5E D&D archer

Survival 101 — 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks

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Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons revolves around ability scores (physical and mental character traits) and how those scores apply to proficiencies (what you’re good at). Both are represented numerically, with modifiers to any number you roll on a d20 whenever you make a skill check. Ability checks are written like this: Ability (proficiency). For example, your Dungeon Master might call for a Wisdom (Survival) check. The reason for this is Wisdom is the applicable ability score, while your Survival proficiency allows you to further modify the skill check. Quick disclaimer: any 5E D&D DM can require or allow any ability check or skill proficiency check for any reason, even outside this purview. This article is meant as a guide for new players and DMs to explain how skill checks work and what they look like, narratively. We’re hitting the outdoors today and hopefully we live through it. I’m not just being cheeky because I have allergies — today’s topic is Survival!

5E D&D archer survival
Illustrator Robson Michel describes this as a redesign inspired by the old D&D cartoon. [Art by Robson Michel]

What is Survival?

Before we trek into the untamed wilds, let’s look at how the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook defines Survival:

“The DM might ask you to make a Wisdom (Survival) check to follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide your group through frozen wastelands, identify signs that owlbears live nearby, predict the weather, or avoid quicksand and other natural hazards.”

Survival of the… wisest?

When it comes to braving the outdoors you have to remain aware of your surroundings at all times. You never know when a ferocious beast looking for its next meal might glance in your direction. If you don’t pay attention to those gray clouds in the distance you might find yourself stranded without shelter during a storm.

If you’re not one of the few gifted with a Keen Mind then Wisdom (Survival) checks are likely on the horizon (pun intended) as you navigate and try to determine the time of day. All of the uses of Survival rely on awareness and the application of your observations to your current situation. While it’s true athleticism and finesse help in the wilderness it’s your ability to apply knowledge and observations of your surroundings to practical effect that encompasses what Survival truly is.

Survival is just an all around useful skill with which to have proficiency. It covers a broad swath of uses from finding food and shelter to tracking, navigation and even predicting the weather. It’s no wonder so many players opt to pick up this multitool of a skill.

Urban outdoors

Survival is your quintessential outdoors skill. However I think many presume it requires an unsettled area in order for it to apply, and this is not really the case.

Survival applies to the outdoors and I would argue it could easily be used in an urban sprawl. Finding food or supplies might look less like hunting or foraging and more like knowing what’s safe to scavenge from the dumpster. Navigation can be every bit as difficult in a city as a forest, and if you’re broke you might need to use Survival to find a safe place to sleep, besides the park bench.

A Wisdom (Survival) skill check might also clue you in to wild creatures (raccoons, stray cats, or other vagabonds) that might have found your special spot before you. Then, of course, there’s the weather to worry about, even in a concrete jungle and possibly more so given the lack of trees.

Survival’s problem

One of the things I find in so many games is Survival’s broadness works against it just as much as for it and unfortunately much of what it does is trivialized by druids and rangers. Between rangers’ Primeval Awareness and druids’ multiplicity of features that can be used to subvert the need for a Survival skill check, the skill often pales in comparison.

The problem here is a barbarian, bard or any other character who might have used Survival to help out the party is simply outshined by these classes. If a character with either of those classes is trained in Survival, the skill investment is also cheapened. That’s not a great thing to have happen.

I think a lot of the problem stems from the implied specificity of those classes. Survival is, at its core, a skill used during the exploration pillar (one of the three pillars) of a 5E D&D game. Survival is extremely broad and arguably overly useful when outdoors. But inside it feels almost useless. The really frustrating part about this is I don’t think there’s a good fix without a massive class system overhaul. An argument could be made for druids and rangers to become subclasses or be reworked in some way, but we don’t really have the time to delve into this here.

I suppose a good summary of the Survival skill is it’s situationally amazing, but it’s also situationally useless. Its broadness lends to its polarizing extremes, but it does serve a niche in the core rules. You can’t much fix its situation without ruining the whole skill or dividing it up. Survival is a veritable multitool of a skill in the right hands. Just be ready for a druid or ranger to out slice your pocketknife skill with their proverbial chainsaws.

What do you think?

How do you feel about the broadness of the Survival skill? Do you have any stories about a time a character in your games used it to great effect? Let us know 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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