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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!