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Passive Skills Checks… A Solution to Swingy Dice?

One of D&D’s most infamous foibles is how frequently improbable, and even nonsensical, results are generated by the use of the d20, the game’s main determinant die.

The classic example is the wizard (with 8 Strength) hoisting up the portcullis that the barbarian (with 18) failed to shift; with the barbarian later deciphering the esoteric arcane symbols around the teleportation circle that had baffled the wizard, despite their years of academic study.

Newmoon, Strength 6, rips open a gate in The Gamers….

Such incongruous results can be jarring to game immersion, and frustrate players who often end up failing at the very tasks they’re supposed to specialise in.

Amongst the best guidance on the topic comes from DM David, who recently posted on the swinginess of the d20 and how to turn that into an advantage for your game.

Some of his solutions include:

  • Don’t even roll the dice if the task is something easily accomplishable by that character
  • There’s no need to roll for knowledge checks if it’s something that characters might know by dint of their class, race or background.
  • Rather than let everyone clatter a d20 over the table, just allow the ‘active’ character to roll the check (others can ‘help’)
  • Only allow proficient characters to roll checks which require a certain degree of know-how
  • Offer advantage to characters with proficiency (reversing this principle, I have previously advocated offering disadvantage to non-proficiency, specifically regarding more technical pursuits).
  • Narrate, or encourage players to narrate, a logical reason to explain incongruous results (thus turning the dice into an aid that help foster creative story-telling)

This is all stellar advice.

However, upon reading the post, I found myself wondering if there’s another more uniform solution to combat this fifth edition foible, which is already built into the game’s mechanics, and which might help DMs provide a consistent framework for judging success on skills checks.

Passive Skills.

One of the easiest way to understand passive skills was rendered to me via a Jeremy Crawford interview on Youtube, in which he described a character’s passive Perception as their baseline Perception skill. Like a radar that’s always switched on, any enemy Stealth check, or DC-to-spot-trap check, that registers under a PC’s passive Perception pings that radar. And then, if in addition to the player walking along, they are activity looking out for danger, they can roll a normal (active) Perception check to hopefully better their baseline skill and spot harder-to-discern dangers.

What passive skills give us then is a baseline for completing moderately easy tasks, as a safety net to the more swingy active check, which allows for the chance to succeed in more heroic endeavours.

So if a barbarian, with 16 strength and proficiency in Athletics, wants to smash down a wooden door, requiring a DC 15 check to do so, a quick look at their passive (or baseline) Athletics skill and it’s: “Yes, sure that’s comfortably within your capabilities.”

The wizard with strength 8 can still have a go at trying to knock down an identical door, but they’ve only got a 25% chance of succeeding, meaning they may well need to burn that 2nd level spell slot on knock.

Similarly, a druid wants to identify some plants. “What’s your passive/baseline Nature score? 15, you say? You recognise the berries as black nightshade, which is often confused for deadly nightshade, but is in fact safe to eat.”

Bards, meanwhile, will be sure to appreciate that they can now reliably churn out a decent tune at the local tavern, using their passive Performance as their default display, instead of having rotten tomatoes hurled at them every time they unpack their lute.

I’m calling this one Bahamut Rhapsody

In some ways, what we’re doing here is simply actioning DM David’s advice of not asking for a roll when the character has a certain level of know-how or skill. However, instead of asking DMs to arbitrarily decide when a player has to roll and when they don’t, passive skills could offer a more robust, structured system, providing players with a bit more transparency (and removing some thought burden from the DM).

This solution is, as I’m sure my veteran readers will point out, very similar to the Taking 10 mechanic from D&D 3.5e. Now, I skipped that edition, but my understanding is that it allowed a player to automatically roll a 10 on a check during which they are unthreatened and unhurried. It’s a very useful mechanic IMHO, not only for ensuring players don’t constantly embarrass themselves at tasks they’re supposed to excel at, but also when applying D&D’s mechanics to your world-building process. Taking 10, or passive skills, can help explain why blacksmiths can reliably forge swords with their paltry +2 or +3 in smiths tools.

Taking 10 also gives us an indication of when we might want to consider using passive skills (in lower stakes situations and controlled environs) and when we probably shouldn’t (when threatened or under stress or time pressure). Being ravaged by a pack of hyenas could explain why even Conan might fail to break down a wooden door, or why Tasslehoff can’t pick a simple lock with ease.

One thing I would advise is that, even when a character’s passive skill score is enough to succeed on a check, consider having them roll anyway. A success by 5, or natural 20 die roll, might bring additional benefits, while a natural 1 on the active roll might overrule a passive success (if you want to stop success being too predictable…. while also helping keep the Rogue’s Reliable Talent a worthwhile ability).

I also wonder if a passive scores shouldn’t be 8 + ability modifier + proficiency bonus, rather than 10, making them consistent with spellcasting DCs etc.

Your Experiences?

Do you make use of the old Taking 10 mechanic in your 5e D&D games? Or have you ever made use of passive skills, beyond passive Perception? Let us know in the comments!


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  1. Juan

    I like your idea. Passive skills means less rolling, which im all in favor of

  2. keith case

    5e skills are one of the things I have railed against(internally) quite a bit while playing. I have ticked off some of my players also as I have made on the fly judgements which don’t fit the RAW, even though I always tell them up front that I may make/change some rules on the fly.

    One of the simplest ones I have tried out was the strength check in the example above. What I have done is actively use the age, height, and weight tables to make the players flesh out their characters and give me a way to make things more ‘realistic’. For example: a mage type that has not been an outdoorsy type and spent their life reading(strength as a dump stat) would use the basic weight table but for every point below a set point, say 12 or 11, they subtract 10-20 pounds off of their weight OR they are fat rather than muscle, Then when they try a door I can say – “try as you might, you can’t budge the door”. On the reverse side for every strength point above the base a fighter type will weigh 10 or so more pounds until it is above 15 or 16 then it is 20 more pounds per point. Thus a dwarf while still being short could be the dense little mountain of walking muscle that most genres depict them as and thus the same door would literally yelp in fear and open itself rather than get bashed by the dwarf.

    I have tried to do this with other skills as well and have had reasonable success but some players have said to me that it detracts from the ‘fun’ of the game as I am trying to make it too realistic and not magic like it should be. I get that, but I also don’t think that just because it is a fantasy game that anything should go.

    IMO, a good imaginative DM can work modified skill checks into the game as you suggest with a baseline ‘you do this with no problem’ threshold for just about anyone and have harder checks that only someone proficient in a certain skill would even have a chance of completing.

    Duncan, maybe you could do a thread on the size, age, weight character stats as I think it is a completely overlooked item in the game that can be quite fun sometimes and give it ‘balance’. Such as the rickety bridge that the rogue dances across vs the certain collapse of it under the dwarf above with zero chance of a athletics check to ‘nimbly put his feet on the strongest points to make his way across’. Or the same situation where the party is expecting the bridge to collapse and the rogue catches the dwarf as he falls, BUT then have the rogue be injured in some way from the strain because he is just so dang heavy. There are just so many possibilities that I believe are overlooked in favor of straight forward swords and sorcery gaming.

    • duncan

      Hi Keith

      As ever there’s a balance of how realistic do you want to get vs. how crunchy.

      The D&D skills system allows anyone to have a go at anything… and that’s fun, esp. for beginners. I’m playing some other RPG systems now and it can be frustrating having one area of expertise and having to wait to contribute.

      So overall I’m pretty happy with D&D skills and how they work in gameplay.

      Weight and height are sadly meaningless and that is annoying, esp. when a medium creature for example (elf with strength 8 let’s say) wants to carry another medium creature that is actually two or three times their weight… (goliath with strength 18).

      However I haven’t found the mental fortitude to try and combat this disconnect with any mechanics!

      I agree it’s worth having players think about their actual weight etc. and have them write it down, so some basic realism can be applied in certain situations… and so DMs can design relevant scenarios (the rope bridge holds up to 1000 lbs at one time, and any rung can hold 250 lbs… except the middle, which can only hold 100 lbs. A 5′ tall or more creature has a 50% chance to stepping on the middle rung if walking naturally. A DC 10 Perception check is enough to notice seriously fraying on the middle rung).


  3. Pierre-Luc Marsan

    One idea is to have a minimum passive ability in order to even attempt a task. In the example of attempting to smash a door, if the door made of pine you would need a passive athletic of 10 to attempt a roll, but if it made of maple you’d need 14 and 16 if it iron.

    • duncan

      Hi Pierre-Luc

      Not a bad idea, and could be worth experimenting with, although it would mean effectively setting two DCs, which is a very slight brain-strain.

      Perhaps saying “only those with proficiency” is the easier solution to certain checks, but making an exception for those with exceptional natural aptitude (+3 or higher in the ability modifier).

      “A tightrope joins the two sides of the cavern. The DC is 15, but only those with proficiency in Acrobatics can attempt it… or those with Dex 16 or above.”

      That might be slightly easier / less confusing than setting two numbers.

  4. Rory Madden

    Passive skills seem reasonable for relatively low pressure mundane rolls where you kind of want the players to succeed anyway (but want to be assured they have some base level competence), though honestly I usually go in the other direction of wanting more variance in D&D, not less. I like rolling dice and seeing how it affects the outcome of the story and usually when I’m calling for a dice roll both success and failure are fairly interesting and meaningful.

    I’m totally fine with the buff Barbarian being unable to lift a gate, as there’s any number of factors that might be behind the poor roll (such as the gate is totally rusted shut or an injury in battle made them slip in pain at the last moment and nows it’s jammed). And I usually use the other strategies you listed to disallow the dice fest of everyone makes an attempt. One roll over PC with proficiency is usually go-to, or if no one has proficiency one PC gets a try. Or if it makes more sense only the player taking the initiative can try.

    • duncan

      Hi Rory

      Yes, I do like that philosophy as well… in that case players are making more of a luck roll, to see how easy it is to lift the portcullis (more than testing their own strength, which is fairly stable) and the dice informs the story as to what happens.

      If you play that way though, as you point out, you do have to then legislate against the dice-rolling pile on that typically accompanies a failed skills check in D&D!


  5. Rick Coen

    I’m torn on this topic. Mostly, yes – everything should have an unhurried, no danger passive (Take 10) score. But I do like your “roll anyway”; this gives a “yes, but” result to the “do you succeed” question. The task – identify this known-but-rare bird – is Nature DC 13, you’ve got a +7 to the roll. You get roll a 2, for a total of 9. You know the bird, you know the basics about the bird, but you forgot or get wrong some tiny detail. The rogue, Nature +2 just from a 14 WIS score, has to roll to learn anything.

    You could even tweak/codify this — my example ranger with the +7, doesn’t get a “17” on any Nature roll less than 17; he gets exactly the result of the DC. In this case, the bird was DC 13, he rolled a 9, so he gets the 13 — but not the extra information a 17 would have revealed. He knows enough to separate the red-chested thrush from the robin without even thinking about it, but he forgot that the thrush isn’t common to this area. The rogue, with her +2, has to roll an 11 just to identify the bird as a thrush.

    I do not like handing out auto-successes, though – that’s the rest of the “mostly” comment from my first line. Because there’s always a chance something completely unforeseen has happened. Maybe the ranger rolls a “1” instead of the “2”, like you suggested Duncan, and he does misidentify it as a robin. Quick glance, thinking about other things, just makes an honest mistake. Embarrassing, but it happens to the best of us.

    • Rick Coen

      Just reporting in. Last night, I tried a couple of these ideas in my session. The bard performed at a tavern, got a 9. I treated it as a 10, per the ideas above. Later, the party was exploring a slippery, mossy, moist dungeon in a swamp. They had to climb down a 60′ shaft that was liberally studded with the old stair supports (the stairs had rotted away), and then generally maintain their footing on a slightly sloped floor. I required no rolls for the climb down, so long as the character had a +0 or better on Athletics (DC 5). Moving on the slippery floor was difficult terrain to be really safe, but you could risk a slip by moving normally; those with Acrobatics +5 or better had no issues. (Ironically, the rogue is *not* trained in Acrobatics, and just relies on her +4 DEX bonus. She rolled… and got the dreaded nat1! She slipped and slid all the way down the tunnel, and was prone when the giant alligator surged out of the pool at the bottom!

      Meanwhile, everyone in front of her had to make Acrobatics checks to avoid being knocked down by her – except the fighter/rogue, who was trained and +7, and avoided without the roll.

      While exploring the swamp above, they had to remain “perfectly silent” to avoid attracting a swarm of giant wasps. I allowed them to make Stealth checks (be quiet) *or* WIS saves (willpower to not move a muscle). The Rogue is +11 at Stealth, and didn’t need to roll (Stealth DC was 16). Everyone else rolled – either not having +6 Stealth, or choosing the WIS save (always roll saves! No Taking 10 here!). The warlock missed by one, so I let the Rogue roll on her Stealth to quickly stifle his sneeze! (She nat20’d, so sneeze averted!)

      (Yes, this was a “stressful situation and/or had consequences”, so rolls should still have been necessary. Wanted to showcase some player skill investments though.)

      Also during the evening, the fighter/rogue simply found some tracks without a roll (they were fairly obvious), and several times characters on watch got information without Perception checks because of their passive ratings.

      I think it worked out great!

      • duncan

        Hi Rick, nice one! Loving the instant feedback 🤣💪

        Seemed like it worked well… hope the poor rogue wasn’t too traumatised by the
        alligator attack!

    • duncan

      Hi Rick

      Yes I generally don’t like handing out auto successes either, but there’s a logic to it. The old realism vs. fun debate rearing it’s head again!

      There’s definitely some ways you can play around though now, by having a baseline passive skill and a chance to supersede it.

  6. I think I would lean right into the old Take 10 and Take 20 systems. If the DC is 15 but the PC has all the time in the world to do it, with no consequences for failure, don’t even bother rolling.

    But if the question is, “Can you get the door open right this moment, while the horde of gnolls is charging towards you?” then that DC 15 becomes very relevant, even for the strong barbarian.

    In general, I don’t like skill checks that can only be attempted once. Not just for “the barbarian couldn’t do open the door, but the wizard can” but also because you run the risk of blocking progress in the adventure behind a check to pick a lock or smash open a door. And again, if there’s no time constraint or consequence for failure, just assume they succeed eventually.

    • duncan

      Hi Jesse

      The old, “how many times can you attempt this skills check”, I think needs to be considered along with the type of task, time constraints, and (metagamingly) the ramifications of failure…

      If you were kind of banking on the PCs getting through that door for the adventure to progress, then I guess you can turn failure into success with consequences…. “you break down the door but you had to hammer at it for a good 5 mins. Congrats the whole dungeon knows you’re here!”

      I do personally prefer certain skills checks to be taken max. once, or twice… such as picking a lock. “Sorry, this lock is beyond your skill.” I sometimes allow a second check, often at disadvantage, or having to devote more time than they’re comfortable with, until it’s clear… they ain’t going to bust the safe.

  7. Hi Duncan, Hi Everybody,
    I agree. I have two questions I ask (in order):
    1) Can I skip a skill test by narrating the outcome?
    If I can lean into a character’s class/background this is a yes. A fighter (class) knows how to choose a good sword. And a blacksmith (background) knows better. No rolls, just auto-success. A fighter (class), or Soldier (background) knows heraldry; but a Noble (background) knows better. If a roll is needed only one in the party can make a roll.
    Auto-failure works here too. A Ranger doesn’t know how to sail a ship without an appropriate background. A Dextrous Rogue can’t roll a natural 20 doing Calligraphy to make a work of art masterpiece – Painters take 20 years to graduate from apprentice.
    So again, no roll. I narrate their hot mess.

    2) Do I want this test to fail forward?
    Sometimes you want a player to pass a test to move things along: the next clue, a nudge towards the story arc (aka 5e rails), or just to push the pace along. For these I use auto-success but with a chance of *mishap* …
    For example, with success: “Ok, You shoulder the door, and it opens with ease. But its hinges are weak. Make a Strength (Athletics) d20 Test. Mishap on 1 will see you and the door fall to the ground (prone) together. The room is full of Gnolls!”.
    I actually have a whole mishap system for overloading a skill tests with orthogonal outcomes. When a Mishap is rolled this mostly translates into a success plus complication. E.g. “Ok, you pick the crude lock. Make a thieves tools test (DC 8), but mishap on 12 or less as the lock is trapped! Eeeek!”.
    I have found overloading the roll makes the roll exciting for all players. Especially, with all the optimization that happens these days, dice face values are something everyone can participate in…

    • Rick Coen

      PK, I’d love to see your mishap ideas, if you’re willing to share!

      • PK

        Hi Rick,

        Mishap System
        Mishaps are a way of overloading a test with:
        1. different outcomes, or
        2. additional outcomes, and
        3. Failing forward.

        1. Different Outcomes

        When an Archer makes an attack they usually hit or miss their target. But when firing into melee, a different outcome can occur: hitting another target (friend or foe).

        This is where I use a “Mishap” to overload the die roll. Firing into melee mishap = 1, +2 per creature in melee in line of sight.

        Consider the example of 2 creatures in a melee (1 ally and 1 enemy) between the Archer and the target (A wizard at the rear of the enemy). DM: “Ok Archer, you can roll to hit, but you’re shooting through a melee so you’ll mishap on 5 or less.”

        Now consider a really busy melee – 4 creatures in line of sight – means mishap on 9! Now we have the possibility that the Archer would normally hit on a 6, 7, 8, or 9 but someone in the melee steps into the line as the shot is made thereby changing the outcome from a hit on target to a hit on another creature (perhaps even an Ally).

        2. Additional Outcomes

        Consider a Thief picking a locked treasure chest. Do you do 3 tests: Detect Traps, Disarm Traps, Pick Lock? Instead I use a mishap.

        Thief: “I get out my thieves tools and pick the lock, checking for traps and all.”
        DM: “Ok, you can see the lock looks like a fair challenge: you’ll need a 10 to succeed. But you also find it is cunningly trapped. Mishap 14 or less will trigger the trap. Do you still want to give it a go, as it’s quite risky?”

        The additional outcome (disarming the trap) is independent of the underlying test (picking the lock). This is what I mean by the term orthogonal – meaning at right angles. The probability space for the thief is: fail at the lock and fail the trap, pass with the lock and fail with the trap, and pass both (picking the lock, and disarming the trap).

        I give my players the odds upfront so they can decide. It’s the additionally outcome of trying to avoid triggering the trap that this mechanic interesting at the table.

        3. Failing Forward.

        This is a special case of 2) additional outcomes, but the base test is going to succeed without a test though an additional outcome may result, so a test is still needed.

        A recent example of this was when one of my players charmed an Ogre. The Ogre was happy to do tasks for the player (charmed means best friend) – no test required there. But each time it returned I would have the player make a mishap roll for the Ogre’s understanding (Ogres INT of 5). Twice in a row the Ogre returned with completely the wrong thing, much to everyone’s fun.

        I also use this with as the “just don’t roll a 1!” Rule. The character will be successful, but just maybe something else happens.
        Player: “I want to fence the magic armor we found at the blacksmith’s shop”
        DM: “Sure, the Blacksmith will happily do this for your for a fee. Roll me d20”
        Player: “oh, I rolled a 1”.
        DM: “No problems.”
        Players start speculating now. Half the time they come up with the ideas I run with. Like: “Great, I bet the thieves guild now knows we have magic stuff in our bag of holding”. Thank you players!

        In short I use mishaps to increase the fidelity of play.

        • Rick Coen

          Okay, that explains it well. Apparently, I use mishaps on shots that have cover. If you are shooting past anything that could conceivably block your shot, a Nat1 hits the thing. If the thing is sufficient to give the target an AC bonus, then your chance of hitting the thing is added to the Nat1 range. If there are multiple things, each thing is added to that bottom range. (However, if a thing is “hit”, I have a whole new attack rolled against the thing, without proficiency.)

          For example (actually happened in my campaign), the warlock and the fighter were pursuing a fleeing displacer beast down a corridor, fighter in front. The warlock attempts to shoot and Eldritch Blast over the fighter’s shoulder (cover bonus, +2 AC). He proceeds to roll a “3”, and strikes the fighter in the back… follow-up roll, 16! Fighter takes 6 damage. Second beam of the spell… “2”, striking the fighter again… follow-up roll, 19! Fighter takes 5 more damage, and yells for the warlock to stop shooting!

    • duncan

      Hi PK

      1) Makes total sense

      2) So a Mishap is Nat 1, or a different band of rolls / results, on top of or below the DC?

      What do you mean by overloading a skill? (I’m also not sure what orthogonal outcomes are!).

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