Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Playing with Skills and Proficiencies (5e and BX)

Historically, I have never been a big fan of skill systems in RPGs because they tend to describe what a character cannot do rather than what they can. One of the reasons I don’t really mind the skill/proficiency system of 5e is that it really isn’t a skill system. Rather, it helps describe where a character comes from and the areas of expertise that they can bring to the table. Therefore, the system assumes that anyone can try to do anything, but if a character has a skill, they have a better chance at doing a particular thing. Personally, I would go further and say that, as long as a skill isn’t contested by another skill, the only limiting factors in whether or not a character with a relevant skill succeeds are time and money.

In other words, let’s pretend that a character has the skill Artisan. That means that whenever that character sets about creating something, they will succeed. The variables are how much time and money the character wants to put into the project. The less time and money, the lower the quality but the character will always produce the desired item.

For another example, a character with Pick Locks will always succeed in picking a non-magical lock; however, the more complex a lock, the more time it will take to pick. Therefore, one could simply label locks in a dungeon with the number of Wandering Monster checks associated with each. Someone with Pick Locks would be able to understand how long it would take (the number of checks necessary to endure to unlock the lock) and decide whether or not the effort is worth the risk.

I very much like this approach, especially when coupled with the Background system of 5e. It tells a player what their character is capable of doing rather than telling them what their character cannot do. As such, I think it worthy of hacking into BX.

The problem I have with the 5e system, however, is that it is rather unbalanced. INT, WIS and CHA have a disproportionate amount of skills associated with them and CON has no skills at all. BX is, in its own simple way, very elegant and hacking the skills as is from 5e seems a bit too clunky for my tastes. Besides which, there are some skills and tool proficiencies that are redundant (Performance and Musical Instrument, for example) and others that are already hardwired into BX (Perception). Thus, a little rethinking and reorganizing are called for.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ve arbitrarily decided that each ability score will have three skills associated with it. Some of these associations require a explanation:


  • Athletics (which also includes Acrobatics)
  • Intimidation (Intimidation happens because somebody has enough power to throw around. Normally, this power is pure physical strength. While a small, physically weak person can be intimidating, the power they have is political, economic, etc. In this context, that power would be expressed by experience level.)
  • Investigation (This is a bit of a stretch, but historically the folks who do investigation are fighter types: police, spy, soldier, etc.)


  • Pick Locks (aka Thieve’s Tools)
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Stealth (which encompasses both Hide is Shadows and Move Silently)


  • Survival (because actually being out in the wilderness is about staying healthy and stamina)
  • Nature (one of the ways 5e describes CON is “vital force” which could be described as something that clues us into the “vital forces” of other living things and the places where they live)
  • Animal Handling (another way the “vital force” can be expressed. In addition, it takes a lot of patience, aka stamina, to train an animal, especially a wild one)


  • Arcana (which includes parts of Religion)
  • History (which also includes parts of Religion)
  • Navigation


  • Insight
  • Medicine
  • Artisan (because beauty is understood better by that part of the human mind described by WIS than the ability to reason as represented by INT)


  • Deception (which includes Disguise, Forgery and Gaming)
  • Performance (which Musical Instruments)
  • Persuasion

Characters would end up with four skills: two from their Class and two from their Backgrounds. Right now, I am operating on the assumption that each of the three core classes will have Saving Throw proficiencies in two abilities so that all six are used uniquely by the three classes:

  • Clerics: WIS, CHA
  • Fighters: STR, CON
  • Magic-users: INT, DEX

This becomes important because the two class skills they can choose from are based on the Saving Throw proficiencies. This does have some interesting implications: your average magic-user is more likely to be the party “thief” and the cleric is more likely to be the party “bard” and the fighter to be the “ranger.”

Of course, these tenancies can be completely upturned by choosing a background that flavors the character in a completely different way. This is why I think the Background system of 5e is probably my favorite aspect of the entire game.

Also note: these categories are wide open enough that players can make the argument to accomplish all kinds of tasks with their skills. For example: a player could argue that they could try to track that war party of orcs with either Navigation or Nature. Again, this system is about encouraging players to do stuff, not about telling them what they can’t do.


  1. It's true that 5E Constitution doesn't have any skills associated with it, but that's a deliberate feature, not a flaw. Constitution saving throws come up a disproportionate number of times once adventuring starts: Run out of food? Roll those Con saves. Traveling on a frozen mountain top or in a desert during a sirroco? Con save. Need to hold your breath? How long you can is determined by your Con. Need to press forward in a forced march? Con save.

    So Con is critical to survival, just in a passive way.

  2. I understand that in context of 5e, but I am hacking this system onto BX with saving throws like Dragon Breath and Death Ray, not CON. Especially if initial skill choices are based on two ability scores, I had to balance it out.

    1. Even in 5e, I would allow my players to justify using other abilities in those situations. If their arguments hold any water, they would use whatever ability save they wanted.