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

I would assert that the inconvenience of having to walk the player through this process is a major contributing factor to it only happening 1-3 times per session.

Interesting hypothesis and one I've considered. If I detached myself more from the character sheet's skills paradigm I'm sure I would see more occasions when I could use checks outside of that paradigm. I don't think I'd really be getting much value out of that though for the complication thinking through each check in detail represents. While I do really enjoy creative use of proficiencies I'm basically satisfied with the existing skill/ability pairings the overwhelming majority of the time.

As is, I only look for an atypical check when the typical ones don't seem satisfying, because that is when I feel that applying the full robustness of the system adds value rather than just complication. When this results in a way to construct a check that I think better models what is being done than the existing ones I apply it. Because it tends to only be rare I find it easier to walk the player through it than to rely on them understanding it. Eventually I think most players do understand the theory once it's all been modeled a few times, but it really doesn't cost much to just be explicit, and I don't want to put anyone on the spot for things that just aren't intuitive for some people.

If the character sheet was set up in such a way as to make the ability check plus proficiency bonus process more intuitive, more DMs would call for ability checks with unorthodox proficiencies more often, and players would ask to apply different proficiencies more often.
Sure. And when some visionary creates a version of the character sheet that somehow does that without slowing down game-play and while being equally as intuitive to the average player as the existing character sheet I'll happily adopt it and sing their praises. But I don't think it's really possible.

I find the existing skills with typical abilities paradigm is satisfying to me for somewhere north of 95% of ability checks. I can't think of the way to set up a character sheet that makes atypical checks more intuitive without either forcing people to reinvent the wheel the other 95% of the time or becoming substantially more cluttered. If you find one then kudos; may your praises be sung throughout the ages.

I’d likewise wager a lot of players and a smaller but non-zero number of DMs don’t even realize they have that option.
Pretty safe wager. I certainly do think it is unfortunate that there are DMs without a solid theoretical grasp on the ability check system, as they are bound to get tripped up by atypical checks or make unsatisfying rulings on them, not knowing that creative application of the proficiency bonus is the recommended solution from the toolbox the designers tried to provide them. But this is part of the tradeoff we make in encouraging people to not stress over mastering a whole book of rules before they start rolling some dice and playing the game.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I hear ya. The example I gave, the character was flirting with the NPC. They were trying to be charming, basically trying to distract the NPC so they could slip inside the purse and steal a note.
Gotcha. I would probably still call for a Dex check there, since the key thing being tested is whether or not they can get their hand in and out quickly and stealthily. Let me put it another way: if the seduction fails, the character could still succeed in their goal of stealing the note if they move nimbly enough to avoid notice - it’ll just be harder. But if their hand movements are too clumsy, they’ll get caught even if they do an excellent job seducing the mark. So, Dexterity is the core thing being tested, and the seductiveness is a bonus. Dexterity + Performance or maybe Persuasion is probably most fitting, though I would certainly allow Dex + Sleight of Hand.

An argument could be made that this should be two checks: Charisma to seduce the target, and Dexterity to pick their purse, with advantage if the seduction was successful or disadvantage if it failed. But I generally prefer not to break tasks up into multiple checks in most cases.
I personally wouldn't care which way the DM called it. That's not anything I (nor any player I know) really argues. There are several times we'll ask; "Can I use a history check to see if I remember this book title?" But there are other times we roleplay, describe, and the DM hands out the check they seem appropriate.
On a personal note, I like the latter better. It makes the game flow more smoothly and encourages players to pay attention to their word choice when describing their actions.
Lore checks are a tricky beast. In the past I’ve made them entirely passive, gating certain lore behind certain passive Int (Skill) scores. These days, I ask that players describe an action. For example: “I think back to my time as a scholar at Candlekeep to try and remember if I’ve seen this book title before.” This leaves room for me to call for a check or declare success or failure without a check, and it allows the player to reveal (or perhaps discover) background details about their character through play.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Interesting hypothesis and one I've considered. If I detached myself more from the character sheet's skills paradigm I'm sure I would see more occasions when I could use checks outside of that paradigm. I don't think I'd really be getting much value out of that though for the complication thinking through each check in detail represents.
You don’t have to think about it in great detail. On the contrary, calling for ability checks instead of skill checks reduces the number of basic options for you as DM to consider from 18 (or 24 if you count ability checks with no proficiency, or a lot more if you count checks with tool proficiencies instead of skills) down to 6. It’s actually much quicker and easier to identify which check is most appropriate to call for.
While I do really enjoy creative use of proficiencies I'm basically satisfied with the existing skill/ability pairings the overwhelming majority of the time.

As is, I only look for an atypical check when the typical ones don't seem satisfying, because that is when I feel that applying the full robustness of the system adds value rather than just complication. When this results in a way to construct a check that I think better models what is being done than the existing ones I apply it. Because it tends to only be rare I find it easier to walk the player through it than to rely on them understanding it. Eventually I think most players do understand the theory once it's all been modeled a few times, but it really doesn't cost much to just be explicit, and I don't want to put anyone on the spot for things that just aren't intuitive for some people.
Yeah, that’s fine. Do what works for you.
Sure. And when some visionary creates a version of the character sheet that somehow does that without slowing down game-play and while being equally as intuitive to the average player as the existing character sheet I'll happily adopt it and sing their praises. But I don't think it's really possible.

I find the existing skills with typical abilities paradigm is satisfying to me for somewhere north of 95% of ability checks. I can't think of the way to set up a character sheet that makes atypical checks more intuitive without either forcing people to reinvent the wheel the other 95% of the time or becoming substantially more cluttered. If you find one then kudos; may your praises be sung throughout the ages.
Here you go. No wheel reinvention required, just a field for players to write their proficiencies in.
Pretty safe wager. I certainly do think it is unfortunate that there are DMs without a solid theoretical grasp on the ability check system, as they are bound to get tripped up by atypical checks or make unsatisfying rulings on them, not knowing that creative application of the proficiency bonus is the recommended solution from the toolbox the designers tried to provide them. But this is part of the tradeoff we make in encouraging people to not stress over mastering a whole book of rules before they start rolling some dice and playing the game.
No mastery required. I’d settle for encouraging people to just read the rules, and try to assess them on their own terms, rather than through the filter of their experience with past editions.
 

nomotog

Explorer
So I am mostly OK with using different skills to accomplish the same goal. I am less OK with the idea of trying to push everything to use the skill your best at.
 

Simonb1

Explorer
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.
Unless you make it a Strength (Acrobatics) test.
 



doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
In my experience, it’s only the norm amongst folk who spent a lot of time with d20 systems (and I mean that in the branded sense) and/or 4e.
Not my experience at all. Most people I meet and talk to about D&D or Play with in public spaces never played d20 or 4e.
 




Skills really should have been more explicitly optional.

Like feats, or multiclassing.

It definitely feels like that was the original intention.

5e actually throws out a lot of the benefits of it's approach (as seen also in Shadow of a Demon Lord and 13th Age) those of flexibility and minimalism, by hardwiring in a specific skill list.

And then fails to also take advantage of that skill list, by mostly failing to have those skills actually govern anything.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Skills really should have been more explicitly optional.

Like feats, or multiclassing.

It definitely feels like that was the original intention.

5e actually throws out a lot of the benefits of it's approach (as seen also in Shadow of a Demon Lord and 13th Age) those of flexibility and minimalism, by hardwiring in a specific skill list.

And then fails to also take advantage of that skill list, by mostly failing to have those skills actually govern anything.
There wasn't a fixed skill list in the earliest drafts of the playtest. Players demanded a skill list, though.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
There wasn't a fixed skill list in the earliest drafts of the playtest. Players demanded a skill list, though.
If you don't have an NDA keeping you from answering, how'd they handle skill-ish things without a list of skills?
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Yeah. There's really no way to read the rules and arrive at that approach. It comes from elsewhere.
Or looking at the character sheet or just getting tired of saying ability score with appropriate skill proficiency modifier or ... just saying athletics check instead of strength check with athletics proficiency modifier if you happen to have one because by default athletics uses strength and the extra words are just redundant. 🤷‍♂️
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
If you don't have an NDA keeping you from answering, how'd they handle skill-ish things without a list of skills?
Haha I don’t have an NDA - all this stuff is publicly available in the playtest packets, though they are a bit tricky to find these days.

Fundamentally, skills worked the same way they do now throughout the playtest. That is to say, if you had proficiency in a skill, you could add a bonus to ability checks to resolve actions to which that skill might be beneficial. The specific bonus changed from draft to draft. They started out as a flat +3, later changed to proficiency die (which still exists as a variant rule in the 5e DMG), and finally to the proficiency bonus as we see it in 5e. At first though, there was no list. You just got a number of skills and you could pick whatever you wanted. Want a bonus on checks to run, climb, and jump? Use one of your proficiencies on “Athletics.” Want a bonus on checks to weave baskets underwater? Use one of your proficiencies on “underwater basket weaving.” With no fixed list, you could be proficient in anything you could describe in a few words.

Of course, players wanted a list they could pick from, so we got a list pretty quickly. And the exact form of the list changed a few times as WotC tried to find the degree of specificity that satisfied the greatest number of players. But you can see vestiges of the no skill list approach in other optional skill variants in the DMG. Background proficiency is probably the closest of these to how it worked without the list, and though I’ve yet to run a campaign with it, I find it a pretty appealing variant rule.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Or looking at the character sheet or just getting tired of saying ability score with appropriate skill proficiency modifier or ... just saying athletics check instead of strength check with athletics proficiency modifier if you happen to have one because by default athletics uses strength and the extra words are just redundant. 🤷‍♂️
You look like you’re actively trying to make it sound like more of a hassle than it is. You don’t have to say “strength check with athletics proficiency modifier if you happen to have one,” you can just say “strength plus Athletics check,” or even just “strength check.”
 

nomotog

Explorer
Haha I don’t have an NDA - all this stuff is publicly available in the playtest packets, though they are a bit tricky to find these days.

Fundamentally, skills worked the same way they do now throughout the playtest. That is to say, if you had proficiency in a skill, you could add a bonus to ability checks to resolve actions to which that skill might be beneficial. The specific bonus changed from draft to draft. They started out as a flat +3, later changed to proficiency die (which still exists as a variant rule in the 5e DMG), and finally to the proficiency bonus as we see it in 5e. At first though, there was no list. You just got a number of skills and you could pick whatever you wanted. Want a bonus on checks to run, climb, and jump? Use one of your proficiencies on “Athletics.” Want a bonus on checks to weave baskets underwater? Use one of your proficiencies on “underwater basket weaving.” With no fixed list, you could be proficient in anything you could describe in a few words.

Of course, players wanted a list they could pick from, so we got a list pretty quickly. And the exact form of the list changed a few times as WotC tried to find the degree of specificity that satisfied the greatest number of players. But you can see vestiges of the no skill list approach in other optional skill variants in the DMG. Background proficiency is probably the closest of these to how it worked without the list, and though I’ve yet to run a campaign with it, I find it a pretty appealing variant rule.
What I wish they did would be to have skills listed under backgrounds, classes and feats but not collected in a list. Or even just not calling them skills.

Also I swear skills were an optional rule up all the way to the end of the play test. My memory might be faulty though.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
What I wish they did would be to have skills listed under backgrounds, classes and feats but not collected in a list. Or even just not calling them skills.
Oh, yeah, that was a thing for a while. Classes, backgrounds, feats, etc. would sometimes grant skills. There just wasn’t a master list, and you could theoretically gain skills of your own devising.
Also I swear skills were an optional rule up all the way to the end of the play test. My memory might be faulty though.
I don’t remember them ever being an optional rule. What you might be remembering though is that they were presented differently through much of the playtest - as a bonus applied to ability checks, rather than a specific use of an ability. That’s why checks are still written in the form Ability (Skill). That was itself a compromise, as initially they were just written as the Ability without the parenthetical. There was even a bit in the How to Play document instructing the player to suggest if they thought one of their skills was applicable to an ability check. That got phased out in favor of the parenthetical skill at some point, I want to say like the 4th or 5th packet.
 

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