5e's equipment includes fishing tackle, which seems clearly designed to enable a character to catch fish by attaching a line with a hook and lure to a pole, then eventually pulling a fish out of the water. Pulling large fish out of the water with a 'hook, line, and sinker'-type set up is not really a sure thing, and it seems like there should be a roll involved, yet no guidance is given within the description of the item itself. What do you roll to successfully catch a large fish with a fishing pole?

Why roll at all?

Because the outcome is uncertain. Trying to catch a large fish with a rod in real life is not something that most people can do without literally bolting themselves to the floor of a large boat. 5e doesn't have modifiers, right? So that step isn't a thing. What's the benefit of using fishing tackle rather than your hands/a spear/ a 10' pole? If the system is going to provide this level of detail (i.e. exceptional gear for fishing v.s. regular gear v.s. improvised gear for fishing v.s. no gear) it seems like it would require more than just advantage/disadvantage, which in 5e seems to mean a table of DCs based off of gear or something buried somewhere random. It appears no such mechanical detail has been provided so far, but something would still need to be done.

What about homebrew and 3rd party stuff?

Yes, that sounds like the right answer, since the relevant material seems to be missing from the first party books. Tested homebrew or 3rd party stuff with a positive evaluation of some sort would be a good answer.

Why not just say 'the DM or player(s) decide'?

Well, that's equivalent to not having the equipment on the list in the first place. I figured since they put the gear in the equipment section there'd be more to it than any other piece of equipment that the players could make up to buy. Sure, the fact it has a price makes it useful for disassembly into its expensive and useful component parts, but that's not usually the intended purpose of non-kit equipment. This idea does seem to have been wrong, however.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 1:28

7 Answers 7


Survival. The GM might ask you to make a Wisdom (Survival) check to follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide your group through frozen wastelands, identify signs that owlbears live nearby, predict the weather, or avoid quicksand and other natural hazards.

I would use the Survival skill check. Maybe give advantage for proficiency in Nature.

"These waters are home to the zebra trout, so we should use the schnozberries for bait"

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 1:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you want to be fancy, you could make it a Dex (Survival) check - I see fishing as more of a Dex skill than a Wis skill, though someone with more fishing skill than I may disagree. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 10:29

Why do you think a roll is necessary?

DMG p.237, "Using Ability Scores."

When a player wants to do something, it's often appropriate to let the attempt succeed without a roll or a reference to the character's ability scores.

So from the get-go we have to ask ourselves "is it appropriate to let my hero succeed in catching a fish while properly equipped to do so?"

I'd argue, for reasons of genre and style and table-time, that the answer's an obvious "yes." Frankly, during session zero I've never had a player tell me "the one thing I've felt lacking in RPGs is more-detailed gaming of actions that I'm capable of doing in real life."

But maybe you've got a different group. Then you go through the same process as with any other declared action that you've adjudicated neither trivial nor impossible: evaluate difficulty, determine modifiers, call for the roll, narrate the outcome.

The long view.

I've been racking my brain for a few days now. And I can confidently say that I've never seen fishing tackle used in a D&D game to interact with fish. Improvised lockpicks, string to tie a note to an arrow, whip-stitches, even implements used in a 'hard interrogation.' To the extent that you're reading a lot (IMO) into the inclusion of an item in the equipment list, I suggest you consider the off-brand usages it might see in play.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wouldn't you still roll for the time it took to catch the fish, or the type and weight of the fish caught? \$\endgroup\$
    – adonies
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 20:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I wouldn't. Sorry. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 20:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer, but I feel like it should mention more explicitly that sometimes it's warranted to ask for a roll. The "is it appropriate to let my hero succeed in catching a fish while properly equipped to do so?"-line kind of does it. But the rest of the answer goes on a hard stance against rolling. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 2:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ If it's a case of catching a 'normal' fish then this makes sense, but you might want to enforce a roll for a particularly large or rare fish. If a PC wants to impress a fisherman with his catch, for example, then there should be a relevant skill challenge. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good rule of thumb, roll only when failure is interesting... \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 19:30

Back when I started playing 1st ed AD&D in 1978, we tracked everything. How much food do you have? How much does your horse have? What are you carrying (every object, if it isn't written down, you don't have it), and where are you carrying it, and how much does it weigh, etc. Eventually we figured out that isn't a way to have more fun for us.

Nowadays, I find it is adequately covered, and still adequately conducive to role play and a nod to realism, to just make sure they have a way. As a DM, I don't need to ask for a ledger of rations, and make them roleplay going to the grocery store in every town. I can just ask "Do you have a way to feed yourself?", and they can point to survival skills and Outlander backgrounds and fishing tackle paid for, or towns visited and lifestyles paid for, and say "Yes, that's covered", and then I can ignore the issue unless it comes up in an unusual way (specifically needing to provision for a walk across the Sahara, etc.).

Likewise for spell components. Once we tracked each and every one. Blech. Now I can just ask "Does each spell caster have either a Component Pouch or a Focus?" and they can all say "Yes", and I can not worry about it unless and until the party wakes up in a slave mine without any of their belongings.

So, to answer your question directly, I don't see any need to have them make rolls for catching fish, unless the party is in a specific situation where it matters, in which there is a significant risk of the characters suffering from malnourishment. In which case the DM can assess the situation, assign a Difficulty to a roll to obtain food, have the characters roll on their survival/nature/fishing and hunting tools/arcana (is a froghemoth edible, and how do you cook it?) skills as appropriate, decide how long the characters can go without provisions before they start accumulating levels of exhaustion, apply those penalties when those limits are reached, etc.

Most of the time, having fishing tackle and hunting traps and so forth on the equipment list is just an easy way for the party to spend a little money and show they've given enough thought to the matter to avoid starvation, and then we can get on with storming the castles.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 1:29

For equipment that is not explicitly listed as a Tool (and therefore having its own proficiency), I use it to avoid Disadvantage.

For instance, it doesn't matter how good the character's Wisdom (Survival) check is, if they don't have the proper tools to gather food (an appropriate weapon or traps to hunt with, tackle to fish with, etc), the character is going to have trouble (i.e. Disadvantage) when they go to make a roll for foraging.

I apply the same logic to Background features like the Outlander. They can gather food for people when it's available, but without proper equipment to get them out of the water, fish are not available no matter how many are around.


"Who fishes?"


"Your lines will tangle. Do you want only 2 of you fishing, or do you want to spread out along the shore?"

"Erm... Let's stay close."

"OK. How long do you want to spend trying to fish?"

"How about 30 minutes and see how we do."

roll "you catch 2 fish." (Lucky roll against disadvantage, never fished here before. The roll deciding number of fish caught.)

"Let's fish for another 30 minutes."

roll "you catch 1 fish." (Disadvantage fading, but bad dice)

"Let's fish for another hour."

roll "you catch 5 fish." (Advantage from practice)

Here's the deal. It's super easy to design a complex fishing mechanic that tries to capture in dice rolls the stuff that goes into fishing. But dragging your players through it is only going to be fun the first time through, and then deadly dull. So I recommend you put de-minimus effort into modeling the mechanics of fishing proper, and worry about other stuff going on in the game world. Will the local goblin patrol be satisfied with a tax of 1/3 of your catch?

I'm assuming you're doing subsistence or quest fishing for regular old fish. If catching a particular fish is a key plot point, and players are guided into a Moby Dick sort of story, then blow-by-blow combat mechanics would be appropriate.

What are those dice doing? You make it up, but I'd do, per fisherman, roll a d20, and divide by 3 for yield of fish at this spot per hour. +/- the d20 for inexperience/experience generally and at this spot. Or you listen to the advice of the goblin who just took 1/3 of your fish and try that spot over there, now you're dividing by 2 instead of 3. How complicated do you want to get? My thesis being "not too much".


How to determine the result of an action

  1. Determine whether failure or success is guaranteed. If so, simply narrate the failure or success and move on.
  2. Determine an appropriate difficulty (DC). The guidelines are 5/10/15 for easy/medium/hard, but you don't have to choose a multiple of 5.
  3. Determine the most relevant ability score for the check.
  4. Determine whether the character has a relevant proficiency
  5. Determine miscellaneous bonuses. These are uncommon, and mostly come from the enhancement bonus of magic items.
  6. Determine whether the circumstances of this action make it meaningfully harder than usual (disadvantage) or easier than usual (advantage).

Applied to reeling in a fish

  1. You stated that auto-success or auto-failure is not appropriate.
  2. There are presumably many commoners who subside on fishing, so it can't be that hard in general. I'd probably give it an average DC around 10. [If this particular fish is somehow special, you can use an opposed role instead, substituting a relevant check for the fish in place of the DC - probably Strength(athletics)]
  3. Your description sounds like a contest of Strength. I Am Not A Fisherman, so it's possible another ability is a better fit.
  4. A proficiency in the Survival skill or in Fishing tools would be appropriate. Remember, the skills/tools presented in the PHB aren't an exhaustive list - proficiency should be granted to any check that falls within the character's training. I'd also permit a character with a relevant background (e.g. raised in a fishing village) to add their proficiency bonus.
  5. Unless you're using a +1 magical fishing line, there is probably no flat bonus.
  6. Is the current weather really bad for fishing? Is the character exhausted? Is another character "Help"ing? This is highly situational. Lacking the appropriate gear can grant disadvantage - if it doesn't prohibit success entirely (step 1).
  • \$\begingroup\$ Subsiding on fishing is different from reeling in a large fish by hand. For an example of a modestly large fish in 5e, see the stats for the Reef Shark (which I doubt commoners subside on) In general, though, this answer seems okay. Have you tried just using a STR(athletics) check in practice? Did you just use one failed check for being pulled overboard/out of the water or did you use multiple? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 19:19

You've mentioned that you think the player should roll because the outcome is uncertain, but I don't think that's sufficient justification to have a roll.

Ask yourself, does the outcome of this action have any bearing on the story whatsoever?

If your characters are starving and in need of food and fishing is their best option, then sure you can roll a survival check to see how they do, but if failure means nothing at all then just let it happen.

If your player really wants an element of uncertainty then for meaningless little things like this they can always just declare their own DC and roll an unmodified D20 for it. I wouldn't spend any more time on it than that unless your players were really insistent.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Outcome 1: player catches swordfish by hand, earning fame in a huge region for their strength and skill, as well as a tidy sum from the sale of said fish. Outcome 2: player is pulled bodily into the water with an angry swordfish, and probably is subsequently maimed by said swordfish, with the significant possibility of death. I'm not sure what the story is that this is supposed to have bearing on, but it's rather disruptive to most games if the player enters a superposed state of simultaneous fame+life and death+obscurity that the group doesn't bother to resolve because it's not important. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 22:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Ask yourself, does the outcome of this action have any bearing on the story whatsoever?" In your example, it does, so yes, have a roll. In the great majority if cases it doesn't, so don't bother. Easy, eh? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 23:04

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