D&D 3.5e, D&D 5e, Skill Checks

An Alternative Method for Skill Checks in DnD 5e

When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons it was with the 3.5 Revision (D&D 3.5). The game is wonderfully simple in some aspects and woefully complicated in others. One of those overly complicated aspects of the game comes from the skill system used (and which has lingered on ever since in various forms).

Let’s discuss how complicated the system could be.

Page 1 of the D&D 3.5 Character Record Sheet

As you can see from the character sheet above there are 43 base skills that your character can choose to use in helping to develop their focus. BUT these 43 are not the end of all possible skills as additional skills were created for the game and brought up in various supplements, home brew games, and third party publications.

Let’s not get distracted by that right now though.

Of those 43 base skills your character class has a number of skills they’re “proficient” in which allows for unfettered progress throughout your character’s advancement in the game. All other skills then become “cross-classed” and cost double to advance. Advancement of skills comes primarily when you level up as your character gains a number of “skill points” that will help them become better at the tasks that fall under the skill’s umbrella of activities.

At each level there is a maximum number of skill points that may be put into any one skill which is dependent on your character’s current level. These skill points are then added to your character’s ability modifiers, any magical or ancestral modifiers they may posses, and any situational modifiers that your character may have gained before attempting the skill check.

It’s a complicated mess that is often difficult when first building your character (I’m looking at you rogues) and then easy to use during actual play; however, it is a flawed system on several fronts. First, it creates a situation during higher level play where it is nearly impossible for your players to fail a proficient skill check as their bonuses mean that all but a critical fail (a result of 1 on a d20 roll) are successful. This creates moments of absurdity during play with powerful warriors, who have ridden horses into battle for years of in game play, being asked to roll a ride check that they cannot possibly fail.

It’s inane, and worse, boring.

The other problem is that this process of skill checks creates a situation where you are training your players to think within the confines of their character sheet. Instead of asking “Could I do X,” they begin to look at their character sheets and say, “I can’t do X because I haven’t trained in it.” I hate that limiting factor and even though Dungeons & Dragons 5e (D&D 5e) has largely truncated the skill list down the problem remains all the same.

What I propose is to do away with the skill system altogether. Instead we’re going to be using Ability Checks to determine our chances of success at a given task.

To do this we need to first adopt an additional change in regard to our ability scores. We need to establish a hard cap for any ability score so that our characters are not going to experience the same sort of near infallibility that came with the D&D 3.5 skill system.

I’m going to limit any ability score with a hard cap of 18 on any ability with the exception of Strength as it will be using the exceptional strength rules from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e (AD&D 2e). I’ll discuss exceptional strength a bit more later, but for right now it’s enough to just know it’s there.

So why the hard cap at 18?

The way we’re going to be doing Ability Checks in this alternative method is by rolling under the ability score to determine success. This allows us to keep checks challenging as there is always a chance for failure.

This method also asks a bit more of the Dungeon Master (DM) as now they will not only be assigning bonuses and penalties to the roll based on the character’s history within the game world, but they will additionally be determining which ability score will work best in a given situation. This flexibility allows for a bit more variety at the table as one table might choose to make identifying a potion’s contents an Intelligence check while another makes it a Wisdom check. Both choices are equally valid, however, once your table has chosen an ability to be tested for a certain task it should remain the same ability throughout the campaign.

Additionally, since we’re rolling under the ability score to determine success there will be a couple of changes that we need to keep in mind. Bonuses to the roll will be subtracted from the roll while penalties will be added to the roll.

I’m also electing to make a Critical Success a result of 1 on Ability Checks and a Critical Failure a result of 20. You are welcome to decide how to handle Critical Successes and Failures in your own games but I think this will work nicely in my own.


10 thoughts on “An Alternative Method for Skill Checks in DnD 5e”

  1. I’d like to come up with a system that minimizes rolling. I only really play with my kids, who are not always super-critical thinkers, but I’ve always believed that creativity & intelligence should be rewarded over just rolling & playing the percentages.

    But yeah, fewer skills is better, especially if they’re more applicable. I also like the systems that let you use different abilities with skills when applicable. For example, Performance (Strength) to do a “strong man” demonstration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s where the judgement call aspect of being a DM comes in. Like, we don’t have to make people roll unless we feel it’s necessary. If you think their plan should work then why bring in the dice?

      Let it work and let them have fun. Failure should always be an option but there is no reason why you shouldn’t reward their hard work by letting a well thought out plan go the way they wanted.


  2. 5E pointed the way towards Fewer Skills Better.
    I’ve taken that to the extreme. In 5E, all skill checks are Ability Check (Skill). Go further.
    What does your character know how to do?
    Your PC is Trained in 2 or 3 abilities–he or she spent lots of time developing those abilities. Your PC comes from somewhere–wilderness, farm country, city poor, city rich. And your PC’s family did something for a living. From there, your DM decides whether you are Trained or Untrained in whatever the current situation is.
    So Trained Checks are d20 + d6 (training) +stat bonus + level (plus race, feat, etc)
    Untrained Checks are d20 + stat + 1/2 level. (You DO pick up general competence by adventuring)
    When you reach 3rd level (veteran), Expert is an available option, adding another d6 to a subset like Stealth or Performance or Tinkering. (Or Crafting, Healing if I ever rewrite the system to supports a Heal skill vs spells)


  3. It looks like you’re substituting the attribute rolls from AD&D into 3.5e. I do prefer that style over having to keep track of bonuses. Conversely, you just recreated GURPS with the D20 system (3d6, roll under attribute or skill, a personal favorite of mine!).

    Castles & Crusades does something similar with their ‘skill’ checks. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with their mechanics, the SIEGE Engine, or not. They have a more narrative skill system, like what you’re proposing. You state your action, then roll against your attribute. In that system, attributes are either prime, where you’re more proficient in that attribute and roll a 12 or higher to succeed, or it’s a secondary attribute, and you roll a 18 or higher. You may add your character’s level if the character’s class would normally do that sort of activity. That way, anyone could try to pick a lock, and early on, someone with a prime in Dex may be almost as likely as a thief to pick a lock, but only the thief will be able to do it more skillfully at higher levels.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The roll under ability hearkens back to earlier versions of D&D.

    To keep it in line with how attacks and saves are made, you could still do “roll 1d20 + ability modifier vs DC”. Still cuts out the skill system, but avoids the confusion of having to roll over for some checks, and under for others.

    Liked by 1 person

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