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D&D 5E When is it OK to let a player substitute one skill for another?

Fauchard1520

Explorer
I'm not sure what to call it, but I see this mess all the time.
  • Is it OK if use Intimidate instead of Diplomacy?
  • Can I use Acrobatics to initiate a grapple?
  • I worship the god of magic. Can I roll Arcana instead of Religion?
  • If I scavenge some vines, is it OK to roll Survival instead of tool proficiency to make rope?
Do you just increase the DC for using an "off" skill? Do you give the player a hard "no" when it's too preposterous? How do you go about adjudicating these sort of questions?

(Comic for illustrative purposes.)
 

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Ah... the world of skill checks. ;)

The only answer I've ever seen consistently is:
  • It is always okay
  • It is rarely okay

Per your examples, I am sure we will get a hundred philosophical answers on what others do. But what I see is most DMs just roll with it, unless they really want to temper a growing trend that bothers them. Your intimidation vs diplomacy is a perfect example of that. A DM might grow tired of someone having a +8 in intimidation, and a +3 in diplomacy, and them always wanting to use intimidation. I have seen some DMs say, well roleplay intimidation if that is what you are using. This way the player knows that if they cross a line, it might come back to bite them. Or a DM might change the DC as you say. Hard to intimidate a jarl that has been through two wars and is surrounded by guards. Or the DM might just say, intimidation will not work, roll diplomacy.

My own rule when dealing with any persuasion is to write the DCs according to the personality of the NPC. A guard might have a high intimidation DC, but if someone flirts with them, it is really low. I almost always try to give little hints prior to the interaction via showing their personality through their actions.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
When I call for an ability check, I just ask for the ability check and the player applies whatever proficiency he or she thinks appropriate, based on the description that was already offered. So, for example, when the character is trying to influence an NPC's attitude and I deem that the effort has an uncertain outcome and a meaningful consequence for failure, then I will ask for a Charisma check. The player can then say they are applying Persuasion, if the character's interaction up to that point indicates the character is using tact, social graces, and good nature.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
When it makes sense? I mean, let's say they want to use intimidate instead of diplomacy. Well, that can have repercussions later on. They pissed someone off who maybe could have been an ally. Or maybe they used intimidate on someone that respects the show of force. Or diplomacy would have worked but this is a bureaucrat who will dig in their heels because they can.

I'm less likely to substitute acrobatics for things like grapple, acrobatics doesn't have anything to do with grappling. Climbing using acrobatics? Well, that depends on if there are things to swing from. For a straight wall it doesn't work but if you can swing from a rope and do a flip off the gargoyle, maybe.

When it comes to religion, worshipping a god of magic isn't going to cut it but someone might be able to remember some aspects of the religion using a history check. Perhaps the social impact, or the spread of the religion things that a religion check might not even reveal.

I try not to be too strict about this stuff but it does have to make sense. You can't use an investigation check to lift a barrel. Unless of course you figure out how to make a fulcrum to do the lifting for you. :)
 


Rune

Once A Fool
I treat ability checks as descriptive, not prescriptive. That is to say, the check is for determining what happens when an action’s success is in doubt. It doesn’t actually determine the action, though.

Step one: determine the player’s intended outcome.

Step two: determine the player’s approach for achieving that outcome.

Step three: roll dice as (and if) necessary to determine the actual outcome.

In the example of intimidation vs. persuasion, the answer depends on whether Step 2 was threatening or tactful/logical. Noting that these approaches aren’t mutually exclusive.

Atheletics and acrobatics are tricky because they should both just be athletics anyway. Both require strength, conditioning, coordination and practice. It seems like the only reason they both exist is so they could be assigned to separate attributes, which is irrelevant in my games. That said, grappling is used to keep people from moving, so strength is appropriate.

Arcana vs. Religion for worshippers of a god of magic? Not relevant. The ability check describes the action, not the source of the proficiency.

Survival vs. tool proficiency to make rope out of vines? Survival. What tool proficiency would even apply, here? If any did, it could grant advantage.
 

jgsugden

Legend
I think a lot of people would benefit from looking at skill checks the way I do. It is not a question of which skill to use, but a question of whether a skill applies.

When a situation arises that requires a skill check, I let the PCs tell me what they want to do and then we quickly figure out what type of ability check(s) make sense. Figuring something out? That is intelligence? Intuiting or perceiving it? Wisdom. Nimbleness? Dexterity. Sometimes the answer for which skill applies to a challenge can be determined by the approach the PC wants to take to beating the challenge. Sometimes there may be a couple alternatives that make sense - strength or dexterity. Intelligence or wisdom.

Once I know which method the PC wants to take and we've figured out the ability score, I ask if there is a reason for the PC to be proficient. Maybe they have a skill proficiency that applies to the situation. Maybe they have a tool proficiency, a background feature, or personal experience within the game that would make them proficient.

For example, if there were a famous jewel and the PCs found it, and they wanted to know if they recognized it by the description, I would allow an intelligence check. It would be proficient for anyone with Jeweler's Kit proficiency, history proficiency, or that had a background where they dealt with Jewels.

For another example, if a PC told a threatening lie to an NPC in order to encourage them to do the thing that the NPC knew they should do, but didn't want to do, I'd call for a charisma check and allow them to be proficient on the check whether they had intimidation, deception, or persuasion.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm not sure what to call it, but I see this mess all the time.
  • Is it OK if use Intimidate instead of Diplomacy?

Sure. But realize that, if you use diplomacy, you are unlikely to make your relationship with this person worse, while with intimidation, it may work, but you are sure to make your relationship worse....

  • Can I use Acrobatics to initiate a grapple?
Mechanically, no, because a grapple is an attack action, not an ability check. We might work out something else interesting you can do in combat that uses acrobatics...


  • I worship the god of magic. Can I roll Arcana instead of Religion?

For understanding of your own religion, sure. But Arcana won't tell you much about other traditions - the target is gonna be super-high there.

  • If I scavenge some vines, is it OK to roll Survival instead of tool proficiency to make rope?

Sure. It'll take a long time without tools, though.
 

MGibster

Legend
I'm not sure what to call it, but I see this mess all the time.
  • Is it OK if use Intimidate instead of Diplomacy?
  • Can I use Acrobatics to initiate a grapple?
  • I worship the god of magic. Can I roll Arcana instead of Religion?
  • If I scavenge some vines, is it OK to roll Survival instead of tool proficiency to make rope?
Do you just increase the DC for using an "off" skill? Do you give the player a hard "no" when it's too preposterous? How do you go about adjudicating these sort of questions?

(Comic for illustrative purposes.)

  1. Yes, but using Intimidation to get what you want might make you a new enemy or complicate things.
  2. No, you cannot use Acrobatics to initiate a grapple.
  3. No, this is more related to theology so make a Religion role.
  4. Yes, creating something akin to "rope" seems like something a survivalist might do.
 

I offer two choices and say the choice affects the delivery. The skill they choose changes what happens, what they learn, and even possibly the DC.

"Please roll Cha + Persuasion OR Intimidation."

"Please roll Int + Arcana OR History."

"Please roll Str + Athletics OR Acrobatics."
 


ccs

41st lv DM
Whenever it seems plausable enough.
Sometimes the DC is higher/lower. Other times unchanged.
Sometimes I give slightly different info/results depending upon the skill used.

If I feel the players just fishing for a bigger bonus & suggesting an ill-fitting or inappropriate skill ill just tell them no. Often though the other players beat me to it & give the guy enough crap that he changes his approach.
 

Remember skills are pretty much vestigal in 5e and optional.

The primary question that needs to be answered is "should the character have proficieny with this?" You don't need skills at all to answer this (or in fact any system at all) - so long as everyone is on the same page here. Skills just remove the ambiguity.

But given that, it seems fine to make an end run around the system all the same. What skill do you roll to know what happened to Vux the Crime Lord 1 year ago? History seems closest, but that is generally considered a scholarly skill and it's unlikely there are any books in the library about Vux the Crime Lord. However, if you have a character from that same town with the Urchin background, why not let them roll Intelligence with proficiency?

5e is actually much more concerned with what ability scores mean and govern - skills are far less important. So if someone wants to intimidate someone just by playing with their knives I might let them roll Charisma + Weapon proficiency before I'd allow Dex + Intimidate. Basically I'm flexible about proficiency but not about ability score. If I called for a Strength roll, then it's a Strength roll, unless you try a completely different approach to the problem.

Basically I allow any character to make a reasonable case for proficiency, based on all the established facts about their character in toto. Skills just define what you can do without needing to negotiate with the DM.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I'm not sure what to call it, but I see this mess all the time.
  • Is it OK if use Intimidate instead of Diplomacy?
  • Can I use Acrobatics to initiate a grapple?
  • I worship the god of magic. Can I roll Arcana instead of Religion?
  • If I scavenge some vines, is it OK to roll Survival instead of tool proficiency to make rope?
Do you just increase the DC for using an "off" skill? Do you give the player a hard "no" when it's too preposterous? How do you go about adjudicating these sort of questions?

(Comic for illustrative purposes.)
Just ask for ability checks and let the player pick the skill. That way there’s no table time wasted on the negotiation. Assume the players know what they want their characters to do and will act in good faith choosing the skill (or tool) they think is most appropriate for the task, and ask them to assume you will rule permissively.
 

auburn2

Explorer
I offer two choices and say the choice affects the delivery. The skill they choose changes what happens, what they learn, and even possibly the DC.

"Please roll Cha + Persuasion OR Intimidation."

"Please roll Int + Arcana OR History."

"Please roll Str + Athletics OR Acrobatics."
I do to sometimes, but there has to be more than this. To get a persuasion or intimidation the person has to tell me what he is doing - tell the guard "You think you could let me in" as I hold up a platinum - persuasion. "Let me in because I know where you live" - intimidation. It might be different DCs too, in a town with a lot of corruption the pesuasion DC to bribe a guard is probably low for example.

For knowledge checks I regularly allow to roll against more than one appropriate skills again with different DCs. If ask you who Mohammad was that probably has a really low DC on either history or religion as you could know it easily with either. If I ask you what Eid Ftr is that is probably pretty high DC using history but still a low DC on religion and you can still use either.

Acrobatics or Athletics I rarely interchange unless the rules say because they are different things. Grapple is always athletics on offense in my game and either athletics or acrobatics on defense and that makes sense to me. If was something that required one to be nimble instead of strong I would still use athletics, just with a dexterity modifier.

For finding traps I usually allow either investigation or Perception as I see it as different approaches to arriving at the same end. The guy with perception is looking at the chest to see if anything looks off, the guy with investigation is methodically checking the hinges the corners, the lock.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
I'm not sure what to call it, but I see this mess all the time.
  • Is it OK if use Intimidate instead of Diplomacy?
  • Can I use Acrobatics to initiate a grapple?
  • I worship the god of magic. Can I roll Arcana instead of Religion?
  • If I scavenge some vines, is it OK to roll Survival instead of tool proficiency to make rope?
Do you just increase the DC for using an "off" skill? Do you give the player a hard "no" when it's too preposterous? How do you go about adjudicating these sort of questions?

(Comic for illustrative purposes.)
There is no diplomacy skill in 5e. Intimidate and persuasion have different uses and consequences, and thinking about those might help answer your question.

A player might accomplish the ends of bypassing a guard using either skill. However, to intimidate they likely need to make threats that the guard would find plausible, whereas to persuade they likely need to offer benefits the guard finds tempting. Successful or not, after the interaction the guard is going to feel differently about them. Ashamed and afraid perhaps if intimidated. Hopeful of future favours perhaps if persuaded.

So one answer is that sometimes more than one skill applies, but the requirements and consequences might differ.

Against that, as the comic author points out, it's also common to consider overshadowing. Religion and Arcana both use Intelligence, so while it's better to place Religion squarely in the center of questions about gods, if entry to a temple of a god of magic had some kind of knowledge test making Arcana relevant to it is falling not far from the tree. Acrobatics for grapple on the other hand is egregious, because it switches the ability modifier to Dexterity - already the uber-ability of 5e - and letting players use it for everything including grapples is more problematic.
 


Not in the normal sense of the word 'optional'. Certainly in the extended sense, that all rules are optional.
Well optional to the extent that they're easily expunged and there are three different variant options in the DMG for expunging them and replacing them with an alternate way to gain proficiency.

Very little is altered by using an alternate system for gaining proficiency. The main things that needs some thought is how to handle races that gain additional proficiencies.

Proficiency is absolutely fundamental to the maths of the game. If there is no way to gain proficiency then you have to rework the maths. But skills as the means to gain proficiency? - not particularly important.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
Just ask for ability checks and let the player pick the skill. That way there’s no table time wasted on the negotiation. Assume the players know what they want their characters to do and will act in good faith choosing the skill (or tool) they think is most appropriate for the task, and ask them to assume you will rule permissively.
I believe one can get a little more out of skills, by allowing them to also guide to the tone or direction of the narrative. Just as many above have noted regarding using different social skills to obtain the same ends.

So when I DM, I am not thinking about the skills simply as - can the player add their PB here - but also in terms of what we decide is going on narratively. The nature of the leverage over the narrative the player is attempting to employ and where that may lead.

The social skills are clearest, but as others have intimated, even a difference between applying Jeweler's tools versus History might guide the game down different paths, through changing the information obtained or casting it in a different light. Both know the necklace was stolen, but perhaps the character using History knows or has excellent reason to suspect it was taken by the rightful heir, while the jeweler heard it was fenced through Neverwinter and might now be in Waterdeep.

What I guess I am saying is that as well as a simple way to decide if an attempted action succeeds or not, skills can work as narrative prompts that guide us how the story might unfold.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
Well optional to the extent that they're easily expunged and there are three different variant options in the DMG for expunging them and replacing them with an alternate way to gain proficiency.
Sorry, I had to smile. You mean that there are optional rules for skills. Yes, that's very true. It was a funny inversion :D
 

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