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In combat, do all skill checks require an action for a PC to make them?

I'm looking for guidance from RAW, from an official ruling such as from Sage Advice (though there seems to be nothing on that from there), any erratas that I may have missed, etc.

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No. Combat-time skill/ability checks don't necessarily require a PC's action.

[Sources reviewed: PHB, DMG, Sage Advice (the one that matters)]

This is because there's nothing about combat-time that changes the fundamental concept of a skill/ability check:

  1. player declares action+intent;
  2. GM decides whether the action is guaranteed, impossible, or requires a check (DMG p.237);

But in combat we've got to track actions, so there's an unstated--but necessary--step 3:

  1. GM adjudicates the action-economy "cost" of the declared action. (See "Other Activity on Your Turn," PHB p.190)

It's simply not impossible for a player to declare an action that's (a) interesting to roll a check for, and (b) the GM rules shouldn't consume an action during their turn.


But in my experience, GMs have required an action every time. Why?

I've been subjected to this as a player, and I believe I've done this as a GM. In my case, it's informed by the Hide and Search actions described in the combat chapter. They clearly set the precedent for "you want to use a skill above-and-beyond passive use? You've got to devote some time and attention to it, as represented by your action."

There are some examples where we will not require a check, by the rules: see Grappling and Shoving (PHB p.195).

But there are plenty of examples where we might "charge" an action: swimming during combat might just be part of your movement or it might require an athletics check (PHB p.182), and it might be so strenuous that a GM feels it should consume one's action. Likewise if one tries to Intimidate the rushing mob, I know many GMs (myself included) who'd require enough in-game effort/attention go into that display that it consume one's action. The payoff, after all, is pretty high!

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    \$\begingroup\$ 'They clearly set the precedent for "you want to use a skill above-and-beyond passive use?"' I think this has more to do with Hide/Search giving concrete combat benefits. There are many ways to actively make ability checks that could be free: History or Religion to identify a crest or symbol on an enemy's armor; Persuasion/Deception/Intimidation while talking (or Insight if you're on the receiving end); Intelligence checks to recall information about monsters; Athletics/Acrobatics for difficult movements; or Arcana to identify a spell being cast before using Counterspell. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Apr 19 '17 at 11:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ While I like your overall reasoning, Hide is an outlier for many reasons: action economy, advantage of not being seen, etc. Per the SA, it's a specific ability check that requires an action. I don't think it's accurate to say they set a precedent, but applied Specific-over-General. FWIW, I'd add to the SA citation that it's on page 9. Also, your sentence after bullet point 3 would benefit from an example. (Insight? Investigation?) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 19 '17 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Still learning what makes a good answer, but might it be helpful to add a concrete example of a skill check that can be made in combat but isn't associated with an action? What comes to my mind first is swimming. The SRD states "gaining any distance in rough water might require a successful Strength (Athletics) check", but this is all contained within the movement, there's no action mentioned. \$\endgroup\$ – Passiflora Apr 19 '17 at 15:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast good suggestions--I was having a hard time thinking of examples this morning when I first wrote it. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Apr 19 '17 at 15:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Doval (Just a note that we don't use code formatting for highlighting or quoting here.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 19 '17 at 16:24
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Yes, but you call for a specific action, DM has you roll a check if necessary.

From the PHB, in the Actions in Combat section:

When you take your action on your turn, you can take one of the actions presented here, an action you gained from your class or a special feature, or an action that you improvise. When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the DM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure.

The actions listed are Attack, Cast a Spell, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Help, Hide, Ready, Search and Use an Object. Any other action falls under the Improvised Action category.

Your character can do things not covered by the actions in this chapter, such as breaking down doors, intimidating enemies, sensing weaknesses in magical defenses, or calling for a parley with a foe. The only limits to the actions you can attempt are your imagination and your character’s ability scores.

So, for example, if you want to scream to enemies for them to back down, it's an improvised action. If you want to analyze their weaknesses, improvised action.

TL;DR, the rules include any action you want to perform as your action in combat. These may or may not require a skill check, but they do require your action.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is the Other Activity in your turn. I would add that to the answer and explain how these (which don't require the action) are different. For example, IMO, "calling for a parley" can or not be an action. If you just scream "PARLEY", it's not an action, since "You can communicate however you are able, through brief utterances and gestures, as you take your turn." - if you actually try to elaborate it (and possibly want a Persuasion check), then you might need an action as described in your quote. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 2 '18 at 21:41

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