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

You could borrow an idea from the German game The Dark Eye and have skill checks be the result of three linked attribute checks. So climbing a cliff could be, say, a Dexterity / Constitution / Wisdom check. Two successes are enough to achieve your goal, but one failed check may mitigate the result somehow. For example, if you fail the CON check, you may climb the cliff, but end up exhausted once you’re up there.
 

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@Ovinomancer

The quantum superposition and allowing 'rolls' or other methods for the players to interact with the setting are merely tools for making the world seem real and limitless. In theory I could have extensive encyclopaedic amount of information about the setting that could be uncovered. Like if someone asked about a real world animal I could just open its Wikipedia page and see details about its physiology and behaviour. Well, for a fictional setting I'm not actually going to produce all that beforehand, extra details can be generated as needed. This produces the same outcome, the play area is not artificially restricted, you don't see that the set is just a cardboard cut out by looking it from a new angle. And how this relates to the pacing, is that instead of trying to keep the players 'on the track' and herding them into 'right direction' (which of course still are things that will be subtly done) one can also just alter/create new aspects of the story around the things the players take interest int. Like have you ever had a situation where the players fixate on some throwaway detail you didn't mean to be important and ignore the plot you had preplanned? Well, instead of waiting that the players get the hint that they're wasting their time exploring the dead end or just flat out telling them that, another option is to make the thing they're interested in to be important. This has a lot to do with the pacing. Go with the flow instead of trying to fight against it. This of course again is just one tool in GMs toolbox and should be used sparingly, so please don't start to argue how this leads to directionless gameplay where every item the players show interest in suddenly becomes the One Ring. That's not how it goes. When used in conjunction with more traditional preplanned elements this leads to gameplay where there are no lulls and dead ends, where the story unfolds organically and the world seems real and much larger than it actually is.

And this little tangent of ours has gone for quite a while now without having much to do with the topic of the thread. My stance on skills is that they're an important facet of the characters' capabilities and the players choose them for a reason. Players generally are pleased when they get to use their skills. So let them!
 
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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),
And that is what is colloquially known as 'skill check', in this instance 'athletics check'. That's all. That's literally all. Having a bizarre several page tangent about this is bloody absurd.

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.
Yes, you can do that. No one is saying that you couldn't. Its just that sometimes (often perhaps) the GM wants to specify the skill being used from the get go.

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.
It would be a perfectly viable shorthand if you actually called for strength (athletics) checks!
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.

We've been over this before. If you want to discuss this topic in depth feel free to start another thread.

But I do have to say that
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.

Your "tyranny of the majority" has nothing to do with how you run your game. For most people it's just a question of brevity, clarity and simplicity.

I will say that I encourage multiple approaches to most challenges in and out of combat. Sometimes those will include skill proficiencies, sometimes they won't. If you want to have further conversations about how you do challenges, particularly out of combat challenges, to make them interesting and engaging I'd like to hear it. I'm always curious what other people do even if I don't care about the specifics of the language used to accomplish those goals.
 

I like the optional rule for alternative skill + ability combinations. I have run and played a lot of WWs Storyteller games (and homebrews based on that system) and there the skills and abilities are not tied to each other and pairing will be chosen case-to-case basis. That being said, I also don't mind there being a default combination in D&D; it speeds things up when for every check you don't have to stop to ponder which combination to use. Use the default unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. Works for me.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Either they ask for an ability check and suggest a proficiency that might apply (ou 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.

I've found in many cases that there is a skill that's clearly relevant, but I can see a few different abilities applying. So I might ask for Athletics with either Str or Dex. I can imagine a situation where someone says they try to get a mount under control and I could see animal handling going with Dex, Wis, or Chr. In others I can see skill A + ability A or Skill B + ability B.

I hadn't followed the playtest for 5e, and I agree with your post above that it's sad they made the skills and abilities fixed pairs. Do you have any insight on why the majority didn 't like it?

EDIT: I also haven't checked out the 5e rules enough apparently (and WW was the game system I was trying to think of typing the above and couldn't think of where I'd seen it. It's been a long time since I played it).

I like the optional rule for alternative skill + ability combinations. I have run and played a lot of WWs Storyteller games (and homebrews based on that system) and there the skills and abilities are not tied to each other and pairing will be chosen case-to-case basis
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I like the optional rule for alternative skill + ability combinations. I have run and played a lot of WWs Storyteller games (and homebrews based on that system) and there the skills and abilities are not tied to each other and pairing will be chosen case-to-case basis. That being said, I also don't mind there being a default combination in D&D; it speeds things up when for every check you don't have to stop to ponder which combination to use. Use the default unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. Works for me.

So do you have some examples and suggestions of what you've done?

For example I've had a wizard try to convince another magic use that the ritual they were doing was potentially quite dangerous, They did a persuasion check with intelligence. I try to encourage thinking like that, or alternative checks like history or religion to identify an old holy symbol. Sometimes the answer is "no that doesn't apply" other times it's "not directly but there you might recall relevant info".
 

NotAYakk

Legend
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.
I'd consider taking a page from a cooperative board game.

How they usually work is two little tricks.

There is (a) a goal of some kind, (b) an escalating background problem, and (c) a board state of immediate problems.

Every round the level of (b) makes (c) worse. Early on, you have enough resources to solve each round's (c) completely, and have resources left over to work on (a).

But almost completely. A bit of (c) tends to build up. You'll get to it later.

As the game progresses, (b) gets worse, until it will overwealm you. Towards the end of the game, you have to give up almost completely on fixing (c) in order to finish off (a), then bail.

An example of such a game that would map to a "underwater base is failing" might be "forbidden island".

(a) Your goal is to get the 4 macguffins. You make progress towards them via position on the (tile based) board and collecting and trading clues.
(b) There is water's rise scale, the rate at which the island is sinking. Each turn there is a risk it goes faster.
(c) Each tile on the island becomes flooded (flip the tile) or sinks (if you pick it again) and goes away in a pseudo-random process. Players can "shore up" flooded sections (repairing them), but the tile mechanics make shoring up usually temporary.

You could imagine a "board" of the various components of the station, and things become endangered. Fixing then takes time. The overall station damage track is something you cannot fix, and continues to get worse, making the rate of system failure go up. Initially failure happens slow enough they can repair it, eventually too fast.

The "skill check" in Forbidden island is "I fix it", but the skill challenge is still complex and interesting.
 

So do you have some examples and suggestions of what you've done?

For example I've had a wizard try to convince another magic use that the ritual they were doing was potentially quite dangerous, They did a persuasion check with intelligence. I try to encourage thinking like that, or alternative checks like history or religion to identify an old holy symbol. Sometimes the answer is "no that doesn't apply" other times it's "not directly but there you might recall relevant info".
Well constitution + athletics* for tasks that are more endurance related is pretty obvious one (though some of those situations could also be handled via constitution saving throw). Then intelligence + [some normally not intelligence based skill] when it is more about the knowledge relating to the subject. I could see a case for animal handling + dex or strength in a situation where you're physically trying to wrangle an animal to do something. Perhaps religion + charisma could be used for trying to banish an evil spirit (vade retro satana!) But it is pretty much a matter of taste how much one wishes to mess with that sort of stuff. 5E default pairings are intuitive enough that using them most of the time doesn't feel weird.

* In a system where the skills ands abilities are completely divorced, I could see a case for just removing acrobatics. Then acrobatics tasks would merely be athletics + dexterity.

(I'm actually currently working on a new character sheet for my new campaign and while I was at it I decided to mess with the skills merging, and removing some and introducing some new ones, so I've been thinking quite a bit about the purpose of each skill. I decided to keep acrobatics and athletics separate though as I want the default pairings to be clear for speedy gameplay.)
 
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Hriston

Hero
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 don't think this sounds like someone who is interested in only talking about ability checks that have an applicable skill proficiency applied to them. Do you?
 

Hriston

Hero
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.
Then given that it sounds like, in 4E, a STR check and an Athletics check are two separate, if somewhat interchangeable, mechanics, I guess it's understandable that to DMs/players that have played that game, the fact that a Strength (Athletics) check, in 5E, is a type of Strength check might be somewhat confusing if they lack the awareness that they are actually playing a different game.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Then given that it sounds like, in 4E, a STR check and an Athletics check are two separate, if somewhat interchangeable, mechanics, I guess it's understandable that to DMs/players that have played that game, the fact that a Strength (Athletics) check, in 5E, is a type of Strength check might be somewhat confusing if they lack the awareness that they are actually playing a different game.

Do you have anything to contribute to the actual conversation or are you just going to continue to snipe about how people aren't playing the game "properly" because they aren't using the correct phrases?
 



Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I've found in many cases that there is a skill that's clearly relevant, but I can see a few different abilities applying. So I might ask for Athletics with either Str or Dex. I can imagine a situation where someone says they try to get a mount under control and I could see animal handling going with Dex, Wis, or Chr.
I would argue that when this happens, it’s because the player has not made a complete action declaration with a goal and an approach. “Get the horse under control” is a reasonably specific goal, but “try” is not a reasonably specific approach. If the player was more specific about what their character was doing in order to try and get the horse under control, it would be clear whether Dex, Wis, or Cha applied.

I hadn't followed the playtest for 5e, and I agree with your post above that it's sad they made the skills and abilities fixed pairs. Do you have any insight on why the majority didn 't like it?
There were a number of reasons, but if I recall correctly, the big argument was that skills would be paired with the same ability the majority of the time, and coupling them would allow you to pre-calculate the total bonus on the character sheet instead of doing it in your head every time.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I would argue that when this happens, it’s because the player has not made a complete action declaration with a goal and an approach. “Get the horse under control” is a reasonably specific goal, but “try” is not a reasonably specific approach. If the player was more specific about what their character was doing in order to try and get the horse under control, it would be clear whether Dex, Wis, or Cha applied.

That definitely seems right. It's some 10-12 yo's that have been playing for under a dozen sessions. If it doesn't bog things down, I've been trying to suss out what they're doing "trying to make friends with it, or trying to catch it?". I'll work on getting them to offer more detail. If it's something where I want to keep momentum going there've been times I've just given them the choice of abilities to roll. (Some of them have noticable weaknesses and if they were narrating I can see them picking the better of the two).
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
@Ovinomancer

The quantum superposition and allowing 'rolls' or other methods for the players to interact with the setting are merely tools for making the world seem real and limitless. In theory I could have extensive encyclopaedic amount of information about the setting that could be uncovered. Like if someone asked about a real world animal I could just open its Wikipedia page and see details about its physiology and behaviour. Well, for a fictional setting I'm not actually going to produce all that beforehand, extra details can be generated as needed. This produces the same outcome, the play area is not artificially restricted, you don't see that the set is just a cardboard cut out by looking it from a new angle. And how this relates to the pacing, is that instead of trying to keep the players 'on the track' and herding them into 'right direction' (which of course still are things that will be subtly done) one can also just alter/create new aspects of the story around the things the players take interest int. Like have you ever had a situation where the players fixate on some throwaway detail you didn't mean to be important and ignore the plot you had preplanned? Well, instead of waiting that the players get the hint that they're wasting their time exploring the dead end or just flat out telling them that, another option is to make the thing they're interested in to be important. This has a lot to do with the pacing. Go with the flow instead of trying to fight against it. This of course again is just one tool in GMs toolbox and should be used sparingly, so please don't start to argue how this leads to directionless gameplay where every item the players show interest in suddenly becomes the One Ring. That's not how it goes. When used in conjunction with more traditional preplanned elements this leads to gameplay where there are no lulls and dead ends, where the story unfolds organically and the world seems real and much larger than it actually is.

And this little tangent of ours has gone for quite a while now without having much to do with the topic of the thread. My stance on skills is that they're an important facet of the characters' capabilities and the players choose them for a reason. Players generally are pleased when they get to use their skills. So let them!
This explanation is orthogonal to the discussion about whether players should be asking for ability checks (or skill checks, if you prefer). I know this because I do this, and just got strongly contested in a different thread for suggesting that no myth or light myth games are possible in 5e. I don't allow players to ask for ability checks AND I rarely have prep to stick to, much less throw out, because I'm already following the fiction. This style of play isn't enabled by letting players ask for skill checks, it works with or without it.

Primarily, the difference I see is that I create fiction in game in response to player actions, you do it when the players ask for a roll and then roll well enough (or poorly enough). There's a bit of an important difference, here, in how we approach the same goal, but that goal doesn't justify either approach, nor does it uniquely enable it. I think there's a pretty big difference in what's generated, though, in that your approach it's the GM that introduces whatever the GM wants when prompted, where I introduce either fiction that aligns with the goal of the PC's action if they succeed or is opposed to it if they fail. The difference, as it appears to me, is who's interests are being served.

As for your last, that's a weird thing to say. It sets up like a strawman, but has just enough plausible deniability because you didn't explicitly say anyone thinks differently. So, either it's a banal non-sequitur statement of agreement (I don't think anyone actually disagrees with this statement at all) or it's a cloaked strawman intending to suggest I don't think players should use their skills. I assure you, the later is highly incorrect -- ability checks and therefore skill use is the engine of my game -- it's the crux of play. I love my players using skills, and they gets miles out of them. Heck, my alt game right now is Blades, which is entirely skill based, so, yeah, a weird thing to say.
 

This explanation is orthogonal to the discussion about whether players should be asking for ability checks (or skill checks, if you prefer). I know this because I do this, and just got strongly contested in a different thread for suggesting that no myth or light myth games are possible in 5e. I don't allow players to ask for ability checks AND I rarely have prep to stick to, much less throw out, because I'm already following the fiction. This style of play isn't enabled by letting players ask for skill checks, it works with or without it.
I'm sure it does.

Primarily, the difference I see is that I create fiction in game in response to player actions, you do it when the players ask for a roll and then roll well enough (or poorly enough). There's a bit of an important difference, here, in how we approach the same goal, but that goal doesn't justify either approach, nor does it uniquely enable it. I think there's a pretty big difference in what's generated, though, in that your approach it's the GM that introduces whatever the GM wants when prompted, where I introduce either fiction that aligns with the goal of the PC's action if they succeed or is opposed to it if they fail. The difference, as it appears to me, is who's interests are being served.
I of course do both. The players describing what they're doing is vastly more common than them just asking to roll a skill. So sometimes they have more input in the outcome sometimes less. I just don't see much value in being dogmatic about these things.
 

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