Skills is a problem. Always has been. It's a problem to have them and a problem not to have them. Back in the day, I considered myself a skill-aficionado. The thought that not having skills could be a well-considered feature of a system didn't really occur to me. These days, I am between two stools of appreciating the advantages to not having skills and still liking skills for the way it helps to distinguish and characterise characters.
And this is why I don't like 5e skills - they are too generic and basic. They don't actually say anything about the character. We have skills in my 5e group, but I can't see we've used them for much other than 'guess I can add +2 to that roll'. In other words, they might as well not be there.
With that in mind, my baseline is a slight modification of the OSR standard:
Anyone can more or less try anything.
For my 5e OSR document, I edited out all skill references to take as my baseline. Sort of. Actually, skills are sorted by attribute and holds examples of when they can be used. I just removed the skill part and used them as examples of what attribute to use when attempting all of these things. So that's the baseline. More or less. I think this quote over on therpgsite by +thedungeondelver frames the scope of adventuring capability and skills, if they have a place:
"In a very off-screen manner. I asked Gary once about skill systems, did he look back when in late AD&D at other systems that had skills and think "I wish I'd put skills in AD&D" and his response was no, that he felt in a level/class game that your character before they became an adventurer should be basically competent at foraging, swimming, climbing a rope (not the same as a thief's Climb Walls skill - that's for sheer, unassisted climbing up nearly impossible smooth surfaces, etc.), riding a horse and so on. Additionally, the "secondary professions" could blossom out into opportunities for players (for example, we have in the Fri. night game a player of a dwarf who happens to also be a lapidary, so pricing gems is easy enough for the party)."
Besides making a good point that Class itself substitutes for skill (or at least, ought to indicate skill), I think this passage also provides a good definition of what the 1st level adventurer is capable of. +Arnold K on The Goblin Punch put it succinctly for me:
"You can think of the base adventurer as Indiana Jones minus the Archeologist."
I think, in 5e (and RedNext), a good way of representing this is: All characters of level 1 or higher have proficiency (ie, receive their proficiency bonus) in more or less everything. You are just that good. So go ahead and try it. Proficiency Bonus is a measure of your overall bad-ass ability and improves as you level up.
|Indy - A 1st level Rogue with the Scholar background in D&D|
- Combat and similar life-threatening attempts to do stuff
So you don't get a bonus to weapons or grappling etc unless your class specifies it (fighters however, are broadly proficient in combat - Meaning Fighters are the only ones who get their proficiency bonus to "try anything" in combat. From grappling to spear-impaling nutsacks or whatever).
There are two further aspects to this:
- Tasks your character is even better at than just proficient.
- Highly technical ('skilled') tasks
Tasks your character is even better at than just proficient is basically just determined by Class and Background (ie, much the same as Gygax intimated in the anecdote quoted above) and you get advantage on all such checks outside of combat and similar highly threatening situations
If you are a Forester Fighter, you have your proficiency bonus+attribute bonus and advantage on all non-threatened checks for stuff like tactics and appraising weapon quality (Fighter) and tracking in the woods and setting traps for game (forester). Anyone else is competent enough to try the same with bonus+attribute bonus but not with advantage. So your 'skill' (fighter/forester) packs a punch, even though anyone can try anything (and hope to succeed).
Highly technical ('skilled') tasks like weaponsmithing, lockpicking without a pick, climbing sheer walls without tools, hiding in plain sight or deciphering an ancient language that you can't really expect to be able to unless have actually studied this skill somewhat takes you one step down the "advantage" ladder. Ie, a rogue/burglar would be able to climb a sheer wall with a regular check. Everyone else would have disadvantage.
Doing it in a pressured threatening situation (like combat) would take you one step further down. Meaning only a skilled character like a rogue/burglar would be able to do it in combat at disadvantage. No one else would be able to do it.
I am wondering if maybe the 'advantage/disadvantage' scale should be switched to altering DCs for skilled/unskilled characters and attempts instead. It has the advantage of keeping mechanics that suggest 'you can't do this' out of sight of PCs.
There are still holes here. I'd like to give more opportunities for rounding out skill choices than just this (maybe something like 'skilled(advantage) in one personality trait - poor(disadvantage) in another trait') but not at the cost of KISS. And I am not sure how this interacts with rogues acquiring new skills and such. Class/ Background/Personality Trait are basically just skill focuses so maybe I just need to sit down and think on how to delineate a skill focus...
One thing that definitely needs to be addressed with all this is "when to roll". I think it is a good rule of thumb to say:
If the player can reasonably describe how he accomplishes a task, he accomplishes it.
If the player is lazy and doesn't do that, he has to roll. You always roll in combat.
Any rolls made then would simply be to 'degree of success' if applicable.