Subskills: Expanding 5e’s skill system

It’s no secret that I kind of hate skills. 5e is the best system so far, but that doesn’t mean I like it. My distaste for the skill system led me to create the Specialty system, which I just realized isn’t posted anywhere since the site refresh. Sigh. 

Anyway, I had a breakthrough last week of a way skills SHOULD work but don’t (or rather, how the lack of skills should work). 

What Are Skills?

Ahh, don’t you love a topic with a nice broad opening question like this? I sure do…

While the skill system in D&D is simpler to use than it has EVER been, it’s still fairly complex. Each potential ability check has two or three numbers that you add to things, even before you start mixing in magic. 

First, there is the ability scores, the D&D method of judging your abilities. How strong or smart is your character? According to the main gameplay of D&D, there isn’t much you can do to improve these numbers, other than level up and applying an ASI. These have been around since the game’s start. In 5e, if you keep your scores between the standard limit of 8-20, there’s a 6 point swing from the best to the worst (Standard being using Point buy/ Array for scores) from -1 to +5

Second, there are Skills. The higher level you get, the more they all go up. This is because you are Proficient in them. Proficiency is 5e’s way of dealing with scaling, without making it go overboard. A level 1 character starts with +2, a level 20 is rocking +6.

So, with these basic two, the worst you can be at a skill is -1, the best is +11. A big swing, but look at the other extremes. If you’re untrained, you cap at a +5, and if you’re trained, but lacking ability, you cap at a +5. 

Ability matters, training matters. But it’s not insane, right?

Well, sort of. If you leave it there. The game also has a feature you can grab called “Expertise,” which lets you double your proficiency in various skills. So at level 1, +4 instead of +2, +12 instead of +6. This makes the “best” score a +17, which is a Medium DC without rolling, and can easily get a Very Hard DC.

There’s other things that can improve your rolls. My friend Alan has theory crafted a character that can get over a 50 on an Arcana check with 60% consistency. (There are a lot of bonus dice…)

For a third part, there’s another piece of the puzzle. Outside of skills, there are what are commonly referred to as “Tool Proficiencies,” things your character knows how to do, but don’t fit under the common Skills. Things like Drive a boat, play an instrument, things like that. Simple, right?

Well… not really. What does it mean, to be trained in Calligrapher’s Tools? What can you DO with that? A section of Xanathar’s Guide is dedicated to trying to answer that, but the pages there felt off, for me.

Bards have an issue here, as well. If a bard wants to be an entertainer, they take perform, but they also get 3 instrument proficiencies of their choice. These never come up. They should be used, instead of Performance, right?

Cracks in the Dam

Acq Inc was a big inspiration to this article, as they had a variation on Non-skill proficiencies I hadn’t really thought of. Each of their roles had a list of other places a Documancer or an Occultant could use their skills, ways that these proficiencies would come up and be used at the table.

Then I started thinking about the Climbing kit. It’s a tool, right? So why don’t can’t you gain proficiency in this kit? I mean, climbing is a thing you can learn how to do. I’m not good at it, due to my physique, but I did climb the rope in gym class back in the day, and I was part of a climbing thing for a scouting activity. I’m not personally trained in it, but it is a thing you can learn.

Most recently, I started a new campaign, where the players are going to be Monster Hunters. And with a nod to the Witcher, which we’ll talk about sometime in the future, Knowledge is the best weapon against Monsters. So, what skill is Identify Monster?

Well… that depends on the monster, right? It could be Arcana, Religion, Nature, or maybe History. All of them can qualify. We know its an Intelligence check. That part is easy. But it could be any of those, right?

But a fighter, trained in Monster Hunting, should be Proficient in that “skill,” evn though it’s spread across all these different abilities. The don’t need to know Merlin’s third law of Thaumodynamics to be able to say “Kill a Mummy with Fire.” 

So, I stopped writing about Monster Hunting, and wrote this. And we’re almost out of the introduction, and on to the Explanation.

What Are Skills?

Ahh, don’t you love a topic with a nice broad opening question like this? I sure do. But this time, I’ll give an answer relevant to the topic.

 Skills are magic. 

Well, rather like magic. While I’m not athletic, my family is. The muscles and skills found in, say, running, aren’t going to give you the ability to be an amazing climber, swimmer, wrestler, let you ride a horse, and force a door. There may be some overlap in those abilities, but they are different things.

Not to the Athletics Skill, though. Skills are Magic in that they let us hand wave a lot of separate bits of training under one blanket. They’re powerful, which is why the gave has very few ways to give you skills. I mean, you can hunt for them and try to do crazy builds, but without that sort of kitchy build, you’re looking at character having 4-5 skills, depending on race and class. (Rogues and Bards have a lot of skills, as that’s part of what they do.) 

This is why the Training Downtime Activity doesn’t list skills as a thing you can learn. It’d be to powerful, anyway you slice it. So instead, they give us languages and tool proficiencies to study. (and weapons, I guess? (Actually, on checking, no. RAW, there is no option to learn a new weapon. That means you’re stuck without proficiency forever on that laser rifle…))

I call my new version of trainable skill pieces “Subskills”

Subskills

A Subskill allows you to add your Proficiency in the circumstances where it applies. Proficiency is only ever added once to a roll, so having a skill and a Subskill that overlap only adds the benefit once. If an ability mentions a skill, you Subskill can count for that ability (for Ranger’s Natural Explorer, for instance, or the Rogue’s Reliable Talent)

There are a LOT of subskills. At the moment, I have 84 Subskills listed. So this is not for the faint of heart, and it is NOT a system that lends itself to the simplification of the game. It shouldn’t overly complicate the game, but this is an optional system even for the players in the game I’m using it! (Which is just Eberron, ATM.)

Training

You can spend a Workweek learning a Subskill through the Training Downtime Activity. This takes 10 weeks, minus a week per point of Intelligence Modifier (min 0) you have. To train, you must have way to learn the ability. It may be self-taught, or it may require a trainer, a sparring partner or practice materials. Your party members are good sources of Subskills.

Leveling

Because I want these to be part of the game, you gain a free Workweek of training per level when you level up. So a 1st level character gets 1 free week, a second level character gets 2 for a total of three, and so on, to 210 total free weeks at level 20. These can be used for developing progress in Subskills and languages.

Innate Subskills

Most Player Characters get to start with at least 2 free Subskills: One for their Race, and one for their Location. These should be based around the character’s backstory, and substituted if their story indicates better Subskills. An Elf Noble might pick Elves and The Fey Capital of Whatever World, while a child raised by wolves might pick Animals and Forage. 

This is intended for players to be mechanically better where their story is.

Backgrounds

While I’m willing to go and provide some “Errata” for Races and Classes, each Background should give a subskill, and the tool proficiencies provided should be altered accordingly.

In general, replace artisan’s tools with Craft skill, Brewers and Alchemy Supplies with Alchemy, Cartographer’s with Knowledge, Geography, and so on. 

Tools and Kits

While tool proficiency is no longer a thing, tools still exist. Some checks are helped by having tools, others are impossible without it. 

  • If a check is impossible without tools, and you do not have tools, you cannot make the check
  • If a check is impossible without tools, and you do have tools, you can make the check as normal.
  • If a check is hard without tools, and you do not have the tools, you make the check with disadvantage.
  • If a check is hard without tools, and you do have tools, you make the check normally.
  • If a check is easy without tools, and you do not have the tools, you make the check normally.
  • If a check is easy without tools, and you do have tools, you make the check with advantage.

Note: The Crowbar had this built in as part of the item rules. A crowbar is now just a tool and it uses the tools and kits rules.

List of Subskills

Reading this List

Each Subskill mentions either the key skill or ability that is likely used as part of the check. While it may not be exact, the Subskill may, in certain situations, be used in place of the skill or ability listed there. The meaning of the Subskill is listed, and can guide as to what checks can use the subskill.

Most subskills only have benefit when taken once. The exceptions are the ones in the angular brackets <>. These subskills cover a specific part of the subskill, and multiple parts can be taken. 

<Location> (Intelligence)

Potentially covered under Survival or History, you’ve studied a location and know it’s history and how to navigate it, as well as places and people within it. For example, knowing Sharn allows you to navigate pretty easy, know the fare for a skycoach, have a few favorite diners, know the names of the local gangs, etc. If you grew up in one place, you probably start with this skill for your home town (or country, if you’re from someplace like the Talenta Plains)

<Performance> (Performance)

You have studied and trained in various parts of entertaining. There are many elements that this can be. While there is some overlap, each element is distinct. It’s up to the DM how specific you need to be. Options include and are not limited to: A musical instrument, sculpture, painting and drawing, storytelling, oration, journalism, fashion, dance, comedy, decoration, and so on.

<Race/Creature> (Intelligence)

This Sub Skill tells you things about a race. Perhaps you were fascinated with Elvish culture, or you spent a lot of time dealing with dwarves. You know things about the people, their history, their legends and stories, their specialty foods, their craftsmanship. You likely have this for your own species, unless you grew up in another one.

“Humans” tends to be too broad. Try something like “Nobility,” “Pirates”, “Merchants” or something similar if a race seems too broad.

This can also be used for studying creatures who may or may not have a race, or are more monstrous. Dragons, Horses, Beholders, Etc.  

Alchemy (Intelligence/Arcana)

You know things about alchemical liquids, and you can make and brew potions and other items.

This includes using brewer’s kit and poisoners kit to make alcoholic and poisonous products. (I’m not happy about it, but that’s the way it worked out…)

Animals (Nature)

You know things about animals, including their behaviors, the tasty parts, the scary bits, and how to take care of them.

Appraisal (Intelligence)

You’re good at figuring out the worth of items, and you know the market value of a lot of goods.

Ask Around (Persuasion)

You’re good at talking to locals to find out information without raising suspicions. 

Autopsy (Medicine)

There is a lot you can learn from a dead body. I mean, it’s mostly “how did they die?”, but learning when, and where are also useful questions.

Avoid Hazards (Survival)

You’re skilled at avoiding wilderness hazards, from quicksand to razor grass and wasp hives.

Balance (Acrobatics)

You’re good at staying on your feet where other people would fall over.

Bluster (Intimidation)

Blustering is a way of making yourself look tougher than you are, making them not want to fight you.

Bribe (Persuasion)

Bribing  is a time honored tradition of exchanging money for favors, secretly. Being proficient at bribery lets you know if a person would take a bribe, and how much is appropriate. 

Butcher (Sleight of Hand/Survival)

You know how to take an animal apart for the most profit. After it’s dead, of course. 

Careful Movement (Sleight of Hand)

You’re good at moving your hands carefully and precisely. You are really good at Jenga and cutting tripwires.

Climb (Athletics)

You’re skilled at ascending and descending surfaces.

Combat Prediction (Insight)

You’ve studied how people think in a fight, and it gives you insights on how they will react to things.

Con (Deception)

You are good at selling a story, normally for some sort of money making scheme, but there can be other prizes. 

Cooking (Survival)

With the right supplies and some spices, you can make meals that are more than edible, they are downright delicious!

Craft (Intelligence)

You’re skilled at making things. 

Deep Breath (Constitution)

You have good control over your breathing and can hold your breath for a long time. This Subskill might add to a Constitution saving throw, and not just an ability check.

Deities (Religion)

You’ve studied the gods, not only the ones of your own beliefs, but those of others as well.

Detect Lies (Insight)

You are good at sussing out when someone is trying to deceive you.

Diffuse Situation (Persuasion)

You are good at calming emotions and getting everyone to stop and talk for a second. 

Disarm Trap (Sleight of Hand)

Once the trap is found, your steady hand lets you cut the right wire.

Disguise (Deception)

You are proficient in becoming someone else, in outfit, actions, and appearance.

Dogma (Religion)

You understand the beliefs behind various faiths, and can make educated guesses at faiths you know little about.

Engineering (Intelligence)

You’ve studied the arcane knowledge of the fulcrum and the sliding rule. You know how complicated machines function, and can figure out ways to make, break, or fix various devices

Escape (Acrobatics)

You’re skilled at slipping out of a grapple, of tied ropes, or crawling through tight spaces

Etiquette (Charisma)

You know which fork to use for the fish, which title to use for the queen, and all the rules of a proper duel.

Find Hidden (Perception)

Your eyes are good at picking out things trying to hide. Useful for finding unseen people or looking behind the proper curtain.

Forage (Survival)

You’re good at finding food and water in the wild.

Forced March (Constitution)

You’ve trained up your endurance, allowing you to travel further and longer than anyone else. This Subskill might add to a Constitution saving throw, and not just an ability check.

Forgery (Intelligence)

You can create replicas, draft realistic looking documents, and copy official seals. 

Gambling (Charisma)

You’re good at games of bluff, chance, and making luck your ally.

Grapple (Athletics)

You’re a trained wrestler. 

Gut Check (Insight)

Kind of a meta ability. If you’re stuck, or unsure about something, perhaps the DM can give some advice.

Haggle (Persuasion)

You get the best deal out of merchants, whether buying or selling. 

Hidden Movement (Sleight of Hand)

You’re good at hiding things in your hands and moving things without being noticed. (This is not pickpocketing, this is secretly drawing a knife or stacking a deck of cards)

Hold Liquor (Constitution)

You’ve spent many hours knowing your limits, and overcoming them. You know how to pace yourself, and how to tell if your drink has been tampered with. This Subskill might add to a Constitution saving throw, and not just an ability check.

Inspire (Persuasion)

You are good at getting the blood pumping and reinvigorating the morale of the troops.

Interrogate (Intimidation/Persuasion)

You are good at getting answers, and you don’t care what the perp thinks about you when you’re done.

Jump (Athletics)

You’ve practiced jumping with strength and precision.

Keen Ears (Perception)

Your sharp ears are good at picking out the subtlest of sounds.

Keen Eyes (Perception)

Your sharp eyes are good at picking up small details at a distance, or tiny details close up. 

Keen Nose (Perception)

Your sharp nose is good at picking up the smallest whiff.

Knowledge, Architecture (History)

You know how buildings work, which pillars are load bearing, and how old this place probably is.

Knowledge, Geography (History)

You know the area, how to read maps, and where the nearest river is.

Knowledge, Politics (History)

You know the ways of politics, how to subtly promise support, and how to read between the lines of intrigue.

Knowledge, Social (History)

You know who the important people are.

Landing (Acrobatics)

You’re skilled at landing safely on your feet.

Lie (Deception)

You can tell not truths without blinking

Lift (Athletics)

You’ve lifted weights can do all sorts of applying strength directly to a problem. 

Magic Identification (Arcana)

This is used when trying to determine if something is magical. The higher the roll, the more information you get. Detect Magic does all of this.

Magic Items (Arcana)

You’ve studied magic items, how they’re made, the history of some famous items, common activation methods, and so on. 

Make Friends (Persuasion)

You are good at making positive impressions on people.

Medical Examination (Medicine)

You can examine a living person, and determine what ails them. 

Mime Language (Insight/Persuasion)

You can communicate with gestures, miming, and pointing. Good for communicating with people who do not speak your language. This Subskill lets you win at charades.

Minerals and Metals (Nature)

You’ve studied various types of rocks and metals, their properties and where they can be found. 

Monster Identification (Arcana/Nature/Religion)

You’ve studied all sorts of monsters, from the Aboleth to the Zombie. You know their habits, their strengths, and their weaknesses.

Move Quietly (Stealth)

You’re good at moving without making a sound.

Navigation (Survival)

You know your directions, and how to find your way without getting lost. 

Notice Difference (Perception)

You can notice the differences when something small and subtle has changed.    

Persuade Animal (Animal Handling)

You can convince animals in ton doing what you want, from coming 

Pick Lock (Sleight of Hand)

You can open the locks on chests and doors.

Pick Pocket (Sleight of Hand)

You can remove things from other people’s possession without their notice.

Pierce Disguise (Insight/Perception)

You are good at seeing past the makeup, the mannerisms, the clothes, and seeing who is behind the disguise. Or a tleast, that they are in disguise. 

The Planes (Arcana)

You’ve studied the differences and the lore of the various Planes and their manifest zones.

Plants (Nature)

You’ve read up on the differences between plants, you know the best woods to make a cabinet out of, and you know the difference between aloe vera and poison oak.

Read Lips (Perception)

You can understand part of a conversation, even if you can’t hear what’s being said, as long as you can see part of the conversation.

Research (Intelligence)

You know how to find things out, whether by asking experts, or digging in libraries.

Ride (Animal Handling/Athletics)

You’re good on the back of a horse or a griffon, or whatever animal you’re in. (Saddles work like tools)

Rifle Pockets (Investigation)

You are good at frisking an individual, alive or dead, and seeing what they have in their pockets.

Rituals (Arcana/Religion)

You know the meaning behind rites, ceremonies, and the like, whether arcane or divine.

(Also, hooks for a future addition to Ritual Magic)

Rope Control (Sleight of Hand)

From tying knots, to carefully landing a grappling hook, if it has more to do with rope then just pulling, this is the skill.

Scene Investigation (Investigation)

CSI: Waterdeep. (or Sharn) You know how to look around and find clues. (Look for my upcoming Downtime Activity Expansion, that deepens Investigations!) 

Seasons and Weather (Nature)

You know when to plant, when to harvest, how long a storm will last, and what type of cloud that is.

Skim Read (Investigation)

You know how to quickly parse a paper, looking for the things that you need to know immediately.

Spellcraft (Intelligence/Wisdom/Charisma)

This is control of your magic, whatever the source of it is. Trying to do something trick with magic, or to over power someone else’s magic.

Spell Lore (Arcana)

You know the effects of many spells, the components required, and what is possible with magic.

Swim (Athletics)

In the water, you do more than just a dog paddle. 

Threaten (Intimidation)

Threatening is about trying to get someone to act in a certain manner, based on how scary you can be. Well trained individuals don’t threaten very well.

Tracking (Survival)

You know how to follow a trail, and can find information about creatures that have passed along away. 

Trapmaking (Intelligence)

You know how to set traps, and where to place traps for most effective use. Also handing for finding traps others have set. 

Treatment (Medicine)

This is Medicine over a long time, a nurse at the recovery center. Treatment is about the sick, not the wounded.

Triage (Medicine)

This is short term medical treatment, binding wounds in combat, dealing with the immediate needs of the wounded not the sick.

“Errata”

There are many race and class option that need tweaks to make them work. If you would gain a subskill and you already posses that subskill or the skill it’s descended from, you can gain subskill of your choice.

General Replacements

Replace Tool Proficiencies as follows:

  • Smith’s Tools, Tinker’s Tools, Artisan’s tools, etc, replace with Crafting Subskill
  • Alchemy Supplies, Brewer’s, Poisoners, replace with Alchemy Subskill
  • Musical Instruments are replaced with a Performance Subskill
  • Thieves’ tools are replaced with a Subskills of your choice

Assassin Replace the Bonus Proficiencies Section with “You gain the Disguise Subskill and the Alchemy Subskill”

Mastermind Replace the Master of Intrigue with “You gain the Disguise, Forgery, and Gambling Subskills. You also learn two languages of your choice.”

Multiclassing

Artificer: Gain Crafting Subskill and a Subskill of your choice

Bard: Gain one Performance Subskill of your choice

Rogue: Gain a Subskill of your choice

Races

Dwarf: Replace Tool Proficiency and the Stonecunning sections with “Gain three of the following Subskills: Alchemy, Appraisal, Crafting, Minerals and Metals, Knowledge: Architecture, Location: Underground”

Rock Gnome: Replace the Artificer’s Lore Section with “Gain the Engineering and Magic Item subskills”

Warforged: In Specialized Design, replace “tool proficiency” with “Subskill”

Discussion and answered questions

“Hey, did you put lockpicking back under Sleight of Hand?”

Yes. Yes I did.  And I regret it. But the subskill system has no room for Tool Proficiencies, even if it is the ONLY tool proficiency that has ANY support in the game. This obviously makes the rogue stronger, because Expertise can go a bit further, 

“Man, that’s a lot of Subskills”

Indeed. I thought about cutting the list down, or organizing it in a more compact fashion, but I chose to leave it like this, because I think there’s a lot of these things that people forget that they can do in the game. Having it ALL laid out like this is a good reminder.

“Wait, don’t wizards and artificers get really good?”

If you max your Int, you’re able to pick up a new skill with only 4 weeks of work, yes. Which means when oyu hit level 20, you’ll get 4 Subskills while the Barbarian might get 2. I can see that being a concern, but…

Why don’t wizards learn things in the default game? Sure, all players get the experience of the campaign, but the characters rarely get to shine. 

If playtesting determines a week per level per level is too much, then we can cut that down. But I’m assuming they’ll study locations that are important to the plot, or creatures that keep coming up. D&D is better when the players can hall all the information they want.

“Can you run 5e without skills, since you hate them so much?”

No. 

The Subskill system is really straining the game. And not in some Ship of Thesus kind of way. I can actually see cracks in the game, from things like Thieves Tools and the Artificer. There’s key components of the game, and if you bend them too far, it will break.

Take the Rogue, for instance. If you nix skills, they lose a level 1 feature, a level 6 feature, a level 11 feature, and who knows what they lose in their subclass. Rogue takes a lot of shrapnel from this change.

Now, that isn’t to say there isn’t options. If I’m playing with brand new players, or if it’s a light pickup game, then I won’t stress about skills. Ability scores work plenty fine for a short run.

But for a longer game, sessions long? Yeah, I don’t think it’d work. (The DMG does list some options in chapter 9.) Better to build a shrapnel-free game from scratch, I think.

Aren’t these just 3e’s skills?

I am aware how much some of these resemble 3e’s skills, and I’m well aware that, as a person who professes to hate skills, this whole thing seems out of character for me. While I’m in favor of a simpler game of D&D, I am also in favor of characters doing cool things, training mattering to a character, and the verisimilitude of certain characters being able to answer certain questions that they SHOULD be able to answer.

Skraz

Whew! This was a long one! But I can tell you, I’m running my games differently from writing this. I’ve asked for Engineering checks for a while, but that they are almost a real thing, I’m more confident in them and what they mean.

I’m sure I’ve missed some things, and there are most likely questions that need answered. I wrote this in isolation, so I’m sure there’s some mistakes, omissions, and unneeded elements. Feedback will help me fix these.

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