Skills Revisited | New Rules for Fifth Edition

There’s a lot of great stuff that came with the arrival of Fifth Edition. And there are also a few things that got the shaft. One of the biggest being skills. I believe part of the reason why Wizards of the Coast diminished the importance of skills in Fifth Edition was to put emphasis on the three pillars: roleplaying, combat, and exploration. With those three, there’s hardly room for cooking, smithing, and playing the flute.

In this article, I hope to expand upon skills a bit. The goal is to not only expand upon skills, but to also maintain the Fifth Edition “vibe.”

What skills are in Fifth Edition?

If you asked the average Fifth Edition player how many skills he or she thought there were, they’d probably answer 18 or so. And they’d be mostly right. Of course, it’s ignoring the “skills” that come with tools. Tools, like skills, have proficiencies, which means that they are more or less “skills” too, in a way. We could probably even go a step further and consider all arms and armor skills, too. After all, you’re either proficient or you’re not in those.

Here is the list of everything a character can become proficient with in Fifth Edition:

  • Arms and Armor. Light Armor, Heavy Armor, Improvised Weapons, Martial Melee Weapons, Martial Ranged Weapons, Medium Armor, Shields, Simple Melee Weapons, Simple Ranged Weapons
  • Skills. Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Arcana, Athletics, Deception, History, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Medicine, Nature, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Religion, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Survival
  • Tools. Artisan’s tools, Disguise kit, Forgery kit, Gaming set, Herbalism kit, Musical instruments, Navigator’s tools, Poisoner’s kit, Thieves’ tools, Vehicles

That’s quite the list! Now, of course, some may argue that arms and armor and tools aren’t really skills. But in previous editions (and plenty of video games) they were.

Skill Feats in Fifth Edition

What skill feats currently exist in Fifth Edition? Unfortunately, not a lot. Below, I’ve included the limited list of “skill feats” found in the Player’s Handbook. These are feats that specifically augment skills or tools.

  • Actor. This allows a character to pretend to be someone else. Not really a “skill feat” per se, but it does offer up addition abilities for characters who have high Charisma (Deception and Performance) modifiers.
  • Dungeon Delver. This allows for specialization with Wisdom (Perception) and Intelligence (Investigation) when searching for secret doors.
  • Healer. This one might be “cheating” a little, but it does improve the use of the healer’s kit. However, healer’s kit does not require proficiency to use.
  • Observant. This feat grants a +5 bonus to passive Wisdom (Perception) and passive Intelligence (Investigation) scores.
  • Skilled. Kind of a no brainer, this feat grants proficiency in any combination of three skills or tools of the player’s choice.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has two additional feats restricted by race.

  • Prodigy. This grants a skill proficiency and tool proficiency. Plus, it gives an expertise bonus to one of the characters’ skills. This is limited to half-elves, half-orcs, and humans.
  • Squat Nimbleness. Dwarves or small races have advantage on Strength (Athletics) and Dexterity (Acrobatics) checks made to escape from being grappled.

As you can see, it’s not a huge selection.

Note: I may have a missed a few others from various official expansions. Please feel free to let me know what I missed down in the comments below.

Unearthed Arcana Skill Expansions

In 2017, Wizards of the Coast released an Unearthed Arcana playtest supplement that included rules for expanding spells. Personally, I found the rules to be a little overpowered, and since the content was never released in an official capacity, I estimate that Wizards of the Coast discovered the same thing.

Regardless, here are those articles for your reference:

Skill Specializations – The Biggest Hurdle

The main issue with skill feats is that feats take up a lot of valuable real estate in Fifth Edition. In Third Edition, characters got feats at regular intervals in addition to Ability Score Improvements and Skill Ranks.

Now, in Fifth, if a DM decides to use the optional feats rule, a character can forgo taking their Ability Score Improvement and instead take a Feat.

Instead of having the benefits of all three at certain levels, players have to make tough choices. Is proficiency in three new skills better than a +2 increase in Dexterity? Should a character take improvements to passive observation skills, or get three luck points?

The majority of the character classes in Fifth edition offer only five such choices. Rogues get one additional, and fighters get two more. If the DM allows for the variant human, that’s another one.

Variant Race Rules

One fix to this is allowing for the Variant Races that I created here on the blog. Instead of taking a set racial “package”, a player can take the variant, choose a racial feat, then pick another feat.

Skill Expertise – Optional Rule

One of my favorite things to do in Fifth Edition is to use what exists and reverse engineer the mechanics involved in the construction. There are two feats that lend insight to how skills are officially “valued” in Fifth Edition. Skilled is the first and Prodigy is second (ignoring Xanathar’s “book creep”, of course).

For the cost of a single Ability Score Improvement, a character can take proficiency in a combination of three skill proficiencies or three tools thanks to the Skilled feat. Alternatively, a half-elf, half-orc, or human character can take Prodigy which offers one skill and one tool proficiency and then augments a skill with expertise (double proficiency) in addition to one language.

Therefore, we can estimate that three skill or three tool proficiencies equal one skill and one tool proficiency in addition to one skill expertise. Since the feat has the prerequisite of being human or half-human, to make the math easier I’ll just eliminate the language that comes with Prodigy.

What this allows is the ability for a character to choose expertise in a skill or tool over one of their normal skill choices. For example, a fighter is allowed to choose two from Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, and Survival. Using this optional rule, the fighter could select Athletics then take expertise in the skill.

For backgrounds, I wouldn’t allow this optional rule since the character probably needs both those skills in order to have the background in the first place, not to mention there is not a choice given there.

Skill Mastery – New Feat

Taking things a step further, we can create Mastery feats. But what does Mastery in a skill mean?

At 11th level, rogues gain the reliable talent feature. Whenever a rogue makes an ability check that lets it add its proficiency bonus, the rogue can treat a d20 roll of 9 or lower as a 10. This is a pretty powerful little feature. But what is it worth in terms of feats? Hard to say–not only is it a feature, but it’s an 11th level feature which tends to be a bit more powerful than normal features.

Remember that a feat should be good enough that a player will want to select it over both other feats as well as an Ability Score Improvement. Just a single skill with the reliable talent feature probably isn’t good enough, but two might be worth it. Alternatively, I could offer a single point of Ability Score Improvement.

Skill Mastery

Choose one skill that you are proficient in. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase the ability score related to the skill by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • Whenever you make an ability check that uses that skill’s proficiency bonus, you can treat a d20 roll of 9 or lower as a 10.

Skill Specialization – New Feats

Next, I wanted to create new feats centered around skill specializations themselves. A specialization is like a subsect of a skill. The Actor feat is a good example of this. And, like it or not, so are the tool and skill feats from Unearthed Arcana. In addition to those feats, the gnomes’ racial trait Artificer’s Lore works well as does the dwarves’ Stone Cunning (granted, these are just targeted expertise traits).

Using the model from Unearthed Arcana’s skills and tool feats, I think a “build your own specialization” could work. Here is how I see such a feat functioning:

  • Choose the skill.
  • The feat offers an ability score increase directly related to the skill. For example, Arcana would grant a +1 bonus to Intelligence.
  • If the character is not already proficient in the skill, the character gains proficiency.
  • The character chooses a narrow field in which to become a specialist. The specialization must be related to the chosen skill. When making an ability check that uses the skill proficiency, the character makes the check with advantage.

Examples of specializations include:

  • Animal Handling. Riding animals, specific animals, veterinarian medicine
  • Arcana. Magic items, planes of existence, schools of magic, spellcraft
  • Athletics. Climbing, running, swimming, wrestling
  • Acrobatics. Balancing, diving, stunts, tumbling
  • Deception. Gambling, long con, misdirection
  • History. Local, global, military, regional
  • Insight. Lie detection, psychology
  • Intimidation. Interrogation, threats
  • Investigation. Engineering, forensics, search
  • Medicine. Diseases, magical injuries, surgery
  • Nature. Animals, plants, terrain, weather
  • Perception. Hearing, sight, smell, taste
  • Performance. Acting, dance, storytelling
  • Persuasion. Etiquette, relationships, sales
  • Religion. Cults, religious texts, specific gods
  • Sleight of Hand. Concealment, picking pockets, nonmagical illusions
  • Survival. Foraging, terrain types, tracking
  • Stealth. Hiding, moving silently, making signals

Here are a few examples:

Climbing Specialist

You are an expert climber. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Strength score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You gain proficiency in the Athletics skill unless you are already proficient in this skill.
  • When you make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb a difficult surface, you can make the check with advantage.

Transmutation Specialist

You have focused your arcane studies in the field of transmutation. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Intelligence score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You gain proficiency in the Arcana skill unless you are already proficient in this skill.
  • When you make an Intelligence (Arcana) check to identify transmutation spells, writings, or effects, you can make your check with advantage.

More to Come

As I explore this topic, I’ll add a bit more. An array of specialization feats would be nice in a large reference book, but hopefully, the information offered here is enough to get you started.


Thumbnail art by Wizards of the Coast.

1 thought on “Skills Revisited | New Rules for Fifth Edition

  1. On the subject of Skills in 5E, it is very obvious to me that, IMHO, the Authors/Originators of this Edition wanted to ditch Skills completely. Skills probably only remain, I suspect, because of some form of outside [fan-based, perhaps?] pressure. There are relatively few Skills, no Craft Skills [for making different sorts of things], few direct Knowledge Skills, etc. A PC generally has very few Skills – typically only four or five, including the allowance for chosen Background.
    D&D immediately went out-of-date [rules-wise] by 1977, when RuneQuest and Traveller appeared on the market, because these two RPGs, as well as all others which I know of which followed [and that’s a very great many, including a number in French] have Skill-based Rule Systems in order to actually successfully promote Role-playing.and Story-telling.
    The [somewhat contorted] history of Skills in D&D which I know of is as follows:

    Historically, D&D as originally written had no Skill System at all, and was essentially just Monster-bashing. A Skill system of sorts came into being with the release of Oriental Adventures in 1985, expanded with the Dungeoneer’s and Wilderness Survival Guides in 1986. However, these rules were strictly optional.
    With the release of 2Ed, the range of Skills was vastly expanded, and the Skill Rules were updated and streamlined somewhat. However, it may be correct that I recollect that it may still have strictly been optional.
    Third Edition brought about a properly-instituted Rule System for Skills, although many Classes had effectively very few choices regarding how many Skills you could take – 2 Skill points per Level effectively limited a PC to having only two good Skills, unless that PC also had a good Intelligence modifier.
    D&D went immediately out-of-date by 1977, when RuneQuest and Traveller appeared on the market, because these two RPGs, as well as all others which I know of [and that’s a very great many, including a number in French] have Skill-based Rule Systems in order to actually successfully promote Role-playing.and Story-telling.

    Christopher Simpson.

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