Fundamental Skills (5e Variant Rule)
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These are skills you can not do AT ALL without first learning them from someone else, and have no variation of skill level which could cause failure or meaningful variety of quality once learned to competence. These kinds of skills can be handled by your subconscious once learned, becoming passive, or second-nature. Having one of these skills means that, assuming the action is actually possible, you do not need to make checks to do these activities. Essentially, this rule takes certain fundamental activities and "locks them away", making it so that characters must be taught some fundamental thing in order to do those activities at all. In this way, a fundamental skill is somewhat like a "key" which opens up the game a little for the character. A fundamental skill may seem to have varying skill level, but this is either derived from a secondary skill or a fundamental ability.
At chargen, you get a number of fundamental skills equal to your INT bonus, with a minimum of 1. You may learn additional fundamental skills via the training downtime activity, at the same rate as a tool proficiency or language. It is possible to learn a fundamental skill if you pass a DC25 ability check based on the appropriate ability for the fundamental skill. No other modifiers can apply to this check. If you fail this check, you fail your attempt at learning the skill, and will suffer the full consequences, if any, of attempting such a thing without the capacity to do it. (IE: If you try to swim and fail, you will begin drowning.)
- Swimming (DEX)
- This is the ability to keep your body afloat, move in a controlled manner through water, swim with your head beneath water, and exit the water, without losing control and drowning. Swimming against a current is handled by strength checks or saves. Unless you have a feature which grants you a unique swim ability, your swim speed is half your speed, as per the PHB.
- Rowing and Paddling (STR)
- This is the knowledge of how to hold and operate a paddle or an oar. This skill allows you to direct, aright, and propell a vehicle using such a tool. Without this skill, failed attempts to paddle or row a boat will result in random movement, or possibly the capsizing of the vessel.
- Fire-Starting (WIS)
- This is the knowledge of how to generate fire from scratch. No tinder-box, no flint and steel, no oil or propellant, just the rocks and twigs around you. Once you know how, as long as appropriate supplies (dry wood and a friction or spark source) are available, you can start a fire.
- Knotwork (INT)
- This is the ability to tie, at the very least, one stationary knot. Characters without this skill would look very much like peasants, leaving drawstrings and fasteners to their clothes undone, or removing them entirely, preferencing clothes which do not have such things, such as shirts with buttons, boots with belt-straps, or cloaks held by a pin.
- Orienteering (WIS)
- This is your capacity to find and maintain your bearings in the wilderness without any tools but your five senses. You can identify time by the position of the sun, the date by the position and appearance of the moon and the positions of the constellations. You can identify direction by the position of the sun, the stars, and the growth patterns of local plants. You know how to identify wind direction using your senses or local debris. You understand how to mark a trail by direction and ID, such that you can retrace your path or identify circular travel. These are simple tasks which, if you have the knowledge, are automatic successes. Whether or not that information is useful to you.... Well, that is another question entirely.
- Script Literacy & Numeracy (INT)
- This is your capacity to read and write the alphabet and numeric system used in a given script. Any spoken languages in that script that you can speak, can also be written and read by you. For instance, both common and halfling use the common script. You only need to know the common script once in order to read both languages, if you can speak both of them.
- Signing & Signaling (DEX)
- This is your capacity to either speak the signed version of a spoken language you know, or to speak a purely symbolic language like semaphore. Keep in mind, you can only use this to communicate with people who also know such a sign language.
- Beast/Fish/Bird Riding (CON)
- This is your capacity to operate the riding gear of a given type of animal. It is not how good you are as a rider- only your ability to utilize the saddle and rigging. Your ability to stay arighted under unusual circumstances is based on STR and DEX, and your skill as a rider is based on your relationship with the animal, which is derived from the animal handling skill. This just gives you permission to mount, ride on, and dismount a given animal without falling off.
- Mathematics (INT)
- This means you are aware of methods of utilizing numbers as more than words, but also as tools. You understand addition and subtraction as more than just counting forward and backward. You are aware of multiplication and division. You understand basic geometry, and can use numbers as a measurement of space and/or time, not just a quantification.
Examples of Play
The main reason these activities are universal in 5th edition, is because it was deemed unfun for certain players to be lacking in some fundamental capacity, such that they would literally hold up the game or the group. The problem extended from fundamental skills- things needed to function in a basic way but still need to be learned- were contained in the standard skill system of previous editions, alongside specialized skills. Because players got a limited number of skill options, they found themselves choosing between either having improved effectiveness in their class, or basic functionality as a travelling adventurer. In either case, you got shafted, and one person infamously called it "paying to suck". In 5th edition, they simply removed these types of restrictive skills and assumed everyone is skilled to a basic level. If a skill didn't really have varying degrees of proficiency beyond "yes you can do that" then it was left at that. This means every adventurer you make can tie knots, start fires, ride horses, do algebra, read and write in every language they can speak, row a boat, navigate the wilderness, AND speak in signs. For a person in an illiterate medieval world, that's pretty amazing, especially if their background is anything other than Noble. Few modern people can even do all of those things, and we have massive organized education systems! So, it kind of defies the simulationism in the game. Essentially, they refused to have more than one type of skill system, so they just abandoned the idea of people being incapable of certain fundamental activities. This also resulted in the weird, ambiguous way langauges are handled as being "like tool proficiencies, but not" that you don't make checks with.
Furthermore, the situations where unskilled PCs held up the game are pretty much entirely due to poor DMing, poor campaign design, or simply poor play. If a DM designs an adventure where the party must ride horses, or cross a river for example, and one PC can not do that, then the DM has failed to make an adventure for the characters, and is being willfully ignorant of the actual game at hand. In essence, they are trying to tell their story, not that of the PCs, and are completely disregarding what the PCs actually are. Any DM who does not provide a solution to such a dilemma is exhibiting poor design choices- every obstacle must have a solution, or you have made a dead-end campaign. It is a simple mistake, and is easily fixed by finding the dead-end and writing a solution for it. Finally, the DM may have presented a skill-restricted obstacle and built a solution- but if the players give up, or ignore the solution, that is an example of bad play. The worst offenders are players who play selfishly, with each character tending only to their own goals as individuals, and never cooperating to overcome challenges as a group. These players will simply leave the guy who can't swim or ride horses behind.
The correct use of fundamental skills is to present the party with problem solving challenges. These kinds of obstacles are typically simple logic puzzles which require team work and cooperation within the party. They should give characters reasons to value one-another, not disrespect one-another.
- The party needs to cross a slow river, and must swim to do so. One party member does not know how to swim, and would likely drown if he attempted this. The party seeks out a log, (or chop one for themselves) for him to use as a floatation device, tie a rope around it, and tow him across the river from the other side.
- The party are given horses to travel to the next city, but one PC can not ride horses. The party pools their cash and buys a cart for him to ride on. Coincidentally, this cart comes in very handy when returning from a dungeon with a full dragon's hoard. Had they simply made him ride with one of the other PCs, they would not have been able to carry as much treasure with themselves.