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5E How can you add more depth and complexity to skill checks?


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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Why not just say “ability check”?
They're not yet ready to abandon the bailey, so you get the motte argument that everyone gets what skill check means and that it's just easy shorthand. When this is nodded past, the argument that it's perfectly fine for players to ask for skill checks instead of describing what the PC does creeps back into the bailey alongside its buddy, usually taking up fieldworks that this is just easily understood shorthand for describing what the PC does.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I recently went looking on youtube for discussions on skill challenges. I run mine as you suggest here -- fiction first -- but I found a lot of the big name DM's offer advice on skill challenges that looks a lot like scripted ability checks. They suggest coming up with a list of appropriate skills to use for the challenge, for instance, and for basically scripting out the individual challenges from start to finish. Most suggest allowing some creative leeway, but, ultimately, the advice I see on youtube by the big names is still very curtailed and stodgy. I couldn't find a single video (granted, I only spent about an hour searching, so, with watching enough to get a feel for the advice, I didn't get super far) by a big name that suggested any kind of fiction first framing for skill challenges. It struck me as so, well, weird given how easy and fun the fiction first approach is. I couldn't make a skill challenge work worth a darn the structured way -- it always felt artificial. But, using fiction first framing and having every action change the fiction, it's just that much better. I've been kicking a thread on fiction first skill challenges around in the back of my head for a few days now, need to sit down and write it.

What I do is create an overarching goal in the context of the adventure and then a series of complications which I present to the players. They can solve them however they want. Sometimes it's an ability check, sometimes not as per usual. Because I'm not certain the skill challenge math presented in the D&D 4e rules compendium ports over perfectly to D&D 5e (gut says it doesn't), I generally do a three-strikes-yer-out structure and then the more complex the overall goal, the more complications I present. Generally it's no more than 6 with liberal use of "progress combined with a setback."
 

They're not yet ready to abandon the bailey, so you get the motte argument that everyone gets what skill check means and that it's just easy shorthand. When this is nodded past, the argument that it's perfectly fine for players to ask for skill checks instead of describing what the PC does creeps back into the bailey alongside its buddy, usually taking up fieldworks that this is just easily understood shorthand for describing what the PC does.
Generally what is meant is more important than what is said. Not that I wouldn't appreciate detailed action descriptions. But 'an ability check with a proficiency bonus if you have the skill' is not that, it is just waste of time and breath.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
What I do is create an overarching goal in the context of the adventure and then a series of complications which I present to the players. They can solve them however they want. Sometimes it's an ability check, sometimes not as per usual. Because I'm not certain the skill challenge math presented in the D&D 4e rules compendium ports over perfectly to D&D 5e (gut says it doesn't), I generally do a three-strikes-yer-out structure and then the more complex the overall goal, the more complications I present. Generally it's no more than 6 with liberal use of "progress combined with a setback."
The end of 4e's advice on skill challenges is largely this -- it's always 3 failures and out, but the number of successes was reasonably varied. I usually play fast and loose with successes, getting, as you do, a feel by way of number of obstacles. I tend to not determine the obstacles ahead of time, or, if I do, it's a short bullet list of ideas that I can mold into the fiction rather than concretely prepped challenges. That way, I can maximally let the players drive the challenge, both in approach and in outcomes, by presenting challenges that follow the fiction more tightly. I know you like location based design, so this isn't really as useful there (and, to be honest, I don't often use skill challenges in my location design, something I might want to think on). I tend to use them for things like negotiations, or intrigues, or travel. Honestly, I think skill challenges for travel, especially open ended ones, are the bomb and should be presented as at least an official option way to do travel.
 


DM Dave1

Adventurer
Generally what is meant is more important than what is said.Not that I wouldn't appreciate detailed action descriptions. But 'an ability check with a proficiency bonus if you have the skill' is not that, it is just waste of time and breath.

Of course, what is meant is important.

However, in 5e, it is not the player’s job to announce a particular ability check roll. It’s their job to tell the DM what their PC is trying to accomplish and what action they are taking to accomplish it. The DM then adjudicates accordingly. A player announcing “I roll perception!” isn’t engaging with the fiction, they’re pressing a button on their character sheet. And doing so is preempting the DM’s decision of whether a roll is even necessary.
 

Of course, what is meant is important.

However, in 5e, it is not the player’s job to announce a particular ability check roll. It’s their job to tell the DM what their PC is trying to accomplish and what action they are taking to accomplish it. The DM then adjudicates accordingly. A player announcing “I roll perception!” isn’t engaging with the fiction, they’re pressing a button on their character sheet. And doing so is preempting the DM’s decision of whether a roll is even necessary.
And this has nothing to do with whether you call it 'perception skill check' or 'wisdom ability check with a proficiency bonus added if you're proficient in perception.'
 

Hriston

Hero
The first post specifically speaks about coming up with more complex ways to use skills. So yeah, 'skill checks' is appropriate.
Yeah, but the thread title uses the word check, so it’s a bit misleading, but I can see that maybe the OP just wants a more detailed/complex skill system. I’m not sure.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The end of 4e's advice on skill challenges is largely this -- it's always 3 failures and out, but the number of successes was reasonably varied. I usually play fast and loose with successes, getting, as you do, a feel by way of number of obstacles. I tend to not determine the obstacles ahead of time, or, if I do, it's a short bullet list of ideas that I can mold into the fiction rather than concretely prepped challenges. That way, I can maximally let the players drive the challenge, both in approach and in outcomes, by presenting challenges that follow the fiction more tightly. I know you like location based design, so this isn't really as useful there (and, to be honest, I don't often use skill challenges in my location design, something I might want to think on). I tend to use them for things like negotiations, or intrigues, or travel. Honestly, I think skill challenges for travel, especially open ended ones, are the bomb and should be presented as at least an official option way to do travel.

Back when I was playing D&D 4e exclusively, I had a player do a deep dive on the math of skill challenges. The DMG skill challenges didn't work, almost ensuring failure for anything over like a Complexity 2 challenge as I recall. The Rules Compendium update to skill challenges was significantly better, but required the DM to adhere to the number of medium and hard DCs according to Complexity and that you had to include a set number of "advantages," which were ways the PCs could do things to remove failures, lower a DC, or the like. As a result of having this knowledge, I'm pretty cautious about including too many complications in the challenge, particularly as the "advantages" rules don't exactly look like a fit to me in D&D 5e. I do bullet points like you do as a place for me to start improvising and usually employ these types of challenges for social interaction and some travel too. It seems like we independently reached the same conclusion about the optimal design and place for this sort of mechanic.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Generally what is meant is more important than what is said. Not that I wouldn't appreciate detailed action descriptions. But 'an ability check with a proficiency bonus if you have the skill' is not that, it is just waste of time and breath.
I don't say that at the table, I say it here when talking about games because it's very clear. At the table, my players understand how the game works, so I say, "Give me a STR check," and they say, "I'm going to use Athletics with that for a 14." Super easy, no fuss.

In discussion of how I run, other posters don't have the experience and understanding my players do, so I'm going to say, "I ask for an ability check and the player can use their proficiency bonus if they have an applicable skill." This is because I'm being very clear about my process, not because I'm explicitly describing the spoken words at my table. I don't care if you skip all of this at your table by saying, "gimmie a skill check." That's fine. But, it's not an especially good way to describe how you might play because it's skipping over all of the understandings and experience at your table that operationalizes it.

But, that said, I've also see you make the argument that asking for a skill check is sufficient for the GM to understand what the player wants and how their doing it. I think this requires the GM to assume too much and would rather be clear and require the player to tell me what it is their doing rather than just asking for a check. I get you don't have this concern, so, great, but when you say "skill check is fine shorthand" all of that's wrapped up into it but not said. When I, or others, use the wordy version that explains what we're doing, it's explained and doesn't rely on everyone guessing the correct interpretation. It's also not what's said at the table, because I don't have to worry about misunderstandings there.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
And this has nothing to do with whether you call it 'perception skill check' or 'wisdom ability check with a proficiency bonus added if you're proficient in perception.'
Out of game for discussion purposes, I suppose we can understand what’s being discussed (even though it is not the 5e nomenclature).

I’m interpreting @Ovinomancer’s comments, however, as indicating that when you shorthand to “skill check” you are invoking terminology from a past edition which could lead to play at the table that imitates that past edition. Which, when trying to play 5e, leads to... issues.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
In 4E, what’s the difference between a skill check and an ability check?

It's basically a check the DM wants the player to make when none of the character's skills apply. They otherwise followed the same rules for skill checks. Because there were so many skills in D&D 4e, it was pretty rare to find yourself in a situation where a skill didn't apply in my experience, so ability checks didn't come up much.
 

I don't say that at the table, I say it here when talking about games because it's very clear. At the table, my players understand how the game works, so I say, "Give me a STR check," and they say, "I'm going to use Athletics with that for a 14." Super easy, no fuss.
So how do they know that they can use athletics with it? If I wanted people to roll strength check with a potential proficiency bonus from athletics I'd say "roll an athletics check." As athletics defaults to strength, that is the ability used unless otherwise specified and the mention of specific skill communicates that a proficiency bonus from it may be added. Simple and clear.

In discussion of how I run, other posters don't have the experience and understanding my players do, so I'm going to say, "I ask for an ability check and the player can use their proficiency bonus if they have an applicable skill." This is because I'm being very clear about my process, not because I'm explicitly describing the spoken words at my table. I don't care if you skip all of this at your table by saying, "gimmie a skill check." That's fine. But, it's not an especially good way to describe how you might play because it's skipping over all of the understandings and experience at your table that operationalizes it.

But, that said, I've also see you make the argument that asking for a skill check is sufficient for the GM to understand what the player wants and how their doing it. I think this requires the GM to assume too much and would rather be clear and require the player to tell me what it is their doing rather than just asking for a check. I get you don't have this concern, so, great, but when you say "skill check is fine shorthand" all of that's wrapped up into it but not said. When I, or others, use the wordy version that explains what we're doing, it's explained and doesn't rely on everyone guessing the correct interpretation. It's also not what's said at the table, because I don't have to worry about misunderstandings there.

In some instances asking for skill check is indeed sufficient to communicate intent. It depends on the context. But that is a separate matter. I could just as easily say that in some situations asking for an ability check with a proficiency bonus from a specific skill is sufficient to communicate intent. But when I earlier said that 'skill check is fine shorthand' I mean't exactly what I said: that it is an easy way to communicate that we are referring to an ability check containing a possible proficiency bonus from a skill, completely irrespective of who is using the expression.
 

Hriston

Hero
It's basically a check the DM wants the player to make when none of the character's skills apply. They otherwise followed the same rules for skill checks. Because there were so many skills in D&D 4e, it was pretty rare to find yourself in a situation where a skill didn't apply in my experience, so ability checks didn't come up much.
Ah, so it seems that in 4E, ability checks are seen as the exception rather than the rule. Does that about capture it?

Follow up question: In 3E, is it possible to make a non-proficient skill check?
 



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