Thursday, September 8, 2022

1D&D: The 5E Skill System Is not broken, but it may not work out for you.

 On the Alexandrian, Justin Alexander writes a 2,500-word review that tears apart the DnD 5e skill system. This appears to have been prompted by the fact that the One DnD playtest added a rule that 1 is a failure on ALL d20 rolls and a 20 is a auto success (and grants a point of inspiration) on ALL d20 rolls. In the current rules natural 1's and 20's only matter on the to-hit roll. Although myself and others I know apply it to ability checks, saves, and skill checks. 

The review is quite detailed in goes into some of the math behind the DnD 5e skill system. 

And it misses the entire point of the skill system. 

First off for those interested, here is a link from back in the day explaining what bounded accuracy is about and includes a link to the original article from Wizards explaining it.

Are peoples' competencies really as flat in D&D 5e as its math suggests?

What it boils down to is what is the author's view of the fantasy genre? (since DnD 5e is meant to handle various fantasy settings). In DnD case the specific question, is what is a 1st level character is like? What is a 6th level character like? A 12th level character? And so on up to the maximum level the author wants to write about. In 5e's case that is 20th level.

It is not apparent from Justin's review what he views what characters should be doing in non-combat situations at various levels. He references low-level 3.X a lot but doesn't say why. I am left with the impression that he feels somehow the 5e target numbers should match those of low-level 3.5?

For me the 5e authors take is apparent. You start out so-so: 55% success for easy (DC 10), 30% for moderate (DC 15), and 5% for Hard (DC 20). With a +4 attribute bonus and a +2 proficiency, you can get those up to 85% success for easy, 60% for moderate, and 35% for hard. This is at 1st level. 

To me, this means the authors feel when it comes to non-combat tasks that 5e 1st level characters have some measure of competence. If your view of the capabilities of first-level characters is not the same then the above isn't going to work for your campaigns.

At 20th level for most characters, the odds shift. Now characters often have a +5 attribute bonus, and a +6 proficiency bonus.   You going to automatically succeed at DC 10 (Easy) task. 85% success for DC 15 (Moderate) tasks, and 60% success for DC 20 (Hard) tasks.

If these odds don't reflect what you think 20th-level characters are capable of then 5e isn't going to work out. 

Bards and Rogues along with two feats in the later books give expertise. Rogues also have Reliable Talent at 11th level. Expertise doubles the proficiency bonus for some skills. This shifts the odds of success in skill and ability checks considerably. 

At 1st level, we are talking about a +10% improvement with any skills that have expertise. At 20th level Rogue and Bards with expertise will automatically succeed on DC 10 (Easy), and DC 15 (Moderate) tasks, and have a 90% chance of success on DC 20 (Hard) tasks. 

With Rogues, when they get Reliable Talent at 11th level, the player can declare that they roll a 10 with a skill check. This means they will succeed with everything up to a Hard task? 

Justin fail to mention that there are two more task levels DC 25 (Very Hard), and DC 30 (Almost Impossible). A 20th-level Rogue with reliable talent will always succeed at DC 25 task (10 + 17 = 27).

Is this bad? Is this poor math on the designer's part? No, it fits with their view of what Rogues (and Bards) are capable of at 1st, 11th, and 20th level. This is why I put a reference to something that I and others have written back in 2014. To show why 5e authors wrote up the classes and mechanics the way they did.

As for the change in the One DnD playtest, it is more about making the system reflect how hobbyists like you and me actually play 5e rather than trying to fix a non-existent math issue.

If that is not how you view the capabilities of a Rogue or a Bard then 5e isn't going to work for you. 

And certainly not for Justin Alexander.


Jon L. said...

I've seen this argued about on The Alexandrian and on Reddit, and nobody brings up some of the points I think are honestly really obvious. First of all, from a game design perspective, it appears that Wizards are just saying, "Everybody who has come into this game lately treats natural 20s and natural 1s like automatic failures and successes anyway, so let's do that."

Secondly, the stackexchange question you linked to asks the question, "Is the world's greatest athlete at +11 really only capable of winning about 3/4ths of the time against a village strongman at +5?"

These both come down to the same inherent idea to me. You don't have to roll for stuff sometimes. You roll when you have a chance of success or failure, or when the chance of success or failure makes something interesting happen.

If I'm in a race against Usain Bolt, I'm not going to win over pretty much any distance. This isn't a matter of luck. He's a much better athlete. And if one of my PCs wants to attempt to go up against someone so much more skilled than them in a flat contest, I'm not going to leave it up to the roll of a dice unless they can prove that they have the skill to compete at the same level.

It goes back to the same stupid memes about Bards seducing dragons. Just because the player wants to roll for something, it doesn't mean that what they're trying to do is possible, so don't let them roll unless you, as the DM, want it to be possible.

I just don't think this is the game design issue that people think it is. It's trying to create a set of rules that works the same for everybody, but as always, the DM has to decide when those rules are relevant.

Dire Grizzly Bear said...

Well, the world's greatest chess player just lost to someone who was lucky to be there. And I think it makes it a more exciting game when unlikely things happen sometimes.

But yes, this rule is probably just a formalization of the play culture that the actual 5e community practices, as opposed to the very vocal terminally online segment that's making all the noise.


The more significant issue is that PCs grow far beyond normal humans and what they are capable of. Endless character improvement will always cause PCs to grow beyond a mundane world. At some point, the growth has to stop or you have to start planehopping (I'm sure modron locks are more challenging) or shift to other concerns (the domain game) as the old challenges become trivial. And this problem has only grown with newer editions making leveling up easier.

Kevin Waterman said...

@Jon Landers,

There is wisdom in the idea of not having players roll for things they cannot succeed on. But it is also a worthwhile approach sometimes to let players roll, not to see if they succeed but to see how badly they fail. Do they just fail to break down the door, do they fail AND set off the trap, or do they fail AND set off the trap AND also alarm the guards nearby?

That is why I don't like the proposed system, it takes away this kind of flexibility for the DM.

Jon L. said...

@Kevin Waterman

I feel like your view of the new rule is also limited. You say that you might want to use a roll to determine just how badly a PC fails a task. There's literally nothing stopping you still doing that and 100% sticking to the rules as written and intended. Just because a natural 20 is now considered an automatic success, remember that as the DM, you're the one who sets the terms of what success actually means in any given situation. The PCs don't get to choose that, just like they don't get to choose when to roll or what to roll.

Just like the classic example of a PC asking to roll Intimidation or Persuasion without describing how they're being intimidating or persuasive. You might decide that the person they're using it against wouldn't be swayed by those tactics, or you might decide there's a chance. Or the PC might show such insight into the NPC that they've learned about that you decide to let them succeed without a roll.

As always, the DM adjudicates the situations using whichever rules are most applicable. You set the terms in order to control and push the narrative.

KristianH said...

With the new natural 1 rule, even 20th Level rogues will fail 5% of all skill checks even for easy DC 10. So our legendary 20th kevel rogue, who opens the bedt locks in the multiversere fails to open the simple lock of a garden shed. No worries, the 20th Level fighter, victor agsinst Dragons, Demons and Demigods ries to break the door...and fails too with a natural 1.
And both HAVE to roll a D20. Otherwise the 1 is a fail rule does not Marke sense.

Kevin Waterman said...

@Jon Landers

That is true, but I still think that the new proposed language is then going to set up scenarios where players have an expectation of success from getting to roll and hitting the nat 20 only to have it feel like the DM is taking away what they had earned. The current rules don't set up that expectation, at least not at tables that are actually playing with the rules more or less as written for skill checks.

I think that problem plays into the same kind of issue with the Intimidation/Persuasion scenario you brought up. I don't have any issue with a DM adjudicating what the degree of success is, but I don't think it's good design to write a rule in such a way that sets up a disconnect between player expectation and reality. Players are going to read a natural 20 is always a success and think it means a total success, not a DM's evaluation of what success meant. Certainly a DM can teach their table otherwise, but that's counterproductive and unhelpful.

I'm also curious if it's really the case that people are playing nat 20s are always successes for anything other than attack rolls. I started playing with 5E and admittedly have almost entirely played in Adventurer's League settings, but I've never had that been the rule at a table and it's something that was always very easy to explain if a player was confused.

Jon L. said...


I'm curious as to why you say they HAVE to roll. The rule is that when you make a d20 test, a 1 is an automatic failure and a 20 is an automatic success. It doesn't tell you that you need to constantly be making d20 tests. It's just giving you the rule for how to handle the test.

Ask yourself why you're expecting that rogue to roll for a lock picking attempt.

Jon L. said...

@Kevin Waterman

I do agree they need to work on the language, but it's not exactly a fully released product yet. I just think the intentions behind the rule are pretty good.

As for whether people actually use it, for a famous example, it's what they use in the Dimension 20 games done by College Humour. I'm not sure if Critical Role does it or not.

For other examples, there's references to natural 20s on skill checks constantly on the different dnd subreddits.

Terrorkeet said...

It's helpful when one has the attitude that a system as extensively designed and playtested as 5E might actually do what it's intended to do, and the designers just maybe had a clue what they were doing. 🙂

That doesn't mean the system is always going to do what we want to do. It just means the 5E system was designed with purpose, and it fulfills that purpose. I sorely miss older editions' rules for exploration and morale, for example, but modern D&D isn't made to emphasize those pillars of play. The game isn't broken, it wasn't designed poorly, it's just my expectations don't match the rules.

I see a lot of white room arguments about how nat 1s and 20s are handled: How anybody can do anything the player proposes as long as they make a 20, and how experts in a field completely flub whatever it is they're doing 5% of the time (when a 1 is rolled). I hesitate to say all these arguments are made in poor faith, but I have to wonder how often these scenarios come up in actual play. It's fine to theorycraft and discuss the ins and outs of rules, and I do plenty of that. However, any DM that allows dragon seduction or persuading a king abdicate or leaping a castle wall or whatever on a 20 is themselves the problem, not the system. If somebody can't reasonably perform a task, the DM shouldn't allow a roll for it, period. When people insist on doing that anyway, of course they're going to get illogical results. But the problem is applying the system in that way, not the system itself.

Anybody that argues with this, honestly, I can't see them doing so in good faith.

KristianH said...

Either you need to roll to check if you succeed (so st least a 2) a one will allways be failure anyway.
Therefore the rule only makes sense, if you roll all still checks.

KristianH said...

I can only speak for me, but I do not question that the System does what it should do.
But even though, the last three edition were all extensively playtestet, there were always rules thst turnen out to be crappy. Grappling in 3rd fir example.
And me playing since 83 and having playtestet for a lot of Green Ronin Stuff (Black Company Campaign Setting, Thieves World, Song of Ice and Fire RPG and many more) do think thst I also have a Club what rules work and how.
And even with good faith, I do not see how this rule benefits gameplay.

Cloaked Figure said...

Speaking of 5e, I have been dabbling in being a indie content producer for 5e for the last couple of years. One of my fans suggested I reach out to you. I'm looking for some help promoting this:

Simon said...

If it was a 20 is +10 on the roll and a 1 is -10 on the roll, I think that'd be ok. I had a player last week try to pick an 'impossible' lock - I set the DC at 30 though the adventure (Stonehell) said 'can't be opened' and he rolled a 20 + 9 = 29, I said fail but in retrospect I will give him something.