Skill Rulings

Somehow I managed to run my last D&D campaign very successfully without really paying much thought to skills. And I can’t even really remember any specific instances where I had the players make skill checks. Surely we can’t have been playing for five months without any skill checks coming up, but with the way things played out, there wasn’t much need for them. For most interactions, the outcome happened to be obvious without a die roll needed. But going forward, and aiming for adventures with more ruin exploration and investigation of strange phenomenons, I think it will be useful to properly look at the skill and come up with a general ruling on when and how they are used in my next campaign.

When to call for checks

As a general rule of thumb, I like to go with  the approach of “Assume Competence”. The PCs are adventurers, doing adventuring stuff for a living. They also are natives who have lived their entire lives in the setting of the campaign. If they encounter something that someone in their position would be likely to know, there’s no point in being shy about the information. Just tell the players what they are looking at, and the relevant context of what it means. Similarly, if an action is something that you wouldn’t think of being a problem, and the off chance of a possible failure wouldn’t carry big significant consequences, there is generally no point in calling for a check. As such, I think checks with a Difficulty Class of 10 (easy) are generally not worth rolling unless the PC in question has a really poor modifier, and DC 5 (very easy) checks only make any sense if the consequences of failure would be catastrophic. (I like making players deal with what fate has given them, and carry on forward in the face of defeat. Success in any venture is never guaranteed.)

How to roll checks

Another policy I’ve adopted in the past is that ability checks and skill checks are always called by the GM, never declared by the player (who then usually rolls a die without waiting for a response). I like to first talk through the whole situation and make sure the player has understood what’s going on, and I am clear on what the player is trying to accomplish. A die roll is almost always made to generate a randomized answer to a question. It’s important that we’re all on the same page what the question is first. And then, as the GM, it is me who decides which ability or skill applies to the attempted action. Something that I’ve not done yet, but absolutely plan to going forward, is to always declare the DC of the roll when calling for a check. This has three reasons.

The first thing is that it speeds up play a little bit. When a player shouts “I want to do X, and I’ve rolled a 16”, I need to take some time to think about what an 18 means in this situation. If a roll is a 2 or a 24, it’s obvious if that means success or failure. But a 13 or a 16? Deciding if the DC should be a 10 or a 15 retroactively after the player already announced the result is a situation I would refer to as sub-optimal. Now I’ve to make a judgement call I really don’t want to make in the first place. That puts me in a weird spot and takes time while the players wait for me to decide what to do. And with my ADD, I tend to get moments of brain lock in these situations and take even longer to sort out my thoughts what just happened and what I have to do now that the player announced a number.

The second reason is dramatic. If you declare the DC before the roll is made, all the player can stare at the dice to see how it lands, and if the player mentioned what the modifier is on the roll, they get the result immediately. The player does not have to tell me the result and I don’t need to come up with an eloquent way to describe the outcome. It’s already there for everyone to see.

And thirdly, it establishes that I as the GM am completely disinterested in the outcome of the skill check. The players propose an action, I tell them the DC. All the responsibility of what happens next lies exclusively with the players deciding to take the action and the roll of the dice. I am not influencing the outcome of their plan one way or another. (Though, of course, I still have a great degree of creative freedom of what a success or failure actually means specifically.) This is an essential component of actual open-ended sandbox play.

Specific Skills

Strength (Athletics) is very straightforward. Make a judgement call on whether a physical task is medium, hard, very hard, and call for a roll on the corresponding DC. Failure while climbing means the character makes no progress that round. Failing by 5 or more means the character falls at the halfway point of that round’s movement.

Dexterity (Stealth) is checked once per “obstacle”. Any group of guards counts as a single obstacle, regardless of how many guards are in the group. Getting to the stairs while staying out of the lamp light is one obstacle, going up the creaking stairs without making noise is another obstacle, even through they could both be done in the same round. To hide in combat, the character first needs to break line of sight to any enemy you want to hide from (movement) and then conceal yourself in a hiding space while being observed (action). To attack from hiding, against an enemy who knows you’re somewhere nearby (because he just saw you run into the room or around the corner seconds ago) you need to be able to move from your hiding spot towards the enemy and make the attack in a single turn. Sneaking up on enemies who are currently in combat is impossible, unless you’re invisible or something close to it. Sneaking can be done as a group check. If at least half the members of the group get a Dexterity (Stealth) check that beats the Passive Perception of any guards or monsters, they are guiding the other characters with hand signals on when to move and where to step to also make it undetected successfully.

Intelligence (Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion) are usually passive skills. Assuming Competence, if something the players encounter would be known to all sufficiently educated people, they get the information for free as part of the initial description without specifically having to ask for it. The GM is the eyes and ears, and also setting knowledge of the PCs. These are things the players can’t really ask for unless they already know their significance. Skill checks can still be made in situation where players have a specific question about something they’ve been thinking of themselves.

Intelligence (Investigation) is always an active skill. An Intelligence (Investigation) check always serves to provide an answer to a question the player states to the GM. Figuratively speaking, a check is made when a player puts a magnifying glass to something the GM already described. The players still have to think by themselves to select an object for further investigation and ask a specific question about the object. “Can I find traces of poison?”, “Are there any signs of tempering on the metal?”, “Is it possible to estimate the person’s height based on the footprints?” Again, DC 5 and DC 10 checks are generally not worth making a roll and players get the answer simply for thinking to ask about it. Intelligence (Investigation) checks are made when only a trained expert could get an answer. The DC for the roll may be kept hidden from the players if it seems appropriate for the situation, but the check is still made openly. In that case, failure could mean either “it’s not there” or “you can’t see it”.

“I search the room.” It is possible for players to make an Intelligence (Investigation) check to search an area or a specific object, but only one check may be made for each area and object, and only a single discovery may be made that way. If the whole party searches together, it counts as Working Together, and a single check is made by the most skilled character at advantage. It’s best for players to first search an area “manually” by describing what they are looking for and where they are checking specifically, as they will automatically find anything that is hidden in a spot where they thought to look. An Intelligence (Investigation) check at the end of the search has the chance to reveal one more hidden object that their previous searching has missed. This is an application of the paradigm “You can not roll dice to avoid playing the game!” that still keeps the Investigation skill in the game and useful.

Wisdom (Insight) is used to judge an NPCs sincerity and earnestness. Players have to announce a suspicion and make an active skill check. The roll is made in the open by the player, but the DC is always hidden. Both a failed check and a genuinely sincere NPC result in the reply “You don’t sense any duplicity.”. A high roll gives greater confidence that the NPC is actually sincere, while a low roll means a great degree of uncertainty. It is up to the players to decide what to do with that information. Again, group checks can be made by all PCs present at the interaction. More than two people searching only decreases the amount of time it takes, but does not improve the odds of discovering something.

Wisdom (Perception) is usually done passive, but players can declare that they are actively scanning their surroundings for things that stand out or could be a threat. In situations where it matters, this counts as an action for each round. (While a single character making a Wisdom (Perception) check still has the same odds as Passive Perception, groups of characters all watching actively do improve their odds of one of them spotting something well hidden.)

Charisma (Deception) checks are called any time the GM thinks an NPC has reason to be suspicious and not take the PCs at their word immediately. The checks are made against an opposed Wisdom (Insight) check by the NPC.

Charisma (Persuasion) checks are made to win over NPCs who are hesitant about a course of action. It can not convince NPCs to do things that are directly against their own interest. If trying to convince someone of the truthfulness of your claim, the DC depends on how plausible your story is. If trying to persuade someone of a course of action that is in their interest, the DC depends on how great the price for the NPC will be. The NPCs Wisdom or Intelligence bonus might be added to the die roll if it seems appropriate, as smarter NPCs would be more likely to understand the necessity for certain decisions. For tricking NPCs into assuming an action is in their interest even though it is not, Charisma (Deception) checks are made.

That Cloak & Dagger Stuff

It’s fair to say that D&D 5th edition is not my personal dream game. But it’s a system that I feel confident I can work with and that has a lot of things going for it, and there are several reasons why I want to pick it up again after the fantastic campaign I ran a year ago. But one of the main areas where my feelings about it are the most ambivalent are the skills, particularly the skills typical for thieves. I already wrote a bit about opening locks and disarming traps in my last post, before I was so suddenly and rudely interrupted by getting a job offer, starting immediately.

Another skill that didn’t sit quite right with me the first time I worked myself through the rules was Stealth. Not because the rules seemed outright nonsensical, but because they contain some implications I found odd, and don’t elaborate any further on it. The main oddity is that using Stealth to hide is specifically given as one of the actions you can do on your turn in combat. Not taking an action to use a skill. Specifically hiding, and only hiding. What does that even mean to hide in combat, as your action for the round?

Even though I would personally make the rules of D&D quite different than they are in many places, I try to at least stick to the letters of the Player’s Handbook, to accomodate players coming to the campaign familiar with the rules. Especially when running open table campaigns where strangers are invited to join in without much required preparation. But even then, the “No Stupid” Rule takes precedent in my campaigns. Any application of the rules that would result in a clearly nonsensical outcome for the situation and context is invalid and gets overriden by common sense. And as GM, I’m gonna be the judge on what is reasonably fantastical or straight up nonsensical.

Using your Stealth skill do disappear from an enemy’s perception in the place where you stand would of course be nonsensical. Hiding behind the curtain while an enemy sees you getting behind the curtain would also be nonsensical. So would be running behind a stack of crates and enemies losing track of where you are. The rules spell out that you can’t hide from an enemy that can see you. This rules out the first example. But the other two examples both break line of sight, and so you’re no longer “seen” specifically. But if an enemy sees you move into your hiding place, and you’re stuck in the place where you were seen disappearing, getting the status of being hidden still seems nonsensical. And what are you actually doing with your action if moving to a position that breaks line of sight is already covered by your movement, which is separete from your action in each round?

Now after a long preamble, here’s my approach to how hiding in combat shpuld work: To hide from enemy combatants, you first need to break line of sight. All it takes for that is to move to a space where you can not be seen by the enemies. This can be running into another room, around a corner, or a large stack of crates, for example. At this point, you’re not being seen, but you’re not hidden. As soon as an enemy moves around the obstacle that breaks line of sight, you’re being seen again. But for the duration while you are not being seen, you can move into a specific hiding place and conceal yourself as an action. Pulling away a curtain and draping it over you could be an action. Crawling under a bad could be an action. Jumping into a pile of leaves and covering up your parts that stick out could be an action. That’s where you make your hiding check. Or your Dexterity (Stealth) check. If now an enemy comes into the room after seeing you run through the door, you are now hidden and the enemy has to start searching the room. And while the enemy is leaning down to check under the bed first, you can jump out from behind the curtain to strike.

Now what does that mean for combat? With this ruling, the tactic of disappearing every round by hiding and rejoining the fight with advantage and sneak attack damage simply does not work. Some players might expect it to, but that’s where I’d put my foot down as the GM and enforce No Stupid! Which in 5th edition isn’t even a big deal, as all you need to sneak attack is to target an enemy that is in combat with one of your allies. And how often is a PC fighting alone anyway. (Though admittedly, rogues are the most likely to end up in that situation.)

Which also brings up the question of how you can make a Sneak Attack from hiding if you can’t be hidden while you’re visible? As soon as you step out of your hiding place, you’re no longer hidden and don’t gain the advantage you need to Sneak Attack. Strictly speaking that limits the options to making ranged attacks while remaining concealed, but that seems to be quite unlikely to be the writers’ intention. My ruling on this would be that you gain the benefits from attacking from hiding for any attacks you make on the same turn as you come out of hiding. If you can close the distance between your hoding spot and your target and make an attack as part of the same turn, I count this as attacking from hiding. The target may see you as you make the attack, but it comes so suddenly that there’s no time to properly react to it before the target’s turn. (Unless the target has a special ability that grants it a reaction, like Parry.)

Does this make rogues weaker than many players would expect? Probably. But it’s also not overriding any actual spelled out rule. It only fills in the gaps left by the rules with interpreatatons that prioritize common sense over tactical skirmish gaming.

Thieves’ Tools and Fast Hands

Fast Hands

Starting at 3rd level, you can use the bonus action granted by your Cunning Action to make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, use your thieves’ tools to disarm a trap or open a lock, or take the Use an Object action.

This main feature of the rogue class’ Thief specialization is frankly ridiculous. I’ve seen some good lockpickers open locks incredibly fast. Yes, it is possible to open a lock in one second. If it’s a modern lock with standardized parts and fixed tolerances, that has a certain design flaw, you already identified the lock as having that design flaw, and you are in position to start, with your tool in hand. Then it might work in a second on first try. Might also take a couple of tries. But in the middle of a chase or a fight? When you first have to get out your tools from your pack and take a moment to examine the lock that is custom made, one in a kind, prone to rusting and getting dirt in? Yeah, no. Not gonna happen.

However, Fast Hands is the main ability of the Thief, and simply scrapping half of its effects seems overly drastic. I think the idea to make a Slight of Hand skill check or the Use an Object action without stopping in what you’re currently doing is actually really cool. But not that lockpicking and trap disarming thing. That is just silly.

Here is my proposed fix for the campaign I am currently planning:

By default, using Thieves’ Tools to pick a lock or disarm a trap takes 1 minute. (Or one exploration turn, if you’re using the old B/X 10-minute turns to track time in dungeons, as I plan to.) The Fast Hand ability allows a thief to attempt the skill check as a regular action in one round, but that check is made at a disadvantage.

This should result in events that are much more sane. But it also makes this aspect of Fast Hand continue to be very useful and a big boost to thieves over other characters who are proficient with Thieves’ Tools. It makes retreating from a fight through a locked door, or getting a door open before an approaching patrol comes around the corner an option that the party otherwise would not have. (Other than just trying to smash the door.) And it also means that it can be preferable for the thief to make the attempt properly and not rushed if there are consequences for failure.