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D&D 5E How Would You Implement Skill Deficiencies in D&D 5e?

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
While I generally like how skills work in D&D 5e, I do have a few criticisms of it. These are mainly due to some skills being egregiously more useful/common than others (Animal Handling vs Perception, or Nature vs Stealth), but those criticisms are not what this thread is about.

This thread is about how skills are simplistic. In most cases, you're either proficient (in which case you add your proficiency bonus to ability checks that use that skill), or you're not (in which case you don't add your proficiency bonus). There are some outliers, like the Bard's Jack of All Trades feature or Expertise, but they're still really simple. And this is great for many new players who just want to learn how to play the game. However, I've lately found it increasingly boring. I want a bit more diversity. Tasha's has helped a bit in this matter by allowing more people to get Expertise (through the Skill Expert feat and the Ranger variant class feature, Deft Explorer), but there still isn't that much to it in 5e. I feel that if there was just a bit more oomph, characters could be differentiated through their skill bonuses a bit more.

And while I was thinking on this, I came up with the idea of Skill Deficiencies. Upon character creation, you choose a skill that you aren't proficient in, and you make that be the skill you are deficient at. A Barbarian would likely choose Arcana or History, a Wizard would probably choose Athletics or a Charisma skill, and so on. IMO, something like this would make it a bit more fun roleplaying certain characters and interactions between party members, like a Rogue teasing the Paladin at being the literal worst at Stealth checks (due disadvantage on Stealth if they wear Heavy Armor, and having Deficiency in that skill), or a Lorehold Strixhaven character teasing a fellow party member about failing their History class. Although I liked the idea (and still do), I am yet to figure out how it would work mechanically, and would like to see how others feel on this matter before I implement a house rule at my tables.

My first idea was pretty simple and obvious: have characters subtract their Proficiency Bonus (or possibly half your proficiency bonus) from ability checks using skills that they are deficient in. However, this quickly comes up with a strange conundrum; why would you get worse at the skill as you leveled up? Why would a barbarian that's bad at Arcana have a worse bonus to Arcana at level 20 than they did at level 1?

This then brought me to consider a change to their skill deficiencies that doesn't change as you level up, like a -5 to that skill or disadvantage on all ability checks that use that skill. However, I'm still not sure which one would be better, or if there's a better way to do it.

Any thoughts? I'd appreciate some feedback, and any experiences that DMs/players have had with similar features. Do you think that this is a good idea or a bad one?
 

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Disadvantage would be the way to go in this regard. It never changes in value from level, and it prevents a character from ever having advantage on the check.

I'm kind of curious what the point is though. If you're trying to diversify skill use among characters, you're going to find the same skills chosen over and over again. I expect Medicine, Performance, and Animal Handling will be taken regularly.
 


Oh, I thought of a way to help with making skills more complex for you. Consider each skill and assign various sub-skill specialties, such as swimming for Athletics. A character may take a specialization in a skill granted by their background by giving up a tool or language proficiency. Specialization gives expertise on the specific use of that skill. This will allow characters to differentiate by choosing specialties.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
If you mean Skill Deficiency as in "This is a skill I can't wrap my mind around and must rely on my general natural talent around that area to succeed" then.

Flat -2 to the ability check/contest.

Basic proficiency a +2. Basic natural skill is a 15-14 in the matching score. The opposite is a -2.
 

Kobold Stew

Last Guy in the Airlock
Supporter
It's not entirely clear what problem you are trying to fix. Simple isn't bad in itself.

Using disadvantage might solve some things (knowledge skills, perhaps), but doesn't work for stealth, where you would then be effectively cancelling out the penalty from heavy armour.

There are only a few problems I see with the skill system:

1. when dump-stats work against the intuitive story: e.g. an untrained high-CHA halfling being more intimidating than a typical trained half-orc. This happens a lot.

2. when new things work against a key niche of the class (my thoughts on feats that give expertise are different than yours; also, I want to enjoy playing rogues more).

3. when players aren't incentivized to invest in suboptimal skills. The benefit from being proficient in Athletics or Acrobatics should be meaningful, so that the choice of skills becomes a meaningful decision that shapes the way the character is played. (In some ways this is another way of framing point 1.)

That's where I chafe, and making it harder for the untrained doesn't by itself solve any of them.

I do have ideas on how these could be addressed to satisfy me, but I know that they won't appeal to all. E.g.
(a) a bigger starting proficiency bonus, for example (or a jump to +3 at level 3) would help. If all skills gave +4 instead of +2 to start (and DCs all went up by 2), you might have a solution to the problem you identify.
(b) all classes get 2 skills, only (including Rangers and rogues) BUT Rogues get a second background as a class feature.
 


Horwath

Hero
how about simple disadvantage?

Also, as @Nefermandias mentioned, you could play with "skill ranks" similar to 3E.

Sum up the number of skills you have proficiency in, multiply it by your proficiency bonus and that is how many ranks you have to spend.

Every rank gives +1 bonus to that skill, max number of ranks is your proficiency bonus.

I would keep expertise as is, that it gives flat proficiency bonus to that skill, with a rule that you need at least 2 ranks in a skill before you can apply expertise to it.

I.E. 6th level rogue(Scout), let's say half-elf, would have total of 10 skills, that with +3 proficiency bonus would add to 30 skill ranks.
You would also have 6 expertise slots(2 reserved for nature and survival). That means that for using your 6 expertise, you need to spent 12 ranks for those 6 skills(Nature and Survival mandatory) to give then at least +2 and then add +3 for expertise. After that you have 18 ranks to play with, with again max of 3 ranks per skill.
 

MarkB

Legend
I feel like the issue with your proposed system is the same issue you initially highlighted - wide variability in general applicability of skills. Most players will just choose to be deficient in one of the more obscure skills that will hardly ever come up and that they'd have been lousy at anyway, and it will practically never come up in play
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
So a big thing to understand about 5e is that it is a streamlined version of 3e/3.5/Pathfinder.

The more complexity you add, the closer to 3e you're going to wind up.

My advice? Take a look at how 3e handled skills and decide whether that is too complex or not complex enough for you, and then either simplify or complicate it as you like. Make it into your table's "homebrew skills" setup and let her rip.

It won't drastically unbalance the game so long as the highest skill point expenditure your players can have in a specific skill is equal to their Proficiency Bonus at any given level.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
It's not entirely clear what problem you are trying to fix.
That no one is good at everything in reality, while in the game a know-nothing on a topic can get a great roll?

I like a -2 flat mod. Now, some tables might not like this rule. You know, the numbers guys. This will wreck some builds (bravo!)
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
So a big thing to understand about 5e is that it is a streamlined version of 3e/3.5/Pathfinder.

I don't actually agree. It might seem that way at first glance, but it's actually very different in many respects. Yes, there is a skill list, and some of the skills are the same, but some fundamental differences make the system behave in a completely different manner:
  • Almost unable to gain new skills as you level
  • Much fewer skills
  • Bounded accuracy (this is probably the most critical point) makes it so that the DC does not increase with levels, which in turns makes it so that although some differences appear due to the increased proficiency bonus and abilities, the system does not make it absolutely impossible for anyone to succeed at anything at high level whereas in 3e/3.5/Pathfinder, there was no way to succeed at untrained skills.
When you combine all of this in particular with the advantage mechanic, it makes for a much more forgiving system that allows almost everyone to have a chance to succeed at almost anything at almost any level.

The OP seems to think that it's a bad thing and would like more specialisation so that only characters really trained can succeed at some specific tasks at high level, why not, it's a common criticism of 5e.

The more complexity you add, the closer to 3e you're going to wind up.

Not necessarily, and not necessarily in the direction that (I think) OP wants. It's not necessarily a question of complexity. In that, you are right, some people would like more crunch to 5e but it's (at least IMHO) a different perspective.

But most of the suggestions that you make will not address the main point which is linked to bounded accuracy and the fact that, in the end, if the PC is clever enough to get advantage (which is sort of one of the points of the game), with luck, the system gives him a chance except with extremely high DCs. But at the same time, bounded accuracy makes it so that, unless you have the very rare expertise, it is still very much possible for a specialist to fail at very complex tasks even with all the proficiency and ability bonus.

If you want to be able to set really high DCs and make it so that only specialists succeed, the only way that I can see that does not complexify the system too much is to make expertise more widely available at high level, that way you can set really high DCs and make it so that only really trained specialists have a good chance to succeed.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
The precursor to the modern Proficiency Bonus method was introduced in 3.5e's "Unearthed Arcana" under the idea "Maximum Ranks, Limited Choices". Though at the time it still had "Cross Class Skills" at half-proficiency. Though arguably you could also say it came from the very next option (on page 81) of Level Based Skills, where you picked your proficiencies at level 1, then just used your Level as your Proficiency Bonus rather than having skill points at level+3 maximum.

In either case, you picked your skills at level 1 and they leveled up automatically with you, rather than getting different levels of skill point expenditures on different skills. The only ways to get more skills were Skill Granting Feats or increasing your Intelligence modifier.

4th Edition took that option from 3.5's Unearthed Arcana and ran with it, making it the default with players adding 1/2 their level to any skill in which they were proficient instead of your level or level+3 or full level.

5th Edition took -that- and added in Bounded Accuracy (since AC in 4e also went up with your level) to streamline it and make sure even a puny kobold had the chance to roll a Stealth Check that beats your Perception check. They did this by shrinking the proficiency bonus even further.

So... Yeah. It was absolutely an evolution of the 3e design. First streamlining point buying into a single choice made at level 1, then lowering the maximum skill check value, then lowering it even further for Bounded Accuracy.

Advantage was designed to support Bounded Accuracy while maintaining some measure of the old "I get +2 from being a catfolk, +1 from my magic cloak, +3 from my skill ranks, +2 from dex bonus, +4 because it's dark, and +12 because it's the last tuesday in June." modifier pyramids into a simple binary of benefit rather than a discussion of Bonus Typing and Stacking.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
The precursor to the modern Proficiency Bonus method was introduced in 3.5e's "Unearthed Arcana" under the idea "Maximum Ranks, Limited Choices". Though at the time it still had "Cross Class Skills" at half-proficiency. Though arguably you could also say it came from the very next option (on page 81) of Level Based Skills, where you picked your proficiencies at level 1, then just used your Level as your Proficiency Bonus rather than having skill points at level+3 maximum.

First, this was a very obscure option in a corner of only 3.5, and while it adresses the choice of skills at level 1 and not having points to add, it does not touch the main game changers in skills in 5e, the bounded accuracy and use of advantage/disadvantage.

Moreover, this does not date back to 3e, but this was already present in AD&D 1e, in the dungeoneer's survival guide: "All characters start play with a number of proficiency slots at 1st level..." The only difference is that, like everything before 3e, it was reversed as it did not yet benefit from the d20 unification, which was one of the major breakthroughs of 3e.

In either case, you picked your skills at level 1 and they leveled up automatically with you, rather than getting different levels of skill point expenditures on different skills. The only ways to get more skills were Skill Granting Feats or increasing your Intelligence modifier.
Which, you are right, I forgot as a very crucial change in 5e (and a bit of a shame, if you ask me, as it really lowers the value of intelligence, maybe the solution lies into allowing intelligence to gain you some expertise, or half-expertise), but still minor compared to BA and Adv/Dis.

4th Edition took that option from 3.5's Unearthed Arcana and ran with it, making it the default with players adding 1/2 their level to any skill in which they were proficient instead of your level or level+3 or full level.

Indeed, but still not addressing the two major game changers above.

5th Edition took -that- and added in Bounded Accuracy (since AC in 4e also went up with your level) to streamline it and make sure even a puny kobold had the chance to roll a Stealth Check that beats your Perception check. They did this by shrinking the proficiency bonus even further.

And this is absolutely critical, much more than the number of skills or having only certain skills maxed out, because exactly for the same reason, it allows almost any adventurer a chance to succeed at almost any skill check or, the other way around, allows any adventurer, even a very skilled one, to fail at even fairly easy tasks in his chosen domain of expertise.

This is for me the real game changer compared to all previous editions, and I think the point that the OP is complaining about.

So... Yeah. It was absolutely an evolution of the 3e design. First streamlining point buying into a single choice made at level 1, then lowering the maximum skill check value, then lowering it even further for Bounded Accuracy.

While there is an ancestry here, the effect of bounded accuracy and adv/dis are the game changers here, the other two points have nothing to do with the OP's problem.

Advantage was designed to support Bounded Accuracy while maintaining some measure of the old "I get +2 from being a catfolk, +1 from my magic cloak, +3 from my skill ranks, +2 from dex bonus, +4 because it's dark, and +12 because it's the last tuesday in June." modifier pyramids into a simple binary of benefit rather than a discussion of Bonus Typing and Stacking.

Not only did it considerably quicken the game (a brilliant design choice IMHO), it's also part of the game changers (compared to skills chosen at level 1 and "max bonus") because once more it contributes to what no other edition did, allowing untrained characters to regularly beat very skilled ones at skill checks (because modifiers, even stacking ones, could never compensate the differences of skill and abilities of previous editions where these were mostly unbounded - both the "proficiency bonus" and the ability modifiers went up arithmetically with level).

So, for me, the only way top prevent this has nothing to do with going back to the roots of the system, it has to do with compensating for bounded accuracy and adv/dis mechanics, both new to 5e.

I would hasard maybe getting proficiency and expertise slots based on INT, or maybe level or feats, so that characters who really want to specialise can get bonuses that are so differentiating that they cannot be beaten by normal folks and so that they can succeed at really high DCs (25+) with some regularity.

And I would also advise certainly not going back to modifiers, especially not negative ones that are almost never used in 5e and that are universally hated when they are negative. :)
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
That no one is good at everything in reality, while in the game a know-nothing on a topic can get a great roll?
I think there is a simpler solution to this - gating things behind proficiencies.

If you want there to be tasks that can only be performed by trained individuals, and not by trained individuals plus anyone who rolls a 20, just don't allow characters without the relevant proficiency to roll.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
How Would You Implement Skill Deficiencies in D&D 5e?

1. Bards? Jack of all trades? How about Jag-off of no trades. DEFICIENT IN EVERYTHING.

2. Soulless dead elves would be deficient in all skills. So disadvantage.

3. Except Valley Elves and Mass Elves. They'd be wicked deficient. Double disadvantage! Roll four dice, take the worst.
 

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