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Top 5 Ways to Use D&D 5E Skills as a Player

Far too often at our D&D table, I see the players struggling to overcome challenges and encounters, often opting for brute strength and attacks. The game rules are indeed very combat-focused. Often overlooked are the skills on the character sheet. Skills like Insight, Religion, Nature, Arcana, and more. As a Dungeon Master (DM), I will give you my 5 top tips for using Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition skills as a Player.

I have been a Dungeon Master running Dungeons and Dragons games since the early 90s back in D&D red box days. I have dabbled on the player side of the screen from time to time, but I always enjoy the game best when I am sitting behind the screen. With that experience, I have a lot of experience with how players deal with various encounters and role-playing challenges.

1. Always Let the DM call for a Roll

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me, “I roll a perception check,” I would be wealthy indeed. Even better, when I call for someone to do a perception check I watch several players at the table say that they are also rolling for perception. This is exactly what you should NOT do as a player. The DM’s job is to tell you when a roll is appropriate for you to make, not you as the player.

Ok, you have heard that, but you don’t want to miss out because your character has a great bonus in that skill and you know the player that just asked doesn’t. Well, that player told the DM they are actively doing the thing. It might be that the Difficulty Class (DC) that the DM set was so low that there was still a reasonable chance that the player they asked to roll would fail while your character doing the same thing would have succeeded. Don’t just assume you need to roll, tell the DM you would like to do the thing as well and see how they respond.

Example: Sara, a Fighter with a perception bonus of +4 tells the DM they want to look for traps as they walk down the corridor. The DM sets a DC of 15 and asks for a Perception Check. Before Sara even has a chance to roll, Bradley who is playing a Cleric with a 15 Passive Perception says they will also look for traps and goes ahead and rolls while Sara is rolling.

In the example, the DM never called for Bradley to roll. That player just assumed that they would have to roll and went ahead. However, Bradley’s Passive Perception would have been enough to pass the required check. Not only was there no need to roll in this case, but Bradley may well roll poorly and risk not seeing the trap that their passive perception would have rolled. Let the DM call for the dice roll before you assume you need to roll.

2. Be Descriptive in Your Actions

Too many times, players will say ‘I am rolling an Insight check because I don’t believe them’ or ‘I am rolling an Arcana check because this looks like magical stuff’. Not only is this not role-playing, but it also goes in the face of the first point. Instead, by imagining what your character senses and interacts with the environment and then describing that interaction you provide the entire table with more information. Indeed, a good descriptive action of what you are doing may provide additional information on the results of that activity that wouldn’t have come just from a chuck of the dice on a skill check!

Example 1: Sara, a Fighter with a +7 bonus to Intimidation, announces I am going to intimidate the goblin.

In this example, Sara has not provided anything descriptive to the table. Just, I am doing X and we’ll see what the outcome is. We do not know what the player’s intention or desire is. This leaves it to the DM to interpret and determine the result. This ultimately may leave the player getting an outcome that wasn’t intended or desired. In the example, we don’t know if the character is trying to get the goblin to submit, spill information, or do a dance.

Example 2: Sara, a Fighter with a +7 bonus to Intimidation, tells the DM, “I point at the Goblin with the tip of my sword and growl at the Goblin to submit or deal with my blade.”

In this second example, the player describes how they intend to intimidate the goblin. It’s clear to everyone what is happening, including the other players at the table. This description leads to a more vibrant scene and helps demonstrate the character’s personality to all others playing the game and works with the roleplaying aspect of the game!!!

The DM now has a choice. Is the goblin particularly cowardly and easily intimidated, so much so that the DC would be so low that a roll is not required? Perhaps the goblin has another reason to be brave and hold up to the player’s character. It’s now on the DM to adjudicate the situation with a response. The player has set the DM up to determine whether a dice roll is necessary. After all, we all know dice are fickle creatures and are known to fail us when we need them most!

Additional examples of descriptive actions are:

Arcana Check Example: “I open my spell book and dive into my notes and memories trying to puzzle out any clues to how this magical fog exists.”

Insight Check Example: “As a player, I am struggling to trust what this NPC is saying. How much do I trust what the NPC is saying is true to my character?”

3. Skills Reflect Abilities and Knowledge You as a Player May Not Have

As a player, you may be playing a character that has an extremely high ability score and skill in some facet of the game that you as the player do not have. There will also be encounters, where things don’t present as obvious to the player but the character may have additional knowledge. In these situations, it’s always a great idea to find a way to leverage your skills to learn more information.

Example: There are 8 talking human skulls set into a wall and they tell a riddle to the party that needs the players to know a key piece of campaign world history to be able to solve. Cealadorn, an elven bard with a +9 bonus in History, would likely know this piece of history to the campaign world. However, Cealadorn’s player does not ask any questions and is confused about how to solve the puzzle.

In the above example, this would have been an excellent opportunity for Cealadorn’s player to look at their skills and ask the DM if in all of the history books and stories he has heard they knew anything about the world history of the riddle. Again, not asking for a roll here gives the DM to say, you definitely know about the cataclysm…here are the juicy details or ask for a history check.

While these checks are more situational, the advice is always to think, “Does my character have a skill that may apply to the situation?” Even if you are unsure, it’s always safe to ask. Sometimes, it might be a stretch. It is up to the DM to make a ruling. At those times when there is a success or failure some of the best stories about D&D games come about!

4. Find a Way to Use a Skill that isn’t Perception or Investigation in Every Session

It’s easy to fall into the trap of only ever using Perception and Investigation skills during a D&D session. After all, in a game of hidden traps, magical threats, and exploration these skills are necessary. Players are so much on the lookout for these things, that I find the players are far too often looking for a combat solution to whatever the challenge is in front of them. Fireball is NOT always the answer!!!

Example: Sara, a level 7 fighter, steps cautiously into the next room of the dungeon. In this 20-foot by 20-foot cobblestone room, there is a single goblin digging through a pack looking for something. The player for Sara’s fighter decides that the pointy end of her sword is the solution and attacks.

In this example, Sara will likely quickly dispatch the goblin and get some loot from whatever was in the pack the goblin was searching. However, seeing a lone goblin in a room and Sara’s player knowing the rest of their party is right behind Sara could decide to interact differently with the goblin. Perhaps the goblin knows what is ahead in the dungeon or where the big bad is lurking. If we revisit this example looking first at the character sheet for Sara, we see Sara is pretty good at Intimidation with a +7 bonus. Feeling confident that she can intimidate the goblin Sara’s player announces they smash down the door, sword drawn and pointing at the goblin, and demand the goblin tell them about what lurks ahead.

Finding clever ways to discover more information while keeping more players alive and successful in the game can be more beneficial than attacking. While combat is a key part of the game and this example may end with combat with the goblin it’s a chance for the player to do more with the encounter. Any chance to avoid taking damage and overcome the challenge will improve the player’s chances of survival in the game!!!

5. Find Creative Ways to Use Your Skills

Up to this point, the points discussed are common issues seen at D&D tables. This last one takes a player to the next level by finding new and creative ways to apply their character’s skills. I don’t want to advocate for players to come up with ridiculous reasons, that is a quick way for a player to get on the DM’s bad side. Rather, how can you, as the player, use an existing skill you are good at and apply it to the situation in a new and unique way?

Example: Sara, our 7th-level fighter, peeks around the corner to see a goblin rummaging in a sack in the next room. Quietly, Sara turns to the rest of the party and indicates what is ahead. Cealadorn, an elven bard who is also 7th level, considers for a moment. Cealadorn’s player asks the other players what they think if their character attempts to throw their voice into the room as Cealadorn tells the goblin to bow before their goblin god.

In this example, Cealadorn’s player is thinking about how they can use their high-performance skill (throwing their voice) and high deception skills to have a chance at making the goblin more vulnerable to the party. Creatively using a player’s skills can create unique situations, allowing the players yet another way to deal with an encounter with less potential violence.

Putting It All Together

Character skills are critical to play a character in Dungeons and Dragons. With these Top 5 Ways to Use D&D 5E Skills as a Player you will find new ways to explore the environs, interact in social encounters, and overcome those nasty creatures more effectively while tapping into those precious resources like spells and hit points less.

Let us know how you use these skills to better your gameplay at the table.

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