“Variant: Skills with Different Abilities”

"An owlbear carrying a large treasure chest on her back through a burning forest." (NightCafe)

I’m writing an adventure at the moment, which features an organisation called the Reclamations Agency, the state sanctioned thieve’s guild. Most people know a bit about them, but do your characters know a little more? What’s the skill check for this? D&D lacks any kind of Culture (Starfinder) or Street Skills (Shadowrun).

A dry Int check might be the easiest thing to reach for but the problem is that they’re pretty boring. We can do better.

Both the PHB (page 175ish) and DMG (page 239ish) talk about using different ability scores skills, which potentially allows using proficiencies in surprising ways.

To intuit why the Agency works a certain way, I might suggest Insight (Charisma); understanding the social protocols you’ve spotted and trying to understand why they might work like that. Or even Insight (Intelligence) to piece together the clues you’ve collected so far. Deception (Intelligence) to make use of your knowledge of the underhand methods you’d use to sneak something out the city.

The problem is that all these require a bit more maths from the player. They don’t have these numbers written on their sheet already. If you find you’re using them often (or want to persaude your DM to start usign them), you could always note them down though. After all, the DMG says:

If a player can provide a good justification for why a character’s training and aptitude in a skill should apply to the check, go ahead and allow it, rewarding the player’s creative thinking.

Here are some more ideas:

Acrobatics (Int)* How difficult does that climb look?
Animal Handling (Int)* Should the animal be behaving like that?
* How much weight can this owlbear carry?
* Can a druid turn into something like that?
* Is that a beast or a monstrosity?
Arcana (Cha)* Is that person charmed?
Athletics (Int)* How long would it take to run that far?
Athletics (Wis)* How strong is that guy?
Deception (Con)* Can I hide how gross this food is?
History (Wis)* Does that sound like something the Queen would have done?
Insight (Cha)* How does this social structure work?
Intimidation (Str)* Can I punch the wall to scare the guy?
Investigation (Wis)* Does anything feel off here? (More active version of Perception (Wis).
Medicine (Con)* Will I get poisoned if I drink this much ale?
Nature (Cha)* Can I say the right things to persaude this Dryad?
Perception (Str)* Is that guy pulling his blows?
Performance (Int)* Can I remember the correct thing to say here?
Persausion (Con)* Can I out drink this Dwarf to win her respect?
Religion (Cha)* Can I fool this bumkin into thinking I speak the words of a god?
Sleight of Hand (Wis)* What are my odds of pick pocketing that person?
Stealth (Wis)* I do think I’ve been spotted?
Survival (Str)* Can I pull this bear trap off my leg?
This table wasn’t even what I had planned today. I timeboxed it to 15 minutes – but look how many cool things already!

Other than just filling in gaps where the D&D skills are lacking, this also lets the PCs have more utility. The paladin might not be intimidating in most situations, but when the time comes for a religious intimidation, their Religion (Str) check might be pretty imposing.

The divestment of a departed drow

Valna was first encouraged to become a priestess of Lolth because of her innovative use of magics. It was clear early on that her understanding of magic – especially in dank of the Underdark – was beyond anything that had been studied so far. Maybe she could bring more glory to the Lady of Shadows with her gifts.

Unfortunately, Valna’s scholarly enthusiasm always took priority to her worship, and it was only a matter of time until the inevitable happened. Decades into the relatively luscious life of a Priestess, Lolth called on her for her faith to be tested. Valna never returned.

A necromancer, reading a spell book. Image generated with magic.

Valna was no fool though. She knew that day would come. She left behind two things for her closest followers to continue her work with: her own severed finger (for unknown purposes) and her research.

Within those research notes, written carefully in ink rarely found in the Underdark, were two spells never before seen.

Valna’s Final Embrace.
Level 1 Necromancy spell. Ritual. Casting time: 1 action. Duration: 1 day.
Touch a willing target to grasp a few strands of their soul. For the duration, the target ignores their first Death Saving Throw failure. After this has been triggered, the spell ends and their maximum hit points are permanently reduced by 1d4.

Necromancers are always looking for a way to stay alive just a little bit longer, and there’s almost always a trade off for it. Certain Wizards who want to put the dice slightly more in their favour will want to pop this on along with their Mage Armor.

I also quite like that the Wizard can use this on other people. A good friend is bleeding out on the floor. Now the necromancer has to make a decision for them: give them a better chance of stabilising, at the cost of permanent damage.

A necromancer’s plaything attempts to read the spells that created it. For some reason, the ritual requires… a car? Image generated with magic.

Valna’s Enchained Totem.
Cantrip. Necromancy spell. Casting time: 1 action. Duration: 1 minute. Range: 30 feet.
Your quarterstaff becomes enchanted with souls of trapped foes and becomes rooted to the ground for the duration of the spell. On this turn, and following turns, you may use the Attack action to berate the quarterstaff. To appease you, it will make a Melee Spell Attack on a hostile creature within range. Using your spell casting modifier, bones launch out of the ground and pummel the closest target (chosen by the DM) causing 1d10 bludgeoning damage.
Damage scales with your spell casting level, like similar cantrips.

One of the coolest things about necromancy in every other game in the universe is that it lets you summon undead and fight with them. It’s odd that D&D takes so long to let you do that. This isn’t quite that, but finally you have the ability to be mean to some dead guys, like a real necromancer.

A servant of Lolth, hunting. Image generated with magic.

The quarterstaff stays rooted, but can still break. However, you’ll have to wait for the minute to end if you want to remove the quarterstaff without breaking it. Wizards never use their quarterstaff. What’s the deal with that?

After the first turn, you use an Attack action on the quarterstaff, which allows you to use an off-hand bonus attack! Wizards never do this. (Because their main attack is already strong enough, I suppose.) I think it’d look cool! I feel they’ll need this as the rooted staff will make them stay in place a little more.

Berating might be throwing a stone at it, slapping it, or giving it a good kick. There’s no to hit on this. It’s more of a percussive, psychological abuse of the poor, tormented souls trapped within the magic.

The missing things from D&D: Contacts

Character creation in a lot of RPGs get you to think about a background for your character, and almost all of those, including D&D, get you to think about your ties to the world. The Background in D&D comes with a few questions which prompt this: what was the event which made you a folk hero? what made your turn your back on civilisation?

However, very few of those 5e backgrounds prompt you to think about specific people, with names.

Sources of information

In Call of Cthulhu, when you pick your occupation it specifically calls out the contacts you might have made during the course of your work. As a game based around investigation, and rarely brute force, having Barry from the Legal Team as a friend (or even just colleague) gives the player an avenue to turn to when they’re desperately struggling to find the next stepping stone. Finding new contacts is an actively part of the game too – the gunsmith isn’t just a person to sell you guns, but a name you should write down because you’ll need their expertise when it comes to tracking down the owner of a recently sold gun.

When creating a Shadowrun character, you can allot some of your starting attribute points to making new contacts. This isn’t quite a one-to-one relationship, but you can either pick a new spell or add a new contact. Similar to Cthulhu, Shadowrun is all about planning a heist and tracking down information, so it’s not surprising there are such systems around making a network of sources.

Finding a new contact can be as powerful as finding a magic item in Faerun. In Shadow of the Demonlord’s core rule book, this is specifically called out. Being introduced to the High Cultist might be the reward for an entire quest chain. Demonlord doesn’t put as much effort into this as some other systems, but it does include some prompts to be thought about when adding a new NPC.

Having this potential source of information doesn’t necessarily give the players a superpower; the DM still controls if what these sources know. This type of thinking – around if you’ve accidentally made your players too powerful – is counter-productive to fun. Instead, consider it another way for you to feed plot to the players when their wheels start spinning.

Family

There are far too many orphaned and unattached adventurers in the world. Too often there are no ties to their home. Even total losers have at least a cousin they have some affinity for.

At the beginning on my Maze of the Blue Medusa campaign, I asked the players why do you owe this kenku a favour? Despite coming with ideas about their character, there was no prep time for this, and they had to improvise something on the spot. I’m certain that’s the first time some of them had thought about the fact that their father needed some falsified documents, or that they were still living in their parents basement.

My main aim with getting the answer to this was to find ways that the characters were tied to the world, so I could wrap the plot around it when needed. It just so happened that along the way we learned about some of their family, and some of them become NPCs that the characters cared for. “Well, we can’t do the ritual in my home… what if someone bad happens and it affects my mum?” This isn’t just about role play (which a certain type of player is uneasy around) – it’s sometimes key to plot.