I have a specific example, but while I was thinking of how to do it, I had this realization. I, as a DM, always tell my players what checks to make for every interaction, usually resulting in a conversation like this:

Player: "I want to follow the tracks."

Me (DM): "Okay, give me a survival check."

Player: rolls 15.

Me (DM): "Okay, you follow them to [insert location here]"

I'm just wondering if there is anything in RAW that allows a player to figure out what kind of check needs to be made, themselves. My specific example of this would be something like:

Me (DM): "As you enter the room, you see strange symbols scratched into the north-facing wall. The way they are aligned and structured seems as if it is a sentence or phrase, written in a language you have never seen."

Now, what this literally is, is a phrase made from glyphs that, once read aloud, will open the wall to reveal a hidden path, requiring an arcana check of 15 or higher to read, but how would a player know they need an arcana check without me telling them so? As a player, I would assume it needed a history or nature check, but not arcana. Id like to have the players have the satisfaction of discovering the required check themselves, and while I could leave clues and hints pointing to that fact, I was curious on if there was already a general rule for the players discerning what skill check would be required for more unique circumstances.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have to say 5e doesn't even have skill checks anymore. It's "ability checks", and the difference is substantial. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 20:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor The only difference between a skill check in 3.5e/Pathfinder and an ability check in 5e is how many modifiers you're likely to add. PF has the same "the rules serve you, use/modify/discard them as needed" philosophy as 5e, and the "player describes characters action, GM calls for a skill/ability check" process applies equally well. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 20:40

3 Answers 3


This is metagame thinking, which the rules discourage.

The way the rules are written, the players shouldn’t be thinking about what check will be made at all. Instead, they should be think about what their characters are doing and thinking inside the narrative of the game world. This is explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide:

Metagame thinking means thinking about the game as a game. It’s like when a character in a movie knows it’s a movie and acts accordingly. For example, a player might say, “The DM wouldn’t throw such a powerful monster at us!” or you might hear, “The read-aloud text spent a lot of time describing that door — let’s search it again!”

Discourage metagame thinking by giving players a gentle reminder: “What do your characters think?” You can curb metagame thinking by setting up situations that will be difficult for the characters and that might require negotiation or retreat to survive.

When it comes to ability (skill) checks, players only describe exactly what the character is going and thinking, and the DM decides what check is made:

The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.

The players don’t need to figure out they have to make an arcana check, because you are going to tell them the moment they attempt to read the glyphs. They shouldn’t be thinking about what check they need to make, they should be thinking about what their characters are doing.

Don’t write your players into a corner.

From what it sounds like, you’ve decided that an arcana check is the only way to open the door:

Now, what this literally is, is a phrase made from glyphs that, once read aloud, will open the wall to reveal a hidden path, requiring an arcana check of 15 or higher to read

Don’t fall into the trap of making this the only way to solve this puzzle. Perhaps a character is trained in history, with a particular focus on the history of arcane developments written into their background. They should probably be allowed to make a history check instead of arcana check. As a DM, you need to be prepared for your players to provide creative solutions to your puzzles, and part of that looks like making room for different abilities and skills to be used to solve the challenges you present them with.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, that was it. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 12:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PapaWuwu And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re just playing it slightly different from how the rules explain it. Because of this, the direct answer to your question is “no, there are no rules (optional or otherwise) that do what you describe because the rules are assuming checks are being handled differently”. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 16:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or perhaps the characters have a sledge hammer and use that to get through the door. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 0:54

5e uses ability checks, not skill checks

As enkryptor writes, the DM should not be asking for skill checks. Rather, they should be asking for an Ability check, potentially modified by a skill. In your case, you would not be asking for an Arcana check to read the glyphs, but rather 'An Intelligence check modified by your proficiency in Arcana', often abbreviated as Int (Arcana). If you know Arcana is the relevant skill, fine, but the system is asking you to also determine what is the relevant ability. Maybe it is Intelligence, since Intelligence is the default ability for the Arcana skill. But Intelligence measures logic and recall - and you have said that the glyphs are written in a language the characters have never seen. So what good is recall? Maybe what you really want is Wis (Arcana) for intuiting out the pronunciation, or even Cha (Arcana) for correct diction.

Further Reading: How does the Variant: Skills with Different Abilities rule affect the game? Also note that Thomas Markov's answer to that question is useful to your question here about whether the players need to guess what checks are needed.

Player guessing vs. DM announcing

As a DM, you have already decided that the Arcana skill is relevant to reading these glyphs, because they are a set-piece; an important plot element that you have placed in advance. Sometimes players will request an action you had not expected; then, you would decide on the appropriate check in the moment. In neither case would the players be required to guess the check required. After they tell you their intention ('I would like to read the glyphs'), you tell them what check is required.

In your case the puzzle is that the glyphs need to be read aloud, and that is where the players will be making their guesswork. They might try pressing them, tracing them, translating them with a comprehend languages spell, etc. But once they have stated their intention to read the glyphs aloud, you as DM simply announce the check they will need to make in order to successfully do that, in this case an Int (Arcana) check.

Further reading: Should I request an ability check only when the player asks for it?

Players are to be rewarded for using their skills

Sometimes players might come at a problem from a different direction than you intended. That is fine. Presented with 'You'll need an Int (Arcana) check to read these glyphs', a player whose character has a high skill proficiency in History might ask to use that instead, arguing that in their historical research they might have seen them before. A player with a tool proficiency in Mason's Tools might suggest that carefully examining the carvings would at least determine whether they were carved left-to-right or right-to-left and that is a clue as to the direction they are to be read. The DMG says that these creative uses of a character's skills are to be rewarded (not discouraged). In Using Ability Scores, Proficiency (239):

Often, players ask whether they can apply a skill proficiency to an ability check. 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.

With this advice in mind, possible answers to the players' petitions here might be:
These particular glyphs aren't found in mundane histories - I'll allow the Int (History) check, but it will be a higher DC than the Arcana
No, it's still an Int (Arcana) check, but your tool proficiency in Mason's Tools will give you advantage on that check.

There is a fuzzy line here between players knowing their own character and metagaming. If a player reasons that they have a high Perception score and then tries to make everything in the game a Perception check, that is metagaming - 'I would like to Perceive what the glyphs are saying...'. As Thomas Markov explains here, you should be discouraging that approach, and see also Can players declare that they are making a specific ability check? (short answer: no).

However, if a player approaches this as 'here are the skills I have that might apply to this situation, perhaps the DM hasn't considered my background in masonry...' then that adds to character depth and can be rewarded.

The players guess at how to solve the puzzle. Once they have the correct intention, the DM calls for the check - the players do not have to guess which check is required. The players are free to suggest alternate checks to accomplish the same result.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a point of order, the way the game rules describe ability-checks-with-skills is in the format "Ability (Skill)", not "Skill (Ability)". So an Arcana check would be given as "Intelligence (Arcana)", not "Arcana (Int)". \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 19:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Carcer Thank you. Not sure why I flipped that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 20:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ prior editions (3/3.5 at least, I dunno about 4e) did format skill descriptions that way, so maybe just different editions jumbled there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Carcer I haven't played 3 or 3.5, but I do read OOTS, so it might have slipped in that way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 22:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ "or even Cha (Arcana) for correct diction" - or for pure force of personality, that would make even the magic accept your dominance, and whatever pronunciation you use :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 7:33

No, that's not how the game works

The players shouldn't be figuring out what sort of ability check they need or whether they need any at all. In fact, players explicitly asking for a specific check is considered metagaming, is actively discouraged by the rules and considered very poor etiquette at many tables. The way the game loop works as described in Player's Handbook is that the DM describes the environment, the players then say what their characters do and the DM resolves characters' actions, calling for a check if one is needed. At no point does the player directly ask for a skill check.


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