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When you create characters for a party, one aspect in particular are skills. At least in our games, we try to make sure that someone has a decent Perception skill bonus, ideally several people, and if possible, our characters aim to have either Athletics or Acrobatics to stand a chance in various combat-related skill challenges, because in our experience, those skills come up a lot and directly affect survival. Stealth is also popular (some heavy armor fighters will get disadvantage, but it still helps in group checks if several people are good at it). We also try to diversify our skills, so that as an overall party, we can cover many different ones.

There are of course reasons to pick skills other than the utility of being good at something that comes up often, like expressing your character concept. Which skills are called for will also depend on your campaign: do you mostly delve dungeons or are you involved in city intrigue? And it depends on your group's playstyle: how do you handle social interactions -- do you tend to roleplay them, roll a social skill, or a mix of both? Lastly, skills are also situation dependent; how important the result of a skill based ability check is can vary widely. And if nobody has a particular skill, this is often a great source of creative role playing or fun antics, so optimizing for success may differ from having the most fun.

Still, from a practical optimization perspective, it would be useful to know which skills are likely to come up most often and therefore are useful candidates to prioritize when creating a character or a group. I am simply interested in quantity. Which skills are rolled most often in your experience, or are asked for most often in published adventures?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I’m voting to close this question as opinion based. There is no such thing as a “typical campaign”, so as written, this question is just a user survey. That said, “what are the skill checks in each published adventure” is not opinion based, as it has an objectively correct answer. Your question currently has no right or wrong answer. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 6:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are no skill checks in 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Mar 26 at 7:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't see how analysing "combat" is comparable at all with "ability rolls across a whole campaign". Combat situations have very tight bounds in how they resolve. And you can make reasonable assumptions for how characters would act in order to calculate what the results would be. For example, it is probably not worth considering the cases where one or more characters decide not to act when they can. However the ability rolls are largely driven by a GM. Moreover, the type of campaign is driven between the collaboration between players and GMs which, in turn, shapes which skills are used. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 26 at 7:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, probably worth noting that the skill rolls are very likely going to be influenced by what characters are good at. A player who wants to play "an investigator" might favour Investigation and Insight which, in turn, would result in more rolls as the player would be getting into situations where these are relevant - looking at crime scenes, questioning suspects. Yet, in another campaign maybe the character is a travelling troupe of chefs and has little use of these skills. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 26 at 7:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri everybody has the right to express opinion on a question. Not just people who like it. Please don't try to suppress this fundamental right the network is built on. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 26 at 11:00

2 Answers 2

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It is up to you what the most common skill checks are.

You get to decide the answer to this question for your own game, because of what ability checks are and how they work:

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.

So whatever actions you attempt the most are going to be the most common ones, so you can decide the answer to this question.

Of course, your DM plays a role in what Ability (Skill) to associate with any particular action, but these associations are generally pretty well defined, so for the most part, you should be able to get the check you’re looking for with a given course of action.

Therefore, any deviations from any artificially constructed averages are just because you chose to play differently from the players in the source data.

Set expectations with conversations, not made up stats.

I’ve dealt with an issue before where a player was a bit disappointed that they weren’t getting to use Deception and Persuasion very often after using Expertise to boost those skills. Part of that conversation looked very much like this answer; I told them that they aren’t getting any calls for those roles because they aren’t engaging in those activities during interactions. The opportunities were there, but they made a “party face” character and weren’t playing that way.

Using stats like the ones asked about in this question is a terribly poor way of setting expectations for your game, especially for this issue. There is no such thing as a “typical game” and the types of checks made in a game are determined to varying degrees by the setting, campaign genre, the DM’s whims, and what you try to do. So instead, if you want to know what to expect when going into a game, just have a conversation with the DM about the campaign style and setting, and play your character to their strengths.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We do talk with our DM, and you can of course make some assumptions based on wether its a city campaign (put more into social skills), a wilderness one, a dungeon one, or often a mix. We also had players change skills (Persuasion for something else), because the DM would not even allow a skill check without being first essentially convinced by roleplay, and if that was good often also not ask for them. So sure, you can discuss and amend. But if you do not know details about the campaign and the DM is not willing to tell you to not spoil surprises, you still need something to work from. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 8:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ The title would probably be better "Its up to the DM…", because as a player, you do not get to decide when checks are rolled. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 8:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin No, that’s not at all correct. Yes, the DM decides when the player’s action requires a check (a point which I acknowledge in the post), but the player still decides what they’re doing. It’s not up to the DM, it’s up to the player, and then the DM is just following the rules and guidance for when to use ability checks. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 10:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov there are enough questions on when to roll persuasion or role persuasion that the player 100% is not in charge of what kind of checks are rolled. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Mar 26 at 10:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin a sneaky thief-like character will naturally go for more skills that are to do with that. For example, if they are bound with handcuffs, they'd most likely attempt to slip them which, if the DM decides to roll, would be Sleight of Hand. Compare with another player who wants to play a boisterous and strong character. When bound with handcuffs, the character is more likely to attempt to break them, rather than slip. If the DM decides to roll, would be Athletics. Sure, the players don't decide when rolling happens but they aren't without any control of what would be rolled. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 26 at 14:39
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There are several possible ways to answer this.

Play Statistics

One is tracking how often skills are being used in a campaign, and tallying that up. Thankfully, someone did exactly that and tallied up all skill checks for two campaigns of Critical Role that used the D&D 5e rules.

I wanted to have some concrete data on the most used skills in the game. There are discussions about this online, as well as ample anecdotal evidence--but I wanted quantifiable data. [...] Granted, Mercer’s table will not look exactly like ours but with 10K rolls to average out, the numbers might look pretty similar to what we experience at our own tables.

Here are the overall results, by skill:

Skill # Rolled % of Total Rolls
Perception 2,976 28.6%
Stealth 2,141 20.6%
Investigation 1,296 12.5%
Athletics 656 6.3%
Insight 543 5.2%
Persuasion 517 5.0%
Acrobatics 374 3.6%
Deception 366 3.5%
Arcana 257 2.5%
Survival 201 1.9%
History 196 1.9%
Nature 193 1.9%
Religion 169 1.6%
Intimidation 141 1.4%
Sleight of Hand 133 1.3%
Medicine 102 1.0%
Animal Handling 71 0.7%
Performance 66 0.6%
Total 10,398 100.0%

Perception is by far the most often used skill, with more than a quarter of all rolls. Stealth comes in second, with a fifth of all rolls. 5e introduced Investigation as an alternative way to find secret doors and such, taking some of the load of Perception, and it comes third (if you used Perception for those Investigation checks, it would make up over 40%, so it makes sense to use Investigation whenever you can as a DM, to balance things). This is followed by Athletics, then the top 2 social skills, Insight (the social version of Perception), and Persuasion, and Acrobatics.

At the tail end, we have Performance at the least-used skill, followed by Animal Handling and then Medicine.

Why do we see such a big difference between Perception vs Performance? Perception helps you avoid deadly ambushes and traps, helps you find hidden treasures, helps you learn more about your environment to make decisions, and in the form of passive perception is always on. Performance needs to be actively initiated, and there are not that many situations where it helps or even can be used, and even if it can, successfully entertaining a crowd at the inn normally has much less severe consequences than spotting the ambush or not.

Likewise, animal handling may be of use early on, but as monsters get more dangerous, pack animals quickly tend to become a liability dying from a single attack, and beasts mostly are of lower CRs and cease to be opponents that challenge the party. Most of what medicine does beyond diagnosing is taken care of by spells like healing word, or even a simple healer's kit, and how important are diseases when you can just cure them with laying on hands or lesser restoration?

Modules

Another way to look at this is to see what skill checks are asked for by modules. For example, here is the tally from Lost Mine of Phandelver

Skill LMoP % of Total Rolls
Perception 19 39.6%
Athletics 6 12.5%
History 4 8.3%
Investigation 3 6.3%
Persuasion 3 6.3%
Deception 3 6.3%
Arcana 2 4.2%
Survival 2 4.2%
Stealth 1 2.1%
Insight 1 2.1%
Acrobatics 1 2.1%
Religion 1 2.1%
Intimidation 1 2.1%
Animal Handling 1 2.1%
Nature 0.0%
Sleight of Hand 0.0%
Medicine 0.0%
Performance 0.0%
Total 48 100.0%

Granted, this is a much smaller sample size but again Perception takes the top spot (with nearly 40% of the total!), followed by Athletics, a high count of history checks, and Investigation. There is a somewhat heavier emphasis on social checks (Persuasion and Deception). At the tail end we again see Performance and Medicine; Animal Handling gets one mention, and it makes sense that it is a bit more useful in the first four levels that the adventure plays.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh look! The question isn't opinion-based after all. Great answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – Qami
    Mar 26 at 13:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Qami which abilities are relevant would vary a lot between campaigns. What's true for Critical Role might not be true for any other campaigns. Which is obvious when you compare with the skill usage in the module and the comparative listings are basically completely different. Neither of the two is reflective or even generalisable to any and all campaigns. At best, we can say that Perception is often used skill but even that needs not be true. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 26 at 13:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ For these stats, do you know whether either a group check or an "everyone roll for" check counts as one total or one per party member? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 16:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JoelHarmon I think these are individual rolls, as the table with the underlying data are called "All rolls stats" \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 16:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ You're right, but what's illustrated here is that the answer to this question isn't subjective, it's merely limited by the available data. We'll never have tallies for every single D&D campaign ever played, but the more we have, the better an answer we would have. \$\endgroup\$
    – Qami
    Mar 26 at 17:32

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