Follow the Steps to Make Best Use of 5E D&D Skills
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted explore fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons skills every character should have or at least the three skills that keep coming up most often in their games. I’ve got a different Perception on when, how and what particular skills get checked during a 5E D&D game. (See what I did there?) So let’s get into it.
Make your case for a 5E D&D skill check
In the video Dave and Ted lead with a closer look at what I agree is the most frequently used skill in 5E D&D — Perception. However after watching the video, thinking about my own experiences and considering the implications I feel like this particular skill is relied on too much. It’s true a Dungeon Master provides sensory information to players about their characters perceptions and for this very reason I believe asking for a Perception check is overused.
“Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses. For example, you might try to hear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest. Or you might try to spot things that are obscured or easy to miss, whether they are orcs lying in ambush on a road, thugs hiding in the shadows of an alley, or candlelight under a closed secret door.”
The basic pattern of 5E D&D play follows a three step process. First the DM describes the environment. Next players describe what they want to do and then the DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions. If you notice in the description of the skill the examples touch on things not quite so obvious — muffled conversations, hidden creatures and objects or otherwise obscured information. In cases such as these I agree a Perception check makes sense when what a player describes they want to do includes those activities. The key point to takeaway is the players’ description of their characters activity.
It’s my belief that step two of the pattern of play provides players the opportunity to steer the direction of any potential checks. This is often the step where players ask to make a check, which I’ll tell you right now grates on my nerves for two specific reasons. First off it’s simply not the way to play 5E D&D. Skills aren’t hotkeys on your toolbar for players to click when they want to interact with their surroundings. It’s one thing to describe your character’s overt threats, hostile actions and physical violence to pry information out of a prisoner, convince street thugs to back down from a confrontation or use the edge of a broken bottle to convince a sneering vizier to reconsider a decision. In the next step a DM might very well call for a Charisma (Intimidation) check. Announcing you’re making an Intimidation check is quite another thing altogether. Do you see the distinction?
When players state they’re making any sort of skill check they’re robbing themselves of an opportunity by creating a potential for their own failure. By circumventing the pattern of play this behavior takes away from a DM’s involvement to respond to such activity. It’s worth noting I love rolling dice and asking players to roll dice quite a lot in games. But I also enjoy when circumstances result in character development and storytelling potential without any polyhedral interference.
Consider this example. A party of adventurers finds themselves escorted to a noble’s parlor to await a meeting. The comfortable space contains several pieces of plush furniture with art objects and books decorating the room. A player announces they’re making a Wisdom (Perception) check to look around the room and possibly spot anything concealed or out of place. They roll their dice and the result comes to an 18 — pretty high. Nothing seems out of the ordinary though, and with a high result like that the player is satisfied.
Now imagine the same scenario. The party with a few minutes on their hands decides to poke around the room. A wizard character feels drawn to the books (nerd!) and casually thumbs through a few titles left out on a side table. Meanwhile the barbarian finds the elegant craftsmanship of the art objects alluring and takes a closer look. The party’s cleric, content to wait patiently, reclines on a velvet settee and admires the intricate stitching on the furniture. The DM asks the wizard to make an Intelligence (History) check, the barbarian a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check and the cleric an Intelligence (Religion) check. Why?
As it turns out all of the books cover a very niche topic regarding a little known sect dedicated to a mysterious eldritch entity. Across the room the barbarian gets a tad too close to a delicate piece of art and the cleric picks up a familiar pattern in the thread pattern. What does this all mean? A high result on the History check from the wizard means the puzzle pieces fall into place and they recall something they learned about this sect. Depending on the Sleight of Hand result the barbarian might knock the art piece over or steady it before disaster strikes and either way in doing so manage to deftly pluck a small medallion stamped with the symbol of the sect from the object. The cleric’s interest in the stitching bears fruit as well when they recognize profane symbology woven into the furniture. What kind of noble have they gotten mixed up with here?
5E D&D players and step two of the game
More and more I see 5E D&D game play moving towards primarily narrative styles, which is a wonderful development! Player agency and the collaboration between everyone in the group to participate in an emerging story is the amazing quality setting tabletop roleplaying games apart from any other sort of game — including even the most expansive video games. So why pigeon hole your character and ignore the tremendous potential to describe what your character does by reducing it to making a skill check?
In one of the games I play in at the moment the group are agents of a powerful organization. As such we hold prominent positions of power but this also means we have enemies engaged in the same world of espionage we operate within. Whenever we’re out and about in public my character takes on a security role, and I describe to our Game Master how he’s keeping an eye on passersby for anyone doing the same to them. I make sure no one is following us or observing with undue attention. In other words I’m describing what I want to do. Sometimes the GM asks for a Perception check, sometimes another skill check and sometimes flat out tells me my character notices someone who seems to be tailing us through the streets. Because of this GM’s approach the game is more immersive and rewards our player agency. The GM knows my character is paranoid and obsessively watchful without me mentioning anything mechanical.
Players who seek more immersive RPG experiences would be served well by sticking to the rules and guidelines of 5E D&D (and likely just about any other RPG too). When a DM describes the environment it’s up to players to make the case for any skill check not by invoking the mechanics but instead by putting themselves in the character’s shoes and describing what they do given the circumstances. We celebrate 5E D&D for the focus on rulings over rules, but I think often we overlook that there are rules to this or any game designed to help create the experience. When it comes to skills and skill checks the rules — from the basic pattern of play to the implementation of skill checks themselves — contribute to form a narrative and foster an emerging story together.
With this in mind there are no 5E D&D skills any character must have. Instead the rules and pattern of play empower players to utilize their freedom to describe character activity. Players make the best use of the skills that make their character who they are by using them as a guide to their character’s behavior.