March 18, 2021

Image Credit:

What Check do I use?! | Telling a Convincing Story Using Dice

Setting DCs and figuring out what types of skill checks to ask for is one of the more intimidating aspects of running the game for new DMs. Players will inevitably come up with crazy plans and it's the DM's job to figure out what they need to roll (or if they need to roll) to accomplish it. The rules for combat are quite specific and don't leave a huge amount of ambiguity (check out this article if you're looking to make your combat encounters more interesting! Epic, engaging combat!). Unlike in combat, the rules are purposefully vague here, leaving us the leeway to interpret the vast array of possible situations as we see fit. This can be overwhelming for the new DM, however. Which skill is it to scramble down a rocky embankment, athletics or acrobatics? Can the -3 charisma barbarian really be that bad at intimidation? They're huge and scary! In the end whatever you ask for is the correct one, since you're the DM, but it is nonetheless important to be consistent. In this article I'll discuss some different ways to handle the more unique situations that your players can get themselves into.

Non-Standard Ability / Skill Combinations

Skills represent the ability based activities that characters can train and get better at. They are (loosely...) tied to a specific ability score, which is why they are written as Dexterity(Acrobatics), or Charisma(Deception). You add your bonus from the ability, plus your proficiency bonus, if you are proficient at that skill. But does that skill always have to be tied to that same ability? The answer can be found on page 175 of the Player's Handbook under the heading "Variant: Skills with different abilities". Basically, it says when it makes sense, you can base the skill on a different ability score, if you want. For your low charisma barbarian, let them make a strength based intimidation check, as they try to rip their bar stool into splinters. That would be pretty intimidating I think! You could also imagine a situation where characters need to swim across an extremely cold river, or where they are submerged in a frigid lake and need to get out. In this case, you could call for a constitution based athletics check. This represents their ability to withstand the cold as well as their training in the athletics skill. This is not a perfect simulation, of course, but you can mix and match the base abilities with the skills however you see fit. Here are some other interesting combinations that might inspire you:

  • Strength based Performance
    • Performing feats of strength for an audience or to impress someone
  • Intelligence based Persuasion or Deception
    • Using extensive knowledge of a subject to persuade or deceive
  • Charisma based Nature
    • Connecting or reaching out to nature based magics or divinity
  • Intelligence based stealth
    • Using knowledge and training to know how to disguise or hide something

Social Encounters

Social encounters can be especially intimidating to run, but can also be intimidating for new players. To make players who are new to the roleplaying aspect of the game more comfortable, it is often easier to summarize the encounter in a simple roll. Simplifying something as complex as social interaction can feel a little underwhelming, especially when the roll doesn't go in the party's favor. To add some complexity and nuance to the encounter, consider the starting attitude of the NPCs. Page 244 of the Dungeon Masters Guide has some great advice here. NPCs can start with a friendly attitude, an indifferent attitude or a hostile attitude towards the players. Tables are given on page 245 for how the NPCs might react given various skill check DCs and their current attitudes. Players could also try to change the attitude of the NPC, either temporarily or permanently. For example, succeeding on a DC 20 charisma(persuasion) check might convince an indifferent NPC to become friendly towards the party. A DC 18 strength(intimidation) check might convince a huge, hostile beast that the party is not worth getting involved with, for now...

Roll-play + roleplay

The best mixture, in my opinion, is a healthy mix of both roleplay and dice rolling. To me, this gives the best of both worlds and gets across the feeling of the encounter, while still making good use of the character's in-game characteristics. If a player is very comfortable at roleplaying (and has a high IRL charisma modifier) and they are playing a character with low charisma, they should still need to follow up their impressive monologue with a roll, so that those in-game characteristics can be taken into account. Maybe the character stumbles over their words or mispronounces an important word that the NPC takes as offensive.

This takes some time to get a feeling for, so don't feel bad if you're having a hard time with this to start. Allow the players multiple rolls in order to change the attitudes of an NPC, and allow other characters to assist, either by also making a check, or giving advantage to the player making the check. You'll get the hang of it before you know it.

Tools and Game Sets

I feel like, other than thieves tools, the tools and game sets get very little use in 5th edition. There are a whole array of various tools available to the players, but they don't seem to come up very often, unless the player chooses a background that gives them a proficiency in it. A tool check is similar to any other skill check, but you only add your proficiency modifier if you are proficient in those tools (and you physically have them). As with the variant skill checks described above, feel free to mix and match the base ability scores to meet the specific situation. You might need to make a strength based carpenter's tools check to rebuild or repair a ship while it's at sea, or an intelligence based jeweler's tools check to see if you can identify if the gem on a valuable crown is real or fake. There is a lot of really interesting opportunity here, so be generous in how you let your players find and use these and let creativity reign.

Using downtime to get trained and gain proficiency in these is also an option, and probably not too game-breaking. Use your discretion on how long it might take to gain that proficiency, and if they don't have enough time to become fully proficient, consider giving them half proficiency. If someone wants to perfect their craft, consider letting them gain expertise (double proficiency) in a skill. You probably need a serious time commitment to allow this, but, if that's something they want to do, let them go for it! It is sure to make some interesting and fun events.

Consequences and Failing Forward

When players roll low and fail a check, it's often very difficult for the other players to not meta-game and say "Oh, yeah I was looking for traps too...". So, what are some ways to avoid this? You can allow others to try again at the same check but with a higher DC, or with disadvantage, but that can feel a little unsatisfactory. If enough people try the check, you have a pretty good chance of succeeding and it might start to feel like you're just going through the motions by rolling at all.

Failing forward is an extremely useful technique for DMs to employ and can avoid the very unsatisfying 'save-or-die' situation. Failing a dexterity saving throw to prevent yourself from falling down a ravine doesn't have to end in you falling 1000 feet to your death. Instead, give them a consequence that the party can work on overcoming together. In the case of the ravine, they character might fall 30 feet but catch themselves on a rock ledge below. Now the party has some options. The player can try and climb out, strength(athletics) check, or the remainder can attempt to use their climbers kit(s) or ropes to help them out. Consecutive failures would increase the severity of those consequences, which puts some of the responsibility on the choices and actions of the players, rather than solely on the dice.

Some examples for consequences are:

  • falling prone
  • taking damage
  • awakening additional enemies
  • breaking tools
  • increasing the cost of an item
  • dropping equipment
  • triggering a trap

Basically anything that might cost the party time, money, hp, or spell slots is going to be a consequence. You can increase or decrease how much of a consequence it is based on the particular situation they are in.

If you like this idea and you want to dig a little deeper, you could set failure or success thresholds on the DC of a particular check. Fail by less than 5, that's a minor setback. 1d6 damage, or 30 minutes of time maybe. Something that is not great, but still not too bad. Fail by more than 5 though, and you get a major setback. 2d10 damage, 100gp or a days worth of time maybe. You can do the same thing for successes as well. Pass the check by less than 5, you get what you're looking for but nothing more. Pass by more than 5 and you get a little something extra. The thresholds and values here will all vary depending on the level of your party, the type of campaign you're running and the particular situation they are in right now. Play around with it and see how if feels at your table.

When we play D&D, our players are going to spend a large amount of time doing skill checks outside of combat. They are inevitably going to get into situations that are not explicitly spelled out in the rules, so it's good to be prepared with some interesting options to see if they succeed! D&D 5e is not a perfect simulation (at all!) but there are lots of options you can use in those unique situation. I hope this has got you thinking a little about stretching those rules to fit all the crazy stuff your players can come up with, and until next time, don't forget there are 20 sides to every story!!

-The Intrepid Adventurer