D&D 5E Table practices for handling skills in 5e?

Clint_L

Legend
I like that mindset! On the other hand, spectacular failures are often super entertaining. I like that there are some situations where the character really goes for it, a natural 1 is rolled, and hilarity ensues.
 

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Clint_L

Legend
I use the Alternative Ability Score variant rule first of all-- just wanted to start with that. I also tend to assume every character succeeds on what they are trying to do to a certain extent... and when I ask for ability checks (plus applicable skill) it usually tends to be for gaining additional information or success on top of what they've already gotten.

Now that will seem odd to some people when I say that... that the players are successfully getting stuff without needing to make checks... but here's my way of thinking from my perspective: I give out information to the players freely all the time-- all part of my descriptions. I describe the situation in front of them, and just by doing that the PCs have ostensibly "succeeded" on any number of invisible checks-- ones that didn't require rolls.

I describe an altar in a chamber. How do they know it is an 'altar' and why did I call it that? Because they succeeded whatever invisible Religion check would have been necessary to know it was an altar, and I just handed that info to the players free of charge. And now that the first level of info is out of the way... they are free to ask if there is any more info to be gained through any number of other checks-- and depending on the quality of the check I will give out additional info. And what this does is that it gets ME out of the mindset of saying "Oh well, you rolled a '2', you failed"... but instead thinking of it as "You gained no additional information over what you had already successful gained just by me describing the situation to you." In other words, the PC were already great... they just weren't superb in this particular instance.

And that way of thinking-- no PC ever truly "fails", they just don't succeed further than the baseline foundation of success that they got through how the scene has been presented... changes our player and DM dynamic. My players tend to be more interested in trying things because they know I'm not going to "enjoy it" when they roll poorly as though it's a Me vs Them situation and I get to cackle when they "screw up"... but rather that they know I WANT to give them more help and success, but will only do so if their PCs roll well enough to get it.
I like that mindset! On the other hand, spectacular failures are often super entertaining. I like that there are some situations where the character really goes for it, a natural 1 is rolled, and hilarity ensues.
 

Clint_L

Legend
I've gotten more into the whole "don't call for the roll until needed".

Consider Stealth. The PC always thinks they are being steathy, don't they? They are doing their best, I assume. When they finally get into range of a creature which might hear, see, or even smell them ( :) ), then I have the player roll because at that moment is when it is actually important. Prior to that, they should think they are being quiet, unseen, or whatever.
Sometimes I ask players if they want me to secretly roll for them, for just that reason. So they can keep acting as if they are being super sneaky...even when they aren't. It can be more fun that way, but the players have to be onboard.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
I've gotten more into the whole "don't call for the roll until needed".

Consider Stealth. The PC always thinks they are being steathy, don't they? They are doing their best, I assume. When they finally get into range of a creature which might hear, see, or even smell them ( :) ), then I have the player roll because at that moment is when it is actually important. Prior to that, they should think they are being quiet, unseen, or whatever.

Other skills cause issues as well. Particularly with Perception. They whole "he failed, can I try?" thing. Breaking open a stuck door is also a problem. Now, with many things it is ok, but sometimes it just strains believability especially when you consider the swingyness of the d20.

The raging barbarian rolls Str with advantage, getting just a 1 and 3, failing the DC 15 check to open the door. Then, the sorcerer with 8 Str rolls a lucky 19, beating the DC and opens the door. Yes, this can be comical... the party looks to the barbarian, who shame-faced says, "Um, I weakened it for him..." and people snicker. But in general it doesn't really fly for me.
All of these examples are good at highlighting the ways many of us choose to handle our checks. For example how I would handle it:

I don't ask for Dexterity (Stealth) checks at the time the person says they are sneaking, because as you point out... they think they are doing a good job. As far as I'm concerned... they have said they are sneaking, so they are. And the only time it matters how well they are sneaking is when there is someone out there who could find them. At which point (unless that creature was also trying to sneak) the PC knows the creature is out there possibly sensing them, and I ask the player at that point to make the check and then I compare it first to the creature's Passive Perception. If the PP is lower than the Stealth check, I determine whether the creature was actually using their action to be on the lookout, and if so I will then have them roll an active Perception check to see if they can roll over 10 and get a better result. But if they creature wasn't keeping an eye out and was doing something else... then its their Passive Perception only.

For Perception checks I use them for two different things at two different times. First time is purely for information gathering-- do they hear birds chirping, do they maybe hear water dripping etc. In this case I don't care who or how many make a check, so they can all go ahead and make them. As these are cases that I don't identify a DC to them and only keep it in my head (and give additional info if they roll however many steps above the base DC I have set)... none of them know if they have "succeeded" or "failed" because usually I will give at least something. "The sounds of nature seem normal."

Then in terms of Combat... Perception is used like I said above. Everyone's Passive Perception is always on and if anyone tries to sneak up on them but rolls under the PP, then that PC hears the specific creature whose stealth check was under their PP and the comparisons will determine who does or doesn't get to act in the first round of combat. For any PC whose PP did not hear the sneaking creatures... if any of them said they were using their action to "keep watch" (rather than searching for tracks, leading the group forward, foraging, mapping, sleeping, or any other things that they could be doing), those PCs get to make a Perception check to again try to roll higher than their PP number (and thus hopefully notice more sneaking people.)

Finally, in terms of the "opening a door" situation... that's one where I don't have anyone roll the check until everyone who says they want to assist states that fact. Then they'll designate which one is the primary check maker and rolling the die, and the others would be secondary helpers who I'd ask to make a DC 10 check first to give the primary person Advantage on their check. And then whatever happens, happens-- there's no "Oh, they failed, I'll now try!" calls.
 

That may be, but in actual play? I NEVER saw anyone using Stealth more like a saving throw in 5e or any other edition. It was always the player declared "I'll try to hide behind the standing stone", and boom the roll was immediate. I get your point, but my counterpoint is regardless of what the rules say or do not say about rolling procedure in regards to skills, switching it up this way with Stealth is a very different way from handling sneaking rolls I've ever seen at the table.
I guess, as @Charlaquin alludes to above, that many tables that you have encountered run 5e like they've run prior editions or like the person who taught them has run prior editions. That doesn't make it wrong or bad. Just maybe not as the 5e rules intend.

With your example of deceiving a guard... how has that played out at your table? Did the player say "I want to trick the guard into letting us pass by claiming we're the rotation duty?" and you said "sure, roll Deception" player rolled, succeeded, and you narrated happened? Did it begin with the player speaking in-character to the guard, then at a certain point in the conversation, you called for a roll, with the DC set irrespective of what the player said leading up to that?

What I'm driving at is the uniqueness of social skill checks compared to other skills, at least from what I've observed.
Huh? Maybe I'm misreading something here, but I didn't provide an example of deceiving a guard... but, for the sake of discussion, let's run with it.

If the scene consists of the party encountering a guard and someone has a plan to trick the guard I, as DM, would likely, but not necessarily, call for a roll.

The player indicates their PC's goal - "I want to trick the guard into letting us pass" - and their approach - "by claiming we're the rotation duty" - and now I have something to adjudicate. Maybe the player is speaking in-character to the guard or maybe the player is just describing a third person view of what their character is doing. As long as they are reasonably specific about goal and approach, I can make a ruling.

If a roll is warranted, I would base the DC on the overall situation, which includes the goal and approach. I don't base the DC on how "good" or "entertaining" the roleplay is. In this case, I would call for an opposed roll rather than a set DC, something like: "Roll a Charisma(Deception) check. You can roll with advantage since you are wearing a guard outfit. The guard will be rolling a Wisdom(Insight) check. If you succeed, the guard is none the wiser lets you pass. If you fail, the guard is going to think you are full of it and react accordingly."

I like telling the player the stakes and, when applicable, the DC as well. To me that represents that the PC is a capable adventurer who has a sense of the difficulty of their action(s) and the potential consequences for failing said action(s). It also gets around the conundrum that the PC has capabilities that we in the real world do not.
 


Quickleaf

Legend
I've gotten more into the whole "don't call for the roll until needed".

Consider Stealth. The PC always thinks they are being steathy, don't they? They are doing their best, I assume. When they finally get into range of a creature which might hear, see, or even smell them ( :) ), then I have the player roll because at that moment is when it is actually important. Prior to that, they should think they are being quiet, unseen, or whatever.

Other skills cause issues as well. Particularly with Perception. They whole "he failed, can I try?" thing. Breaking open a stuck door is also a problem. Now, with many things it is ok, but sometimes it just strains believability especially when you consider the swingyness of the d20.

The raging barbarian rolls Str with advantage, getting just a 1 and 3, failing the DC 15 check to open the door. Then, the sorcerer with 8 Str rolls a lucky 19, beating the DC and opens the door. Yes, this can be comical... the party looks to the barbarian, who shame-faced says, "Um, I weakened it for him..." and people snicker. But in general it doesn't really fly for me.
Discussing pile-on skill checks (that's my word for them) is a great example of table practices that can vary by skill. d20 at least made an effort to codify which skills could be "tried again" even if that particular implementation had issues. Whereas with 5e, like you say, there's no guidance given for that.... well, group checks, let's start there.

One of the problems with expecting a GM & Players to consistently use a group check to resolve scenes with multiple contributing PCs is that... the flow of play just doesn't always work that way. You have a player trying to notice something, they have the spotlight and are investing the most energy, and in the flow the GM doesn't always think to pause and ask "who else is trying to notice XYZ" or "who else is trying to convince the Duke." And from the players' perspective they're waiting to see the response to what just happened before chiming in with their idea, as they may change in reaction with how the GM's response goes. In other words, certain situations – I'm calling out Perception to notice/search & Charisma checks to influence a NPC – there is more of a progression of narrative that makes group checks as the primary resolution inconsistent in practice. That's been my experience.

OTOH if we're talking about Breaking down the door, that is something where the flow of play speeds up and so even if a group check makes a lot of sense narratively, it's not always a flowing natural thing for the players(GM) to think "we're (they're) doing this as a group." And sometimes the barbarian just wants to enjoy that spotlight of ripping the door off its hinges. In this case, my experience has been there's a specific table practice that improves the verisimilitude & reduces pile-on Strength/Athletics checks – let the roll stand according to each PC's expertise (unless the scene dramatically changes). This means that IF the barbarian PC fails to break down a door, we all agree (and the GM enforces) that the Str 7 gnome illusionist PC cannot possibly break the door down with a Strength/Athletics check... unless the gnome does something clever to make that possible, for example tapping out the hinges with a hammer.

Would that table practice – let the roll stand according to each PC's expertise (unless the scene dramatically changes) – be universally effective across ALL skills? I don't know. I suspect there may be skills where's that would not work at all.

But that's the sort of question that I'm eager to hear how others are working with creatively at their tables.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
This is really an interesting question. I tend to take cues from the folks im playing with. If they are the character sheet holds all the answers types, I know its going to be a pretty literal interpretation of the ruleset. Though, other folks are very comfortable with ambiguity and vagueness. I suppose that's going to happen over 50 years of moving between rulings over rules back and forth.

The templates folks form die hard. I recall a number of old school GMs in 3E that thought wealth by level was pure poppycock. That magic items are a luxury, not an entitlement. They didnt understand the mechanics of the game, they just played it according to their formation years. Which is why the meme, "nobody reads the DMG" exists. Folks have been mostly able to play their way for decades. When their way is most interfered with, is when they complain about editions most.

I have a bit of a hybrid approach to skills. I like the literal interpretation for things like jumping a gap. Just find the appropriate skill and attribute, and make the check. Though, something like negotiating a contract is an entirely different ballpark. Here I tend to loosen up and look to the player to drive some creativity amongst the narrative. Its not a simple skill check and done, but a series of negotiations between GM and player. These are pretty clear examples, but it can get a bit blurry in practice over the myriad of situations a game will encounter.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
I have a bit of a hybrid approach to skills. I like the literal interpretation for things like jumping a gap. Just find the appropriate skill and attribute, and make the check. Though, something like negotiating a contract is an entirely different ballpark. Here I tend to loosen up and look to the player to drive some creativity amongst the narrative. Its not a simple skill check and done, but a series of negotiations between GM and player. These are pretty clear examples, but it can get a bit blurry in practice over the myriad of situations a game will encounter.
Yeah, I appreciate you endeavoring to come up with specific examples, because I think those are the most illustrative when we're talking about table practices. Even if it's hard to remember an exact situation, being able to aggregate your GM experience and distill how you handle skills into prototypical scenarios is still really useful.

To use your example of Jumping, we can use my 3-axis graphic (which I'm sure is flawed and doesn't include all the potential axis that we could talk about) to just look at how 5e treats jumping.

It seems relatively transparent on the Y-axis (transparence/hiding), right? You have a pre-defined number of feet you jump depending on your Strength and whether you have a running start, with a few class features interacting with that.

On the X-axis, well when it comes to making a check to jump (more on that below), we don't have specific guidance on what the strict interpretation of a failed jump check would be. So the strict interpretation might be "you fall." Whereas another GM might use degrees of failure, so "you fall" if you fail by 5+, but if you fail by 1-4 then you just manage to grab the other side dropping something or being in a compromised position when initiative rolled.

On the Z-axis, jumping is radically different from how most of 5e's skills work... So someone might argue "well jumping isn't a skill check." Which is technically true, but not holistically totally true. Because we have the Athletics skill described as "...covers difficult situations you encounter while climbing, jumping, or swimming... You try to jump an unusually long distance or pull off a stunt midjump."

Now that's interesting, because jumping now bridges 2 things:
  1. "Normal Jumping" which is not a check, but an automatic thing governed by Strength.
  2. "Unusual Jumping" which IS a check... if you're performing or a stunt and that seems (but is not explicitly stated to) involve exceeding that hard-codified Strength distance.
In a way Jumping is a two-tiered skill like Detect Magic is to Arcana, but in that case, it's flipped where the normal info is the Arcana check, and then the unusual info is the spell.

So perhaps we can establish in 5e that one of the skill typologies is "The Two-Tiered Skill."
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I recall a number of old school GMs in 3E that thought wealth by level was pure poppycock. That magic items are a luxury, not an entitlement.

I Mean Me Schitts Creek GIF by CBC
 

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