D&D 5th Edition Skills

Let’s consider the skill system in D&D 5th edition.

As you’re aware, after many years of obsessive tinkering I have developed a leave-well-alone approach to house rules, and now I endeavour to keep them to a minimum. However, 5th edition is not like 3rd edition or 4th edition or Pathfinder. While you can tweak those systems to your heart’s content (often with unforeseen results) 5th edition comes preloaded with a metric tonne of optional rules and variant system and dares you to include them in your game. The fundamental approach of this new edition is to present information on how the game is put together, and encourage you to change it to suit your style of play.

So in 5th edition we don’t need to come up with rules for using spell points as there is already a variant spell point system built into the game; we don’t need to worry about not using a battle grid because the game is designed to work equally well without one as with one. And if you’re not keen on the approach they’ve taken for skills then there are variants (and other options) to try to mitigate that.

I’ve singled out skills particularly because this seems to be an area where most of the discontent in my current group is focused. I’m going to address the perceived problems with the system and either try to convince you why I don’t think they’re actually problems in the first place, or to offer some solutions. The general complaints about the skills system can, I think, be  summarised as follows:

There’s no or little sense of progression
Ability scores are given too much weight in your final skill modifier
There aren’t enough skills to choose from
My character doesn’t get enough skills
You can’t learn new skills as you progress

I’ll take each of these in turn and see what we can can about them. Then at the end I’ll introduce a couple of new variant rules that might make some difference to the skill system.

New Variant Rules

There’s no or little sense of progression

I guess strictly speaking this isn’t solely a complaint about skills. It’s a complaint about the general flatter power curve in 5th edition. Attack rolls and saving throws are also affected by this, but I think the effect is magnified when it comes to skills due to the enormous modifiers characters can be rocking in earlier editions of the game.

Let’s look at the figures:

In third edition and Pathfinder your class skills can go as high as your level +3 plus your relevent ability score modifier plus any additional modifiers you might get from your race, feats, items, or synergy. In fourth edition the skills you’re proficient in equal half your level +5, plus your relevant ability score modifiers and many, many other modifiers you might get from classes, races, feats, items and so on.

It’s a close race as to which edition can grant you the higher skill modifier. I think Pathfinder probably just about manages it, but ability scores can go much higher more quickly in fourth edition so 4e might still have an edge.

In 5th edition the bonus for your trained skills (for want of a better term) equals your Proficiency Bonus + your ability score. And generally you can’t add anything else to it. Some classes have an Expertise feature that makes them better at certain skills, but all the ad hoc modifiers of previous editions have been replaced by the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. The proficiency bonus starts at +2 and then rises by +1 every four levels to a maximum of +6 level 17. It never gets better than +6. Ever. Ability score modifiers in 5th edition can’t rise above 20 without unusual magical assistance regardless of what race you are.

So assuming that we’re dealing with a skill associated with an ability score you increase as you gain levels, the chances are you character is starting at level one with a +4 in a skill and ending at level 20 with a +11 in a skill. A rogue or bard using a particularly class-related skill would have a likely progression from +6 to +17. Compared to previous editions those numbers are tiny.

Now I’ve not played 5th edition as a player, I’ve only ever GMed it. And while I get that this progression is much slower, perhaps I don’t properly appreciate how it might appear that the your character is getting nowhere as they advance. Four levels worth of adventuring just to get +1 to a skill? That’s derisory. Always rolling a d20 and adding the same number, session after session? That’s boring.

The thing is… and it’s a big thing… there’s not very much that can be done about it. Like it or not, if we’re playing 5th edition then this is something that we just have to live with. The entire game is predicated on a much shallower power curve. That proficiency bonus is also applied to your saving throws and attack rolls, and is mapped carefully against Armour Class, spells, DCs, hit points and damage in a complex web of mathematical flair and interdependent rules that keep the game together. 5th edition offers many options for changing the rules, but some things shouldn’t be messed with. Pick at this thread and the entire game unravels.

Which is not to say that I don’t have sympathy for this point of view. Let me try to soften the blow.

Comparing the progression of a character in 5th edition to one in Pathfinder isn’t comparing like-for-like. Pathfinder depends on all the numbers on your character sheet getting bigger and bigger so you can use them to hit bigger and bigger difficulty targets, and on and on. Progression in 5th edition isn’t as dependent on the numbers, the DCs are lower, and as you advance you get different sorts of options.

So yes, you start with +4 in a skill and by level four you still only have +4 in that skill, and that’s a bummer. But your progression over those four levels are instead in terms of class abilities, or spells. or simply in terms of story. Maybe you’ve gained something that allows you to use that skill at advantage, or you find you can do other cool things in addition to your skills. 5th edition tends to provide you with several abilities rather than letting you ramp up one at the expense of the others.

5th edition is as dice-lite as D&D has ever been. Yes, the dice are there to adjudicate combat or act as a neutral arbiter when the outcome of a situation is doubt, but generally the game jollies along quite well without them. It’s a story telling game first and foremost (at least I think it is). If you play Pathfinder or you play Fourth Edition you have a character sheet full of numbers and modifiers, and it’s impossible to not think of your character as a mathematical problem that you have to solve. And that can be a lot of fun – I’ve learned more about Excel trying to keep track of my Pathfinder characters that I ever have at work. But generally that’s not how 5th edition functions. You don’t need to think about the numbers as much, you don’t have to game the system or min-max the character or even know how to. The system takes care of that for you.

It’s a simpler system in the same way that 2nd edition AD&D was a simpler system. If you open an old 2nd edition PHB, ignore THAC0 and the shonky mechanics, and look at the character class progressions you’ll wonder how we ever played such bland characters. But we did play them. We played them for years, and many of my fondest D&D memories come from 2nd edition games.

5th edition is based on much firmer ground that 2nd, but the feel of the game is quite similar. My sincere opinion is that the shallower power curve and the seeming lack of progression will be something that we’ll simply get used to. The game benefits so much by reining in the arms race between players and DMs that characterised the 3rd and 4th editions of the game, that a lack of progression is probably a price worth paying.

Ability scores are given too much weight in your final skill modifier

This is the opinion that I returned in my response to every 5th edition Playtest packet. It’s the Nature vs Nurture debate – whether skills should be primarily influenced by your innate attributes or by your education and experience.

Over the early levels of 5th edition it’s likely that your ability score modifier will overshadow your proficiency bonus. In fact the proficiency bonus probably won’t eclipse your ability score modifier until about level 9, and maybe not even then.

In our experience, that’s not the way the world works is it? Take two first level characters with a Dex of 18. One is trained in Stealth and one isn’t. The trained character rolls a d20+6 on a Stealth check, the untrained character rolls d20+4. It’s not much of a difference – and the trained character can’t even begin to get better in his chosen specialisation until level five. Shouldn’t training count for more than that?

There are no optional rules to change the way this works, but I guess we could invent some if we thought it necessary. Let me give you some in-game and out-of-game justifications of why we should leave things well alone.

Out-of-game… does it really matter where the modifier comes from? Would it really be worth trying to change anything? We can’t increase the weight placed on training without diminishing the weight of the ability score. The net total skill score can’t go any higher that it does at the moment because (as we’ve already established) that would break the game’s shallower power curve. So what could we do actually do?

If I halved the bonus you gained from ability scores (so a score of 20 only gave you a +2 and not a +5) and then I increased the proficiency bonus so it ran from +2 to +9 over twenty levels instead of from +2 to +6, would that satisfy matters? Would the balance between Nature and Nurture be correct then? And if it is, what’s the net effect on the actual game? Well the effect is zero on those who are trained in the skills. For those that aren’t everything suddenly becomes too difficult. And how does this change affect attack rolls, damage rolls, hit points and saving throws? Is there any point making such a change for the sake of something that better conceptualises our view of reality?

Do you want some in-game justification?

Think about how a human really gets an ability score of 18 or 20. They’re not born with it, surely. Even the burliest teenager doesn’t reach adult hood looking like Charles Atlas without a modicum or effort, or training. Ability scores do not represent just simply the innate tendencies of the human body – presumably the race’s average ability scores represent that. High ability scores need to be worked on.

Why has this human got of Constitution of 16 compared to this one with a Con of 10? Well maybe the former is grew up in a village where he has to walk 15 miles every day to collect water, and he has leg muscles like a mountain goat. This sedentary fellow has spent five years sitting in a library reading books and improving his mind. Isn’t it more likely he’ll have a higher intelligence than someone who has been marooned on a desert island with only coconuts for company?

To my mind the ability score modifier is already a mixture of Nature and Nurture, and it’s impossible to separate the two. Practice, training, good fortune and aptitude go into making ability scores what they are. It’s not just genetics or a fluke of birth.

So what are skills? Skills are specialisations. Skills are all about taking your experience, your training and your aptitude and focusing it in a particular direction. That guy whose spent years in a library finds that he’s trained his mind and is more capable of retaining knowledge than Coconut Jim. If if he makes a study of history or arcana then he’ll get proportionately less benefit because much of the things he is learning, he already knew.

Those two people who have 18 Dex I mentioned earlier? Getting to 18 Dex probably already means they are exceptionally graceful and light on their feet – extremely aware of their surrounding, the antithesis of clumsiness. Perhaps their parents forced them both into ballet at an early age, or maybe they grew up in a deep jungle dodging tigers… whatever the reason they can both already move like human cats. One of the two then decides to take it to the next level to concentrate on what he has to do to move with great stealth. And that makes him a little better than his rival. But only a little, to begin with.

The shallow power curve, the “bounded accuracy” system of 5th edition D&D does not give us much room to play with skill modifiers. We don’t have the mechanical freedom to make ability scores less relevent. But we probably don’t need to. In the same way that hit points get to represent luck, skill and stamina as well as resistance to damage, so can ability scores represent training, experience and practice as well as inherent aptitude. It makes sense to me.

There aren’t enough skills to choose from

A couple of things to mention before going any further. Firstly, I wanted to discuss the terminology used in 5th edition. The new game uses the umbrella term “Proficiency” for a character’s talent with weapons, armour, skills, languages and tools. If you have weapon proficiency then you get to add your proficiency bonus to weapon attacks; if you have armour proficiency then you get the most out of the armour when wearing it (including the casting of spells in armour); if you have language proficiency then you can speak and read a specific language – there aren’t any more indepth rules for languages than that. You either know it or you don’t.

That leaves Skill Proficiencies and Tool Proficiencies. Together these two cover the entire lexicon of what we would consider as “skills” from 4e and 3rd edition D&D (including Pathfinder). The distinction between Skills and Tools is a peculiar one. I think that it’s in the game to encourage characters to take softer, non-mechanical proficiencies. Backgrounds tend to grant two skill proficiencies and two tool proficiencies. If skills and tools were the same thing there aren’t many who would be able to resist taking Perception or Stealth over the ability to play a musical instrument or wood-working.

But it is wrong to think of Tool Proficiencies as generally useless background colour. There are some pretty vital proficiencies in there including the ability to pick a lock, disguise yourself, create antitoxins and potions of healing, use poison, drive a wagon, sail a boat, navigate across a great distance, or forge a signature.

Secondly, I wanted to remind us of the way these proficiencies are supposed to work in play. In general when the GM calls for a roll, he calls for an ability check. It’s up to the player to suggest that he has a proficiency that may be useful to the check at hand. It’s an exercise in lateral thinking. Your character is grabbed by the school bully. You have the Intimidation skill, could you therefore apply your proficiency bonus to your roll to escape the grapple? Maybe in this case the DM rules you can. All bullies are cowards after all. But that won’t work if you’re grabbed by an octopus. No-one can scare an octopus.

After years of running third edition I’m more likely to call for a proficiency check than an ability check. I won’t say “Make a Wisdom check to spot” I’ll just call for a straight Perception roll. However, the burden of creativity is still in the hands of the player. Have fun with it.

So: back on topic. In the following spreadsheet I’ve looked at all the skills presented in D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, and Pathfinder and mapped their equivalent skill and tool proficiencies from D&D 5th Edition. Take a look and then come back to the blog. I’ll wait.


I hope you can see from the list that there aren’t very many things you could do in previous editions that aren’t explicitly available in 5th edition. A few skills have been merged together, although this has been a trend since Pathfinder was published. Frankly I’m very happy that we have Stealth instead of Hide and Move Silently, Perception instead of Spot and Listen, and Acrobatics instead of Balance and Tumble. As in 4e the skills Swim, Jump and Climb have been merged into Athletics, and now Ride and Handle Animal have been merged into the new Animal Handling skill.

You can make an argument that not all great mountaineers are great swimmers (and I think I have made that very argument in the past on this blog) but I don’t think it makes a blind bit of difference at the table. You want your character to be a sportsman then you take Athletics skill and you’re just good at ‘that sort of thing’. I say that makes the most sense. I’ve no problem with any of that.

Knowledge skills are on slightly more dodgy ground. The Arcana skill is now doing overtime as a catch-all all skill for all magical effects, extraplanar creatures and planes of existence. That was split over three skills in previous editions. The history skill is left in the bizarre position of sort of covering Engineering and Geography, although proficiency with the right tools can step in and help us to some extent here. No skill really seems to cover a knowledge of the Undead… I suppose you could shoe-horn it back into Religion, but I never found that particularly satisfactory. Nature now generally covers information about all non-extraplanar beasties – even the magical ones, like dragons and owlbears.

Some proficiencies don’t have any 5th edition equivalent, but these are skills on the edge of the obscure. Use Rope hasn’t had a dedicated skill in D&D for years, Fly is simply a Pathfinder invention, but something like Escape Artist could well be missed. Escapology is a skill, surely – but I guess you could (at a stretch) use Acrobatics instead. Gymnasts have to contort themselves, after all. Perhaps this is another instance where the player can make a case for using a particular skill in a certain situation.

So having looked at the entire list: what do we do? Do you think we need to add any more skills? Would the game be better if there was a Geography skill, or an Escape Artist skill? Should knowledge of the Planes be separate from Arcana? Should knowledge of Nobility return in its own right, or does it make more sense as part of the History skill. And what about the Undead?

My instinct is simply not to bother adding any additional skills, but I can see that a case could be made. If you feel strongly enough then make one!

My character doesn’t get enough skills

Chances are that most characters are picking up two skills from their class and two from their background. If you’re lucky you might squeeze another skill out of your race – but don’t be surprised if you only know four skills at first level. Is this too few? Let’s compare 5th edition to previous versions of D&D:

skill table

The number in parenthesis in the 3.5 and Pathfinder columns is what I would consider the average number of skills available based on the character’s likely ability score. Most people (maybe not us, but most people) who play third edition D&D tend to max out their skill ranks in the skills they want to be best at. So a ranger with an Intelligence of 14 (+2 modifier) effectively knows 8 skills. It’s a bit of an assumption and I know that this lack of freedom is a problem many of you have with the system, but bear with me as it’s the only way to compare amount of granted skills properly.

Where the 5th edition column offers more one figure, it means that certain class archetypes grant additional skills. The A bard of Lore has three skills more than a bard of Valour, for example. The 5th edition column contains the number of skills gained from class and from background, but no other sources are taken into account in any column. So any bonuses skills from your race are not factored in here.

With all that out of the way, what does the table tell us? Well, on the surface it appears that 5th edition characters are getting less skills than their Pathfinder or 3.5 counterparts (although slightly more skills than they had in 4e). Is this a fair conclusion?

Remember 5th edition divides the old third edition skill list into Skill Proficiencies and Tool Proficiencies. We’ve only listed the Skill Proficiencies up there. All backgrounds offer 1-2 additional tool proficiencies, and all classes will give you a few more as well. You can start the game with quite a few of them. Yes, some tool proficiencies don’t seem to have any great mechanical use, but some of them (such as Thieves Tools) replace some extremely important D&D skills: Open Locks and Disable Device.

If we included the Tool Proficiencies in the table above then you need to add at least 3, probably more, to the number of skills available to each character class. And suddenly, 5th edition is offering more skills than any other version of D&D to date.

“But,” you will say, “tool and skill proficiencies aren’t interchangeable. Sure, Thieves Tools are useful, but I don’t want to be proficient in three different gaming sets and a musical instrument. In third edition I could choose not to take useless skills like Profession or Craft. In 5th edition, I’m stuck with them.” And you’d be right. There’s an argument to be had here. Given that there are (almost) as many available proficiencies in 5th ed as there in Pathfinder, and given that we might be considering creating new skills… do we want to give PCs access to more proficiency slots?

We could do it. No problem. It wouldn’t break the game at all. I could wave my hand and say everyone has an extra skill or tool proficiency of their choice at first level, or an extra two proficiencies. Do you want to do that? I guess we should be cautious of duplicating too many skills between two PCs so everyone gets to keep their own schtick… but if I’m mostly running the game for 3-4 players then maybe this is less of a problem. We can play it by ear of course.

Thoughts on amount of skills?

You can’t learn new skills as you progress

In 5th edition your selection of armour, weapon, skill, tool and language proficiencies are set at first level. Most of those proficiencies increase as your ability scores and proficiency bonuses increase, but the ways in which you can gain more skills after first level are not immediately obvious. They are there. Are they enough? Do we need more options?

After first level 5th edition D&D offers four ways in which you can gain new skills:

  • Select a feat. The most obvious is the ‘Skilled’ feat grants you three new skill or tool proficiencies. However, you can gain new languages, weapon and armour proficiencies by selecting feats as well. If one of the various proficiency gaining feats does not appeal, then it’s simplicity to create one that meets your needs.
  • Multiclass. When you select a second class you gain some (but not all) of that class’s proficiencies. If you multiclass into rogue or bard, then you’ll get a skill.
  • Train for a skill. You can use your downtime to pay a trainer to train you in a new language or tool proficiency. I would rule you could train for a new skill proficiency as well. The time it takes to learn a skill is up to the GM. The suggested period is 250 days at 1gp per day, although the DMG suggests that experts can accomplish this much faster (presumably at greater cost or rarity). So you could quest for someone to teach you a new skill.
  • Proficiency in skills, tools or weapons can be treated as treasure. Handed out by the GM in the same way as magic items or cash. This a lot like questing for the master of a particular skill, but the reward for an adventure could be gaining a new skill to add to your character.

Now players who like to min-max might say that some of these options are incompatible. Why would I want to spend a feat to get a skill if I could get one during downtime for free, and spend the feat on something else? Well, it’s all a matter of choice. There is no wrong order to acquire things in 5th edition – you can’t break your character unless the GM lets you break it. If the order in which you choose to acquire game elements creates a sub-optimal results compared to acquiring them in a different order the DM can just wave his hand and consolidate your character’s abilities so you haven’t placed yourself at a disadvantage.

So say there was a feat that granted +1 to one ability score and a skill. Say you took that and got trained in Arcana, but then you acquire the Arcana skill from another source. Now you have the skill twice. Well, you can just retrain the feat, or modify the feat to swap in a different skill, or drop the skill aspect of the feat and have a another +1 to ability score instead. Or whatever it takes to realign your character fairly. If it all sounds a bit free an easy then it is. 5th edition isn’t codified like 3rd or 4th. We should celebrate that!

Diversion aside, consider whether the four options above are enough to keep you happy when it comes to getting more skills. If not there are other options. Let’s look at some variant rules I made for the occassion.

New Variant Rules

While there are plenty of variant rules regarding skills in 5th edition D&D, they all set about simplifying the skill system and not making it more complex. If you’re looking for a skill system that is more in line with Pathfinder or third edition, then you’re not going to find it in the DMG. However, the DMG does empower me to offer a couple of variants of my own:

VARIANT: The Dabbler

Whenever a game element grants you a skill proficiency, you instead gain a number of skill ranks equal to your proficiency bonus. Whenever your proficiency bonus increases, you gain skill ranks equal to the number of skill proficiencies that would have been granted to you by the standard rules.

Example: a 1st level elf cleric of the knowledge domain with the acolyte background gains skill proficiency in Perception (from his race), Insight and Religion (from his background), and four other skills from his class – a total of seven skill proficiencies. At 1st level he gets 14 skill ranks, and every time his proficiency bonus increases he gets another 7 skill ranks. If the character later takes the Skilled feat he immediately gains skill ranks equal to 3 × his proficiency bonus. Each time his proficiency bonus increases from now on, he would gain 10 skill ranks instead of 7.

The same principle applies to a character’s tool proficiencies. Whenever a game element grants a tool proficiency, you instead gain a number of tool ranks equal to your proficiency bonus. Whenever your proficiency bonus increases, you gain a number of tool ranks equal to the number of tool proficiencies that would have been granted to you by the standard rules.

Under this variant, the character does not apply his proficiency bonus when he makes an ability check to use a skill or tool he is proficient in. Instead he invests his granted ranks into skills and tools, and adds the number of invested ranks instead. Skill ranks can only be invested in skill proficiencies, and tool ranks can only be invested in tool proficiencies. The minimum number of ranks that can be applied to a proficiency is 1, and the maximum is equal to the character’s proficiency bonus.

Characters with the Expertise class feature (or its equivalent) will double their ranks instead of their proficiency bonus when they make an ability check that uses one of their chosen proficiencies. Characters using this variant have a broader repertoire of skill and tool proficiencies, and are able to pick up new proficiencies much more easily because they only need to invest one rank to acquire them. However, this freedom comes at the price of specialisation – and characters are unable to excel in as large a range of skills, as a character that uses the standard rules.

This is a ‘cost-neutral’ variant, and could therefore be played at the same table as characters who use the standard rules for proficiencies.

Or we could step it up a notch and consider this variant instead:

VARIANT: The Renaissance Man

This variant works in exactly the same way as ‘The Dabbler’ except that characters are granted additional ranks. In addition to all the ranks granted by The Dabbler variant, a 1st level character gains ranks equal to his proficiency bonus. Every time the character’s proficiency bonus increases he gains +1 rank. These ranks can be invested in either Skill or Tool proficiencies, but the maximum number of ranks in any one proficiency can still not exceed the character’s proficiency bonus.

GMs wishing to grant characters even greater access to proficiencies can increase the number of additional ranks granted by this variant. For example, a character might gain an addition 2 × his proficiency bonus in ranks at 1st level, and then an additional +2 ranks each time his proficiency bonus increases.

If this variant is being used at the same table as characters who are using the standard proficiency rules, then those characters need to be granted extra skill or tool proficiencies of their choice at 1st level. Grant such characters one additional proficiency for each multiple of skill ranks granted to characters using this variant. So if a character using The Renaissance Man variant gains 4 × his proficiency bonus in extra ranks at 1st level, then +4 ranks each this his proficiency bonus increases, then a character that uses the standard rules should gain four extra proficiencies at 1st level.

This variant gives characters the freedom to acquire new skills very easily, and also makes it more likely they can excel in a large number of skills as well. Depending on the number of extra skill ranks granted, there is a danger of making these characters a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-all-trades. Consider the balance of skills among party members, and be aware that some characters may feel their skills are redundant.

This variant works well in a small party (where otherwise all skills may not be covered) or in a game where the GM has introduced several new skills (and so there is more to choose from).

Both of the above variants grant the same freedom for obtaining new skills as third edition and Pathfinder. You’re able to apply ranks to whatever skills (or tools) you like, and so you’re able to gain a much broader selection of skills. The above will work, and it won’t break the system or create over-powered characters. It might make some characters feel redundant – no character is likely to be the party’s sole expert in a particular skill.

Talking Point

Right. Now over to you, my 5th edition players. What do you want to do with this? Particularly consider the following:

  1. Do we need to add any new skill or tool proficiencies to the 5th edition game?
  2. Do we need to grant extra proficiencies to characters because we think they don’t have enough?
  3. Are the ways that you can already gain new skills sufficient? If not, can you think of any alternatives?
  4. Are the new variants ‘The Dabbler’ or ‘The Renaissance Man’ something you would want to adopt for the game? Or can you suggest a different variant?

My recommendation as GM is that we do absolutely nothing. We leave the rules as they are and don’t touch them. Yes, you can pick holes in them in theory, but you don’t see those holes in play. I think they’re good enough. What do you think?