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Skills Proficiency in Dungeons and Dragons – An Introduction

This winter I will be running a couple of D&D campaigns. To get my players ready, I have been writing introductory articles to help them out with certain concepts in the game. This is article three in that series. The other two articles being a break down of combat in D&D 5E and a breakdown of the core stats. This article was actually suggested by backtothehammer at the bottom of the stats article. Here is a breakdown of the skill proficiencies in Dungeons and Dragons.


Skills are an important part of Dungeons and Dragons. In D&D every character has a set of core stats, and those core stats help determine how well they perform under certain aspects of the game. They help with combat and magic, as well as movement and general conversation. That being said, those six stats – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma – are not the be all and end all of abilities or skills in D&D 5E, so today we are going to talk about another aspect of the game – Skill Proficiencies and what they mean.

Once again, this is a very basic introduction and opinion. For the more detailed rules I recommend Chapter 7 in the Player’s Handbook.

What Are Skills in Dungeons and Dragons 5E?

Skills represent the other, non-weapon, non-magical, non-standard checks within Dungeons and Dragons. Let’s say, for instance, you want to Sneak around. Stealth is a different skill in D&D. All characters can Sneak, or attempt to, however, having a proficiency in Stealth makes the task easier.

There are, within the game, a few base skills. These belong to a certain Stat and thus the ability modifier of that stat gets added onto any check for that skill. An active check in that Skill (so, in this case “Stealth”) would then take a D20 roll, plus the ability modifier (in Stealth’s case it is Dexterity), and then any proficiency bonus would be added on (at Level 1, this is a +2) if you are proficient. The DM will then say if that number is high enough to pass the test based on how difficult it would be to be Stealthy at that moment in time. More on this here.

There are 18 base skills within the game, each using one of the core stats as an ability modifier. In alphabetical order (and with the start in brackets) these are –

  • Acrobatics (Dex)
  • Animal Handling (Wis)
  • Arcana (Int)
  • Athletics (Str)
  • Deception (Cha)
  • History (Int)
  • Insight (Wis)
  • Intimidation (Cha)
  • Investigation (Int)
  • Medicine (Wis)
  • Nature (Int)
  • Perception (Wis)
  • Performance (Cha)
  • Persuasion (Cha)
  • Religion (Int)
  • Sleight of Hand (Dex)
  • Stealth (Dex)
  • Survival (Wis)

The proficiencies you take are often dictated to some degree by the class and background of your character; however, there is often a fair amount of choice within limited options. The question is – how do you know which ones to pick?

How Do You Know Which Skills To Take?

Okay, so this is the big question – how do you know which skills to take in D&D. There are a few different ways of thinking about it, and as we go through this article you will understand what is meant by this. Before we go any further though – Skills are subjective by scenario. This isn’t a definitive THIS SKILL IS BETTER IN ALL SCENARIOS kind of article, as you may want Stealth but your DM puts a giant bell on your head. It varies. That being said, I think there are a few ways of thinking about the Skills and Skill Proficiency to help you choose which Skills to focus on.

Looking at Skills by Core Stat

So, the first way to look at Skills is by the core statistic they use as their base check. The list of 18 can be broken down as (still in alphabetical order, but now by Stat type) –

Strength

  • Athletics (Str)

Dexterity

  • Acrobatics (Dex)
  • Sleight of Hand (Dex)
  • Stealth (Dex)

Constitution

There are no active skills under Constitution, although Constitution checks can still be called upon to measure any form of physical endurance. This may be holding your breath or going without sleep. It could also be getting drunk or surviving without food and water – two things you definitely don’t want to do at the same time.

Wisdom

  • Animal Handling (Wis)
  • Insight (Wis)
  • Medicine (Wis)
  • Perception (Wis)
  • Survival (Wis)

Intelligence

  • Arcana (Int)
  • History (Int)
  • Investigation (Int)
  • Nature (Int)
  • Religion (Int)

Charisma

  • Deception (Cha)
  • Intimidation (Cha)
  • Performance (Cha)
  • Persuasion (Cha)

As you can see, all Stats and Skills were not created even in Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, most skills use Wisdom or Intelligence as opposed to Strength or Constitution. This kind of makes sense when you think about it, but is an interesting note to point out none the less.

Choosing Skills based on Theme

Now, if you are a highly specialised character you may want to go a specific route. Rogues, for instance, may focus on the Dexterity area, perhaps with Deception thrown in. That way you will be better at Acrobatics, Slight of Hand, and Stealth – all three are fairly Rogue type skills.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this way of choosing stats and it is something that I like to do with my own characters. Think about what your characters are like and choose stats based on that. My current Dwarf Paladin has Medicine and Athletics, for instance. He has that because he’s a healer who is stubborn enough to want to overcome any obstacle. It isn’t because I will necessarily get the most use out of those skills, but rather the most thematic fun.

Choosing Skills based on Usefulness

The second logic is choosing skills by usefulness. This may be by discussing it as a group or by just wanting to be more useful around the table.

All skills in D&D can be useful at one time or another – the question is what skills are going to be used the most and thus offer the most opportunity to be useful?

Strength Based Skill Checks

Well, for this we look at what each skill let’s you do, and by this we can look at the categories. For starters, Athletics is exactly what it sounds like under the Strength category. It is pushing your body to the limit be that climbing a wall, jumping a crevice, or een something as mundane as swimming. Thus, due to what it covers, and if you can see your character climbing a lot, you may want to take it due to the fact it helps manoeuvering around the D&D world.

Dexterity Based Skill Checks

The Dexterity based skills are a bit more varied in the world of D&D, and cover a whole range of topics. Acrobatics, for instance, is about being able to either traverse tricky environments or stay upright on moving objects, as well as your ability to do your best gymnastics impressions. You can do Sleight of Hand, which is described in the Player’s Handbook (Page 177) as attempting an “act of legerdemain or manual trickery, such as planting something on someone else or concealing an object on your person”.

For the record, and I had to look this up, the definition of legerdemain is “skilful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks” (according to Google) or “deception: trickery”.

Finally, and one of the most useful skills in D&D, Dexterity determines Stealth – which is the ability to go unnoticed.

I said finally, there are a whole list of other abilities such as picking locks, disabling traps, securely tying people up, or even some riding skills. Basically, if you are a Rogue – Dexterity is the one for you.

Wisdom Based Skill Checks

Wisdom based Skills focus on interacting with the world and being wise (obviously enough). They are about being rational, over cold and hard facts. It is for this reason they are great in the outdoors, as well as great for figuring things out.

So, what skills are covered by the Wisdom checks? Well, we have skills like Animal Handling, which can be fantastic if lost outside and needing something like a horse. It can be used to guess an animal’s intentions, as well as help you make a difficult manoeuvre when riding your mount.

Likewise, it can help with Survival, which includes checking for tracks and hunting game. It can help with Perception, which allows you to notice more about the world around you, as well as help you understand people more with Insight. Finally, it helps determine things like your gut feel.

Wisdom is one of the most underrated stats in Dungeons and Dragons, and Perception in and of itself is such an important skill for everyone to have. It helps you understand more about the world you are in, and thus gives you more options on how to proceed.

Thus, Wisdom is actually an incredibly useful skill. Insight, Animal Handling, Survival, Perception, Medicine – it is about accessibility and making the most out of your game.

Intelligence Based Skill Checks

If you ask me, Intelligence based Skills in D&D are the most circumstantial and probably the least actively helpful. The way the Player’s Handbook actually describes Intelligence based skill checks is that they tend to just be testing knowledge about certain things – this is the case with Arcana, Nature, Religion, and History checks.

Where Intelligence based skill checks get a bit more varied is with Investigation, which is literally what it sounds like. It is playing detective, looking for clues, and pretending you are on CSI.

Essentially, Intelligence based skills are incredibly subjective, but they can be useful, especially around city environments. In a dungeon…well…they can still be useful – but their use is more limited.

Charisma Based Skill Checks

Lastly, but by no means least, we have the Charisma based Skill checks.

In a game where you come across NPCs all the time, Charisma based checks are vital. They include such skills as being able to Persuade or Intimidate, being able to Deceive or even Perform. They also allow for you to figure out how best to root around for gossip or source out information. The options are countless with Charisma, and where Bards used to be the laughing stock of the game, the Charisma based skills now make them absolutely essential.

All in all, Charisma is a great skill to have.

Wrapping Up The D&D Skills

So, that is a run down of the skills, as well as a couple of ways of determining which ones to take. Finally, I was asked recently about usefulness and skills, so I thought I would just add an opinion of what skills are most useful and what skills are least. I couldn’t put these in a definitive list, so here are my top 5 and my bottom five. Of course, this is just opinion, but these are what I find most and least useful –

Top 5 Skills

  • Acrobatics (Dex)
  • Athletics (Str)
  • Perception (Wis)
  • Persuasion (Cha)
  • Stealth (Dex)

Bottom 5 Skills

  • Arcana (Int)
  • History (Int)
  • Medicine (Wis)
  • Nature (Int)
  • Religion (Int)

Take what you will from that.

So, there we have it. This article was suggested, so if you would like to hear about anything in particular, please feel free to leave a comment below. Also, what are your favourite skills to used in D&D? It’d be interesting to know.

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5 Comments »

  1. Interesting article and your information certainly is true for most D&D games I’ve played in.

    As a DM, when I look at what players chose for skills, I take those choices as “votes” for what they want to do in the game, and I try to craft some situations to allow the player(s) to use those skills — especially skills that don’t normally get a lot of use in the game. I do try to do it in a way that I’m not being too obvious about it though.

    Liked by 1 person

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