Alternate Skill System for D&D 5e

After my current campaign comes to a close, I’m probably going to be running D&D 5e for my group. As a DM, I like it because there’s not a lot of complication to the rules. For example, running skills can be summed up pretty easily in about three sentences. However, my players like customization, so 5e’s skill system doesn’t quite appeal to them. I tried looking around online for alternatives, since the suggestions in the DMG don’t do what I want. I also tried looking around online, but I didn’t like what I found there either. This is my attempt at creating my own.

Design Goals

There are a couple of things I want a skill customization to accomplish. These things are a balance between what I want as a DM and what my players want for character customization.

It should be fairly easy to administer. One of the things I hated about Pathfinder was how difficult it was to keep track of skill points. It was pretty common for my players to have their skill points spent incorrectly, typically not enough. Keeping everything up-to-date in Hero Lab was also a huge pain in the ass. While compatability with D&D Beyond would be nice (and I think it’s doable if a bit clumsy via overrides), that’s not a primary concern.

It shouldn’t wildly change 5e’s power curve. This should go without saying, but I don’t want to have to rework DCs or monster skills. This is also why I won’t consider changing the skill list itself. It also helps me keep the changes to a minimal. For example, I’m going to treat tool proficiency like other proficiencies, tying it to your core proficiency bonus progression. Since it’s easy to gain tool proficiencies, I don’t feel like spending points on them is worthwhile.

Investing in the system should provide a tangible reward. One of the suggestions I saw on reddit provided a number of skill points equal to your class’s proficiencies, and your proficiency bonus was equal to your effective level for that skill. I don’t like this because it doesn’t really create the feeling of progressing in a skill, since your increases are still delayed in spite of investing points.

It should allow for customization outside of your class’s archetype. This is something that Pathfinder allows, but 5e does not. The only way to get any kind of proficiency in Stealth as a fighter is via an appropriate background or feats that add it to your list of proficient skills. I think this will also help allay my players’ concerns about customization.

The Design

All of the skills that you may choose as proficiencies are now known as primary skills. A primary skill is a skill that you can train more easily than other, secondary skills. You also gain skill points that you can spend to increase your proficiency in your skills, either primary or secondary. The first time you invest a skill point to a primary skill, your bonus to that skill starts at +2. Your bonus increases by +1 for every point you invest after that, but you may not invest more points than one more than your proficiency bonus (up to a maximum of +6). Your secondary skills increase at the same rate, but you most invest two points to gain the same effect as spending one point on a primary skill. You cannot bank skill points, and you may have a fractional bonus to a secondary skill, which rounds down as usual.

You start with a number of skill points equal to the number of skill proficiencies you gained from your background and class 1st level. Every time you gain a level, you gain one more skill point that you must spend. Rogues gain a bonus skill point at 3rd level and every two levels after that, and bards gain a bonus skill point at 5th level and every four levels after that. Your skill points may be spent on either secondary or primary skills. If you gain additional skill proficiencies from multiclassing or the Skilled feat, you retroactively gain skill points that must be spent before you complete the leveling up process.

For the purposes of game mechanics that rely on skill proficiency, you are considered proficient with a skill if and only if you have invested skill points into it.

Example

Claudette cal Musicia is an elven fighter with the noble background. At 1st level, she has the following primary skills: Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, History, Insight, Intimidation, Perception, and Survival. Between her class and background, she would normal receive four skill proficiencies, so she instead receives four skill points that she must spend.

As the captain of the Grand Elven Adventuring Company and a member of the Imperial family of the Grand Kingdom, she has some diplomatic training. To reflect this, Claudette invests two skill points into Persuasion as well as one into Insight and one into Perception. This gives her the following skill bonuses (in addition to her ability score modifiers for those skills): Insight +2, Persuasion +2, and Perception +2.

As Claudette gains levels in the field, she chooses to focus more on her adventuring skills while brushing up a bit on her history, since she has gotten word that things are changing back home. From 2nd to 5th levels, she invests a point into Athletics, a point into Survival, two points into Perception, and one point into History. This gives her the following proficiency bonuses to her skills: Athletics +2, History +2, Insight +2, Persuasion +2, Perception +4, and Survival +2.

Closing Thoughts

I feel like I mostly achieved my design goals. The low number of skill points should make it easy to keep track of them, and they correlate fairly directly with your actual proficiency modifier. Things are a little murkier with secondary skills, but I think that is okay. You can just record a fractional bonus and round down. The only place that might be questionable is how it interacts with 5e’s power curve. If you focus your skill points, your skill bonuses will jump ahead of your proficiency bonus before it catches up. I need to think about that some more, so that part may change. Additionally the additional proficiencies may subvert expectations regarding the spread of bonuses characters have, but I am fine with that.

Update on August 25, 2018: I decided to address the growth issue by capping skill bonuses at +6. I considered changing it to a base of +1 (instead of +2) and giving an extra skill point at 1st level, but I like the idea that if you focus on your core skills, you will max them all out by the time you hit the next tier of your proficiency bonus. This does mean 17th through 20th level characters can pick up some extra skill proficiencies, but that doesn’t seem problematic at face value (based on my previously being fine with more skill diversification).