D&D 5E – Old School and Skills

Last week, I talked about using the D&D fifth edition rules to run an “old school” campaign. If you’re not sure what I mean by old school, I recommend Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

This week, I’m going to talk about the difference between player skill and character skill, and discuss the skills that are available to characters in D&D 5E

Player Skill vs. Character Skill

If you’ve read the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (and if you haven’t, I do recommend you read it), you’ll see that Matt discusses the difference between player skill and character skill.

Character skill is represented by the numbers on the character sheet. It includes the character’s attack bonus, proficiency bonus, saving throws, skills, and special abilities. All of these numbers represent aspects of the character in the fictional game world.

Player skill, on the other hand, is represented by the actual person playing the game. Player skill is represented by the player’s previous experience (e.g. knowing what certain monsters are even if the character has never encountered them before) and the knowledge that this is a game and the fictional world is just that—fiction.

I also want to take a moment to talk about immersion, which essentially is the idea that you can get so into the mindset of your character that you forget you’re playing a game. Immersion occurs on a spectrum, and most players of RPGs strive for a certain level of immersion, though everyone has their own preference as to where they sit on that spectrum. Some want total immersion, and some only want the occasional visceral thrill, many want somewhere in between, and no particular amount of immersion is “better” or “worse” than any other.

The key element of immersion is that you don’t want the rules of the game to constantly pull you out of the experience of playing your character, just like when you’re watching an action movie you don’t want to see the wires attached to the stunt people.

Now, all interactions with the rules of an RPG have some negative effect on immersion. If you’re playing D&D, no matter how much you try to immerse yourself in the character’s experience, as soon as you pick up the dice to determine something (e.g. an attack roll), you’re reminded that this is just a game that you’re playing.

However, some game systems have a larger impact on immersion than others, and different elements of the game rules will have different impacts.

The use of player skill over character skill has an impact on immersion, of course. As mentioned in the Quick Primer…

“Also: these games aren’t simulations of what a dwarf raised in a particular society, and having a particular level of intelligence, would do when faced with certain challenges. Old-style play is about keeping your character alive and making him into a legend. The player’s skill is the character’s guardian angel – call it the character’s luck or intuition, or whatever makes sense to you, but don’t hold back on your skill as a player just because the character has a low intelligence. Role-playing is part of the game, but it’s not a suicide pact with your character.”

A key element of old school play is that the player is expected to use his or her own intelligence to figure out how the character will survive—and thrive—in a dangerous environment like a dungeon. If the player figures out the solution to a puzzle, but the character only has an Intelligence of 7, then should the player not propose the solution to the rest of the party? Old school play says “of course they should!”

Skills in D&D 5E

I’m actually fairly happy with the ways skills work in the current edition. First of all, their use is optional because they are built off the idea of ability checks, which is something that has been around in D&D for a long time. So you could entirely ignore the actual skills and just use ability checks for anything that might come up in the game where you need a random roll to see if the character succeeds.

But using the skills as they existing in 5E can still be done in a way that is not incompatible with old school play. It’s not the skills themselves that create the difference, it’s in how the situation is approached.

For example, 5E has a Perception skill, and the description in the PHB reads:

“Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses. For example, you might try to hear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest. Or you might try to spot things that are obscured or easy to miss, whether they are orcs lying in ambush on a road, thugs hiding in the shadows of an alley, or candlelight under a closed secret door.”

There is nothing there that states the player must be given a chance to roll against the skill whenever they are in the general vicinity of the thing to be detected. That’s a typical way that modern editions of D&D are played, but it’s not the only way, or the right way for all groups and campaigns.

Let’s talk about the ability to find secret doors (or compartments). As seen in the Quick Primer on Old School Gaming, the finding of a secret compartment behind the moose head was a purely narrative interaction. The player described what the character was doing, and the DM used those descriptions to determine if the character found the secret compartment or not.

Back in AD&D, here’s what the DMG had to say about finding secret doors:

Checking requires a very thorough examination of the possible secret door area. You may use either of two methods to allow discovery of the mechanism which operates the portal:
1. You may designate probability by a linear curve, typically with a d6. Thus, a secret door is discovered 1 in 6 by any non-elf, 2 in 6 by elven or half-elven characters, each character being allowed to roll each turn in checking a 10′ X 10′ area. This also allows you to have some secret doors more difficult to discover, the linear curve being a d8 or d10.
2. You may have the discovery of the existence of the secret door enable player characters to attempt to operate it by actual manipulation, i.e. the players concerned give instructions as to how they will have their characters attempt to make it function: “Turn the wall sconce.”, “Slide it left.”, “Press the small protrusion, and see if it pivots.”, “Pull the chain.”

You’ll note that even back in AD&D, the DM could allow characters to find a secret door purely with a die roll. However, my personal method generally combines a bit from both options, in order to avoid a) relying entirely on rolls to determine success or failure, and b) ending up in a situation in which a great deal of time is wasted by the players because they can’t quite figure out the “puzzle” and the end result is just a ton of pixel-bitching.

So finding a secret door in my game works like this: The players describe what their characters are doing. If, through roleplaying and description, they figure out there is probably a secret door in a particular area, then I usually give them a Perception roll to confirm it. Success means that they now know there is definitely something there, and a good roll will generally give them a clue as to how to open/access it.

But I do not let characters walk into a room, have the players state “my character is searching the room,” and just give them a Perception roll to find everything. They have to put in the effort to describe what is actually happening in the fictional world. The skills are just there to confirm, to provide hints, and as a fallback if they get stuck in a situation that grinds the game to a halt.

Replacing Table Rolls

Many old school games used random rolls—often on tables—to determine outcomes. The skill list on the character sheet provides a similar way to adjudicate situations in play.

Reaction Rolls

One key element of old school gaming was the reaction table. When exploring a dungeon and encountering a monster (or group of monsters), the reaction table often saved the lives of the characters by giving them a chance to parley rather than immediately leaping into battle.

In 5E, the DMG talks about this in the Resolving Interactions section on page 244. It suggests that creatures encountered by the PCs start off as friendly, indifferent, or hostile. Then the characters’ interaction with the creature may give them a chance to improve the creature’s disposition toward them, and even ask for something from the creature.

This is actually very similar to how old school games work, though the actual mechanics are slightly different. But it’s more about how the rules are used, than the actual rules themselves.

For example, in a recent game I’m running, the characters were delving into a dungeon with a bunch of goblins. The local hobgoblin chief was recruiting evil humanoids for a raid on a local town, and it just so happens that two of the characters are half-orcs (brothers), and they take the lead in the marching order.

So the characters came to the entrance to a room, and the goblins within looked up and saw a pair of half-orcs standing in the doorway. I figured the goblins would be indifferent—they had no reason to be hostile to what they saw as likely recruits, but they also weren’t going to be friendly to strangers in their lair. So they simply asked “Who are you?” to the half-orcs.

One half-orc player, knowing that his character spoke fluent goblin, thought quickly and stated “We’re here to join the horde.”

Now there were a couple of options I had here. First, I could have had the goblin make a Perception check to notice the dwarven priest of Moradin (a dwarven good of good) standing behind the half-orcs, which would have brought down the ruse right away. The second option was for me to give the player of the half-orc a chance to roll his Deception check to see if he successfully fooled the goblin. Since I generally let players roll the dice to determine the success of their characters, the half-orc (who didn’t have a good Deception skill at all), rolled his skill and got a very high roll on the d20. So the goblins believed his story.

(At least, they believed his story until they directed him to talk to the hobgoblin chief in the next cave over, and the player blurted out “I think we killed that guy already.” So it turned into a battle anyway—and was my favorite moment of the entire session.)

Now if this had played out in AD&D, it would have gone in much the same way. The main difference is that, when the half-orc lied to the goblin, I would have rolled percentile dice on the reaction table, adding the character’s loyalty adjustment from his Charisma to the roll, and this would have determined how the goblin reacted to the half-orc.

Ultimately, there’s no real difference in how the situation would have played out between these two editions.


The use of characters skills—in itself—doesn’t prevent old school play. The key is in how the DM calls for skill rolls. The old school approach simply follows these precepts:

  1. Character actions are described by the players, and must explain what the characters are actually doing to achieve their objectives (e.g. searching a particular area to find a secret door).
  2. The DM uses the narrative to determine if the character has a chance of succeeding. (For example, searching only the walls for a secret door when there is a trapdoor under a rug on the floor won’t give the character a chance to find it.)
  3. If the situation can be resolved quickly in a narrative fashion, the use of a skill doesn’t need to occur.
  4. If the DM determines that the character’s abilities should play a part in the situation, then he or she can call for a skill roll. This should generally be used to a) confirm something that the character has discovered through roleplay, b) give a clue to the player to help them succeed at the task or solve the puzzle/mystery, or c) prevent the game from grinding to a halt by giving the character a last-ditch way out of a situation.
  5. Note that failure of a character should always be possible. The DM always should try to avoid situations in which the discovery of a secret door or something similar is the only way for the adventure to proceed. But a secret door that hides treasure, or a shortcut, or some other advantage that is not essential to the adventure shouldn’t automatically be found. It’s okay if the characters simply don’t find everything in a dungeon because they didn’t look in the right places.

Next week, I’ll continue discussion of using 5E for old school play when I talk about the resource management aspect of the game.

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