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Rulings : Skills and Proficiencies

D&D 5e leaves you a lot of latitude in how you run the game. D&D defines some rules, and leaves the rulings up to you as the DM. This gives the game the flexibility it needs to be useful to all groups of players, but sometimes advice on how to actual adjudicate these rules is harder to come by. In this 'series' I'm going to talk about how I run D&D and why I do it that way.

Skills and Proficiencies

People played D&D without skills for 20 years, and they all had a good time. I think skills are fine overall, but sometimes they cause weird things to happen in the game. Consider the following scenario…

Player A: “I’d like to investigate the desk to look for clues”
Dungeon Master: “Roll and investigation check”
Player A (Who has taken the investigation proficiency, and invested their character build into the Int stat so they can be like Sherlock Holmes): “Oh crap, I rolled a 1. 6 total I guess”
Dungeon Master: “You don’t find anything”

One of the other players inevitably succeeds due to sheer luck.

This shouldn’t happen, for a number of reasons…

  1. The Sherlock Player should not have rolled the dice. He is proficient in investigation. He’s a badass adventurer. He should just succeed. What do we gain by hiding that information from a skilled badass such as he?
  2. If the Sherlock Player can’t find it, how in the heck are any of these other rubes going to get lucky and find it?
Illustration by Boris Kulikov

This leads me to a few rulings I like to use in my campaigns.

Rolling Skill Checks is always worse than asking the DM specific questions

If you ask me what happens when you pull everything out of the desk drawer, I’ll just tell you your hand bumps the bottom of the drawer and it sounds hollow. You found a secret compartment! You didn’t even need to roll!

If you’re not sure what to do, or where to look, or how to do something, that’s when we roll dice.  For example.

Player: “Hmm, I’m stumped”
DM: “Roll perception”
Player: “19”
DM: “You notice the desk drawer is ajar”

You can think of it this way. The Player (YOU!) can help your character out by being specific. Your Character can help you (The Player) out when you aren’t sure what to do next.

Proficiency is important.

Sometimes I’ll just ask you if you’re proficient in a skill. Sometimes that will be enough to make you succeed.
Sometimes you need to be proficient to even ATTEMPT to succeed (ie, you can’t do that, you aren’t proficient).

Skill checks are still important when facing opposition

You have to test your medal against lots of other creatures. This is why we roll dice.

Knowledge Skills

A few of the skills can be categorized as ‘knowledge skills’. Nature, History, Religion, and Arcana all fall under this category. Rolling these skills should be exceedingly rare (Trivia contests maybe?). If you are proficient, and your character would reasonably know the information, I’ll just tell you stuff. Hiding information isn’t fun.

Rulings for specific skills

Athletics: Anyone can climb, swim or jump. To scale a sheer wall, swim against a current, or jump amazing heights or distances, you need to be proficient.

Acrobatics: Anyone can keep their footing on a rocking ship’s deck, or stay upright on a rickety rope bridge. To balance on a tightrope, or do anything that resembles parkour, you need to be proficient.

Slight of Hand: Proficiency in this skill is required for anything but trivial filching of things.

Stealth: Anyone can hide, but proficiency in stealth lets you hide during combat, in plain sight, and confound even the most astute enemies.

Arcana: Anyone can attempt to determine if what they see, hear or experience is natural or magical in nature. Anything beyond this simple categorization requires proficiency in Arcana.

History: Anyone can recall the broad strokes of major historical events. To recall dates, names, specifics, causes, and these kinds of important details requires proficiency.

Investigation: To gain specific and important insights from a set of clues, or to put together disparate information spread across many ancient tomes requires proficiency. Without proficiency, you might be able to determine that the killer dragged the body out the west sliding door.

Nature: Without proficiency you can recall folklore and common knowledge about plants and terrain. With proficiency, you know things only botanists, geologists, and zoologists would know.

Religion: Without proficiency, you know a lot about your own religion, and can recall the most trivial details about the religions of others. With proficiency, you are an anthropologist and philosopher.

Animal Handling: Without proficiency - “I dunno, I’ve just always been good with dogs”. With proficiency - “I dunno, I’ve just always been good with velociraptors.”

Insight: Without proficiency, you have a hunch. With proficiency you’ve devised the motive.

Medicine: Without proficiency you can recall healing folklore and maybe remember the Heimlich maneuver. With proficiency you can actually stabilize a dying patient.

Perception: With proficiency you have uncanny senses that can sometimes keep you out of danger others would walk unwittingly into. Without it, you can see stuff like a normal person.

Survival: Without proficiency in survival, with proper preparation, you can camp for a couple of nights without dying. With proficiency you can live in the woods indefinitely.

Social Skills (deception, intimidation, performance, persuasion):  Social skills are highly influenced by player skill, ie: It’s not what you do, but how you do it. What are you offering as a bribe? What did you actually say? Not being a good role-player in this regard isn’t a handicap, you can always fall back on a roll of the dice (with proficiency hopefully), but just like the case with perception, if you are more specific in HOW you approach these situations, you are going to find you are more successful than if you roll dice.


  1. Thanks for the very informative article. Especially the abuse of Perception skill has been an eye opener for me, because this is something very frequent in my games. To battle this, I decided to test the following house rule:

    Skill Rerolls
    If a character attempts a Skill check roll asking for new information from the DM (Perception, Insight, History, Arcana, etc.) and fails, only characters with higher Skill modifier may attempt the same check. Characters of lower and equal modifier can only use the Help action to assist.

    While this can be abused by chaining rolls, my experience is that often people instinctively call for revealing information and the rule will limit the amount of retries unless ruled by the DM.

  2. Very good article! This has a lot of useful info.


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