So if in play, my character spends a lot of time trying to learn a new skill, or a new language, or learn how to use a tool, is there a mechanic for adding that on the sheet? Or does 5E streamline away all such customization with blanket modifiers? I haven't found anything that reflects the ability to grow or develop in a focused way, just blanket improvements as stats increase, proficiency bonus goes up, levels rise, or as multiclassing happens?

The core question is: Is there any focused spot improvement for characters in D&D 5e, or is it all blanket modifier increases?

Most other games have this kind of thing. Take Improv classes? Improve your Performance skills. Go running a lot? Improve your Athletics skills. Practice at the gun range? Improve your firearms skill, all at the cost of some earned resource like XP. D&D seems like characters can sit on the couch between combats and improve as much as other characters who actively work on their skillsets.

  • 3
    I don't think this is a duplicate of the linked question. That one addresses "professional skills" which nitsua60's answer rightly equates to tool proficiencies that can in principle be accrued by downtime activity, but this question addresses the normal Skills of a character, and whether or not those abilities can be improved by practice - it seems like the OP is asking if there is any more granular mechanism by which character attributes improve besides levelling up. – Carcer Sep 14 at 7:53
  • I've edited the title of the other question to make this more obvious, since I agree this is not a duplicate question. – NathanS Sep 14 at 10:08
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Skill/ability is deliberately handled in a very broad/simple way in 5e D&D, and gaining levels is the method by which they are improved

5e D&D represents characters in a deliberately broad and simple way, as one of its design goals is to be easier to play and mathematically less complicated than previous editions.

In that vein, skill and ability is generally represented quite simply.

  • Your Ability Modifier is a measure of your generic ability - how strong you are, how smart you are, etc. - and each modifier broadly applies to a large range of checks. Improving an ability score means you are generally better at any checks based on that score.
  • Your Proficiency Bonus is a measure of your experience and learned ability. Your proficiency bonus improves as you gain levels as you simply get better at whatever it is that you do.
  • Whether or not you are Proficient with a given skill, weapon, or tool is the measure of your focused learning and training. You're better at things you are proficient in than things you're not.

In general, 5e represents your focused ability with specific skills by determining whether or not you are proficient in their use. If you have proficiency with a skill, it is assumed that as you gain levels, you will be doing the necessary practice and training with that skill in order that you get better at it (as represented by your increasing proficiency bonus).

Certain feats or class features - like the Rogue's Expertise class feature - allow you to double your proficiency bonus with certain skills. This is the closest that the game comes to allowing you represent a specific focus on learning and improving a skill above and beyond your broad competencies. Even then, you will only be able to gain expertise by choosing a class or feat that grants that benefit at an appropriate time when making your character or levelling up; there's no mechanism for gaining proficiency, or expertise, in a skill simply by practising it in play (with the exception that you can learn proficiency with a certain kind of tool or language in downtime).

The upshot of all this is that D&D is not a very granular system for representing complex characters, at least not with player classes. These rules are for representing adventurers; exceptional, multitalented individuals who are typically broadly competent at a wide range of things. It doesn't want an individually detailed representation of precisely how good you are at certain things because it's decided that is overly complex and detracts from the game it is trying to be.

That at least is in contrast to previous editions, specifically 3e - which does feature a much more complex skill system where you assign a number of ranks to individual skills and competency in different skills is much more variable and specific. However, even then, the number of ranks available to you to spend on skills is based on your class and levels, spent when you gain levels, and there is a cap on how good you can be at any given skill based on your level.

In short - you only get better at things by gaining levels, and gaining a level make you better in lots of ways at once. Besides the largely incidental tool proficiencies and learning languages, the system offers no way to represent training and practice improving your abilities - these are things it is simply assumed you are doing, and it pays off when you have sufficient experience to level up.

All1 changes to your skills and proficiencies are based on gaining levels, because that's the game's advancement metric.

Generally speaking, when you gain a level, you improve in whatever it is the game assumes you've been training in, based on the class you have (or take). So if you're a Fighter, it's assumed you've been training with weapons and working on your physique. If you're a Wizard, it's assumed you've been studying magic and researching spells.

And if you're a character based on skills, like a Rogue or Bard, it's assumed you're practicing lots of skills. Hence, these classes will earn additional bonuses to skills as they gain levels.

Alternatively, once every few levels you gain access to a new Feat. If you think your character has been doing something minor, that's somewhat outside of their class, and want to represent it mechanically, you can use these Feats to gain new features. There are a few skills (like the aptly named "Skilled") that grant you proficiency in additional skills, weapons, tools, etc.

Those are pretty much your options. If you find your Fighter has been spending more time on picking pockets and practicing singing than he has on keeping up with his battleaxe-practice, then maybe that just means you need to take a level in Rogue or Bard, and pick up some related skills form them.

If you need something much more fine-grained than that, D&D 5e probably isn't the best game for it.


  1. Except for Tool/Language training, which can be obtained through downtime, because they don't have as much mechanical impact.

Yes, for tool/language proficiencies; No, for anything else

Just to surface an aspect of one of the other answers more specifically, Xanathar's Guide to Everything (p. 134) lists a Training downtime activity that lets a PC pick up additional tool/language proficiencies.

The general rule is that it takes at least ten workweeks, minus a number of workweeks equal to their Intelligence bonus. (An Int penalty doesn't increase the time.) It costs 25gp/week, to pay for study materials, an instructor, etc. There's also a Complications table in the book, to give some interesting spice to the training sometimes. (Xanathar's also has a lot of cool suggestions (starting on p. 78) for abilities to grant to players with proficiency in particular tools!)

All other proficiencies are granted only by class levels/race/background, per RAW.

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