D&D DM Guides

D&D Optional Rules #2: Skill Proficiency Options

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Your character must convince a noble to fund your group’s expedition to find an artifact. Perhaps you have to instill a bit of pants-peeing fear into a bandit to show him that his effort is pointless. Your bard attempts to play a particularly difficult song to woo…well, anyone or anything they encounter.

All of these scenarios require dice rolls that correspond to the long list of skills your character has access to. Each skill is tied to an ability score, and depending on your character’s race, class, and background, they may have proficiency in that skill. Proficiency is a separate modifier that you add to skill checks and attack rolls that is based on your class level. This modifier can be doubled on skills your character has Expertise in, but is usually only added once per skill check.

The great thing about skills is that you can customize them to better fit your character. Want your rogue to be great at lying, cheating, and stealing? Make sure to bump up your Dexterity and Charisma scores to give them a higher modifier, choose them as their proficiencies, and think about making one or more of them an Expertise skill if the class offers it. The downside to skills is that there are so many, and each have different modifiers depending on your ability scores, proficiencies, and Expertise choices. This is generally not a fun time for those who abhor math.

Thankfully, the Dungeon Master’s Guide offers DM’s a few alternate ways for dealing with skills, proficiencies, and Expertise on pages 263-264. While these rules tend to make characters a little less unique, they do help decrease the amount of math required and you don’t have to skim down the list of skills to find the one you need. They also open up interesting roleplaying opportunities to give your players a chance to flex their RP muscles.

Proficiency Dice

When looking at the abilities chart of a class, you’ll see a column that defines that class’s proficiency modifier at each level. Levels 1-4 get a +2, levels 5-8 get a +3, and so on. The proficiency dice optional rule replaces this system by using dice to determine proficiency and allowing players to simply upgrade the die they use to roll proficiency modifiers. A character from levels 1-4 would use a d4 as their proficiency die, levels 5-8 would use a d6, and so on up to a d12 at levels 17-20. This simplifies the progression of proficiency and adds an element of chance, as their modifier is now a die roll result and not a static number. That bard’s chance of getting in the knickers of the object of their affections could be greatly swayed by a good or poor roll of the proficiency die and could result in an awesome roleplaying moment.

Ability Check Proficency

The skills list can be a bit daunting, especially for new players. If this is the case, and you want to speed up your sessions by cutting out the time used by players looking up their skill scores, you can simply use these alternate rules. The DMG offers a few ways to determine what sort of skills a character is good at based on their class, background, and personality traits.

Ability Proficiency by Class

Class ability proficiency is based on the dominant abilities of each class. For instance, a monk’s main abilities are tied to their Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence scores. Players can choose one of these to add their proficiency modifier to. For instance, if this monk needed to kick open a door and they chose their proficiency in Strength, they would simply add their proficiency modifier plus their Strength modifier to the roll instead of their Athletics skill score. On a side note, the DMG allows bards to choose any ability score to add proficiency to…because bards.

With this optional rule, Expertise works much differently. If a character class offers the Expertise class feature, they would choose one of the abilities they already have proficiency in to double their proficiency modifier for that ability. Any time that character gains another skill proficiency, they simply choose another ability score as a proficiency. So if our monk chose Strength and Intelligence as their proficiencies, they could choose Intelligence to become their Expertise if given the option to choose one. If they are granted an extra skill proficiency by their background, they could choose Dexterity, as it is the only other dominant ability without a proficiency added to it.

Background Proficiency

The other ability score that players choose to add their proficiency modifier to is determined by their background. This will vary depending on the background chosen and will negate any tool proficiencies as well. The ability chosen would have to be tied in with any training or experience the character may have gotten through their background. For instance, a barbarian with the Outlander background may choose to add their proficiency to Wisdom as they would have the knowledge and experience being a hunter and tracker and know how to interact with animals. The player would have to make their case to the DM, and the DM would ultimately have the final say.

This method allows for players to roleplay and develop their character’s backstories well to have evidence to present the DM in arguing their case for proficiency. Expertise can also be determined this way, as players can make a case for being an expert in a specific aspect of their background. Using the Outlander barbarian example, the player could make a case that they are an expert at calming animals that may be dangerous to avoid skirmishes. Or they could assert that their character has Expertise making leather clothes and armor, as they use the skins of animals they hunt for materials.

Personality Trait Proficiency

This method focuses heavily on the personality traits players choose for their characters during character creation and awards proficiency to positive traits that correspond with an ability check in the game. However, to use this rule, each player must come up with at least four positive personality traits for their character. For example, a paladin might choose the trait, “I protect the weak before all else.” When a situation comes up that fits that particular trait, the player can roll and add their proficiency modifier to it.

This rule also takes into account a character’s negative traits as well. If a situation arises that corresponds to a negative trait a character has, they must roll at disadvantage. If our paladin has the negative trait of “I tend to lose my temper with talking to nobility,” and they have to try to convince a lord to do something for the group, the player would roll with disadvantage and suffer the consequences of getting hotheaded around members of the upper crust of society.

Expertise would work similarly to the background ability proficiency rule. If a character gains a new skill or tool proficiency, they simply get to add another positive trait. Because this rules relies on character traits, your players have to come up with well-formed personalities for their characters. Also, if a player chooses a positive trait that always seems to apply, try to find a way to make the trait more specific so that it doesn’t cover such a broad spectrum of situations. The same goes with negative traits that never seem to apply to any situations. The DM can also choose to use a character’s ideals, bonds, and flaws in this system as well.

Ability and skill checks can be cumbersome at times, but the designers of D&D made sure to design and test alternate ways for groups to handle them. Whichever method you choose, skills and ability checks can make or break a mission for your group and add great roleplaying moments to the campaign. The idea is to make the game more accessible and easier for players to have fun.

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