Skills in Dungeons and Dragons are what players use to overcome challenges they face in the world. This can be as simple as climbing a rope, or as difficult as scaling a mountain. 5e skills are compared to the difficulty of a task using Ability Checks. Anything that the player needs to do in a set amount of time and has a chance to fail can be handled with an ability check. As either a DM or a Player, you need to be comfortable with these rolls and the approximations they stand for in the game.
As compared to skills in past versions of DnD, 5e has gone a long way to simplify the system and make it much easier to use and understand. Where there once was a multitude of skills you could pick from (over 30 different skills in 3.5Ee!), 5e skills only consist of 18. These 18 core skills are broken up by the ability score that effects them. Each ability score has specific skills associated with it, except for the Constitution stat. The full list of skills is below.
- Athletics – This is how well you can swim, climb, or jump. This skill is used to represent how well you use your strength to overcome a particular obstacle or challenge.
- Acrobatics – This is the speedier cousin of athletics, where instead of overcoming an obstacle with strength, you attempt to do so with your agility. Often Acrobatics is used for balance, speed, or precision maneuvers.
- Slight of Hand – Are you a thief or a trickster? Then this skill is for you. Slight of hand would involve stealing, performing a trick, or concealing an object.
- Stealth – A literal numerical value for how good you are at hiding. Doing poorly on a roll for this ability check typically means you stepped on a branch or knocked something over and were super loud about it. The Stealth skill is used for sneaking, concealment, and general hiding.
- Arcana – How familiar you are with magic. This is not just how magical are you, but what you know about magic. The skill is used to represent knowledge of lore, familiarity with magic, or an understanding of magical/otherworldly creatures.
- History – This is the role play skill for DM given knowledge. If a player ever asks if they know something about the world already, its a good idea to have them roll a history check. Often these are used to investigate old dungeons, know facts about a kingdom, or to see if they might have clues as to where to go next within their memories.
- Investigation – This is the skill of actively looking for new clues or finding hidden things. Not only does this skill apply to things like examining a room for secret buttons, but also for reading old books and questioning people in town. This will likely be one of the most used skills in your DnD campaigns.
- Nature – Should I eat this plant? Is that animal dangerous? These are all questions for nature. Nature checks specifically are your knowledge of the natural world, be it plants, animals, or geology.
- Animal Handling – This is a skill to measure how good you are with all sorts of animals. Another way to think of this skill would be to see how much animals like you and what you can read from their body language. You would use it for riding an animal through a stressful situation, taming a dog, or even guessing what a wild animal might do next.
- Insight – Is someone lying to you? With an insight check you might be able to discern this. Insight is a great skill for role playing because a check does not give you any actual knowledge, but instead provides the contextual information needed to make decisions. Insight checks are like your players gut feelings. This is one of the most used checks in a role play heavy game that uses intrigue or political drama.
- Medicine – Diagnosing a disease, stabilizing a dying person, tending to a wound. Why do these take wisdom and not intelligence is not for us to ponder! This one skills makes it critical to have someone on your team with a good wisdom score as it often gets way more use than people anticipate. DnD is full of dangerous places.
- Perception – This is perhaps the most used skill in DnD. Of all the 5e skills, there is none more often rolled than perception. This is how well your character spots, listens, feels, or detects something. Perception is a roll for their senses, which as a DM you are role playing constantly with your descriptions and story telling. The score here is just how well your characters actually take in their surroundings. It’s also what everyone rolls when they “Search for traps.”
- Survival – Can you hunt? Navigate through the woods? Do you know what animal left those tracks? Survival is the skill that answers all these questions. In some occasions, this skill is also used to avoid traps or natural hazards like brutal weather conditions. This is one of the most used skills of Rangers and Druids.
- Deception – This is the counter skill to Insight checks. Deception is a measure of how believable your lies are and how good your poker face is. This is often a favored skill of Rogues and Bards in a heavy role play game.
- Intimidation – The blunt force complement to deception. Intimidation is what it sounds like and measures how scary you can be or how forceful your will is. It can be used with threats, aggressive acts, or even outright violence. While the Player’s Handbook does not talk about it much, this is also something that spellcasters can use with Prestidigitation, or illusion magic to feign danger or otherwise convince people that the spellcaster is someone to be afraid of.
- Performance – Bards. They can sing, they can dance, they can even try to prance. This skill is the favorite for anyone taking the Bard stereotype up to 11. The performance skill measures entertainment, quality of action, and overall proficiency with anything meant to entertain. Other uses for this are measuring the enjoyment of a crowd and get a read on what people want rather than just how well you perform.
- Persuasion – If you have a shop in your campaign, get ready to haggle. Persuasion is the skill used to see how charming and cordial a player seems. If your player wants to convince someone to do something that is either not obvious or would not be their own idea, this skill comes into play. It has a wide variety of uses beyond just talking to shop keeps. You can bribe guards, you talk a person off a ledge, you can get past that bridge troll. All of this and more can be done with persuasion!
Using Ability Checks for 5e Skills
When players encounter an obstacle or want to try something in DnD they often need to make an ability check. For 5e skills, this means rolling a d20 and adding the player’s skill modifier. If the player is proficient in a skill they also get to add their proficiency modifier. Proficiency essentially means you have training in this skill.
When a player rolls a d20 for a skill check, that check is then compared to the difficulty of the task. Difficulties are set by the DM or the DnD guides, depending on the situation. If you’re a DM and need to make a quick approximation of the difficulty class (DC) for something, you can use the list below as a reference:
- Very Easy – DC 5
- Easy – DC 10
- Medium – DC 15
- Hard – DC 20
- Very Hard – DC 25
- Nearly Impossible – DC 30
Beyond Normal Skills
There are cases in DnD where a class or a feature might allow a player to really get the most out of a skill. In the case of Bard expertise, gained at 3rd level, the player gets two skills of their choice and doubles the proficiency bonus applied to it. In other cases you might have people making checks at advantage, or just have a high score when rolling in the first place. Do not increase the DC of something to adjust for that! These are the things that make your players heroes and if they are really good at something, let that show by having them overcome difficult skill challenges. As the game progresses, challenge increases naturally, so there is no need to artificially inflate things early on to balance it out. Sure, a third level Bard might be able to talk his way out of a difficult situation, but that’s the benefit of being a Bard.
Getting a Feel for 5e Skills
This guide is meant as a reference for when you need to use skills at the table, but the best way to understand these is to use them. Try not to lean on just a few ability checks and make sure you design your campaigns with a variety of different opportunities to use different skills. This is one of the core systems in DnD and will get you a ton of mileage if used properly.