“All character classes play the same” – thus framed is one the main recurrent criticisms levelled at various editions of the game.
If we draw a blind around abilities relating to the subject of combat, where the meat of the gameplay is implied to reside judging by the glut of rules, it isn’t hard to perceive why the criticism stands as valid. Non-combat challenges and the abilities that affect them, when they exist, are generally powered by handwavium or reduced to montages whose finality is merely to mediate the transition from one combat encounter to the next.
Being understood that combat swings with the biggest odds riding on it and is also where the most cinematic light displays take place one can scarcely advocate that lesser levels of attention and detail be granted to such a decisive facet of play. However, for referees and players alike wishing for meaningful structure outside of it the air quickly becomes rarified indeed, as the published rules leaves those few to fend for themselves, being quite content to let everything devolve into sameness.
Fifth Edition and the Doctrine of Enableism
Nowadays the ethos is to bend backwards to allow pretty much any class indiscriminated access to the same gameplay, even if the means of ingress vary superficially. Coming back to the post’s opening sentence: faced with a distant ledge atop a cliff-face, it doesn’t really matter if the wizard tests arcana to be beamed up by telekinesis while the fighter rolls athletics and the thief tests acrobatics, they’re each just doing their own thing while en route to the next CR-appropriate setpiece.
A prospective reading of the AD&D ruleset to learn how it handled tracking brought along an eye-opener: barring any optional rules, only Rangers were allowed to track, period. DnD was ever a game to shine the light on niche protection, which makes sense if one wants a disparate ensemble of characters to be able to contribute to more than just the swelling of the party’s number and have the group coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts; But whereas this was once enforced by some rather draconian (if arguably justified) strictures, with swathes of gameable content both accessed or walled off by a party’s play skill and the composition of its membership, the mainline currents of today’s no player left behind push for zero wasted “content” and are quite anxious that no detail, area, challenge or interaction be out of reach or missed amid the shuffle, so that a party should never fret for its lack of specialists: no one’s life is hanging in the balance, everything is perfectly and safely cordoned towards bringing you a warm, linear and comfy play experience.
Too Many Cooks
Skills as presented in Fifth Edition are a fairly anemic inclusion.
In a strange paradoxical display, the game comes saddled with a system that nominally endorses the notion of skills and yet simultaneously undermines it completely by, in practice, ascribing to unskilled play.
The premise already starts out simplistic: a character either has training in a skill or hasn’t. The only impact this carries is of a modest bump to the margin of success, hardly what one would call efficacy training. The books then go on at pained lengths about ways to grant automatic success, ways to allow the application of proficiency bonuses to situations not directly covered by the skill (the better to have players always rolling to their strengths) and ways to mitigate circumstances by allowing a referee to shore up a marginal failure into a “success with a consequence”, painting even the thought of failure as obscenity.
Since skill proficiencies merely qualify a character as “particularly good or focused” on a given aspect of the associated stat, the presumption of basic all-around competency becomes resolutely implied and never challenged. A whole party can swim, ride and wield a bow with a naked d20’s shot at success ensured, the game sweeping under the rug any shortcomings derived from lack of proper training or task familiarity, no matter how removed an action might be from a character’s expected sphere of experience, doubling as a kind of generalist manifesto against specialism. Consider: if everyone in the group is invited to roll to try and track a roe deer through miles of woodland, statistically speaking, chances are actually pretty good that the specialist trained in survival will slip in his effort and it’ll end up being one of the five accompanying wetnoses to save the day. Put that in your pipe to smoke, mister specialist.
Trying to decide how to go about it, going full-on third edition, with its unfoldable catalogue of cornercase secondary skills and ever-climbing ranks of bonuses seemed a fairly dismaying way around the bush, compromising the current edition’s redeeming quality of simplicity to little gain. In the end, despite not really hitting a satisfying note, it simply wasn't reasonable to continue to treat skill and training as just “having a 15% better chance to succeed at an action” and that in that rejection lies a good inroad to character differentiation.
What a character can and cannot do - Skills and Action Types
Accepting that there’s little to gain by drawing up the itemized listing of all the things any given character knows, one must be willing to concede to a semi-extrapolated coverage of expertise, subject to the behest of referee discretion, hinging as it does on not just the nature of the tasks themselves but also the character’s expectable sphere of knowledge, shaped foremost by one’s class but conceivably also background, age or even race (allowing for such classics as dwarven propensities for stonework, smithing or caving, elven affinities for nature and outdoorsmanship and the like).
The numeric quantitative difference between a character being trained or not recognized as laughably insufficient, the simplest and least disruptive proposal is to suggest an additional qualitative layer. What is wanted are a few defining guidelines to categorize tasks according to their exclusivity, dividing them on the basis of requiring airtight knowledge of a subject, rigorous training or simple practice. This was already situationally implemented on previous Bones’ posts, but the idea is to expand this thinking into a more wide-reaching perspective. Here follows a tentative (and far from exhaustive) categorization of actions or skill uses:
This covers the standard 5th edition understanding of a skill check: Any character possesses at least an instinctual grasp of the principles and there’s little to no need for formal training or mentorship to attempt them despite their being obviously augmented by practice. Most physical (including usage of the senses) and social checks fall under this category. Oftentimes these won't even count as a skill until they are honed into one: most anyone can talk, but not everyone is a silk-tongued seducer.
Sample actions: Deception, Intimidation and Persuasion, Stealth, Climbing, Running and Jumping, Perception, Melee weapon use.
Example: A runner practiced in the Athletics skill will boast a clear edge over one that doesn’t, but that fact can just as well be overshadowed by the opponent’s sheer physical potential.
Already specific and precise enough to necessitate structured training to flourish and not just coverable through sheer latent talent. These can be attempted by the unitiated though always at a penalty of Disadvantage.
Sample actions: Manual Crafts, Ranged weapon and Armour use, Riding a steed, Performance, Sleight of Hand, Tracking, Hunting, Lockpicking, Swimming, Pickpocketing, Acrobatics, Forgery.
Example: one can justify the small difference between handling a melee weapon skillfully and otherwise as a compromise of gameable simplification. When it comes to missile weapons, however, mine ceases being a buyer’s market. Someone who hasn’t ever picked up a bow or trained the hurl of the javelin isn’t going to be just slightly handicapped (exceptions allowable for crossbows, for which lack of practice would come to the fore on the loading stage rather than firing).
Intellectual pursuits and tasks requiring a great pool of learning, whose fruits are firmly locked behind the barrier of long hours of study and memorization, to the complete and utter exclusion of those left out. This category covers the knowledge of things that simply cannot be scared up by improvisation nor tolerate shortcuts.
Knowledge checks might conceivably not be rolled for at all, being reliant on inherently passive recollection, though that would require adjusment of the standard difficulties (and return somewhat predictable results, as 7-17 would be the workable range of DCs).
Sample knowledges: magic and the occult, religion, herbalism, languages, medicine, navigation, identification of exotic creatures, appraisal of wondrous items, geography, heraldry, history.
Example: A frieze of runes can’t be bent into making a whit of sense if no knowledge of runic script (through the history or the religion skills) inhabits a character’s mind, the player being prohibited from rolling as it is simply beyond him.
Closing Thoughts – Finer Grain
Even the above distinctions stand to some further hairsplitting in the case of more specific training within a skill’s domain: should a character with Animal Handling be expected to know how to ride any and all mounts, including flying ones? It feels possible to delve into an approximation of skill ranks through requesting a given combination of skills, attributes or levels (Animal Handling & Wisdom 13+, Animal Handling & Athletics or Animal Handling & level 9+) allowing for the emulation of levels of mastery that should be required to unlock particularly rare and valued skills.