n the last D&D Next playtest packet, we took a stab at removing skills from the game. Our overall design with skills has followed these approaches and goals:
- Emphasize the abilities as the centerpiece of the game. Abilities have replaced skills as the primary tool characters use to attempt checks.
- Skills are great for customizing a character, but too heavy an emphasis (especially a focus on steadily inflating bonuses and DCs) turns them into a list of what you can and cannot attempt.
- Encourage flexibility and creativity at the table by making skills a true bonus, rather than a necessary component to achieving basic competence in an area. The abilities cover that.
- Our DCs need to back up the primacy of ability scores by ensuring that the first few levels of difficulty are within the scope of someone using a moderate to high ability modifier. Only the higher edge of DCs, the very difficult tasks, require skills.
- Streamline the game by removing specific rules from skills and placing them in the core game. Rather than have rules for climbing determined by a Climb skill, the game instead includes climbing as one way to move among others.
- Skills have a tendency to silo actions and rules away from each other. By starting with the core and then adding skills, we can ensure that the game is as streamlined and easy to use as possible. Skills shouldn't introduce new rules. They simply provide a modifier to situations already covered in our core.
It's clear from the latest round of feedback that removing skills entirely isn't a popular option. Playtesters tilted toward disliking it, though a good chunk appreciated the simplicity and flexibility their removal brings to the game.
Personally, I like skills as a tool to customize my character. I like that I can create a cleric with a high Dexterity, pick leather armor and a ranged weapon, take skills that improve checks dealing with stealth, survival, and perception, and play an outdoorsy tracker and hunter who feels much different compared to a traditional, mace and chainmail cleric.
Furthermore, for beginning players, skills can serve as a handy reference for what your character is good at. Ideally, skills don't overwhelm ability checks but they do help guide the process of making decisions. They should inspire and aid players, rather than constrain them.
Here's where we ended up with skills:
- In presentation, skills are subordinate to abilities. In the rules text, we'll refer to a Strength (Athletics) check rather than an Athletics check. This presentation follows our philosophy that abilities are the foundation of the system and skills are bonuses to those checks.
- As a further bonus, this makes it easy for DMs to vary the abilities matched to a skill. Strength (Athletics) might apply when scaling a treacherous cliff. Wisdom (Athletics) can apply when assessing the difficulty of scaling that cliff.
- When you gain proficiency in a skill, you gain a bonus based on your level. Some characters, most notably rogues, can become experts in a skill. Experts gain a further +5 bonus from their skill proficiency.
- Your skill bonus equals your proficiency bonus. Your proficiency bonus is based on your total level and applies to skills, weapons, and tools that you are proficient with. For this reason, we don't have a Craft skill. Instead, you can become proficient with the appropriate set of tools needed to conduct a craft or make an object.
- The proficiency bonus starts at +2 and increases up to +6. This follows our model of keeping bonuses under control to ensure that the range of DCs remains consistent across all levels.
- We're also replacing the die-based bonus to checks with a flat modifier. We had a lot of feedback that the die's variable nature bred only disappointment. People like randomness, but it's irritating to want to play a skilled character and endure the vagaries of two die rolls.
- The expert bonus is important to ensure that rogues are the best at finding traps, rangers excel in surviving outdoors, and bards are the best at performance. We'll use it selectively in design to ensure that classes that are experts in certain areas can live up to that billing.
- We have a fairly compact skill list, both because feedback showed people liked broader skills and because some skills can migrate over to tool proficiency. In place of a blacksmith skill, you take proficiency with a blacksmith's tools. The same applies to thieves' tools and picking locks or disabling traps. Note that the lore bonus in the last packet is gone and replaced with the appropriate skills. Here's the list of skills with the abilities that they are typically linked to.
- Acrobatics (Dex)
- Animal Handling (Wis)
- Arcana (Int)
- Athletics (Str)
- Deception (Cha)
- History (Int)
- Intimidation (Cha)
- Medicine (Int)
- Nature (Int)
- Perception (Wis)
- Performance (Cha)
- Persuasion (Cha)
- Religion (Int)
- Search (Int)
- Sense Motive (Wis)
- Sleight of Hand (Dex)
- Stealth (Dex)
- Survival (Wis)
- For things like the Profession skill, we're instead relying on backgrounds. A sailor can use background picks to become proficient in the Acrobatics, Nature, and Perception skills and with waterborne vehicles.
- We'll include an optional system for skills that reflect a broader character background or archetype. For instance, sailor might be a trait that grants you a proficiency bonus to any check that can be reasonably tied to your background as a sailor. This optional system would replace or supplement skills, as the group wishes.
- The skill and proficiency system allows anyone to attempt anything. Skills and proficiencies offer a bonus. They are not a wall that closes off even the chance to try something. Anyone can try to pick a lock, but a rogue is better at it because he or she is proficient with thieves' tools.
That's our skill system in a nutshell. At the end of the day, skills aren't entirely optional, but our approach makes ignoring them fairly easy. I believe that while they do reside in the core of the game, we've made them simple enough to use that they benefit beginners by providing focus while keeping the abilities as the centerpiece of the game.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.