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

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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?

I would say ability checks are the exception D&D 4e. It was true in my experience and the Rules Compendium actually says that DMs can differ on whether a Strength check or an Athletics check is appropriate (for example). I think it's probably safe to say most DMs would call for Athletics.

Despite playing D&D 3.Xe for 8 years, I do not recall very much about the rules so I can't answer your second question.
 

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Offer more choice in build and action in regards to the ability check side of gameplay.

That's just a way to rephrase "I want more complex checks."

This is like asking, "What would a more complex spaghetti and meatballs recipe look like?" Well, what problem are you trying to solve? Saying, "Well I want it to have more flavors," doesn't explain anything. You've got to be able to explain what's wrong and why you think your recipe needs improvement.

The question is: What gameplay problem are you trying to solve by changing the game? What is your design goal? How can you tell if your change is better if you don't know why you'd make the change? You can't really begin to make game design choices about potential solutions until you have stated the problem that you're trying to fix as clearly as you can.

For example, let's say you change every skill check to require a die roll and looking up the result on a table. No matter how simple the check, you have to make a die roll and reference a table. That's more complex. Can we stop designing there? Does that solve the problem? How do we know? Do we need to make skill checks like rolling for treasure hoards? Rolling twelve times on six different tables? Do we need to have a 300 page book just about skills and skill checks? Is that too complex? How do we know?

A little board because I don't want to narrow in on an answer before I get the question, but DnD doesn't have a lot of mechanical hooks if you want to invest in skills.

Yeah, but you've already decided on the solution: make skill checks more complex. What we don't understand is why that's your solution. We want to know not just how you arrived as "increase complexity" as your solution, but what prompted you to improve the game in the first place.

What do you mean by "mechanical hook"? What does the game currently do? What does the game fail to do that you think it should do?

It feels like you're asking people to brainstorm designs that are more complex and then you'll evaluate them to see if you like them better. That's like making a better spaghetti and meatballs by asking everyone else to make a new recipe and then tasting every single one and then picking one.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
When I use skill challenges, I will frequently take a step back from the rules. Ask the players how they think they can help solve an issue and then let them declare a check or I ask for one.

A lot of times it will be a combination of straight ability checks along with skill checks. Let's say the building they're in is on fire and there's a burning section they can get through or around. The floor is buckling because of the heat, but there is a gap.

So if the goal is to get from point A to point B while avoiding as much damage as possible. I don't care if they swing from the chandelier, try to leap across the gap or just grit their teeth and do it the painful way by charging through the heat using their shield to protect themselves. First might be an acrobatics, an athletics, last a straight up con ability check.

Maybe they come up with something I didn't think of and try to analyze the situation to come up with some ingenious solution so an investigation check or look for an alternate route.

One thing I do though is have a list of what people are good at, so if they're stuck I can give them hints on options. I also try to be flexible, improvised actions are part of the fun and I want to reward it. A particularly clever approach will frequently be made with advantage.

Last but not least, degree of success also matters. Get high enough above the DC and you take no damage. Get low enough and you're in trouble which may mean taking damage and getting stuck. Make more checks or maybe somebody helps you out of a sticky situations.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Not in 5E.

I don't know where you're getting that. You can do an ability check or an ability check with the addition of a skill bonus. "Sometimes, the DM might ask for an ability check using a specific skill ... Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check."

You do not automatically get a proficiency bonus, it only applies if the skill applies.
 

Hriston

Hero
I don't know where you're getting that. You can do an ability check or an ability check with the addition of a skill bonus. "Sometimes, the DM might ask for an ability check using a specific skill ... Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check."

You do not automatically get a proficiency bonus, it only applies if the skill applies.
They’re all ability checks. You said “ability check” means no proficiency bonus.
 


nomotog

Explorer
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.

That is actually not out of the question. I think the actual check mechanic of rolling vs a dc might be limiting by itself. Like you can stack daily powers on daily powers, but if everything ends up as a single ability roll then that can act as a bottle neck of depth.
 


One mechanical thing you can do for ongoing tasks (presumably with some sort of time limitation or there is not much point) is to combine degrees of success and number of successes required. Example: Fallen rocks block a passage and the characters have to clear it before the really dangerous enemies that are pursuing catch them. So lets say this is athletics, with DC 10 and it requires six successes to clear all the rocks. However, every full five points past the DC counts as an extra success. So if the barbarian rolls 23 they grab a big armful of rocks (beating 10, 15, and 20, three successes) whereas if the wizard rolls only 14 they manage still to move couple of rocks (beating 10, one success) and so forth. And of course if someone decides to squeeze though before all the rocks are cleared, the still needed successes for the completion of the task might tell you something about how much they have already cleared and thus what the DC for the test needed for squeezing through might be.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
do you want skill challenges? break a given challenge into multiple tasks all of which need to be resolved successfully to overcome it, each failed task should also get a consequence which provides another challenge or uses character resources
 

nomotog

Explorer
Yep, both of these. I always try to incorporate the degree of suggest at least on narrative level and on functional level too whenever it makes sense (which is often.)

Degree of suggest was something I was picturing as a possibility. Something like a status effect or keyword system. For example you might pick up a magic lockpick that adds the untraceable affect.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
That is actually not out of the question. I think the actual check mechanic of rolling vs a dc might be limiting by itself. Like you can stack daily powers on daily powers, but if everything ends up as a single ability roll then that can act as a bottle neck of depth.

I like the level of success, which I probably stole from somebody on this forum. Miss or exceed the target DC by more than 5 and it's more than just success or failure. In addition, I allow other options. A spell or special ability will often count as a success.

I think the biggest challenge is to get away from the mechanical "X successes vs Y failures". Successes and failures should mean something, but I'm not sure straight up success is the right way of looking at it. I also allow people to help others and so on.

Hard to give much explanation without some concrete examples and this is something I continuously try to improve.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
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.
That's their call, and they should follow along with their declared action. If there's a question, we can discuss it, but I think most players can handle figuring out if athletics fits the bill. Further, I don't have to do the work of picking what skill to use, I just pick the ability. I already have a huge workload as GM, so anything that simplifies my life without causing problems is golden. Only having to pick from a menu of 6 things is a lot easier than remembering the whole skill list.

And, finally, I don't structure my games so that my notes say, "Athletics check, DC x." I assign both DCs and ability checks based on what action the players describe. Given they could decide to do anything, I don't have those notes. I might write, "west wall is crumbled and climbable, plenty of handholds but quite slippery with moss and water." That way I have a good picture in my head for both describing the scene and laying out the general options but also for fairly adjudicating action declarations. Someone that says they try to scramble up the west wall quickly, for instance, might get a hard DEX check because they're focusing on speed and grace with their action but it's going to run directly into the problem of slipperiness, whereas someone that says they're going to use daggers to wedge into the cracks and provide good holds might get an easy STR check because this approach avoids the slipperiness, leverages the many crags and handholds, but focuses on pulling yourself up with tools. Either approach could benefit from Athletics. The former could also attempt Acrobatics. I'll let my players tell me which they want to use, if any.


[quote[
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.
[/QUOTE]
I disagree. A bald skill check involves the GM guessing what the player wants. I don't guess. Too many times that went wrong and I've learned my lesson here. It's trivial to expect a goal and approach, makes the game go faster because everyone's clear on both what's happening and what's at stake, and lets me hand more of the control over what happens to my players. If they describe an action that will clearly work, then it works, no need for a roll. If they ask for a skill check, well, they're betting on the dice when they don't have to. And, I'm guessing what they actually want to do, so the stakes aren't as clearly set.

I mean, I used to play exactly as you do, and I made the arguments you're making. Then I tried doing it differently, and, well, it works awesomely. Now, if I was playing a different version of D&D, then, sure, skill check asks are back on the table because that's how those games worked and how they were designed. 5e, though, is aimed slightly differently. Not enough that you can't use your method, but enough that I've found my method to be superior in outcomes -- for my table. As such, when I discuss how I play and approach 5e, I'm going to clearly state the process, which will be a bit wordier than what happens at the table. But, even in doing so here, you were confused how that play worked, so it's probably a good thing that I explain more clearly even than I have been.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
According to chapter 7 in the PHB you can have an ability check, or an ability check with the addition of a skill check proficiency modifier. The latter is a mouthful so I say skill check.

I'm done arguing semantics, have a good one.
Or, you can do what the game does, and use ability check to mean "make an ability check, add proficiency if it applies." I mean, you could use 'skill check' but that's not really any different from 'ability check' except it's more narrow for no real benefit.
 

Hriston

Hero
[/QUOTE]
According to chapter 7 in the PHB you can have an ability check, or an ability check with the addition of a skill check proficiency modifier. The latter is a mouthful so I say skill check.

I'm done arguing semantics, have a good one.
Sure, feel free to disengage and not reply to this post. I won't reply if you don't, but no, the two categories would be an ability check with a proficiency bonus or an ability check without a proficiency bonus. They're both ability checks, and I don't see anywhere in Chapter 7 or anywhere else in the rulebooks where they're presented as two mutually exclusive categories the way you've described them. It sounds like something you're porting in from another game.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I disagree. A bald skill check involves the GM guessing what the player wants. I don't guess. Too many times that went wrong and I've learned my lesson here. It's trivial to expect a goal and approach, makes the game go faster because everyone's clear on both what's happening and what's at stake, and lets me hand more of the control over what happens to my players. If they describe an action that will clearly work, then it works, no need for a roll. If they ask for a skill check, well, they're betting on the dice when they don't have to. And, I'm guessing what they actually want to do, so the stakes aren't as clearly set.

And here's the weird part for me: The same types of people who say they want "good RP" or "heavy RP" at their table, have a lot of opinions on how to portray ability scores, hate "metagaming," etc. are also often the same people who are fine with players just asking to make ability checks instead of requiring that they describe what their characters are doing. I have a hard time squaring these things. The approach doesn't match the goal in my opinion.
 

And here's the weird part for me: The same types of people who say they want "good RP" or "heavy RP" at their table, have a lot of opinions on how to portray ability scores, hate "metagaming," etc. are also often the same people who are fine with players just asking to make ability checks instead of requiring that they describe what their characters are doing. I have a hard time squaring these things. The approach doesn't match the goal in my opinion.
There is time to focus on descriptions and then there is situations where it is not that important. Now I'd say that generally 'can I roll skill X' is no the best possible way to describe what your character is doing, and personally I don't see it being used often. But if someone does, and it is abundantly clear using common sense what they mean then it is not usually beneficial for the flow of the game to start quibbling over the wording.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
And here's the weird part for me: The same types of people who say they want "good RP" or "heavy RP" at their table, have a lot of opinions on how to portray ability scores, hate "metagaming," etc. are also often the same people who are fine with players just asking to make ability checks instead of requiring that they describe what their characters are doing. I have a hard time squaring these things. The approach doesn't match the goal in my opinion.
Well, back when I did the same things, it's because that's how I learned the game and I hadn't spent any time exploring why. I fought against it because I thought that admitting anything would mean that I'm a bad GM. It doesn't, just like using a different screwdriver because it fits the screw better doesn't mean you're a bad carpenter. Sometimes it's worthwhile to re-examine your kit to see if it still does what you need it to. It's no reflection on you if you change tools.
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
There is time to focus on descriptions and then there is situations where it is not that important. Now I'd say that generally 'can I roll skill X' is no the best possible way to describe what your character is doing, and personally I don't see it being used often. But if someone does, and it is abundantly clear using common sense what they mean then it is not usually beneficial for the flow of the game to start quibbling over the wording.
If the situation isn't important, why are you wasting time on it?

Secondly, I'm a little leery that there are actually "abundantly clear" moments like are often claimed. This reads like a rhetorical device where you present an argument as a fait accompli without showing how such abundantly clear moments arise and how asking if a skill roll is possible provides benefit over stating an action. For starters, asking for a roll will result in a roll more often than not, even if there's a clear way to do the thing without a roll. Stating an action both centers the player in the fiction with the PC (roleplaying!) and makes it very clear what's going on so the GM can better adjudicate. And, you might get an automatic success, which I don't think I've ever seen asking for a roll (and I played that way for years). Asking for a roll and the GM granting one is also a large part of how GM's find themselves jammed up because the PCs failed on something that was necessary for the GM's prep or doesn't really make sense. Same with succeeding -- there's a current thread about how great rolls lead to short-circuiting the planned adventure (I believe it was Dragon Heist). That never happens to me. Great actions sometimes do, but great rolls? Never.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Or, you can do what the game does, and use ability check to mean "make an ability check, add proficiency if it applies." I mean, you could use 'skill check' but that's not really any different from 'ability check' except it's more narrow for no real benefit.

I think it's silly to say "make an ability check modified by your athletics proficiency bonus". It's wordy, overly complicated and adds no value. I have no idea why the dev team thought it was an improvement. I have yet to hear anyone on a stream or in real play say it that way*. Besides, the player doesn't get to decide if the proficiency applies, the DM does. The player may ask if a proficiency or different ability is appropriate but the DM makes the call.

Every standard character sheet I've seen has a list of all the skills with the calculated value right there. We use DndBeyond so it's right on the front page. Easy to understand for newbies, easy to explain.

But again, I'm done arguing semantics. When I run my games I will continue to say "Make an athletics check", feel free to report me to the RPG police. :p

*My exposure is, admittedly limited to a couple of streams and a handful of AL DMs. I'm sure someone somewhere does it.
 

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