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When trying to lockpick a padlock with a rusty nail I found in the guano excrement of a cell in a Bugbear cave, my DM had me roll for lockpicking. I rolled a 7 and he ruled that I rolled badly and that my character stabbed himself in the hand with the nail and that in the future his lockpicking skill would be reduced by 1.

The text on the Player's Handbook says the following about ability checks:

To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier. As with other d20 rolls, apply bonuses and penalties, and compare the total to the DC. If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success—the creature overcomes the Challenge at hand. Otherwise, it’s a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the GM.

The only thing I can see in this definition that would correspond to losing skill scores is the word "setback". When looking at it on the online Merriam Webster dictionary, I see a few definitions:

setback: a checking of progress setback: defeat, reverse

When looking at checking, this is what I find:

a sudden stoppage of a forward course or progress

By these definitions, I do not see how lowering my ability score follows the rules.

The Cambridge online dictionary defines setback as:

something that happens that delays or prevents a process from developing:

Well sure, me stabbing myself would certainly delay or prevent the process of opening the padlock from developing. So by this definition the DM is following the rules.

I am therefore curious as to whether skills being reduced on failed ability checks is valid according to the rules.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by GreySage, KorvinStarmast, Miniman, enkryptor, David Coffron Oct 16 '18 at 0:44

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In discussing this with your DM, has the degradation of this ability been ruled to be permanent, or "until you heal/fix the wound" you incurred? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 15 '18 at 22:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am not a native English speaker, but by "valid ruling" I meant precisely "valid by the rules". Nonetheless, I have changed it to make my meaning more clear. \$\endgroup\$ – edoreld Oct 15 '18 at 22:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Is there a real problem to solve? "How can the rules be twisted and interpreted in weird ways" is kind of pointless discussion. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Oct 15 '18 at 23:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ A roll of 7 is not even that low. \$\endgroup\$ – András Oct 16 '18 at 5:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is no rule or mechanic for that penalty, Injuries, (DMG pg. 272) As well as you don’t crit fail ability checks. DC 15 with disadvantage (rusty nail). Proficiency would reduce penalty from failure. Failure range from no success to damaged lock and injury. So, talk with your DM about rules / mechanics outside what is set in PHB. I stabbed my hand with a pairing knife between the thumb and pointer finger, but I managed to assemble the train model. Don’t ask! ;) \$\endgroup\$ – XAQT78 Oct 16 '18 at 12:42
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As DM, he can make whichever rules he wishes. Oft times, a DM will use this power creatively to craft special challenges - in this case, he might wish for the picking of the lock to be more than just a skill challenge resolved in a single roll, but a deeper puzzle meant to set a scene. In this case, it almost sounds like an escape from jail scenario, scrounging for tools, etc. Part of the challenge might be that the rusty nail found in a heap of bat poop was specifically crafted by the DM to cause tetanus on a poor roll when using it as a tool (whether for lockpicking or a weapon, etc). Perhaps behind the scenes the DM rolls on a table each time you fail a check while using it (or even if you succeed) and some of his rolls might result on nothing negative happening. Perhaps you only suffer the effect if you fail the check by 10 or more. The point is that the DM has infinite variety in crafting a challenge.

As mightyonet pointed out, the effect should be temporary - your finger is irritated from the jab with the nail, or the abrasion of the rust, and so your sensitivity is affected until the wound is tended to - be it magical healing, first aid, a short or long rest, or perhaps (in the case of tetanus) a cure disease spell.

In all cases, the effect should be to make the game more fun, either by increasing the challenge, deepening the narrative (important for PBP), or providing fun mechanics. I wouldn't pass judgement just yet - there might be a deeper plan at work here - but if it is proving un-fun, then let the DM know. If the DM is looking to build tension and emphasize the zero part of a zero to hero narrative, then it could well be worth the ride.

So, as you've found in your quote form the rulebook, this could be a setback, which is well within the GM's right, but typically the rulebook considers a setback something inherent in the failure - lost time, lost resources, etc, but it is also common to have the setback be circumstantial - in this case poking yourself with an improvised tool that happens to be pointy is not unreasonable. You might also ask yourself what sort of setback you could have been subjected to - a typical setback for an exceptionally poor lockpick roll (usually only for critical failures) is to break your picks. Would you have preferred that over a -1 to your skill check for some (hopefully short) amount of time? Considering where you found that nail, I'm guessing your options for another improvised lockpick are rather unattractive, so this might even be a win (of sorts).

Enjoy the challenge - life is full of setbacks and this is reflected in a good roleplaying game. But if the challenges continue to be unexpectedly cruel, or if the DM continues to make rules interpretations that you don't enjoy, don't hesitate to bring it up in private. Just be aware that there might be good reason for the way the DM runs this portion of the game and give it a chance before crying foul.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I concur with this assessment. It's not a standard rule to reduce a skill as a result of injury caused by failure, but the DM is entitled to invent things like this. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Oct 15 '18 at 23:16
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If the lockpicking skill decline was only temporary as in until you are healed or for a short or long rest then I think it would be fine.

Though I suspect he's also not in the business of increasing your lockpicking skill if you roll high?

There is no basis for this in the rules but simply role playing flavour. I would certainly not rule it being a permanent change unless he will also award high rolls with increases to your skill checks.

Best to talk to your DM and explain that this is very a) not in the rules, b) should be compensated with high rolls increasing skills or c) should be temporary.

If he/she isn't ameniable to these suggestions then perhaps it would be better to find a different gaming group/DM.

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