Can I use a skill that I’m not proficient in?
According to the letter of the rules, yes you can. Page 174 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook states:
“Proficiency in a skill means an individual can add his or her proficiency bonus to ability checks that involve that skill. Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check [adding just their ability modifier].”
Remember your proficiency bonus is the one that goes up as you gain levels. It starts at +2 at level one and is added to all skills checks your proficient in, as well as to attack rolls with weapons you’re proficient in. Check p15 of the Player’s Handbook for a table that shows proficiency bonuses next to character levels.
Your ability modifiers are the bonus (or minus) you get depending on your ability scores in strength, dexterity, intelligence etc. They are added to every ability/skill check you make.
To be 100% clear two first level Rogues, Vince and Howard, are walking across a tightrope above a yawning precipice. They both have dexterity 16 giving them an ability modifier of +3 each. But furthermore Vince has the acrobatics proficiency, meaning he can add a further +2 to his roll to make a total modifier of +5. Whilst Howard, who isn’t proficient, will have to hope +3 is all he requires!
This rule works pretty well for skills that most people could reasonably attempt at least, like climbing and jumping (athletics), riding a horse (animal handling), foraging for food (survival) or telling an outrageous lie whilst looking someone right in the eye (deception)… however for me it falls down when we talk about more technical skills, or ones that require specialist knowledge.
For that reason, I’ve created this small rules fix which declares several of the D&D skills as “technical skills / proficiencies”. When attempting to use these skills non-proficient characters not only don’t add their proficiency bonus but they attempt any checks at disadvantage.
Hipsters & Dragons list of “Technical Skills”
- Thieves Toolkit
- Disguise Kit
- Poison Kit
All of these skills require a degree of specialist training and knowledge that, for me, need to be reflected in terms of probability when a non-proficient character uses them, and which I do by imposing disadvantage. The average fighter is not going to have a clue about arcane or religious rituals, not does he have the anatomical knowledge or herbal lore to have any realistic chance of performing any healing (medicine) on anyone other than bandaging wounds. (In fact I think it would be justified under many circumstances if the DM gives a non proficient no chance at all in tests of these skills). I will also place on the list:
With the caveat that non proficient characters can still have a decent bash at singing, storytelling or delivering a great speech… however they can’t just pick up a harp at a royal wedding and expect to impress the princess. (Most players will instinctively know this and roleplay accordingly anyhow… but hey show them this post if they disagree!).
Finally I will add that within the non-technical skills, as a DM I would still consider giving disadvantage to non proficient players for some more specialist skill tests. In fact my tightrope example above is a good one in this regard… whilst it makes sense that every character can attempt to forward roll over a tavern table without proficiency in acrobatics, walking a tightrope is a very technical skill, so a tough-but-fair DM (my favourite type) could easily justify imposing disdvantage. Similarly if you attempt to Crocodile Dundee a Buffalo and you’re not proficient in animal handling, I’m going to give you disadvantage (on top of a very high Difficulty Class… p.174 Player’s Handbook).