Nature 101 – 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks

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Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons mechanics revolve around the ability checks and the proficiency bonus. When it comes to skill checks as ability checks, the check is written like this (for example): Intelligence (Nature). The reason for this is Intelligence is the applicable ability score, and the Nature proficiency allows further modification of the ability check. Quick Disclaimer: a 5E D&D Dungeon Master can allow or require any ability check or skill proficiency, even outside this purview. This article is meant to act as a guide for new players and DMs to explain how skill checks work and what they look like narratively.

Illustrator Robson Michel describes this as a redesign of the Presto character from the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. Older and wiser after the years, his arcane mastery grew just like his beard, as expected from any respectable magic wielder. Now he is curious for the next adventure, and to discover new playlists! [Art by Robson Michel]

What is Nature?

The material plane is often referred to as the natural world. It has predictable weather patterns, plants and animals. Dangers abound, from predators looking for their next meal to terrain hazards and natural disasters. One of the best ways to navigate such trials is to be versed in the ways of the natural world, via proficiency in the Nature skill.
Before diving into this, let’s look at how the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook defines Nature as a skill proficiency:

Your Intelligence (Nature) check measures your ability to recall lore about terrain, plants, and animals, the weather, and natural cycles.

The horse and the scholar

Nature is all about understanding the material plane — the world around your character. Obvious applications of the Nature skill might include knowing what kind of plants or animals are local to an environment (an excellent skill for hunters), what sort of weather is on the way and how intense it is (useful for adventuring and travel) and what hazards to expect in a particular climate. As with other lore type skill check, Nature can be incredibly useful to any adventuring party.

One mistake I’ve seen newer DMs make is muddying Nature and Animal Handling. Let’s clear this up really quickly. While Animal Handling might let you tame, train or otherwise interact with an animal, Nature might reveal ways to effectively accomplish that task or make it easier. Nature would tell you about an animal, but it wouldn’t necessarily enable you to directly interact with it. This is why Nature relies on Intelligence, while Animal Handling relies on Wisdom.

For example, a scholar could possess training in Nature. Thus, they could be seen to have a wealth of knowledge about horses. They might know what they eat, how their bodies work and nuanced differences between breeds. However, when it comes time for our scholar to actually ride said horse they’re clueless and they might even frighten the poor creature or get kicked squarely in the chest. It’s all about knowledge vs. awareness.

Can you eat it, though?

One application of Nature I seldom see used is the ability to recognize if something is edible, or if something is conditionally edible. While proficiency with cook’s utensils can help with this, that’s a topic for another day.

This is an area of arguable overlap with the Survival skill. The way I differentiate the two skills is this: while a Nature skill check might tell you something is edible, a Survival skill check enables you to find and collect said food source. Adjacent to this notion I would also rule Nature would bestow the knowledge of what things can’t be eaten, and possibly symptoms of consuming such things. Nature might also offer knowledge of remedies, though Medicine would enable the preparation of such remedies. The rabbit hole of related skills and skill check is endless.

Nature & magic

Another aspect of the Nature skill, as defined above, is knowledge of natural cycles. These natural cycles might be the seasons, metamorphosis of creatures or the interaction of the four elements with one another (as in the Way of the Four Elements monk). However, I would propose there are other natural cycles included in this lore: cycles of natural magic.

Okay, time for the controversial stuff! If you read the article on Arcana then you know where I’m going with this. To preface, I would imagine we can all agree that in 5E D&D, magic is a staple of the world. Fair? Cool. As such, we could say magic is a natural part of the world, right?

This is reinforced by the fact druids exist. The entire premise of the class works off of the concept of natural magic, as such. It’s magic that interacts directly with nature. The ability score to cast druid magic is Wisdom, which is all about awareness. So, we could accurately say then that druids and other natural spellcasters are aware of the latent magic that naturally exists within the world, and through this awareness they can interact with it, essentially calling to the planet itself to cast their spells.

Referencing my article on Arcana, we can recall the fighter has an archetype (the Arcane Archer) that can draw on natural magic, thus gaining the druidcraft cantrip and another conspicuous feature: proficiency in the Nature skill. Why would the Arcane Archer gain proficiency in Nature, based on its magic’s source, unless Nature is directly related to natural magic? This is my primary evidence in canon to support my claim the Nature skill can also be used to know about natural magics, such as those used by druids, rangers and subclasses like the Arcane Archer. Many would dispute this, claiming Arcana is the applicable skill. However, I rule at my own tables Nature applies to druidic and other natural magics.

What do you think?

How do you use the Nature skill and skill checks in your 5E D&D games? Do you agree with my view on nature magic knowledge? Let’s start a discussion in the comments!

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Follow Steven Partridge:
Steven Partridge is an aspiring author and experienced tabletop gamer. As a child, he dreamed of growing up to be a dinosaur, but as with many children, his childhood dreams were dashed when the rules of reality set in. However, our valiant Steven never allowed this to sway his ambition. He simply... adjusted it to fit more realistic aspirations. Thus, he blossomed into a full-fledged nerd with a passion for the fantasy genre. When he's not writing or working on videos for his YouTube channel, Steven can be found lap swimming or playing D&D with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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