Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Skill checks in D&D are one of the main ways that players interact with the world, especially outside of combat.
While most of the players’ actions outside of combat are roleplay-based and require no dice rolls, skill checks are the primary game mechanic that determines success or failure in these situations.
To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier. As with other d20 rolls, apply bonuses and penalties, and compare the total to the DC. If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success—the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it’s a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.
Sometimes, the DM might ask for an ability check using a specific skill—for example, “Make a Wisdom (Perception) check.” At other times, a player might ask the DM if proficiency in a particular skill applies to a check. In either case, proficiency in a skill means an individual can add his or her proficiency bonus to ability checks that involve that skill. Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check.D&D Basic Rules, P61
How Do Skill Checks Work?
Skill checks are very simple. When a player wants to do something in the world, the DM can rule that they need to make a dice roll to determine whether they succeed.
The DM tells the player which skill to roll and, without telling the players, sets a Difficulty Class (DC) for the check. The DC is the number that the player needs to beat.
The player rolls a d20 and adds relevant modifiers like their ability modifier and, if they have proficiency in the skill, their proficiency bonus. If the total is equal to, or higher than, the DC then the player succeeds in doing whatever they were attempting to do.
|DC||Difficulty of the check|
The modifiers that the player adds includes the ability modifier for one of their main abilities – for example, strength or dexterity. Sometimes an ability roll will be required but ordinarily, rolls will also use a skill.
In these cases, the notation of these skill checks is written as “Ability(Skill)”. If a player makes an athletics check this is written as “Strength(Athletics)”.
In this case, a player who’s proficient in Athletics would add both their strength modifier and their proficiency bonus to their roll.
Skill Checks in Combat
Skill checks in combat have almost identical rules to those made outside of combat. In combat though, any act requiring a skill check will usually use that character’s Action on their turn.
What Does Each Skill Do?
In the case of some skills, it’s not immediately intuitive what they do. There’s also an overlap between some skills and it can be tricky to decide which skill a player should use when attempting a particular task.
In cases where it’s not clear which skill should be rolled, it’s often a good idea to ask your player which skill they’re expecting to roll. Often players will attempt a task in a certain way because they think their character would be good at taking that approach, i.e. the character has a skill proficiency that the player believes is relevant.
If the DM calls for the player to roll a different skill, then that can feel bad for the player. Within reason, it’s a good idea to allow players to approach the task using the skills they’d prefer to use.
One example here is the difference between athletics and acrobatics. Athletics uses Strength while Acrobatics uses Dexterity so a player character will often be very good at one while being very bad at the other. These skills, though, have a lot of overlap in their potential uses. This is particularly true in situations that involve climbing or jumping.
If a player needs to cross a narrow canyon, then a player with high strength and athletics proficiency may take the calculated risk of leaping the gap. If the DM calls for an acrobatics check instead of athletics though, that player is now attempting something they’re very bad at which also has a high risk associated with failure.
If there are multiple skills that could sensibly apply to whatever a player is trying to do, it’s often best to let them use whichever skill they’d prefer. In cases where they’re trying to use a skill that doesn’t make any sense for the situation, you should allow them to back out of their attempt once they realize that they can’t use that skill.
This allows players to feel like their character is playing to their own strengths and making decisions that make sense.
Here is a rough guide to which skills apply in which situations:
Athletics in generally used for any challenges that test a character’s physical prowess. If you need to run, climb, jump, or swim then athletics will usually be the most relevant skill. Notably, grapple attempts are made using the athletics skill.
Acrobatics is used when the difficulty of a task relates more to balance and coordination than physical strength. This includes the ability to perform flips, somersaults, and other gymnastics. It also includes things like maintaining footing on a slippery or moving surface.
There are many situations where an argument could be made for the relevance of both athletics and acrobatics. When choosing between these skills, you should consider whether a physical feat is more reliant on strength or balance.
Stealth is very self-explanatory. This is your ability to conceal yourself and move unnoticed. Often you’ll rolls stealth against enemies’ passive perception score or against perception as a contested check.
Sleight of Hand
Sleight of hand is your ability to make subtle and misleading hand movements. If you want to pick a pocket or conceal something in your hand then this is the most relevant skill.
There are situations where sleight of hand’s use may overlap with deception or performance, depending on what you’re attempting to do.
Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion
These skills are all about your character’s knowledge. If you’re trying to remember facts about the world and its lore then one of these skills will be used. Between themselves, they have a lot of overlapping usage. History, in particular, has a lot of overlap with both arcana and religion.
Investigation is used to acquire new information. This could be by collecting environmental clues, by researching in a library, or anything in between.
Animal handling is used when trying to calm or control any domesticated animal, including mounts. Some DMs may also rule that it can apply to wild animals in certain situations but, based purely on the rulebooks, it only applies to domesticated animals. It also doesn’t apply to creatures with humanoid-level intelligence like unicorns or worgs, although this may be counter-intuitive to some players.
Insight is your ability to read the feelings and intent of another creature, based on movements and body language. This includes the ability to detect whether a person is trying to deceive you. Often you’ll roll insight to contest another character’s deception check.
Medicine is used when treating wounds. Medicine can be used to stabilize a party member who’s been knocked to 0HP in combat. It’s also used to diagnose illnesses.
Perception will likely be your most frequently used passive skill. Perception is used when determining whether you notice details of your surroundings. Often the DM will make many passive perception checks on the players’ behalf without them even knowing that these checks are being made.
Deception, Intimidation, and Persuasion
These skills are all used to manipulate NPCs in social situations.
Deception is rolled when your goal is to trick an NPC into believing something false and can be understood as a character’s ability to control their tells while being dishonest. This applies to direct lies, as well as lies by implication or omission.
Intimidation is used if you’re trying to scare an NPC.
Persuasion is usually used in conversation checks that deception and intimidation don’t apply to.
As a player, it’s a good idea to clearly communicate which of these skills you’re trying to use. Roleplayed conversations are places where the DM’s perception may be radically different from that of the players. You might perceive that you’re trying to convince an NPC that an action is in their interests while the DM might understand that as a veiled threat and therefore an intimidation attempt.
Performance can apply to a wide range of situations where you’re performing for NPCs. A bard performing a song will roll performance, as will a cleric giving a sermon.
A crowd trying to distract a crowd in some way will often roll performance.
When To Call For Skill Checks
It’s important for DMs to know which situations call for a skill check and which don’t. Often less experienced DMs use skill checks excessively and this can be limiting and frustrating for players.
If a DM requires skill checks for trivial tasks that would have nonexistent challenge or stakes, this means the players’ characters have a chance to fail these tasks. There’s a huge conflict between the fantasy of playing as proficient adventurers and the chance at failing mundane tasks.
If a DM requires multiple skill checks to complete a single task then this dramatically increases the chance of failure.
If a player, for example, wants to take a running jump and leap over a narrow gorge then an inexperienced DM may be tempted to ask for both an athletics and an acrobatics check to determine if they succeed.
Effectively, this imposes disadvantage on the check because the player’s success or failure will be determined by the lower roll. This is particularly jarring narratively because taking a run-up should make the jump easier rather than significantly harder to make.
Another common pitfall for newer DMs is forcing players to roll for actions that give no gameplay benefit and only serve to add narrative flair.
For example, there’s no mechanical difference between simply attacking or attacking while performing a cool backflip. Unless the player is asking for a gameplay benefit then the only difference is narrative flavor.
If you require an acrobatics check, in addition to the player’s attack roll, then the player is penalized for trying to add narrative flair to their attack. Players will very quickly learn to avoid any additional description while attacking and this will make your combat encounters feel less dynamic and less interesting.
Conversely, it’s important to call for skill checks frequently enough. Skill checks are, in many non-combat situations, the only gameplay mechanic D&D has. Skill checks are the main way to create the possibility of failure and this is what adds the excitement of playing a game to a group storytelling experience.
Players also find it satisfying when they can get full use out of all the choices they’ve made when creating their character sheets.
Players have a reasonable expectation that, if they’ve chosen a particular skill proficiency, they’ll have the opportunity to make rolls using that skill. It’s important to include frequent checks in a wide range of skills. Particularly any skills that your players are proficient in.
Passive Skill Checks
Passive skill checks are made without any dice rolls and may often be made by the DM, without the players’ knowledge.
A skill’s passive score is equal to 10 plus any modifiers that would ordinarily apply to a skill check. For example, the relevant ability modifier and proficiency bonus.
The most common passively used skill is perception. Characters’ passive perception is what determines their ability to notice anything unusual in their environment and enemies attempting to be stealthy will often roll stealth against the player characters’ passive perception scores.
Contested Skill Checks
Contested skill checks happen when two characters try to use act in ways that conflict with one another. In these cases, the successful character is determined by a contested skill check where both characters roll for their relevant skills.
For example, when a player tries to sneak past a guard who is keeping an active lookout then the player character would roll stealth and the guard would contest the stealth roll with a perception roll.
Other common contested rolls include grapple rolls, where athletics is contested by either athletics or acrobatics, and deception checks contested by insight.
When contested checks are drawn, the status quo remains. This means that a drawn grapple check doesn’t result in a successful grapple and a drawn deception check doesn’t result in the target being successfully deceived. This is unlike normal skill checks where, if you meet the DC exactly, you succeed.
Mismatched Skills and Abilities
An optional rule for skill checks allows skills to be used with ability scores other than their main corresponding score. This means that a fighter flexing their muscles to impress a crowd would roll Strength(Performance) instead of Charisma(Performance).
This rule does add extra complexity to the game, but there are tons of great reasons to use it anyway.
The flexing fighter might have very low charisma compared to charisma-based casters like bards or sorcerers. This means that a sorcerer could expect to roll higher on a Performance(Charisma) check to perform this action, even though narratively it makes more sense for the muscular fighter to be better at it.
There are many similar examples where mismatched skills and abilities can lead to gameplay results that fit better with characters’ identities.
Skill Dogpiling and How to Prevent It
Skill dogpiling is a term in the D&D community that refers to a kind of situation that sometimes arises in play.
After one party member attempts (and fails) a skill check, all the other party members roll to attempt the same check. In some cases, this can involve individual players rolling the same skill check multiple times.
This is bad for a couple of reasons. It can lead to very odd narrative moments where characters succeed at checks where more relevantly skilled characters have just failed.
For example, a barbarian might recall some nuanced and obscure piece of magical lore that the wizard isn’t aware of.
These moments also aren’t satisfying from a gameplay standpoint. These checks will eventually be succeeded with enough attempts so the stakes are nonexistent. Rolling the dice repeatedly is just a formality because success is guaranteed.
There are a few ways to prevent this kind of degenerate gameplay.
Often skill dogpiling can arise if the DM is lax about players rolling before a skill check has been called for. A player might announce their intended action and roll without waiting for the DM to determine if a roll should be made. As DM, it’s a good idea to be strict about refusing any rolls that you didn’t call for.
It can also be a good idea to rule that players can only roll once on any skill check and, in the case of knowledge-based checks, that players can only roll if they can narratively explain how their character might have learned the piece of information in question.
Skill dogpiling can also occur when failure prevents the party from moving forwards entirely. If you call for a skill check then you should always have some plan for what happens if the party fails the check. A failed check doesn’t mean that the story stops; it just means that the story progresses down a different route.
Alternatively, in situations where a failed check would prevent the party from moving forwards, you can use a passive check.
It can be assumed that a strong character would eventually succeed in breaking down a door – using a passive athletics check to determine whether a character can break down a door is better than allowing repeated dice rolls.
What Happens When You Fail?
It’s important when calling for skill checks that you consider the possibility of failure. The players must still have a path for progress or the game will grind to a halt. Additionally, the ways you narrate failure are important.
Your players’ characters are usually designed to be proficient, or even heroic, adventurers. They’re good at what they do and they don’t make silly mistakes. Even at level 1, they’re more skilled than the overwhelming majority of ordinary people.
If a skilled rogue with a background in cat-burglary attempts to climb a wall and fails their skill check, you can narrate the outcome in several ways.
(1) The rogue desperately scrambles up the surface, their hand and feet slipping until they eventually slide down the wall. They land on their ass in front of the wall, looking foolish.
This might be funny in some groups but, for invested players, this wrecks all sense of the character’s proficiency. Many players will find this description jarring.
(2) The rogue carefully runs their hands across the wall, searching for handholds. Their fingertips grip a crack in a masonry, testing if it will hold their weight. They decide that the wall is too smooth to climb.
This is better. An experienced climber knows their limits and this description builds on that aspect of the character. It’s also the wall that is unsuited to being climbed rather than the climber who is incapable of climbing it.
(3) The rogue methodically climbs the wall. Near the top, their foot slips and they bang their knee into the wall taking 1d4 damage. After this hiccup, they reach the top of the wall.
This kind of failure, which is success but with a setback, is fantastic in situations where the players need to succeed for the game to progress.
Players can work together when making skill checks outside of combat or take the Help action in combat.
When one player is attempting a skill check, another player can narrate how they’re helping with the check and thereby grant the first player advantage on the check.
This rule is great because it allows multiple characters to contribute in these moments and allows your players to characterize their group’s teamwork dynamics.
Players should always describe how exactly they’re helping and, so long as their explanation makes sense, they should be able to gain advantage on these checks.
Skill Checks With Tools
The rules for tools in D&D are often overlooked, in part because the rules in the Player’s Handbook are extremely sparse and don’t give many benefits over making a simple skill check. Optional rules for tools were added in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything though.
These optional rules make tools much more useful.
Tool proficiency can be used similarly to skill proficiency but, in cases where a player is proficient in both a skill and tool that are relevant to a check, the player gains advantage on the check. In these cases, the player might also gain additional benefits from a success, at the DM’s discretion.
Commonly Asked Questions
What are skill checks?
Skill checks are rolls made to determine whether a character succeeds at a challenging task.
How do you do skill checks in D&D?
When a player attempts to do something, the DM can call for a check and decide which skill should be used. The DM privately sets the difficulty class (DC) of the check.
The player then rolls a d20 dice and adds relevant modifiers, like their ability modifier and proficiency bonus, to the result. If the total matches or exceeds the DC then the check succeeds.
Are skill checks the same as ability checks?
No. Ability checks are made using an ability modifier. For example, a character’s strength or dexterity modifier. Skill checks are made using the modifier for a skill.
This may be equal to the modifier for the relevant ability but it can also include other bonuses like proficiency.
What counts as an ability check in D&D?
Any check made with your ability modifier, without using any tool or skill, is an ability check.
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I played the game a lot as a kid, back in first edition. Over the past few years since 5e was released, I’ve really started getting back into it. Currently, I run a campaign online for some friends and my brothers, and we also play a side-sesh just to mix things up.