Hipsters & Dragons

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Using Skills Without Proficiency (5e D&D)

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 p.15 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.

Example: Two first-level rogues, called 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!

skills and proficiencies

I’ll be fine with just my ability modifier Vince

This rule works pretty well for skills that most people could reasonably attempt, 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 also attempt any such checks at disadvantage.

Hipsters & Dragons list of “Technical Skills”

  • Arcana
  • Religion
  • Medicine
  • Tools (Disguise Kit, Herbalism Kit, Musical Instruments, Thieves’ Tools etc. See p.154 of Player’s Handbook).

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 some circumstances if the DM gives a non-proficient no chance at all in tests of these skills).

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 needing proficiency in Acrobatics, walking a tightrope is a very technical skill, so a tough-but-fair DM (my favourite type) could easily justify imposing disadvantage.

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.154 Player’s Handbook).

A Couple More Points About Skills

While updating this post and doubling back on the source material a couple of interesting things came up that I hadn’t fully got to grips with… which leads me to suspect others might not have either.

Healer’s Kit

Consulting the Player’s Handbook, I noticed that the Healer’s Kit (not to be confused with the Herbalism Kit) is NOT in the list of tool kits on p.154, appearing in the equipment section on p.151 instead.

“As an action, you can expend one use of the kit to stabilize a creature that has 0 hit points, without needing to make a Wisdom (Medicine) check.”

So there you are… no rolling required.

A reminder that, without a Healer’s Kit: “you can use your action to administer first aid to an unconscious creature and attempt to stabilize it, which requires a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check.” (p.197, PH).

(Using the Hipsters Rule Fix that check would be made with disadvantage if you didn’t have the Medicine proficiency!).

Similarly the Climbers Kit is not a tool set, but a set of equipment.

Tools Proficiencies & Ability Modifiers

Tools proficiencies use ability modifiers… but which ability might depend on the nature of the check. Page 154 of the Player’s Handbook states:

“Proficiency with a tool allows you allows you to add your proficiency bonus to any ability check you make using that tool. Tool use is not tied to a single ability, since proficiency with a tool represents broader knowledge of its use. For example, the DM might ask you to make a Dexterity check to carve a fine detail with your woodcarver’s tools, or a Strength check to make something out of particularly hard wood.”

I think we often naturally go to a class’s prime ability to determine what modifier should be applied to using a tool kit. A classic ability would be a Dexterity check for a rogue using a Thieves’ Took Kit, a Wisdom check for a cleric or ranger using a Herbalism Kit, or a Charisma check for a bard playing a musical instrument.

But that’s not always the most appropriate. A trap might be easy to disarm, if you cut the right cord… figuring out which would be an Intelligence check, not a Dexterity check. Meanwhile rocking out the world’s fastest harp solo should require a Dexterity check, not a Charisma check.

When Tools & Proficiencies Overlap

A previous version of this post declared that DMs might want to consider Performance a technical proficiency if it came to performing with a musical instrument (as opposed to singing, giving a speech, or telling a story/joke)… however an astute commenter (see below!) pointed out that musical instruments are in fact tool proficiencies, so I didn’t need to qualify what I’d already covered in my ruling.

That did deliver a bit of a shock to me, as I think in all the 5th edition games I’ve played in we’ve always simply used Performance for any musical endeavour.

And it also raises an interesting point about what happens when both a skills proficiency and a tools proficiency are relevant to a skills check, as might be when a bard is performing with a musical instrument. (Arguably a rogue might use sleight of hand when disarming a trap with a Thieves’ Tool Kit)

There’s actually some interesting reading in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything on exactly this subject, starting on p.78.

The game designers suggest that in cases where a tool and skill proficiency overlap, it’s totally appropriate for the DM to either a) give the PC advantage on the check or b) give additional information or an additional benefit on a check they completed where they have proficiency in both the skill and a relevant tool kit. (They give the example that someone with Mason’s Tools proficiency who passes a Perception check to spot a hidden door, might automatically know how to open it, without an additional check).

I suggest you have a good read of the section as it’s very insightful and they go into individual detail on every tool kit and what checks they might confer advantage on.

For me there’s an even more obvious boon to award in situations where skill and tool proficiencies overlap, and that’s simply allow the PC to add their proficiency bonus twice to the check (effectively granting them something akin to the rogue’s expertise feature).

Further Reading… Weapons!

I’ve attempted to make weapons a bit more exciting in 5th edition by creating some new properties that give different weapons different situational advantages. More info on this post.

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6 Comments

  1. Steve

    Another house rule I’ll be adopting. Thank you, Duncan.
    I thought disadvantage might be a little harsh, but it’s better than disallowing a roll altogether.
    In the game Fantasy Craft, you just can’t roll higher than 15 on a non-proficient skill.

    • duncan

      Hi Steve, sorry I think I missed your comment originally. Glad the post helped.

      Interesting rule from Fantasy Craft, that makes sense. One thing that makes D&D quite fun however is the chance to pull off the improbable, so in that sense I prefer disadvantage.

      Cheers!

  2. Wyvern

    I think this is a great rule. My previous instinct had been to disallow certain checks altogether if you don’t have proficiency with them, but I think disadvantage is a better solution (and one that I should have thought of myself). I just have a few minor quibbles with the details of your post.

    First, I don’t think you really needed to list thieves’ tools etc. separately; you could have just written “any kind of tools” and shortened the list by almost half. Unless you think that herbalism kits and forgery kits are an exception for some reason? (I’d rule climbing kits as exempt, since you don’t make ability checks with them; they have a specific function which is outlined in their description. OTOH, you can definitely make a case for imposing disadvantage when using a gaming set you’re not proficient with.)

    Secondly, musical instruments are their own sort of proficiency (which I’d lump in with tools), so there’s no need to make Performance a technical skill. It’s intended specifically for performances that *don’t* use an instrument: singing, dancing, acting, juggling, oratory, etc.

    Thirdly, I’m on the fence as to whether I agree that Animal Handling should be considered a technical skill. I can see your point when it comes to pulling a “Crocodile Dundee”, but disadvantage *and* a high DC seems like double jeopardy to me. And I don’t think it requires special training to try to prevent a horse from bolting or calm an angry dog. (Also keep in mind that 5e has no Ride skill, but PCs will probably still get around on horseback quite a bit, and the majority probably won’t have proficiency in Animal Handling.)

    • duncan

      Thanks Wyvern

      Spot on with your feedback, and your comments have inspired a revamp of the post!

      There was also some confusion in my mind about tool proficiencies so hopefully the re-edited post explains various aspects of the topic a little, as I feel it might have confused other DMs too.

      Just to clarify. I would NOT class Animal Handling as a technical proficiency. If you re-read that passage you’ll see I was giving an example of one extreme instance when you might want to treat it as a technical proficiency, but, as you say, most PCs will be able to ride a horse etc. to a greater or lesser degree.

      Thanks for your input!

      • Wyvern

        I didn’t know about that bit in Xanathar’s Guide. I’ll have to check it out if I can borrow a copy.

        I think the healer’s kit has been controversial since day one. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a guaranteed method for saving a dying PC. On the other hand, it makes the already-niche Medicine skill totally redundant in the situation where it’d otherwise be most often used.

        I was giving the problem some thought the other day and I concluded that if I were running a game, I’d house rule that healer’s kits don’t grant automatic success, but they give advantage on *any* Medicine roll (when combined with your technical skills rule, that negates the disadvantage for using it untrained).

  3. duncan

    It’s definitely more fun to apply a roll there, you’re right. I think I would use your suggestion if the situation comes up (no one on my table has shown much interest in Healing Kits so far!).

    I did give Medicine a purpose in my Healing Rules variant option

    https://www.hipstersanddragons.com/better-healing-rules-5e-dnd/

    I actually play a variation of the above variant at the moment. Players restore a quarter of their hp back on a short rest (3rd with successful Medicine check), half back on long rest (2/3 with successful Medicine check). Max. 3 rests in 24 hours. Just saves on rolling dice and faffing around.

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