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A friend of mine had told us that you don't really get to choose your skills when you see "choose from" x number of skills (e.g. Stealth, Acrobatics, Intimidation), she said that "each class and race has set stats and skills that can't be changed." This really didn't make sense to me because it conflicts with everything I've heard and read elsewhere, but my sister takes what she said as gospel.

I guess it makes a tiny bit of sense when put in the context of lore (high elf rogue would go more with acrobatics than athletics because they are more agile than athletic), but if it's something that lists 11 skills and then tells me to "Choose 4," I'm going to choose 4.

For example, the class features section in the PHB for rogues (PHB p. 95) says:

Skills: Choose four from Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth

I'm playing a high elf rogue with a criminal background in Curse of Strahd, by the way.

Can anyone explain what's right here? I can't ask anyone I know without being called an idiot for thinking against the group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think I get what you’re asking about, but I think because you’re a little confused (totally fair! there’s a lot to wrap your head around), it’s a little hard to be certain what you mean. Could you quote a specific thing in the book that has you making this kind of choice? It’s usually easier to deal with a specific case, and then based on the specific case you can figure out how other similar cases work. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 30 '18 at 4:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ "x number of stats" is just giving an example of whatever skills are available for a class, "x" being a variable you can fill in. Granted, I misused the word stats. Should've been skills... And an example of what I'm talking about is on page 95 in the Players Handbook on the bottom right under Skills \$\endgroup\$ – Briana A Jul 30 '18 at 4:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BrianaA So the confusion then is that others are claiming that there is no choice in the skills you get? How do they claim the skills are decided then? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 30 '18 at 4:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I can't ask anyone I know without being called an idiot for thinking against the group." - Setting aside the answer to the question itself, this seems like a worrying/unhealthy dynamic. Players should always be comfortable asking other players or the DM questions about the rules, especially before the game has even begun. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 30 '18 at 5:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BrianaA Don't worry about asking questions here. We are a Q&A site. We (at least a good part of us) also don't mind answering "newbie" questions - and some even feel good about helping someone new to the hobby (me included). As V2Blast mentioned, if your group dinamic ends up making you not even feel comfortable asking questions, that's toxic. If you are not sure on how to handle it, that's worth a question on these social interactions, to be honest. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jul 30 '18 at 7:55
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You choose it.

As you said yourself, the list that presents your options has more elements than the number they tell you to choose. Rogue has 11 options available and you choose 4 from it.

The only thing you can't choose are the skills from the background and some racial skill proficiencies - but you can make a custom background that fits what you want, and if you already have one of the skills that you would get from the background, you can choose another skill freely.

If a character would gain the same proficiency from two different sources, he or she can choose a different proficiency of the same kind (skill or tool) instead.1

In a sense, your sister isn't completely wrong - the set of available skills (to get proficiency with) from rogue can't be changed. As your question mentions, those are:

Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth

What you can change, though, is the subset of skills that you will have proficiency with.

Additionally, some races give you a specific skill proficiency, for example, elves get

Keen Senses. You have proficiency in the Perception skill.

But that's how far the Elf race goes in defining what skills you are proficient with - other than that, it's up to your class and background. Note that other races, such as Variant Human, might give you a free skill choice too.


About the lore and predominances

As you said, more often than not, a Dex rogue will be taking Acrobatics over Athletics. That doesn't mean they can't take athletics. From a lore point of view, your DM (or your entire table) might want you to justify your choices in your background, and some are easier to justify than others, but that's nowhere needed or forced by the rules themselves.


As a note, 5e has greatly reduced this kind of restrictive interaction. What I mean is that you can choose to be an Evil Dwarf Wizard. It's common in older editions or other systems to have some kind of restrictions. For example, if you were playing Paladin you would have to be Lawful Good. Or, if you look into games like World of Warcraft, only specific races can be played as some classes. That's generally not true for 5e - you can mix any kind of alignment, class, race, etc. without losing anything, just getting some not optimal improvements. This means the bonus you get from being a Rogue don't change whether you are a High-elf, a human or an Orc - what changes is just the bonus you get from being a high-elf, a human or an orc.


1 Per Crawford, this only applies to background skills that you get at 1st level.

The proficiency rule for backgrounds applies when you gain your background at 1st level. It has no relevance outside that context.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 30 '18 at 22:40
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I suspect your friend may be thinking of the Quick Build rules, which define how a character can select their character's ability scores, skills and so on. According to page 11, in the Quick Build sidebar, the Quick Build settings are merely suggestions; your friend may have missed this sidebar, as it is very small.

HellSaint's answer is correct, but for future readers I'd like to give an example below just to further clarify how the array of skills works in D&D 5th edition.

Suppose, as you do, you are building a high elf rogue with a criminal background. The character creation rules begin on page 11 of the Player's Handbook. For how it applies to that character's skills:

  • For being an Elf (PHB p.23), you gain proficiency in the Perception skill. (Not all races gain a bonus skill in this manner, but all elves do.)
  • For being a Rogue (p.95) you choose any four skills from Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth. You choose freely. (You probably don't want to pick Perception at this point, because you already have it from being an elf.)
  • For having the Criminal background (p.129), you gain proficiency in Deception and Stealth. As per p.125, if you already have either or both of these two skills, you may select any other skill. Arcana? Nature? Technically, you can do it.
  • For that matter, you have thieves' tools proficiency from the rogue class, so when you gain it a second time from your Criminal background, you instead gain any other tool proficiency of your choice (see PHB p.154 for a list) thanks to the duplicate proficiency rule. (Your character will therefore have three tool proficiencies: thieves' Tools (from rogue), one gaming set (from criminal background), and any other (from criminal background due to the duplicate rule).)
  • Note that according to lead designer Jeremy Crawford, the duplicate proficiency rule only applies when you gain a proficiency (which includes skills and tool proficiencies) from background. It doesn't apply any other time you would gain a duplicate proficiencies, such as if you have Perception for being an elf and then try to pick it again as a class skill.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ There is much good in how this answer was built. It not only answers the original question, but it explains in some detail how to juggle the whole skills selection gauntlet between race, class, and background. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 31 '18 at 0:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ (Whether this rule may also apply to class skills you already got from race is ambiguous.) - it's not. Crawford clarifies it here twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/1001869329795723264 - other than that, +1 for the example and step by step. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jul 31 '18 at 0:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ravery It means it doesn't apply to class skills you already got from race. (Since it only applies to background proficiencies that you already had from other sources - either class or race - but not for class skills you already had from race) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jul 31 '18 at 2:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint - unless race and background give the same skill.. got you. I thought you were stating in the affirmative not the negative. \$\endgroup\$ – ravery Jul 31 '18 at 2:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have clarified to include Crawford's ruling on duplicate proficiencies only applying when you gain a proficienciy from background. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Jul 31 '18 at 13:36
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You are allowed to pick any skills specified. Skills are determined by class chosen, not race. Though, some races give bonus proficiencies, these are in addition to the skills available to the class, not a restriction of chosen skills.

There is a tendency for certain races to have certain classes and thus skills. For example, Elves have a bonus to dex, and therefore tend to pick Dex based classes. Thus, resulting in acrobatics being predominate over athletics. However, there is nothing preventing an elf from taking athletics as a skill if it is allowed by the class chosen.

As per your example, the elf automatically gains proficiency in Perception. Criminal background gives you Stealth and Deception. You are now allowed to pick any four from the rogue list; for a total of seven skills.

Note: Under Backgrounds Skills in the Player's Handbook (p. 125), it states:

If you gain the same skill from two different sources then you may replace one with a different skill.

There are two ways this might be interpreted.

  • The rule applies if there is any overlap. Thus, your Elf Rogue can take Perception, Deception, Stealth, two more from the Rogue list, and two from the entire skills list (7 total), because the background overlaps the class skills.

  • A conservative DM, might adjudicate that this rule only applies if forced to take the same skill twice, For example, if race and background both gave Perception, you could replace one. Or if you run out of class choices, you could make the remaining choices from the entire list.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I wish this answer made mention of the rule about getting the same skill twice. Because while everything you've said is technically correct, the effect is that OP could choose Deception, Perception, and Stealth as 3 of their rogue skills and thereby actually have choice of the whole list. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 31 '18 at 0:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 -- I hadn't seen that rule before and need to look it up. I answered based on that he would be able to gain 7 of the 11 skills available to the rogue. \$\endgroup\$ – ravery Jul 31 '18 at 0:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, one of the things that makes the rogue such a skill monkey is that with that list of 11, there's a really high likelihood that race/background skills may overlap. So this particular rogue may choose Deception, Perception, Stealth, one more from the Rogue list, and three more from the entire list! \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 31 '18 at 1:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 -- I added the replacement rule. While the first option seems to be RAW, I tend toward the second option being RAI. \$\endgroup\$ – ravery Jul 31 '18 at 2:06

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