The Designing with Style series breaks down the official 5th-edition style guide to help designers create content that’s well-written, polished, and precise. The exact language for rules and mechanics is extremely specific for a reason: to avoid ambiguity, the enemy of elegant design and easy play.
Understanding the style guide is the key to creating content that’s usable, elegant, and professional. Adventures expect player characters to use ability checks and saving throws to interact with the world, and these mechanics are some of the best examples of highly specific language in D&D.
Describing an ability check is so often botched that it falls under the “Common Pitfalls” section of the official D&D House Style Guide (emphasis mine):
“Don’t mistake making an ability check, a saving throw, or other roll with succeeding on it. The following sentence gets it right: “You must succeed on a DC 15 Strength check to clamber up the wall.” Don’t write, “You must make a DC 15 Strength check to clamber up the wall,” unless that sentence is immediately followed by a description of what happens on a success or failure.”
As described in the example above, an adventure can call for a generic Strength check, but you could also require a more specific Strength (Athletics) check. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s worth noting that skill checks are always written as [Ability Score] ([Skill]).
Do. “You must succeed on a DC 12 Intelligence (History) check to recall the story of the gazebo.”
Don’t. “You must succeed on a DC 12 History check to recall the story of the gazebo.”
What about the part regarding “a description of what happens on a success or failure”? There’s standard language for that too. If the consequences for failure are complicated or go beyond “not success,” you can use one of the following options. Pick the one that works best for the situation you are trying to describe.
Option 1. “You must succeed on a DC 15 Strength check to clamber up the wall. On a failure, you slip and fall into molten lava, taking 18d10 fire damage.”
Option 2. “You must make a DC 15 Strength check. On a success, you reach the top of the cliff safely. On a failure, you slip and fall into molten lava, taking 18d10 fire damage.”
Checks with Multiple Options
If you want to describe a situation where characters can succeed with more than one ability or skill check, you can use one of the following options. Pick the format most appropriate for your situation.
Option 1. “You must succeed on a DC 19 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check to escape the ogre’s over-enthusiastic hug.”
Option 2. “You must succeed on a DC 12 Charisma (Deception or Persuasion) check to convince the guard that you have permission to attend the coronation.”
Option 3. “You must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) check or a DC 18 Intelligence (Nature) check to determine that the mushrooms are poisonous.”
If there are more than two possible skills to use in a situation, you probably want to pick at most two for the sake of brevity and elegance. A GM can always allow a character to try another skill if appropriate.
Occasionally, you might want to describe a non-standard skill check, like a Strength (Intimidation) check instead of a Charisma (Intimidation) check. In this case, the character would add their Strength bonus instead of their Charisma bonus to the check. The language is the same, but this is a great example of why specifying the ability score before the check is important. This should be done sparingly in formal adventure writing, but it’s also a fun option for your home game.
As with ability checks, the key to describing a saving throw is to keep in mind conditions of success and failure.
Do. “To avoid falling off the cliff, you must make a successful DC 15 Dexterity saving throw.”
Don’t. “To avoid falling off the cliff, you must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw.”
Again, you can describe success and failure outcomes separately if appropriate. For example, you could say, “Any character who reads the cursed tome must make a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw. On a success, they learn the location of the lich’s phylactery. On a failure, they take 4d6 psychic damage and are incapacitated for 1d4 hours.”
Are you ready to make those Intelligence (Style Guide) checks with advantage? What other style conventions do you find confusing? Roll some Charisma (Persuasion) checks in the comments to suggest topics for future posts.