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!
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”
- 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.
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.