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November 26, 2018

Skill Checks: The Good, The Bad, and The D&D 5e

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D&D 5e is hands-down my favorite tabletop RPG. I’m big into combat and dungeon delving and those are arguably two of the focuses of D&D 5e. That being said, I don’t shy away from trying out different systems. It’s a good way to find out how other systems handle RPG mechanics such as skill checks.

It’s not that I don’t like ability checks in D&D 5e. Coming from D&D 3.5e they’re heavily streamlined and an overall improvement thanks to the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. However, there are some mechanics and ideas that I’ve taken from other games such as the Star Wars RPG and Apocalypse World.

Both of these systems have their flaws, but overall I love the way that they handle skill and ability checks. The one common factor between both of them is that the player knows the result of their roll immediately.

The GM can add difficulty to the roll still, but there’s no deliberation for whether or not the check was successful. In fact, the result of the roll will tell everyone at the table just how successful they were or how much they failed.

For today, let’s dive a little deeper into how all 3 of these systems handle ability and skill checks.

Star Wars RPG

Essentially, your character gets skill points just like in most other games. However, unlike other games the skill points and ability points you have directly determine how many and what kind of dice you roll.

There are ability dice which are determined by your ability modifier that correlates with that skill. For example, Intelligence is used for Computers checks. When you put skill points into a skill you gain proficiency dice which are better than ability dice.

You can have a total of 5 points into any given skill which means you can have 5 proficiency dice. You can have up to 6 ability points though, so you could have anywhere from 1-6 ability points in a given skill. Proficiency dice override ability dice.

You can also add things called boost dice which give you even better positive results for skill checks. You can gain these by having high tech equipment, or a friend can help you with the check and grant you one.

Star Wars RPG skill checks

Play as a Jedi or anything else in the Star Wars universe. Art by Michael J Larson.

The Difficulty is Visible and Predetermined

A check’s difficulty works in a similar way to how you accumulate a dice pool for the check based on your skill points. The GM determines the difficulty factors of the roll. There is a standard difficulty for the roll that will force you to roll a predetermined number of difficulty, setback, or challenge. The dice are listed from least to most difficult.

The GM can then add extra difficulty dice depending on other narrative factors, the opponent’s special abilities, or opposing forces making the task more difficult.

As a player, you know just how difficult the skill check is going to be. You know all of the bonuses your character has and how many detriments there are and how difficult the check will be.

Know The Results Immediately

I like how this works in conjunction. Because difficulty is part of the skill check that you roll, you’ll know whether or not your roll was successful as soon as you see the results. Not only that, but you can see just how successful you were or how spectacularly you failed.

In the Star Wars RPG, there are the following positive symbols: Success, Advantage, and Triumph. There are also three negative symbols: Failure, Threat, and Despair. The way this works is that each positive symbol has a negative symbol that cancels it out.

A Success is canceled out by a Failure. An Advantage is canceled out by a Threat. Lastly, a Triumph is canceled out by a Despair. Once all the dice has been rolled you simply add up the results and cancel out the positives and negatives.

As long as there is at least one Success symbol left you’ve passed the check. Any additional Successes, Advantages, and Triumphs can be spent to further increase the magnitude of success or give your party mechanical benefits.

Tons of Dice

Honestly, the system sounds more complicated written-out than it is in practice. As you can imagine though, the more powerful the characters get the more positive dice they’ll be rolling. They’ll also bump into more challenging skill checks meaning that they’ll have more difficulty dice as well.

This can be super overwhelming and definitely has the capacity to slow down the game as people check through a pile of dice to determine whether or not the check was successful.

That being said, I’ve played this game solely through Roll20 which has access to this fantastic API that does all the checking for you. You could also use a dice roller app to make things easier for playing in person.

I love the fact that you know the results of the check immediately and there’s a quantifiable way to measure difficulty that the players see. It feels more “fair” to the player than an arbitrary number like DC is in D&D 5e.

That being said, the amount of dice rolled for a given skill in the Star Wars RPG can be a drawback in terms of keeping the game running smoothly. I’d personally recommend using Roll20 or a dice app as the system is very fun, but the number of dice can be a hassle in the later parts of the game.

Apocalypse World

Apocalypse World is responsible for a ton of other games that use the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system. They’re all extremely simple games in terms of mechanics, but what they lack in mechanical rules they make up for in player agency and less detailed prep for GMs.

Apocalypse World is a game set after an apocalypse. What happened? Well, that’s up to you and the players. The game is a complete sandbox with very little direction coming from the GM.

Think of it as a west marches D&D game. The players decide where they’d like to go or what they’d like to do and you as the GM will determine what happens based on their actions. It’s a reactionary-style game that’s very loosey-goosey with the rules. Though the few that it has carries the weight of the entire game.

apocalypse world skill check

The apocalypse could’ve happened because of humanity or a natural disaster. Art by 5ofnovember.

2d6+Stat

Every roll of the dice in a PbtA system is a simple 2d6 dice roll. The only modifier you add to it is the appropriate modifier for that stat. Considering the maximum number for a skill modifier is +3 there isn’t a lot of complicated math for this system.

Players can also aid another player by rolling a history check with the other player and can give them a +1 to the check or a -2. That’s correct, Apocalypse World is more than willing to let players mess with each other.

That being said, there’s very little room for error or deliberation in a PbtA system. The MC tells a player what to roll, they roll 2d6 and add their modifier to it.

A 7-9 is a possible success, but with strings attached that the MC will determine based on something that makes narrative sense. A 10+is a success. If your group is using the advanced rules a 12+ is an even better success with 10-11 being a standard success.

No Bullshit Means No Interruptions

There’s very little bullshit that can happen when making a skill check in Apocalypse World. There aren’t a lot of numbers to add up or much difficult arithmetic to do. You don’t have to worry about any outside modifiers unless someone makes a history check to attempt to assist on the skill check.

There aren’t any advantages or disadvantages to dish out and there’s no room for “rules lawyering” to gain some extra points. You either get a partial success, a success, an improved success, or you fail.

There aren’t a lot of rules in Apocalypse World, but the few rules are strict and need to be followed. Skill checks are by far the best example of what I’m talking about. They’re clean, well-defined, and easy to comprehend for everyone at the table.

It took my group about 1 session to fully grasp the system. And since so many other systems use the PbtA learning just one opens up a ton of new possibilities for different genres run by the same game system.

Gaining Experience from Checks

One cool thing about Apocalypse World is that during character creation is that you get two highlighted ability scores. You gain an experience point whenever you make a skill check using either of the abilities.

This puts even more emphasis on skill checks and it rewards the player for coming up with reasons to roll with specific abilities. It’s a cool way to do experience as it makes the player feel like their character is becoming more powerful each time they achieve something (or fail) in game.

D&D 5e

It’s not that I dislike the way that ability checks are handled in D&D 5e. I think they’re all-around pretty solid, but like many things, in D&D it’s a bit difficult to get used to as a new player or DM.

There are so many variables when it comes to D&D 5e skill checks when you compare it to the simplicity of systems like Apocalypse World and the Star Wars RPG. You have a variety of different types of skill checks, and there are even more ways to modify those checks before and after the rolls.

Hot take, D&D 5e has a lot of rules.

D&D 5e skill check thief

You can only assist in a check if you have the ability to make the check yourself. Art by ArtistMeli.

Which Check do I Use?

There are so many different kinds of checks to keep track of. You have the standard ability check, contested skill checks, passive checks, group checks, and you can even have a character assist another character with a check.

There’s a lot to keep track of, and it can be difficult as a new DM to determine when something should be a contested check or just a standard ability check. That example, in particular, was one that was challenging for me to figure out when I first started DMing.

On the flip side, I love how group checks work. It still rewards the characters that have proficiency or expertise in the skill, but it doesn’t punish those who aren’t gifted in whatever skill the group check is based on.

There’s also a variant rule introduced in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist that allows a player to take disadvantage on a group check to give another one advantage. I think this is a really cool idea and is something I’d be more than willing to allow. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play and I’m all about my players coming up with ways to attempt something like that.

Modifiers, Advantage, Features, and Expertise

Between class and archetype features, spells, and magical items there are so many additional modifiers that could be added to a roll. I can’t even list all the possibilities off the top of my head.

This is a pretty common issue with D&D 5e and it continues to get worse the higher level the party is. New class and archetype features, more powerful spells, and access to more magic items introduce yet more potential modifiers for ability checks, saving throws, and attacks.

The advantage and disadvantage system is a godsend and I’ve praised it many, many times. That being said it opens up plenty of opportunities for rules-lawyering or people begging for advantage on rolls.

I don’t have this issue, and I can’t hold this against the system since it’s an issue with a person and not one with the system. That being said, it’s something to watch out for, especially as a new DM.

Determining the Difficulty Check

D&D 5e rpg skill check

Here’s a handy chart to give you a baseline for assigning a DC to a check. Credit to Wizards of the Coast.

Using the chart above you can gain a decent understanding of what DC you should assign to any given check. You can also assign checks between two levels of difficulty. Maybe something isn’t quite hard, but it’s more difficult than a medium DC so you assign a DC of 17 to it for good measure.
The most important thing to remember is that this is not a sliding-scale in terms of difficulty. This is an objective decision by the DM as to if the check is difficult or not, it’s not a decision of how difficult is the check for the character.

Conclusions

All of these systems have their pros and cons, but it’s good to look at how other systems deal with the same mechanics. As a player, I love immediately knowing when a check is successful or if it was a failure. I also love having a set-in-stone way to showcase a more impressive success or a disastrous failure.

Both the Star Wars RPG and Apocalypse World have these rules. Since playing both of them I find myself telling the players what the DC of an ability check or saving throw is before they roll. There are times when I ask for just a flat-out roll for suspense, but most of the time I give them a threshold.

This can be a bit tricky when you have a bard in the group or anyone else that can buff characters in a similar way to bardic inspiration. Any buff or feature that allows a modifier to be applied before the DM declares the result of a check gains a significant buff if the players already know the DC of the roll.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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