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

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Fifth edition D&D revolves around ability checks and the proficiency bonus. When it comes to skill checks as ability checks, the check is written like this: Charisma (Performance). The reason for this is Charisma is the applicable ability score, and the Performance 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.

5E D&D performance skill check
Illustrator Robson Michel advises you to beware Venger — the ultimate villain from the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon from the 80s. [Art by Robson Michel]

What is Performance?

The very storytelling mode of 5E D&D incorporates a degree of performance. Whether voices, descriptions or other means there’s a reason many call tabletop roleplaying games “theater of the mind.” And it just so happens our skill proficiency discussion is all about Performance today!

Before we get started, let’s examine how the 5E D&D Basic Rules define Performance:

“Your Charisma (Performance) check determines how well you can delight an audience with music, dance, acting, storytelling, or some other form of entertainment.”

Song & dance, stories & acts

When it comes to Performance most probably think of singing and dancing, or possibly of telling stories. These are traditionally viewed as “bard things.” As such, the fact there’s already an entire class dedicated to doing these things magically might not be intuitive to new players, especially given the descriptions of the bard class in 5E D&D.

The thing to keep in mind is anyone can entertain; making a profession of it is literally a background option. Just because a character is an entertainer, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily a bard. Possibly, your fighter happens to be a traveling minstrel. Maybe a court jester is secretly an assassin, or a thief. Your local choirmaster at the temple might very well be a cleric.

Speaking of clerics, oratory is another avenue for Performance. Whether delivering a stirring speech or an inspirational sermon, public speaking is another avenue of Performance that often goes overlooked, in my opinion.

Going back to the bard notion for just a moment, I feel the need to clarify it’s totally possible not to have a bard trained in Performance. The reason for this is bards rely on vast wealths of more generalized knowledge to pull off multiple roles at once, a jack of all trades, as it were (in fact, they literally have a feature with that name). When it comes to magic, I often view bards as fudging their way through things or pulling on lost lore to imitate and recreate lost magic without putting in the full work. Essentially, they’re tapping into a special type of magic as an intrinsic part of their force of will and personality. They literally have magical influence. Not all performers possess such a flair.

‘Other forms of entertainment’

Among the examples for uses of Performance, we have the “other forms of entertainment” category. While initial impression might convey dubious intent, one of the first things that readily comes to mind is performance of social graces. Attending a dinner party full of nobles and unsure of which fork to use? Performance. Maybe you’re in a new culture, trying to follow local greeting customs? Performance. Is your uncouth sailor trying to have better manners? That would fall under Performance, too.

Another option might be imitating another’s voice, possibly with the goal of deception. While technically, I could see an argument for why this should be a Deception skill check instead, I would rule it would be Performance, as it falls under “acting.” We know passing yourself off on the whole is Deception, courtesy of the changeling race from Eberron: Rising from the Last War, but to attempt to imitate another person, possibly to make fun of them or tell a story, would fall solidly under Performance.

Puppetry is another seldom-used opportunity to let your Performance skill shine. While instruments and song are entrancing in their own rights, there’s something special about a good puppeteer that captivates an audience. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: if a puppeteer sounds fun to play you might enjoy the College of Strings bard.]

One of my favorite movies that captures the essence of a bard skilled with multiple avenues of Performance is Kubo and the Two Strings. I just love how stories and song play such an integral part in the plot and development of the characters, and while (technically) the story is about a bard, the focus is less on the bard himself, and it’s more about how his performances relate to the plot. So if you watch it, don’t even blink or you’re sure to miss something!

One application of Performance I’ll only briefly touch on is the notion of sexual entertainment. While I as a DM prefer a “fade to black” when it comes to intimate moments, I’m not so foolish as to ignore there are game tables where such things are encouraged. No kink shaming here. What I will say on that matter is I would categorize how well a character does in that regard to also be a degree of Performance.

Lastly, I want to talk about a character I’ve made for our Nerdarchy team game. His name is Shui (pronounced like “shway”). He’s a sumo wrestler monk that drew heavy inspiration from characters like Uncle Iroh from ATLA, Alex Armstrong from FMA and Samwise Gamgee from LOTR (I know, weird combination).
But the main reason I bring him up is because he has proficiency in cook’s utensils, and that proficiency, coupled with Performance, enables him to perform tricks while cooking, like a hibachi chef. In fact, I would add that any tool proficiency could be coupled with Performance to allow for a grand display of skill and finesse with a successful skill check.

You might also extend this to performing parlor tricks using magic, or enhancing another’s Performance with your own by juggling swords, or any number of other displays. Whether attempting to strike fear, terror or suspense with a horrific display, or maybe you’re telling jokes and bumbling around like a fool, anytime your goal is entertainment (which encompasses the gamut of emotions), Performance is your go-to skill proficiency.

What do you think?

How do you handle Performance skill checks in your games? Think I got something wrong or offered an insight you’ve never considered? We want to hear about it in the comments!

“This 5E D&D Skills 101 series is more than half through and all the major characters from the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon feature on one post or another except for one — Venger, the main antagonist. I wondered about this evil sorcerer and after watching The Best of Venger I’ve got to say his Performance skill checks are pretty high. He can throw some energy around while flying astride his nightmare steed but he relies on Performance quite a bit too I suspect.” — Nerditor Doug

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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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