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

Eric V

Hero
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.
We disagree often, but on this...I'm with you. This is the most pedantic bull**** I have seen in a while.

Having said that, I think the idea was to encourage using different ability scores along with proficiency in skill; make a DEX(Athletics) check, or a STR(Intimidation) check. I feel if they were really into that idea, they would have foregone assigning each skill to an ability (which would have been more interesting).
 

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If the situation isn't important, why are you wasting time on it?
The situation may be important, doesn't mean that description of every detail is. Do you know how amateur writers sometimes write text where every bloody sentence is overtly complicated flowery prose overflowing with abundance of adjectives, because they mistakenly think that many words and complicated sentences make the writing good? Whereas professionals control the flow of their text by varying the sentence structure, using more verbose descriptions when needed and more snappy and succinct ones where they will better serve their purpose. It can be like that.

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.
GM describes a weird animal.
Player: "What the hell was that? Can I roll nature or something?"

Yeah, perhaps this would be good opportunity for the player to reminiscent about their backstory about living with the tribe of wild elves and learning about the wonders of the natural world. And if they do that, nice, we might tie this to that. But if they don't and say what I described above, that's cool too. They have proficiency in the nature skill, which means that they know stuff about animals. Let the dice decide whether this is one of the animals they know stuff about and move on with the story.

I fully get that it would be super bland that just asking for skill rolls was how it was always done, but this of course is not how it works.

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.
Similar situation than the plot getting stuck because the player fails a critical roll can easily simply result from the players failing to think the 'correct' thing to do. Same with characters succeeding beyond expectations and 'ruining' the plot. These usually stem from the GM being overly committed to the one specific direction the story 'should' take and unwillingness to alter the premade plans. Common GMing problems, but ultimately rather easy to avoid.
 

Stalker0

Legend
Having just read through this thread...I found it hilarious that about 3/4 of the posts were nothing but talking about the nomenclature of ability checks vs skill checks vs X.

So one idea to consider is the idea back from 3e's epic handbook, the notion that very high skill DCs can grant abilities that would normally be considered magical.

Some quick examples:

1) Investigate can determine magic auras (ala detect magic)
2) Athletics could give limited fly
3) Insight could give some defensive precognition

If you went this route, I would start at DC 35 at a minimum. 30 might be tempting as that is the "Impossible" DC....but quite frankly I have Level 5 characters that routinely get 30s....often at least once a session.


Another idea is to give certain benefits to high Passive Scores (aka like passive perception or insight). Some examples:

1) Passive Perception: 20+.... you are immune from surprise.
2) Passive Acrobatics: 20+... you are immune from the Prone condition.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Having just read through this thread...I found it hilarious that about 3/4 of the posts were nothing but talking about the nomenclature of ability checks vs skill checks vs X.

So one idea to consider is the idea back from 3e's epic handbook, the notion that very high skill DCs can grant abilities that would normally be considered magical.

Some quick examples:

1) Investigate can determine magic auras (ala detect magic)
2) Athletics could give limited fly
3) Insight could give some defensive precognition

If you went this route, I would start at DC 35 at a minimum. 30 might be tempting as that is the "Impossible" DC....but quite frankly I have Level 5 characters that routinely get 30s....often at least once a session.


Another idea is to give certain benefits to high Passive Scores (aka like passive perception or insight). Some examples:

1) Passive Perception: 20+.... you are immune from surprise.
2) Passive Acrobatics: 20+... you are immune from the Prone condition.

Actually replying to the OP's question instead of rehashing semantics for the umpteenth time that nobody in real life really cares about? Heresy! :mad:

I don't think I would go as far as you, but I do like the concept of having different uses for skills.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I think one of the risks with degrees of success granting additional benefits is that it may not necessarily follow from what the player describes the character as wanting to do and how. If the player says I do X in order to achieve Y and gets some additional result Z due to a high roll that doesn't jive with X, it starts to look like the DM is establishing for the player what the character is doing.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
The situation may be important, doesn't mean that description of every detail is. Do you know how amateur writers sometimes write text where every bloody sentence is overtly complicated flowery prose overflowing with abundance of adjectives, because they mistakenly think that many words and complicated sentences make the writing good? Whereas professionals control the flow of their text by varying the sentence structure, using more verbose descriptions when needed and more snappy and succinct ones where they will better serve their purpose. It can be like that.
That such a phenomenon occurs doesn't mean that this is the same thing -- it's a false comparison until you show it's the same thing. I mean, I'm tall, and basketball players are tall, but that doesn't mean I'm a basketball player (I was terrible at it so I stuck to goalkeeping). You've created a counter-argument whereby what I was talking about is likened to an amateur writer using too many words where your approach is using the perfect amount of words like a professional writer. I mean, really? Are you sure it's not a case where I'm the professional, using the exact right amount of words to elicit an engaging scene and you're the amateur not doing a good enough job describing what's going on so everyone's just kind of confused? See how easily abusive this line of argument is, and how gauche?

I don't have a problem in my games of too much narration. I'm quick and too the point and play moves quickly. If you have to imagine my play as some terribly example of what not to do to make your points, you're admitting how weak your thinking is. Not your approach, because it's a perfectly valid and enjoyable approach. I don't have to belittle you or your playstyle to advocate for mine.

GM describes a weird animal.
Player: "What the hell was that? Can I roll nature or something?"

Yeah, perhaps this would be good opportunity for the player to reminiscent about their backstory about living with the tribe of wild elves and learning about the wonders of the natural world. And if they do that, nice, we might tie this to that. But if they don't and say what I described above, that's cool too. They have proficiency in the nature skill, which means that they know stuff about animals. Let the dice decide whether this is one of the animals they know stuff about and move on with the story.
See, to me, this is a failure on the part of the GM. They've decided that there will be a mystery of what this weird animal is, but that the solution needs to be gated behind the PCs asking the GM questions and then the dice. I'm not even going to bother with that. Either the question of what the animal is isn't terribly interesting or important, in which case it gets rolled into my description, or it is, in which case the PCs don't know what it is just looking at it and need to do something to figure it out. Neither case waits for 'can I roll nature or something' or provides that as a viable approach to the problem. I don't like play that's essentially ask the GM questions and then roll dice to find out if you get an answer -- that's uninteresting in the extreme to me. If I'm going to have a weird creature, the mystery won't be solved by asking to roll nature, or something. Being proficient in nature will likely be a significant boon, but it's not going to be the random allocation of knowledge.

I fully get that it would be super bland that just asking for skill rolls was how it was always done, but this of course is not how it works.
No, of course not. Aside from the usual terminology issues, allows skill checks enables a certain kind of play that I do not want. It enables the ask questions instead of do things play, where the GM is incentivized to keep things mysterious and unclear until players ask about it, thinking that this establishes a mystery for the players. I did that for years, and it's not all asking for skill checks, but it's a lot of that. And, it's frustrating to wait for the right skill to be asked for, and then a success, to pass whatever bar I thought was necessary to just provide information. It's disheartening. Especially since you can outright give players my notes and it won't help much at all because I don't have magic answers or precise skill checks written down and because players will still screw it up by the numbers even if they know what's in my notes (which are usually a blurb outlining a situation, a few bullet points of cool things I think might fit, and a map).
Similar situation than the plot getting stuck because the player fails a critical roll can easily simply result from the players failing to think the 'correct' thing to do. Same with characters succeeding beyond expectations and 'ruining' the plot. These usually stem from the GM being overly committed to the one specific direction the story 'should' take and unwillingness to alter the premade plans. Common GMing problems, but ultimately rather easy to avoid.
Ah, man, I was prescient with my last paragraph, because here's the old tried and true, last stand, desperate chestnut tossed at those that use my approach -- the GM is just waiting until the exact right thing is said and then play proceeds. I've seen this phrased as pixel-bitching, phrased as magic words, and a few others. It's hogwash bullroar and a lazy argument that exposes that you've no idea what I do when I run, just an imaging of a terrible game. I feel you, I did that same back when I didn't know better, either. It's natural, again because you think that someone saying there's a different way to approach the game implies that they think their way is better and that casts you as the bad GM, so you retaliate rather than try to understand. You cast them in the worst light you can think of because it lets you off the hook -- what they do is bad, so I can ignore them and not question what I do. That's fine, what you do is fine -- good even, if your table has fun. I don't want to convince you that you play wrong, because I don't think that.

But, to address this hogwash, no, there are no magic words. I even posted an example of how I prep and play above, where two different characters tries two completely different approaches to climbing a crumbled wall, and both got a fair shake and a chance to succeed. If I had magic words, then only one would have had a chance, the other would have just failed. Or, there would be some magic solution I've prepared that will automatically succeed -- somehow I've prepped this despite saying in that earlier post that my prep is not solutions, but situations. I do not know how a scene will end because I don't prep an ending, just a beginning, which is usually fed directly from the last unknown ending. I run skill challenges that have no structure at all outside of X successes before 3 failures. Magic words are the last thing that could possible describe how my game works.

I did used to use magic words, though. Back when I ran like you do, which is why I think that accusation gets leveled so readily in these discussions. I had prepped situations where I thought the solution would be obvious -- the clues, the room, etc. -- but my players didn't get it so a series of random guesses occurred until it was close enough. Because you can't violate the prep, that's cheating (or metagaming, I can't remember, probably both)! I've left that behind as well, because I no longer prep solutions or answers and even my puzzles are PC sided, not player sided, so the answer is whatever the happens through PC action declarations, not putting together the Clue clues to find out who did it with what where.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Actually replying to the OP's question instead of rehashing semantics for the umpteenth time that nobody in real life really cares about? Heresy! :mad:

I don't think I would go as far as you, but I do like the concept of having different uses for skills.
Amusingly, the "rehash" happened because someone pointed out what the rules say and then others swooped in to challenge that even being a thing. I mean, innocuous pointing out of the rules vs saying that's stupid, call it what the rules from the last editions did responses. In other words, trying to claim the high horse when you're down in the mud is a tad hypocritical.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Having just read through this thread...I found it hilarious that about 3/4 of the posts were nothing but talking about the nomenclature of ability checks vs skill checks vs X.
Its like the internet is trying to parody itself.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I think one of the risks with degrees of success granting additional benefits is that it may not necessarily follow from what the player describes the character as wanting to do and how. If the player says I do X in order to achieve Y and gets some additional result Z due to a high roll that doesn't jive with X, it starts to look like the DM is establishing for the player what the character is doing.

Don't people in real life often notice other things peripherally or stumble across a memory they weren't consciously aiming for?

"I think back to my days at husbandry college to remember what Atlantean goats eat."

<rolls a huge score on relevant ability + skill>

"You remember the lecture on the value of hay, legumes, and alfalfa and the danger of regularly just eating garbage. Thinking back to your studies, it also strikes you that two of these look small enough they might still be nursing."

"I carefully head over to meticulously search the western wall."

<rolls a huge score on relevant ability + skill>

"The western wall doesn't show any odd signs. But about half way through you see from the corner of your eye a small crack in the ceiling that one would never notice from much farther away."
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Don't people in real life often notice other things peripherally or stumble across a memory they weren't consciously aiming for?

"I think back to my days at husbandry college to remember what goats eat."

<rolls a huge score on relevant ability + skill>

"You remember the lecture on the value of hay, legumes, and alfalfa and the danger of regularly just eating garbage. Thinking back to your studies, it also strikes you that two of these look small enough they might still be nursing."

"I carefully head over to meticulously search the western wall."

<rolls a huge score on relevant ability + skill>

"The western wall doesn't show any odd signs. But about half way through you see from the corner of your eye a small crack in the ceiling that one would never notice from much farther away."
The former seems like information you just get on a success. Gating additional information behind higher rolls is still gating information. Who's to say that you don't recall an different but useful memory on a lower roll? This is adding complexity that doesn't really serve much purpose except for adding more bits of prep that go unused.

The latter, on the other hand, has a structural problem. I don't know what the crack in the ceiling is supposed to be, but the approach of searching the western wall seems like it's not suited to finding something on the ceiling, so I'd just narrate a nothing found and not ask for a roll. If the crack on the ceiling is the important bit in the room, then I'm probably going to set up the scene so that's obvious that the ceiling needs looking at. The problem here is that this is so underdeveloped I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with it, but the high roll leads to unconnected or peripheral success isn't going to be a tool I reach for when I can fix the problem that solves in design of the scene.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Amusingly, the "rehash" happened because someone pointed out what the rules say and then others swooped in to challenge that even being a thing. I mean, innocuous pointing out of the rules vs saying that's stupid, call it what the rules from the last editions did responses. In other words, trying to claim the high horse when you're down in the mud is a tad hypocritical.

Good grief. The very first response was criticizing verbiage with zero actual advice.

I think the only horse around here died a long time ago.
 

Oh man, there is pretty amazing amount of projection going on here!
That such a phenomenon occurs doesn't mean that this is the same thing -- it's a false comparison until you show it's the same thing. I mean, I'm tall, and basketball players are tall, but that doesn't mean I'm a basketball player (I was terrible at it so I stuck to goalkeeping). You've created a counter-argument whereby what I was talking about is likened to an amateur writer using too many words where your approach is using the perfect amount of words like a professional writer. I mean, really? Are you sure it's not a case where I'm the professional, using the exact right amount of words to elicit an engaging scene and you're the amateur not doing a good enough job describing what's going on so everyone's just kind of confused? See how easily abusive this line of argument is, and how gauche?

I don't have a problem in my games of too much narration. I'm quick and too the point and play moves quickly. If you have to imagine my play as some terribly example of what not to do to make your points, you're admitting how weak your thinking is. Not your approach, because it's a perfectly valid and enjoyable approach. I don't have to belittle you or your playstyle to advocate for mine.
I did not say anything about your game style. Mine was an reply to you wondering why sometimes one might not spends a lot of time describing something in detail. And I told you why one might choose to do so. That's all.

See, to me, this is a failure on the part of the GM. They've decided that there will be a mystery of what this weird animal is, but that the solution needs to be gated behind the PCs asking the GM questions and then the dice. I'm not even going to bother with that. Either the question of what the animal is isn't terribly interesting or important, in which case it gets rolled into my description, or it is, in which case the PCs don't know what it is just looking at it and need to do something to figure it out. Neither case waits for 'can I roll nature or something' or provides that as a viable approach to the problem. I don't like play that's essentially ask the GM questions and then roll dice to find out if you get an answer -- that's uninteresting in the extreme to me. If I'm going to have a weird creature, the mystery won't be solved by asking to roll nature, or something. Being proficient in nature will likely be a significant boon, but it's not going to be the random allocation of knowledge.
Again, pacing and different approaches for different sized 'mysteries.' It probably is not some huge central mystery, if it was it would be handled differently. Perhaps the GM didn't even have anything particular planned about the animal, but because the players express interest they make something up for a good roll. It is just a nice little additional detail that may be tangentially relevant later.

No, of course not. Aside from the usual terminology issues, allows skill checks enables a certain kind of play that I do not want. It enables the ask questions instead of do things play, where the GM is incentivized to keep things mysterious and unclear until players ask about it, thinking that this establishes a mystery for the players. I did that for years, and it's not all asking for skill checks, but it's a lot of that. And, it's frustrating to wait for the right skill to be asked for, and then a success, to pass whatever bar I thought was necessary to just provide information. It's disheartening. Especially since you can outright give players my notes and it won't help much at all because I don't have magic answers or precise skill checks written down and because players will still screw it up by the numbers even if they know what's in my notes (which are usually a blurb outlining a situation, a few bullet points of cool things I think might fit, and a map).

Ah, man, I was prescient with my last paragraph, because here's the old tried and true, last stand, desperate chestnut tossed at those that use my approach -- the GM is just waiting until the exact right thing is said and then play proceeds. I've seen this phrased as pixel-bitching, phrased as magic words, and a few others. It's hogwash bullroar and a lazy argument that exposes that you've no idea what I do when I run, just an imaging of a terrible game. I feel you, I did that same back when I didn't know better, either. It's natural, again because you think that someone saying there's a different way to approach the game implies that they think their way is better and that casts you as the bad GM, so you retaliate rather than try to understand. You cast them in the worst light you can think of because it lets you off the hook -- what they do is bad, so I can ignore them and not question what I do. That's fine, what you do is fine -- good even, if your table has fun. I don't want to convince you that you play wrong, because I don't think that.

But, to address this hogwash, no, there are no magic words. I even posted an example of how I prep and play above, where two different characters tries two completely different approaches to climbing a crumbled wall, and both got a fair shake and a chance to succeed. If I had magic words, then only one would have had a chance, the other would have just failed. Or, there would be some magic solution I've prepared that will automatically succeed -- somehow I've prepped this despite saying in that earlier post that my prep is not solutions, but situations. I do not know how a scene will end because I don't prep an ending, just a beginning, which is usually fed directly from the last unknown ending. I run skill challenges that have no structure at all outside of X successes before 3 failures. Magic words are the last thing that could possible describe how my game works.
Again, I didn't say anything about your play style. It's just that you were bizarrely focusing on skill checks. I merely noted that if an adventure being built so that an unexpected failure to proceed past certain part of the plot or exceptional success in some other part crashes the story, then that is not an issue directly related to skill checks. The same issue happens even if the unexpected success/failure was but player actions (or lack thereof.) It is an adventure design and GM flexibility issue.

I did used to use magic words, though. Back when I ran like you do, which is why I think that accusation gets leveled so readily in these discussions. I had prepped situations where I thought the solution would be obvious -- the clues, the room, etc. -- but my players didn't get it so a series of random guesses occurred until it was close enough. Because you can't violate the prep, that's cheating (or metagaming, I can't remember, probably both)! I've left that behind as well, because I no longer prep solutions or answers and even my puzzles are PC sided, not player sided, so the answer is whatever the happens through PC action declarations, not putting together the Clue clues to find out who did it with what where.
Nah, it is all in quantum superposition before being described to the players. Changing stuff on the fly is perfectly fine, GMs should do that a lot more.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I'd use what I did for the RPG I created, and use "mastery" levels.

Untrained: +0
Beginner: +1
Novice: +2
Apprentice: +3
Journeyman: +4
Master: +5
Grand Master: +6

Characters have to buy the ranks for a skill they want when they level. You could use the normal skill list fro D&D (and perhaps add a couple more) as well as the following skills:


Simple Weapons (could further group by classes - blades, axes, bows, etc.)
Martial Weapons (could further group by classes - blades, axes, bows, etc.)
(maybe armors, if you want modify all ACs to 8 + proficiency + armor bonus [+ dexterity bonus], as if it were passive AC)

Then characters get a set number of skill points to spread between their skills (with the bonus capped based on level, around about what proficiency sits at now, maybe 1 higher). My suggestion would be about 6-8 points. It could be varied by class or background, but I wouldn't add Int modifier to the number of skills - a high Int character would just likely want to put them in Int-based skills, while more physical characters would invest in physical skills.

You could also go deeper by adding feats or "skill abilities" that allow you to perform certain things (in or out of combat) when you hit certain skill levels. That adds a whole level of complexity, but if you want skills to go beyond just numerical bonuses, this would be the way to encourage attaining certain ranks - for example, perhaps you could add a skill ability that if you have Journeyman skill in a sword, as a bonus action you could add "Bleed" damage to a target. Or, perhaps with Master in Religion a cleric could increase the range of his Channelling ability from 30 feet to 40 feet or somesuch.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Oh man, there is pretty amazing amount of projection going on here!
Fair enough, I'll accept I jumped the gun.

I did not say anything about your game style. Mine was an reply to you wondering why sometimes one might not spends a lot of time describing something in detail. And I told you why one might choose to do so. That's all.
I don't think that's a good reason, though, or one that shown to be applicable. The duality you set up doesn't actually show which side of that your example of asking for a skill check falls on -- the pro writer expertly using brevity to convey all appropriate information or the amateur not using enough words. I interpreted as talking about me because the alternative interpretation didn't do anything at all except imagine that there may be a case without saying your approach specifically enables or maximizes it. I've used your approach, I don't think it does any more than any other approach does or doesn't. Lousy description or great description aren't hinged on asking for skill checks.

However, my as GM not having to guess what the player's thinking does hinge on not allowing asks for skill checks. I can point to more than a few arguments over what a PC did or didn't do in pursuit of an ask for a skill check.

Again, pacing and different approaches for different sized 'mysteries.' It probably is not some huge central mystery, if it was it would be handled differently. Perhaps the GM didn't even have anything particular planned about the animal, but because the players express interest they make something up for a good roll. It is just a nice little additional detail that may be tangentially relevant later.
I don't think this is very supportive of your original point, though. Here, instead of tight pacing being the outcome, you're saying that letting players ask for rolls can be a catalyst for getting the GM to make up more stuff that might be appreciated. It's a bit loose as a reason to allow for asking for rolls. I mean, if the weird animal is unimportant, but you want to build a mystery by having players ask for a roll where they get you to make something up if they roll well enough (and well enough is a weird thing, too, what is well enough?), then what happens on a failure?

I follow the 5e advice that rolls should happen when there's a chance of failure and a meaningful consequence. I don't see either here under the theory it's just a fun little side mystery where the GM might make up some stuff for a good roll. That implies a failure just doesn't do anything. Why ask for the roll, then, just make up the fun stuff?

Again, I didn't say anything about your play style. It's just that you were bizarrely focusing on skill checks. I merely noted that if an adventure being built so that an unexpected failure to proceed past certain part of the plot or exceptional success in some other part crashes the story, then that is not an issue directly related to skill checks. The same issue happens even if the unexpected success/failure was but player actions (or lack thereof.) It is an adventure design and GM flexibility issue.
It wasn't bizarre, I was pointing out a current thread on the exact phenomenon caused by skill checks being 'too good' and moving through the story the GM had prepared too quickly. I was also leaning on experience and many other threads on this board that talk about games getting stuck because a roll was allowed that should have been allowed and failed, causing the game to come to a halt. We agree that design should avoid this, but it's still a facet of the game play that allows for player's to ask for rolls for the GM to allow the roll and then be stuck with the result. You show this above with making up stuff for a good roll while skipping what happens on a bad roll. If it's really just an amusing bit, a bad roll might suddenly spiral into the players thinking this is important and spending time on it.
Nah, it is all in quantum superposition before being described to the players. Changing stuff on the fly is perfectly fine, GMs should do that a lot more.
What's funny is that I love games like Blades in the Dark, where things are often like this -- made up in the moment -- but I hesitate to agree here. That's because this is premised in a game where players are allow to ask for rolls, and that means that the changing of stuff is predicated much more on randomness than I like. Blades has strong principles that focus what's happening like a laser on the PCs, and builds the fiction in a very structured way even though every roll can go in multiple directions, those directions are constrained by what the PCs tried to do and only adjudicated by the random roll. Just allowing rolls with no clear statement of intent and action means that the directions the game can go is way more unfettered by the players and too open to the GM to just make stuff up even in opposition to what the players want. I view an ability check as the player attempting to make their desired outcome true, and to adjudicate that I need to know both what they want and how their doing it. A skill check doesn't tell me either, and can lead into me describing a successful roll in opposition to what the player actually wanted.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
a) Sign and Magnitude

When you attack someone, if you hit (sign) is a d20+attribute+proficiency, then the magnitude is the damage (weapon damage plus attribute). Often you have abilities to boost this further.

Add something like that to skill checks.

You could make a skill challenge system, where the end goal has a certain complexity. As you overcome obstacles, you consume some of that complexity.

b) Consequences

Instead of "success" "nothing happens", have more things happen. Succeed with a cost? Major success with a cost? Have choices; they can pay a cost to boost the success.

c) An Opposition

Unopposed actions are trivial. With a spoon you can cut through a brick wall unopposed.

Costs and Opposition and Challenge give you a 3 dimensionsl result space, where meaninful choices and tradeoffs can happen.

---

Suppose we want heroic scaling.

Your Skill Dice are d4s, increasing by 1 die size at level 5, 11 and 17.

You have dice equal to your proficience bonus (if trained, including jack or expertise), half that if not.

So trained magnitude in primary stat ranges from : L1 is 2d4+3(8), L20 is 6d10+5(38).

Untrained 1d4 (2.5) to 3d10 (16.5).

Opposition: How you fail.

Costs: Usually story consequences. How many guards did you have to kill? How much damage did you take?
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
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.
I think it has to do with the fact that, in 4e, skill challenges were written that way in the published adventures.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
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.
That’s why no DM on earth says that in actual play. In my experience, DMs who point out that “there’s no such thing as skill checks” do one of two things: Either they ask for an ability check and suggest a proficiency that might apply (e.g. “make a strength check, plus Athletics if you have it), or - more often - they ask for an ability check and leave it up to the player to suggest a proficiency that might apply (e.g. “make a strength check.” “Can I add Athletics?” “Sure/No.” In some cases, the DM tells the players they don’t need to ask.

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*.

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

So, this actually goes all the way back to the D&D Next Playtest. From the very first packets, skils were not bundled with any particular ability score, so only the skill bonus was written next to them on the playtest character sheets, rather than the skill bonus and the ability modifier added together. And in the playtest adventures, there were no skills written next to the ability checks in parentheses. That was a later addition, and they were meant to be suggestions for a proficiency that might apply. This kinda got lost in translation in the final draft, but it isn’t that “Strength (Athletics)” was seen as an improvement over “Athletics,” it’s that it was seen as an improvement over “Strength.”

If you’d like to see actual play of people playing it this way, there’s an old stream of Mike Mearls running Against the Slave Lords (IIRC) concerted to the playtest rules somewhere on the Internet. It’s a pain to find, but it’s still around if you look hard enough. And it’s a painfully boring stream.

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.
This is accurate, but if the DM assumes good faith on the part of the player, they can set the expectation that they will make that call in the affirmative under the assumption that the player will make an appropriate choice using their own best judgment. Not all DMs would be comfortable setting such an expectation, and that’s fine.

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.
I do find this rather frustrating myself. I’m working on a custom character sheet that will address this problem at my own table.

Easy to understand for newbies, easy to explain.
So is the ability-first method. It only seems to be difficult to explain to people who already have entrenched notions about “skill checks” from previous editions.

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
You can say what ever you like, but the fact that “make an athletics check” is a viable shorthand for “make a Strength (Athletics) check” in your games is a clear indication that the difference is more than semantic, as it would not be a viable shorthand in mine. We are clearly following meaningfully different procedures.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Having said that, I think the idea was to encourage using different ability scores along with proficiency in skill; make a DEX(Athletics) check, or a STR(Intimidation) check. I feel if they were really into that idea, they would have foregone assigning each skill to an ability (which would have been more interesting).
They were really into that idea, it was one of the big ideas of the playtest. Over time, skills gradually became a fixed list instead of free-form, and tied to specific skills (with skills-with-different-abilities as an optional rule) in response to playtest feedback. One more way the brilliant direction early 5e was going got ruined by the tyranny of the majority.
 

So, this is related to the OP's original post. I'm working on an underwater adventure set in the world of today. The players are scientists onboard of a deepsea habitat, when all hell breaks loose: sections are breached, flooding occurs, loss of O2, electrical fires, power outages, you name it. The habitat also automatically seals a number of airlocks, to prevent the entire thing from flooding. Now the players need to restore functionality, and save each other from whereever they happened to be at the time of the disaster.

I want skill checks to be more meaningful and involved. I'm thinking of a system where a failed check may result in an escalation, and where neglected tasks result in further damage to the habitat. I want this disaster to feel like a bunch of firefighters trying to contain an out of control fire. But perhaps the opposite should also be true; a success should help bring the situation under control. It shouldn't be hopeless, just stressful.

How this might work, is that I keep track of the state of every module of the habitat. If the players focus only on containing the flooding, the electrical fires may get out of control, causing an explosion that destroys a module completely, and spreads the fire to an adjacent module. But I don't know yet how to track this in a balanced way exactly.

I'm also thinking that certain tasks may cause an extra loss of O2, especially when failed. And being low on O2 and while under stress, may result in sanity effects, as in Call of Cthulhu. The GM (me) will be the one keeping track of everyone's oxygen, and the players will need to take an action to check how much O2 they have left, but depending on their sanity, they may read it wrong. Muhaha.
 
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