December 24, 2014

Skill Variant for 5e D&D

In my discussion of 5e optional rules on Facebook, someone asked for variant rules for 5e skills.  I'm happy to oblige!  The most asked-for was a skill ranks variant.

Let's say you really liked the way skill ranks were handled in Pathfinder and 3rd edition.  Or maybe you like games with skill point systems, like the World of Darkness games.  This variant gives you skill ranks in 5e.

Variant System: Skill Ranks 

Summary:  At level 1, you choose a Race, Class and Background.  Your Class and Background give you a list of skills you can learn.  You get 8 skill ranks to spend on these skills, with a maximum of 2 ranks in any single skill.  Classes with more than 2 skills get Bonus Skills.  Every level thereafter, you gain 1 skill rank to spend on any of your character skills, with a maximum number of ranks equal to your proficiency bonus.  Read on for more details.

At Level 1
First select a race, class and background.  Your race might give you a Bonus Skill (see below).  Your class gives you a list of class skills.  Make a note of your class' skill list.  This is the start of your character skill list.  For instance, a cleric's class skills are...
Skills: Choose two from History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion
D&D Basic Rules for Players, p. 21
See the "choose two from" part?  If it says "Choose three" you get one Bonus Skill.  If it says "Choose four" you get two Bonus Skills.  See below about Bonus Skills.

Next, add your Background's skills to your character skill list.  For instance, a Folk Hero might get...

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Survival
D&D Basic Rules for Players, p. 39
So a Folk Hero Cleric would have the following character skill list:  Animal Handling, Survival, History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion.  If any skills overlap, that's OK.  For instance, the Acolyte background gets Insight and Religion.  Those overlap with the Cleric's skills, so an Acolyte Cleric would have a more limited skill list.  But that's OK - that just leads to a more focused character.

Write down your character skill list.  You'll be able to modify it later as you go adventuring.  If you use the character sheet from the 5e Player's Handbook, fill in the bubble next to the skills on your character skill list.

Now, distribute 8 ranks among the skills on your list.  A skill can have either one or two ranks, because the "max ranks" a skill can have is equal to your Proficiency bonus.

Total Modifier

To calculate the total modifier when making checks with your skills, add your skill ranks and your attribute modifier.  So let's say our Cleric has 2 ranks in Insight and Wisdom 16 (+3).  That makes the Cleric's Insight check modifier +5:  Two points from skill ranks plus three points from Wisdom.

Write this number on the line next to the skill, if you're using the character sheet that comes in the Player's Handbook.

At Later Levels

At level 2-17 you gain one new skill rank per level.  (At the DM's discretion, you can gain even more ranks after level 17.)  You can put it into any of your skills, but you can't have more ranks in any skill than your Proficiency bonus.

Ran Out of Skills?

It is possible to make a character that runs out of skills.  That is, you can wind up with all the skills on your character's skill list at Max Ranks and a skill point with nowhere to go.  Remember our Cleric example?  If you make an Acolyte Cleric, you will have a character skill list of just History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion.

At level 3, you will have 2 ranks in each of those skills.  When you reach level 4, your Proficiency bonus will still be +2, and you will have a skill rank to assign, but nowhere to put it!

If this happens, you can immediately add any new skill to your character skill list for free, with no training time.  So our Acolyte cleric might choose Athletics, fill in the bubble next to it on the character sheet, and put that new skill rank in it.  As you can see, the Acolyte cleric will be very focused -- she will have all the core Cleric skills at max ranks fairly quickly!

Rogue Expertise

Rogues get an ability at level 1 called Expertise.  You choose two skill proficiencies (or thieves' tools and a skill proficiency) and "double your proficiency bonus" for these.  If you're using this variant system, all this means is that you get to add your Proficiency bonus when making checks with the chosen skills.  For instance, a Rogue might choose to have Expertise in Stealth and Perception.  She has 2 ranks in each, and with Expertise, gets to add a +2 proficiency bonus as well.

Adding to Your Character Skill List

A character can only take ranks in skills from their own character skill list.  But characters can use Downtime Actions to add skills to their own character skill list, allowing them to put ranks in those skills later (or now, if they also gain a level during downtime).

To do this, you must spend 20 days of downtime with a teacher who has at least 2 ranks in the skill.  These days don't have to be consecutive.

  • Another PC can act as the teacher, but it also takes 20 days of their downtime for them to train you.
  • If you are in a populated area, you can hire a teacher for 20 days for 40gp

This process effectively adds the skill to your character skill list, so you can take skill ranks in it later.  The DM might limit you to adding one skill to your character skill list per level.  That is, if you train in a skill to add it to your character skill list, you must gain a level before adding another skill to your character skill list.

On the Job Training

At the DM's discretion, a character can teach another character a skill (allowing them to add it to their character skill list) while they're adventuring.  Assuming the players of both characters roleplay out the training as they adventure, the adventuring days spent training can count toward the 20 day training time.  DMs should allow this, because it can be a lot of fun at the table.

Ranks on Tools and Languages

You may spend a skill rank to learn a new language or become proficient in a new set of tools, but you should be careful using your ranks on these:  Since you can learn languages and tool proficiencies in downtime without spending skill ranks, players should only spend their skill ranks on tools and languages if there is a strong pressing need.  If there is such a pressing need for the character to have that language or tool proficiency, it's worth the lost skill rank.  Otherwise, it's really not.

Top Tier: A Free Skill

Because 5e has a pattern of granting big perks at or around level 20, I decided to give characters an entire extra skill's worth of ranks (6 extra ranks) from level 18-20 instead of stopping the progression at level 17 (the last Proficiency increase). At level 18, you still get a skill rank.  At level 19, you get 2 skill ranks.  At level 20, you get 3 skill ranks.

If you want to be strict about it, you can rule that skill points stop at level 17 (so characters gain no ranks at 18-20).  In the table below, I made the text for those levels blue, to help you decide.  I recommend you allow the extra skill.  After all, you're using this variant system because you value skills and value the flavor contributed by players' choices in what skills their characters learn as they advance.

Skill Ranks and Max Skills Table


Level
Proficiency 
(Max Ranks)
Total Skill Ranks
1
2
8
2
2
9
3
2
10
4
2
11
5
3
12
6
3
13
7
3
14
8
3
15
9
4
16
10
4
17
11
4
18
12
4
19
13
5
20
14
5
21
15
5
22
16
5
23
17
6
24
18
6
25
19
6
27
20
6
30


Bonus Skills

5e characters can gain additional skills through race, class, feats, items, divine boons, Wish spells, and so forth.  There has to be a system to account for those.  In this rule variant, those are called Bonus Skills.  

There are two kinds of Bonus Skills:  Permanent and Temporary.

Permanent bonus skills are ones gained through race, class, feats, Wish spells, and other permanent bonuses.  For instance, the Bardic College of Lore grants you new skill proficiencies, effectively giving you three Bonus Skills at third level.  

Permanent bonus skills grant you Max Ranks (ranks in the skill equal to your Proficiency bonus) when you get them.  When your proficiency bonus increases, all your Bonus Skills increase as well.  Write a "B" next to any Bonus Skills on your character sheet, so you can keep track of them.  

If you already had ranks in a skill when you gain it as a Bonus Skill (such as from the Bardic College of Lore, mentioned above), you get a refund of those ranks to spend on other skills as you see fit.  The most common Bonus Skills will be Bonus Skills gained from classes that grant more than two skill proficiencies at level 1 (e.g. Bard, Rogue, Ranger).  See below for those. 

Example:  Sidney the high elf Wizard (Sidney is short for something complicated and elvish) gets to 4th level and takes the Skilled feat and gains three Bonus Skills.  He chooses Arcana, Diplomacy and Religion.  Sidney already had 2 ranks (max) in Arcana, and 1 rank in Religion.  He had no ranks in Diplomacy.  He gets a refund of 3 skill ranks to use on other skills.  Sidney's player chooses to put 2 ranks in History and 1 rank in Dungeoneering.

Temporary bonus skills are ones gained through magic items, potions, or other strange events. These are short-term or conditional bonuses.  Instead of applying your Proficiency bonus to ability checks with the skill, a temporary bonus skill gives you Advantage on all checks with that skill.  Write an "A" next to such skills to remind yourself that you have Advantage with them.

Example:  After Sidney the 4th level high elf Wizard finds an item called the Crown of Ancient Knowledge, which grants "proficiency in the History skill while worn."  (I just made up this Crown, so I don't know if anything like it actually exists.)  The DM reminds Sidney that this is a conditional, temporary bonus.  Instead of taking max ranks, Sidney's player notes that he now has Advantage on all History checks.

Bonus Skills on Bonus Skills:  In the event that you gain a Bonus Skill in a particular skill you already have as a Bonus Skill (as opposed to being given a choice), you or the DM -- depending on the circumstance -- can select a different skill to get as a Bonus Skill.

Example:  Let's say you get transmuted into an Elf by Corellon for some reason, but you already had Perception as a Bonus Skill from being a Rogue.  The DM changes it so you get a Bonus Skill in Nature, because Corellon also likes nature.


Classes with More than Two Skills

If you start in a class that normally gets Proficiency with more than two skills, each skill after the second is granted as a Bonus Skill.  For instance, Rogues start with four skills.  That means they get two Bonus Skills selected from the Rogue skill list.

Here's an important recommendation:  If you get Bonus Skills from your class, make sure to take the skills most important to your character as Bonus Skills.  Do it before assigning skill ranks.  This is because they will all automatically increase to Max Ranks as soon as your Proficiency bonus increases.  At those levels (5, 9, 13 and 17) you increase all of your Bonus Skills but only one of your regular skills.

Example:  Myra the level 1 Criminal Rogue gets 8 skill ranks like every other character.  She also gets 2 Bonus Skills because Rogue grants four skill proficiencies.  She chooses Stealth and Perception as her Bonus Skills, because her player thinks these are the most important for Myra.  She then takes 1 Acrobatics, 1 Athletics, 2 Deception, 2 Investigation, and 2 Persuasion.  

Monsters

Use this system for PCs only.  The monsters in the Monster Manual and D&D Basic Rules for DMs are all designed with simple skill proficiencies.

When building monsters on your own, it's also easier to just use the basic proficiency system.