessarily. I run equal opportunity games where you don't have to big good at words or charismatic to play a charismatic character, and short descriptions are always allowed, even if after that there can be precisions given if necessary.

Yup. " I want to know what level that character is. " Which ability does that?

Because you allow this question in your games ? Why, all the PCs and NPCs don't have their level and aligment tattooed on their forehead ? [grin].

I'm sorry but there is no way I allow this type of question in the game, people in the fantasy world do not have "levels" even the PCs.

What hasn't been debated in my game, but could:
  • PC wants to tie an opponent up. No more Rope Use.

So you ARE starting from the skills, then, interesting. :p

But then why is sleight of hand not appropriate ?

  • PC tries not to puke after spinning too much. Hmm, no Constitution skills.

That is more likely a save than anything else, but then where did I say I was forbidding ability checks ? I just pointed out that these are not the most common of checks, that's all, including in official publications.

  • PC tries to spot tracks from a crime scene. But the module clearly says "PCs can use Intelligence (investigation) to discover tracks." If the module said only " Intelligence check, " the PC could proffer use of Perception proficiency.

He could, but I would deny it as a DM, perception is already too strong a skill. Or maybe he could but with disadvantage... In any case, it would just slow the game down.

The DM could and should make quick rulings. Those rulings would be quicker if D&D didn't impose skill usage at every available opportunity.

That might be your idea, but I have given you good arguments for exactly the contrary (easier to spot in a list, players knows the most important ones by heart anyway, simpler question gives you a quicker answer, etc.).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What do you think? Do you think this would work? Do you usually call for skills, abilities, or both?

It can work, but there are times when, instead of missing skills they have, you may miss on what ability best applies.

For example:
Player: Vanger the Ranger tells the goblin boss to retreat before he gets his clan killed.
DM: How are you impressing upon the boss the seriousness of the situation - by applealing to his enlightened self-interest with your words, by glowering at him sternly, or by flexing your big half-orc muscles?

The first is Charisma, and Persuasion applies. The second is Charisma, Intimidation applies. The third is Strength, Intimidation applies.

Missing the Strength option is rather like missing the Survival skill option. There are other cases - like a rogue can find a trap using Wisdom (Perception) or by Intelligence (Investigation). You need a bit of information to know which ability will be applicable.

So, my approach would be to probe a bit more to get a description from the player on how they actually want to do the thing. I am not a proponent of requiring any particular form from the player - I can ask questions until I get the necessary information to figure out what applies. I also find rejecting a player's request for a check to be... more uptight and fussy about formality than I want to be at my table.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
It can work, but there are times when, instead of missing skills they have, you may miss on what ability best applies.

For example:
Player: Vanger the Ranger tells the goblin boss to retreat before he gets his clan killed.
DM: How are you impressing upon the boss the seriousness of the situation - by applealing to his enlightened self-interest with your words, by glowering at him sternly, or by flexing your big half-orc muscles?

The first is Charisma, and Persuasion applies. The second is Charisma, Intimidation applies. The third is Strength, Intimidation applies.

Missing the Strength option is rather like missing the Survival skill option. There are other cases - like a rogue can find a trap using Wisdom (Perception) or by Intelligence (Investigation). You need a bit of information to know which ability will be applicable.

So, my approach would be to probe a bit more to get a description from the player on how they actually want to do the thing.
If the expectation is for the player to state a clear and reasonably specific goal and approach, there’s generally no need to probe them for how they want to do the thing - they will have already told you as part of their action declaration.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
If the expectation is for the player to state a clear and reasonably specific goal and approach, there’s generally no need to probe them for how they want to do the thing - they will have already told you as part of their action declaration.

It depends on the experience and sensibilities of the player. Younger / less experienced might need a bit of help framing the description of their actions.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If the expectation is for the player to state a clear and reasonably specific goal and approach, there’s generally no need to probe them for how they want to do the thing - they will have already told you as part of their action declaration.

I don't care about the expectation. If they don't give it to me, I can ask until I have the information.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
It depends on the experience and sensibilities of the player. Younger / less experienced might need a bit of help framing the description of their actions.
Sure, and if they need help then of course helping them is the sensible thing to do.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
I don't care about the expectation. If they don't give it to me, I can ask until I have the information.
Well yeah, of course you can always ask for further detail. But setting the expectation that they tell you first helps insure more time is spent playing the game instead of trying to tease these details out of player.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Well yeah, of course you can always ask for further detail. But setting the expectation that they tell you first helps insure more time is spent playing the game instead of trying to tease these details out of player.
In my experience 95% of the time or more I don't need clarification. The few times I could use clarification the addition effort and time required doesn't add up the the extra effort and time to give a description every time they want to use an ability or skill.

It's fine however you want to handle it because it's pretty minimal either way. I just don't think "time and effort saved" makes the case.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
In my experience 95% of the time or more I don't need clarification. The few times I could use clarification the addition effort and time required doesn't add up the the extra effort and time to give a description every time they want to use an ability or skill.

It's fine however you want to handle it because it's pretty minimal either way. I just don't think "time and effort saved" makes the case.
I thought the point was to insure you’re calling for a check with the right ability based on the player’s intended approach? Isn’t this something you’d need to do every time an action that might require a roll is declared then?
 


BookTenTiger

He / Him
If the expectation is for the player to state a clear and reasonably specific goal and approach, there’s generally no need to probe them for how they want to do the thing - they will have already told you as part of their action declaration.
It's easy to miscommunicate intentions, though. For example, I'll sometimes ask for a Persuasion when my player was trying to Intimidate or Deceive.

I think it's also okay to retcon a description. For example, a player might say:

Player: I try to convince the guard to let us through. I say, "Don't you know who we are? We're the Knights of the Golden Hart!"
DM: Make a Charisma check.
Player: Hm... Could I use Performance?
DM: Tell me how.
Player: I start telling him the story of our most famous exploit, when we slew the Wyvern of the Spire...

In this (made up) case, allowing the player to choose a skill, even when it didn't match their original narration, adds to the scene and could make for a memorable social encounter.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Be honest, did this EVER happen in your game ? Because it never happened to us and we've been playing 5e at least twice per week since it came out and it never did. And in any case, it's 5e, the DM will make a quick ruling, so how is that a problem ?
This issue came up a few times in the game I play in. For example, a dwarf fighter wanted to hammer a wedge into a door in order to prevent hobgoblins from opening it. The DM took a while searching through skills to find one appropriate, until the player recommended using their proficiency in Smithing Tools.

If I could redo that scene, I would have loved for the DM to call for a Strength Check (to knock the wedge in) or an Intelligence Check (to find the right angle and location), then allow the player to choose what proficiency, if any, worked best.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
It's easy to miscommunicate intentions, though. For example, I'll sometimes ask for a Persuasion when my player was trying to Intimidate or Deceive.
Well, that’s not an issue if you do as you suggest in the OP and call for an ability check and allow the player to suggest a skill or other proficiency.
I think it's also okay to retcon a description. For example, a player might say:

Player: I try to convince the guard to let us through. I say, "Don't you know who we are? We're the Knights of the Golden Hart!"
DM: Make a Charisma check.
Player: Hm... Could I use Performance?
DM: Tell me how.
Player: I start telling him the story of our most famous exploit, when we slew the Wyvern of the Spire…

In this (made up) case, allowing the player to choose a skill, even when it didn't match their original narration, adds to the scene and could make for a memorable social encounter.
My problem with this is retconning the approach could change the way I would resolve it. Maybe recounting the story of slaying the wyvern would not actually have required a check to succeed. Or maybe it would have failed without a check.

I’m all for allowing the player to decide what proficiency they think applies, but they should do so based on the action they’ve declared, not retroactively alter their action to make it fit the proficiency they want to use. If they wanted to be able to fall back on their Performance Proficiency in case they had to make a roll to succeed, they should have gone with an approach that relied on their performance skill to begin with.
 

Mordhau

Adventurer
The reality is that if players explicit have skills and tool proficiencies, then they know what they are good at and are going to describe actions to match up with what their good at.

If the GM picks a skill or tool proficieincy the player hadn't intended then there's basically been miscommunication.

Now the GM can overule what the player wants; it doesn't matter how many backflips they describe, the GM can decide that no, climbing walls is Strength and the appropriate proficiency is Athletics not acrobatics, but it's often very clear what skill a player has in mind.

In practical terms, I think, the player describing rather than just stating a skill is, more about maintaining the fiction.

In terms of tool proficiencies, you have the tools, so you just work them into what you're doing. I use carpenters tools to do X.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I thought the point was to insure you’re calling for a check with the right ability based on the player’s intended approach? Isn’t this something you’d need to do every time an action that might require a roll is declared then?
Like I said, the vast majority of times it's obvious. Guess I'd have to see a scenario where it wasn't or maybe I just don't understand.

Most extreme example: they're at the base of a wall and someone says "20 on an athletics check" after rolling (not that I remember that happening). I'll assume they're going to climb the wall. A more common example "Insight check on this guy?" or "History check to see what I remember about this?" is enough to tell me what they want.

Works for me. Do what works for you. I just don't see there being enough of a difference in efficiency for it to have much of an impact on the game is all. 🤷‍♂️
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Well, that’s not an issue if you do as you suggest in the OP and call for an ability check and allow the player to suggest a skill or other proficiency.

My problem with this is retconning the approach could change the way I would resolve it. Maybe recounting the story of slaying the wyvern would not actually have required a check to succeed. Or maybe it would have failed without a check.

I’m all for allowing the player to decide what proficiency they think applies, but they should do so based on the action they’ve declared, not retroactively alter their action to make it fit the proficiency they want to use. If they wanted to be able to fall back on their Performance Proficiency in case they had to make a roll to succeed, they should have gone with an approach that relied on their performance skill to begin with.
I think this just might be a difference in play styles. In the games I run, when we are not in combat, there's a lot of narrative retcons, fast forwards, rewinds, etc. I always figure the characters know what they're doing, even when it takes the players a little bit to figure it out.
 

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