Alternate Skill System for D&D 5e

If you’ve seen this article before, that’s because I posted it back in August on a previous version of this blog. I’ve expanded the opening and closing. I’ve also tweaked and clarified the system based on playtest experience.

When we start our next campaign, I’ll be running the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D 5e) for my group. One of the things I like about it is how easy it is to adjudicate skills. The gist of it can be summed in a couple of sentences: if you have a challenge where the outcome matters, roll an appropriate ability score (skill); if there is active opposition, have them roll an appropriate opposing ability score (skill); otherwise, pick an appropriately challenging DC and have the player roll against that; and situational modifiers can be handled by assigning advantage or disadvantage as appropriate. That’s it (although that’s admittedly more than a few sentences). You pick which ability score based on your understanding of the situation. Climbing something? That’s Strength. If it’s an endurance test, then that’s Constitution. Unfortunately, the players’ experience was also optimized, and my players don’t like it.

One of the things that D&D 5e carries forward from the 4th edition of the game is its simplified approach to skill training: pick your skills at 1st level and gain a training bonus to them. In 5e, that’s your proficiency bonus, but it amounts to the same thing. The designers did this because people who played the 3rd edition of the game tended to pick skills at 1st level and continue investing their skill points in those skills as they gained levels, or at least that’s what they think people did.

If you stop to think about it, that makes some sense. During the time 3e was on the market, the overall adventure design philosophy shifted towards one where encounters were balanced and paced based on the players’ characters and the system’s guidelines. If you’re running a game for a party of 7th level characters, then you’re supposed to be pitting them against challenges appropriate for 7th level characters, and for skills that means skill DCs that are appropriate for those characters. Skill DCs did not scale with level in that system, but it’s easy enough to provide narrative justification (e.g., the lock is rusted, or it’s of a particularly clever and ancient design). However, that’s not how I usually run my games.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, I like to put creatures and obstacles in the world when it makes sense to have them there instead of what makes sense from an encounter balancing or pacing perspective. If there should be an old lock, then there’s an old lock. If the players’ characters can’t get it open with a brute application of their skills, then they can figure out another way around or through it. Or maybe they won’t. Since I’m not running my game around those challenges, it doesn’t matter whether, how, or even if they complete them as long as the story continues to move forward. Additionally, I also like to gate all knowledge through knowledge checks. As a player, that’s something I rarely saw DMs do, but I do it all the time. The player characters enter a cavern with an old rope bridge. They ask if it’s stable. Do you answer them? I don’t. I ask them to make an appropriate skill check. I do that for almost any question like this. The reason why I do this is to make investments in those skills valuable. In Pathfinder Unchained, Paizo provided an option that split skills into adventuring and non-adventuring skills. As far as I’m concerned, most of those things are adventuring skills too. However, it’s on you (the GM) to make them valuable. Consequently, my players tended to spread their skills around a little more when we played Pathfinder.

Another aspect, and it’s probably something other players feel as well given the complaints about customization and the lack there-of in 5e, is that it feels boring to pick skills at 1st level and never change them later. Even if maximizing them is always the correct choice, some people like having that choice. That’s why I created this system. My players like having that choice, so I decided to give it to them. Given the way bounded accuracy works to keep lower leveled things relevant longer, it’s probably a power boost to spread your skills around some now. I think that’s fine. Players still have the option of being boring if they want.

Design Goals

There are only a couple of things that a skill system needs to accomplish. It should be easy to administer, it shouldn’t change the power curve from the system’s default assumptions, engaging with it should feel rewarding, and it should allow you to customize your character outside of its archetype.

One of the things I hated about Pathfinder was how easy it was to screw up your skill points. I can’t think of a campaign where there wasn’t at least one person who hadn’t spent his skill points correctly. With tools, this got a little better. Hero Lab is all but mandatory when creating characters in Pathfinder if you’re using more than a few supplements, and it was still too easy for them to get out of sync because keeping everything updated was an annoying pain in the ass. Making the system easy to administer means that it should be trivial to know how many skill points (or whatever) you have and whether you’ve spent them all. This all but rules out gaining more than a point or two every level, but that’s fine because it’s needed by other considerations.

It goes without saying that any replacement for 5e’s skill system should maintain its power curve. Most characters will be proficient in four skills, and their proficiency in those skills tracks their classes’ proficiency bonuses. That means if players just maximize their skill choices, then their characters should have four skills that track their classes’ proficiency bonuses.

Getting a fractional bonus and having to wait until you get better isn’t very fun for players. When I ran Pathfinder, I could almost never convince the players in my group to take alternate favored class bonuses that gave them fractional benefits even when those were obviously superior mathematically. The pay off just took too long. While looking for options, I found one system that suggested giving characters skill points and making their proficiency be the effective level for that skill. If you invested one skill point, then you got a +2. If you invested two skill points, then your proficiency … stayed the same. That does keep things within the expected power curve, but those breakpoints aren’t going to be very fun for the players. It also didn’t address non-proficient skills.

It’s important that players be able to customize their characters outside of their characters’ classes’ archetypes. If a fighter wants to invest in Arcana, then why not? The player may have a perfectly valid story reason for doing that, and it shouldn’t require taking a feat or multiclassing just to get access to that kind of customization. This sticking point comes up in almost any customization discussion, and I think it’s an important one to consider.

The Design

When you choose a class and background at 1st level, or when you take certain feats or other options, you normally gain a number of skill proficiencies. Sometimes, you pick your proficiencies from a larger list of skills. All of those skills (both the proficiencies and the lists from which you choose proficiencies) are now known as primary skills. A primary skill is a skill that you can train more easily than other, secondary skills. Note that if you gain the same primary skill from multiple sources, you do not get to choose a replacement primary skill due to the duplication.

You now also gain skill points that you can spend to increase your proficiency in any skill. Spending skill points to increase your proficiency in a skill is known as investing in that skill. You may invest in a skill as long as doing so would neither increase its proficiency bonus to one more than your class’s proficiency bonus for your level nor increase it to more than +6. The first time you invest in a primary skill, it gains a proficiency bonus of +2. For every time after that, the bonus increases by 1. When you invest in a secondary skill, the proficiency bonus increases by ½ from a starting proficiency bonus of +0. You are considered proficient in a skill when its proficiency bonus is +1 or greater. You may not save your skill points to spend them later. Any fractional proficiency bonuses round down as usual.

You start with a number of skill points equal to the number of skill proficiencies you would normally choose or gain at 1st level. Every time you gain a level, you gain additional skill points as indicated below. Should you later take an option that would grain additional skill proficiencies (such as from multiclassing or by taking the Skilled feat), you retroactively gain skill points as if you always had those proficiencies, which must be spent before you complete the process of advancing your character.

  • 4 skill proficiencies → gain one skill point at every level
  • 5 skill proficiencies → gain one skill point at every level and gain an additional skill point at 5th level and every four levels after that
  • 6 skill proficiencies → gain one skill point at every level and gain an additional skill point at 3rd level and every two levels after that
  • 7 skill proficiencies → gain two skill points at every level except for 5th, 9th, 13th, and 7th levels where only one skill point is gained
  • 8+ skill proficiencies → gain one skill point at every level in addition to the skill points you would receive for having four fewer proficiencies (e.g., a character that normally has 8 skill proficiencies would instead gain two skill points at every level)

For example, Shilo creates a barbarian sage named Nathan. Barbarians normally can choose two skill proficiencies from Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, and Survival. Sages normally gain two skill proficiencies in Arcana and History. Nathan thus has the following primary skills: Animal Handling, Arcana, Athletics, History, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, and Survival.

Since Nathan would normally start with four skill proficiencies, he instead starts with four skill points. Nathan gains one skill point every time he gains a new level. Shilo decides that Nathan knows a bit about surgery, so she wants to put some of Nathan’s skill points into Medicine. She can do this, but she’ll have to invest at least two points for Nathan to be proficient. She decides to do this and puts the remainder of Nathan’s skill points into Intimidation and Survival. This gives Nathan +2 Intimidation, +1 Medicine, and +2 Survival.

As Nathan gains levels, Shilo can choose to continue investing into these skills, but she can also choose to spread Nathan’s skill points around. As he does, she decides that Nathan likes to sing as he does his work, so she invests two points into Performance, giving him +1 Performance at 3rd level. By the time Nathan hits 6th level, Shilo has also invested two points into Stealth and one more into Survival. This gives Nathan the following skill proficiencies: +2 Intimidation, +1 Medicine, +1 Performance, +1 Stealth, +3 Survival.

Reflections

I feel like I mostly achieved my design goals. The low number of skill points should be easy enough to track. My only concern is that I’m getting a little too loose with the system’s power level expectations. We didn’t experience any issues in the playtest I ran, but the sample size is small (one group for one session). I will need more experience with it over the course of a campaign. My intuition tells me that it probably won’t be an issue in practice. One alternative would be to award skill points only when your class’s proficiency goes up, but that seems like it would be less interesting for the players.