How to use skill checks in D&D

skill checks in D&D

Using skill checks in D&D seems simple at first until problems arise. When you have a wizard bend and break the bars while a barbarian cannot, there is a problem.

When you use skill checks in D&D do not change the DC. Limit the number of tries, and have the description make sense.

I have been playing D&D since there were no skill checks and those were dark times. We have had skill checks since 3rd edition, but there have always been a few persistent problems.

The problems with skill checks

Skill checks in D&D let us test our characters and see if we are skilled enough to do a given task. This might be deducing what the ancient writings are saying or seducing a dragon. Different skill checks have different difficulties but sometimes have strange results.

Have you ever been in a situation where a class should succeed at a skill check but another class succeeds? A great example is a barbarian telling the wizard what these ancient runes mean or the wizard opening a door that the barbarian was too weak to open. These don’t make sense and break the narrative.

What is worse, some skill checks don’t let your characters do basic things that they should be able to. A druid could be unable to identify simple plants. A monk can only jump 2 inches. Natural 1s can destroy part of the game and make players feel terrible.

No system is perfect. There are flaws in every system and skill checks are the same. There are also flaws with how skill checks in D&D are done at times.

“You try your best but are unable to wedge open the door.”

“I try again.”

If a player fails but is able to repeat the check, there is no point in the check. This is a problem that many dungeon masters deal with. Meaningless skill checks. We will cover that in another section, but there are flaws with how skill checks can be done.

“You cannot decipher the runes with a natural 1.”

“Timmy tries! And Brenda tries if Timmy fails. Then Brent if Brenda fails, and so on.”

Having players try after someone else has failed is a huge issue that will also be dealt with in a later section.

As you can see, there are quite a few examples of problems already. We, however, will first address these problems shown and continue to address other problems and how to fix them in this article. So read, enjoy, and learn how to use skill checks in D&D successfully!

Unlimited tries

When characters have to open a door or pick a lock they have to make a skill check. It only makes sense that players should use their skills in order to solve these issues. The problem is when they are not forced to succeed right away by outside pressure.

If a chest is locked and a rogue rolls a natural 1 then the player might have their lockpicks break. I highly suggest against doing this because lockpicks are hard to find, but you can punish in other ways. If the dungeon doesn’t require time, then have the rogue work on the lock for an hour.

This is extremely long, but the rest of the party gets a short rest while the rouge is forced to whittle away. Now if the rogue wants to recover hit dice the party will have to find another spot and rest just for the rogue. To avoid this, the rogue has to be careful or expend party resources.

The punishment there is not apparent and might not even bear fruit, but something bad has happened for the failure. The other players might chastise the rogue for taking so long as well.

This way, taking extra time to finish a task is embarrassing for the player and potentially harmful to their character later on.

If a player rolls poorly on a skill check (not a natural 1) they might just take a while to solve the challenge. 1 hr is excessive. Instead, the player might have to ask the party for help. In a pinch like combat this wouldn’t work, but out of combat it is slightly embarrassing. It also promotes team work.

Group checks

Does anyone know how to find food out here? Seriously, we are out of rations and going to die!

The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) already has a system set up for group checks. The dungeon master calls for a group check and everyone rolls. If the majority passes the group succeeds. So if 4/7 people pass then they succeed.

This works great for stealth checks, but it doesn’t work so well with things like historic writings or athletic checks to open a door. For these checks usually, there is usually only 1 person attempting a check and others will pick up the slack if they fail.

That is why I suggest in session 0 to layout some home rules. If you want tips on how to do a session 0 read here. For those of you who are past session 0, you can tell your group that you want to implement some home rules to avoid everyone rolling once someone has failed.

My home rule for this is that 2 players can roll on a skill check, or if 1 is proficient give advantage to another. I still call group checks for things like stealth where the whole group has to participate.

This home rule works fairly well. If there are fewer players, it is less likely that 2 people are proficient in a skill. If there are more players, it is more likely that players will be proficient in the same area and can provide advantage or have a better chance to get through a skill check.

Furthermore, when a player fails the party is able to have 1 other person roll. This way the party gets 1 more chance and doesn’t feel cheated. It is all on them how they use this rule and since implementing it my party has never had a problem. The rule is simple and fair. That is why players can remember it.

This home rule also gets around the problem of having a wizard open a door while a barbarian can’t. The party has to decide who will be used in the skill check and a wizard isn’t likely. If the cleric opens a door that the barbarian could not it isn’t that bad roleplay wise.

Skill checks in D&D do not always need to happen. There are circumstances where a player should not have to roll.

When not to roll

A player is opening an unlocked wooden door. Roll an athletics check!

This would be absolutely stupid. It bogs down gameplay and does not make the game better in any way. It is not a challenge to open a standard door, but it would be a challenge to open a locked door with sheer strength.

These are obvious examples, but what about when the player levels? Should a bard roll to persuade a noble? It depends. Is that noble a low ranking new noble or a seasoned veteran? If that noble is a low ranking noble the bard might not have to roll.

If you know that the bard has a +11 to persuasion where even a 1 is likely to succeed you do not need to have the bard roll. Just let the bard bask in what they are good at and let the noble be charmed by the bard.

This is more of a high-level concept, but it applies to lower level characters as well.

You might have thought that the example above is a high-level bard, but it is actually just a 5th level bard with expertise. At 3rd level, it would only be +8, and at 4th it would be +9. These rolls are ridiculous and should be applied to other situations. If a bard of this caliber is trying to persuade a local peasant to give up information we usually have that bard roll.

Why do we do that?

We don’t have players roll for basic things like opening doors since they are universal to everyone, but each character is different. If a bard is talking to a local peasent let the succeed. If a rogue is picking a common door with +11 let them just succeed. They might roll a 1,2, or 3 but the chances are so low that you can just let them succeed.

In general, if the DC is 3 away from what they would roll with a natural 1 just let them succeed. It is not exciting if the player makes the roll and it is only frustrating if the player fails. Nothing good comes out of it, but there are times to adjust the difficulty of checks.

DCs

The most important thing to know about Dice checks (DCs) are to convey the difficulty to the player. If the player wants to climb a mountain tell them that it will be tough or that it doesn’t look too difficult before the player commits. This lets the player make an informed decision and not be mad afterward when they fail at what they thought was a simple task. Now onto what DCs are!

DCs are thresholds for characters to reach. When we use skill checks these are the standards that players have to beat. DCs can be modified, but they should not be modified to negatively impact others.

When a player is trying to climb a mountain that is fine. DC 10 or 15 for every few feet. If the mountain is smooth +5-10 DC. If the mountain is slippery from rain add +5-10 DC. Conditions can make a DC harder.

On the contrary, if a person is climbing a mountain that already has a roped path, the DC will be lowered. DC is dependent on the conditions and inherent difficulty of a task. Players and the environment can raise or lower the DC based on their actions. This should not, however, affect lucky dice rolls.

If the DC to convince a noble is 25 and a player rolls a 19 but only has a +3 to the check, they should not be able to convince the noble. Does this happen? No. Sometimes dungeon masters give the player who rolled a 19 a success when success was impossible.

What you chose to do on a natural 20 is a bit different even if the DMG says that a natural 20 should not matter in skill checks. The important thing is to not change the DC based on a roll. Even if it is a good roll, it shouldn’t work. That roll would not work in combat if the AC of a creature was 25 and someone rolled a natural 19 with a +3. It should not work in skill checks either.

This may seem counter-intuitive. A player rolled well so they should be rewarded. A player can roll well in combat and not be rewarded. If a player rolls a good number but doesn’t have the skills to meet the challenge they should fail. If they don’t, think of what that means for the other players.

Someone is trained in that skill. If a person can just roll high and get the result of someone who is specialized, why specialize? I know that statistically it is unlikely and that is the reason why you should specialize but in the moment it doesn’t make the player feel good. Especially if they find out that you are just giving it to them due to the good roll.

This last part was debatable but I stand by the notion that a wizard shouldn’t be able to lift a door when a barbarian would have had a hard time doing it. The same thing is said for a barbarian charming a noble when a bard would have had a tough time. Just because it is a social situation doesn’t make it okay to change things.

Speaking of social situations.

Social skill checks

Social skill checks are weird. Most skill checks in D&D are simple. There is a DC that the players must beat and if they do so they succeed. If there is an opposed skill check the player must roll their deception vs insight or whatever opposing skills are being used.

Social skill checks don’t usually work this way.

We always wait for a player to do something and then ask the player to roll a persuasion, deception, or whatever is required. In an adventure with opening a door we would have the player roll first and then describe what they are doing.

Why are these two methods completely backward for the same skill check?

For the door example, it is most of the time a pre-placed object. The dungeon master can anticipate that the players are coming to this spot and will tell them what to do. In social situations, this can happen but players are not as predictable.

Since players are not in a controlled environment they may try to do something unanticipated. Deceiving the noble and seducing his wife for example. You would not anticipate that the players would go down this route so once they have done the action a skill check is called.

This makes sense, but for those who do not have the suave out of game give them an alternative. Let them know in session 0 or whenever possible that they can say what they desire and just roll.

Some people may say that this is wrong or not the best way to do things. A social skill check should always be done after the players initiate something of their own accord.

If a player states they want to do something they should be allowed to do it. Players are also playing a game to be a person that they are not. An antisocial person might play a bard and not know what to do. They just want to roll a persuasion and see if they can charm the noble.

This allows those who do not possess great social skills to use their character appropriately and is exactly how we use other skill checks. It is up to the dungeon master to narrate and facilitate that story.

Descriptors

The player rolls a total of 17 charming the noble with a persuasion check. The dungeon master tells the player that they succeeded and the noble is open to their ideas.

If you use skill checks in D&D like this, you make the action seem unimportant. Skill checks should have descriptors to make them lively. We try to use descriptors in combat to make the fight feel alive. Dungeon masters use descriptors to set the scene and explain the world. Why not use them in skill checks?

First, if you need help on how to use descriptors check out our article on descriptors.

Now that you know how to use descriptors, you probably understand why they are important. The action that a player takes should feel real to them. Describing how the player’s muscles bulge to rip a door off its hinges makes a scene alive. It is much better than saying that the players break down the door.

In social situations, you want to make a fail or success apparent and give the players a bit of insight into the situation. If a player fails to charm the noble the noble can sneer at them and tell the player that he doesn’t like commoners or their taste in fashion.

This failure gives the players some information to come back with a second try and charm the noble. With a different character of course. This also gives the NPC character and makes the world feel more alive. The NPC is not just a character cut out for the players to roll higher than.

More importantly, this will help your party be creative and take the initiative.

Improving your game

When you use skill checks in D&D properly your players will start to be more creative. New players might want to be strung along a questline and railroaded, but you want more. The best games are usually when players do things that are not anticipated.

D&D is a cooperative experience. The players are not just following a book’s plotline and helping a dungeon master play out that book. The story is shaped by players and dungeon masters.

When you use skill checks properly and encourage your players to do so they start thinking for themselves. The game becomes more unpredictable and alive.

How are you going to solve this challenge? There isn’t 1 answer. A player may try to swoon a dragon instead of fight or charm it. Players might instead of picking a door decide to bust the door in.

There is no right answer and giving proper descriptors while letting your players experiment will improve your game.

That is why doing using skill checks in D&D well is important.

Conclusion

I kind of made a concluding paragraph in the last one, but let me just say a few things.

Describe the results of your skill checks.

Don’t change the DC based on a di roll.

Adjust the DC based on the situation if it is called for.

Players do not always have to roll.

Group checks do not have to be a nightmare. The wizard doesn’t have to one-up the barbarian and vice-versa.

If you want, use the rule I set forth where only 2 rolls are allowed. 1 with advantage if another has proficiency or just 2 player rolls.

Don’t call for skill checks if they are unnecessary.

There are other ways to punish players for failure than ‘you just can’t do it.’

I hope that this has helped you with your skill checks.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!

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