History 101 — 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks
When it comes to fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons many newcomers will quickly notice the importance of the proficiency bonus and the prevalence of skills. In the system, ability checks determine outcomes at the will of the dice, but ability score modifiers and proficiency bonus modify the numbers rolled, potentially turning failure into success. In this series, we’re diving in to look at the different skill proficiencies that can modify ability checks. Skill checks and ability checks are written like this (as an example): Intelligence (History). The reason is because Intelligence is the ability check being made, and History is the skill proficiency modifying the ability check. Quick disclaimer: a 5E D&D Dungeon Master can require or allow any ability check or skill proficiency, even outside this purview. This article is meant as a guide for new players and DMs on how certain ability checks and skill proficiencies can be applied. Today’s focus is all about knowledge of the past and memory! That’s right; we’re talking about History.
What is History?
Before we go further, let’s see how the 5E D&D Basic Rules define our focal skill, History:
Your Intelligence (History) check measures your ability to recall lore about historical events, legendary people, ancient kingdoms, past disputes, recent wars, and lost civilizations.
A time gone by
The most obvious application of History pertains to a character’s knowledge about times of old. Whether a generation ago, or twenty, History is your go-to skill proficiency. Does your character love art museums? Then they’re likely trained in History. Is your character familiar with the works of famous people? Then this also falls under History.
I would even say history could be used for helping to identify certain creatures that have had significance in elder times. Maybe your character’s History proficiency tells her this creature her party now faces is a monstrous behir, because she heard tell of a village with one living outside its borders. History won’t tell her how its lightning breath works or applications for working its hide into armor but it could easily let her identify the creature and probably have at least a limited knowledge of its capabilities. Her History proficiency might also tell her they prefer stony terrain, and thus, finding one here in the marshes is strange or out of sorts.
Another application that isn’t used frequently is to impose an Intelligence (History) skill check for a player character to recall a bit of knowledge the DM gave them in a previous session. This could be used as a subtler way to encourage players to take notes or to reward those who already do. That even works thematically, because if a player takes notes on a topic, it means their character has committed something to memory. What’s more, this application also makes the Keen Mind feat significantly more useful, as it means a player does not need to take notes, nor make an Intelligence (History) check, because they are simply capable of recalling anything they’ve experienced in a month’s time. Period.
Heroes and heraldry
One of my favorite RPG systems outside D&D is the Dragon Age RPG system by Green Ronin publishing. In it there’s a skill focus called heraldry lore. Essentially it allows a character to identify symbolism for kingdoms, organizations and so forth. History is an excellent use for this, and with iconography so often glazed over in RPGs until it’s suddenly and pointedly not, using a History skill check in this context allows for a greater breadth of usefulness, and it breathes new life into your world.
This could further extend into knowledge about the hierarchies and structures of such organizations. It could include these organizations’ influences, alliances or allegiances. The possibilities are endless here. Of course by extension this knowledge could apply to defunct, ancient or otherwise no longer present organizations as well.
Another example of an application directly called out in the description is knowledge of legendary figures. I would group current movers and shakers into this category as well — those who are currently shaping history. I would even go so far as to allow this skill to be used by player characters to seek knowledge about themselves from external sources, with the DC being directly determined by how noticeable the party’s deeds have been (easier DC for more notice).
Lost to myth
As the introduction to The Fellowship of the Ring movie goes, “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.” This line so pointedly and beautifully illustrates the cycle of history, especially in a fantasy context.
Related to this I would include knowledge of artifacts, relics and magical items would fall under the purview of History as a skill. While it might not explain the inner workings or exactly how an item functions, it would tell how it has been used, what it was said to be capable of and likely also its context of creation.
Underused and Underestimated
Maybe it’s just the circles of gamers at my FLGS (Friendly Local Game Shop), but I often hear people make comments about the uselessness of the History skill, or they say it’s “just a flavor skill” you get for taking a noble background. However, I believe this sorely misses the vast potential of the History skill’s usefulness.
Knowledge is power. It’s not merely a saying; it’s true, both in our own, real world and the context of the game world. History provides knowledge of the past, and those who do not learn from history are, indeed, doomed to repeat it.
By amassing some knowledge about a situation, magic item or whatever, the party can learn what has succeeded or failed in the past, related to a given issue. Through this knowledge, they can make informed decisions, think cleverly and learn from what failed in the past.
As a DM it’s your responsibility to make History skill checks useful. After all, if the players are experiencing your world, the world must necessarily have a history, and if you’re playing in a pre-made setting such as The Forgotten Realms, Eberron or Tal’Dorei there’s a wealth of resources to flesh out each history of each world. And while it may seem a bit simplistic of a mindset, at some point a DM who tells me History is a useless skill makes me think either they can’t be bothered to prepare properly for a session, or else they sorely misunderstand the nature of history as a collection of knowledge in our own world.
History is a fabulous skill with tremendous potential for players who really want to dig into the stories and settings of their games. So, before overlooking this oft-misunderstood skill, maybe give some thought to how you might want to experience your fantasy world’s history as your players build onto it.
What do you think?
How useful do you think the history skill is for your players? Do you have some bit of worldbuilding in history from your homebrewed world that you’d love to share? Let us know in the comments!