And now back to our Using Skills series. Last time we covered Deception, this time its…
Using Skills – History
The cleric studies the small wooden idol, trying to determine if it matches the descriptions of ancient orc fetishes she had learned about years ago as a scholar. A thief selects an unassuming jewel from the vault he has broken into, knowing this one to be the crown jewel of the old kingdom. The paladin pales as he deciphers the name carved in old draconic above the sarcophagus, having heard it many times in ancient tales of evil. History is the domain of those who study the past in order to further their fortunes in the future.
The Player’s Handbook describes it thus: “Your Intelligence (History) check measures your ability to recall lore about historical events, legendary people, ancient kingdoms, past disputes, recent wars, and lost civilizations.” (PHB pg.178)
As a lore skill, History is used to try to gain information that would be useful for your PC and/or party. The most common target of your History checks will probably be things you find in dungeons. This skill more than any other relies on Dungeon Master fiat to be of any use whatsoever. Use it to try and gain information that is actually useful, but don’t worry if it doesn’t; if the skill provides an unrelated tidbit of improv lore that’s still adding value in terms of story and context, and might even be inspiration for a later session once extrapolated. However, the main use of the skill should be to get information that could then be used; context that helps to solve a puzzle, motivation for how or why something exists or was built and by who, or other such information.
In my personal experience, History is the least used lore skill. However, I think a campaign could benefit greatly from catering at least some content towards it.
What it is Not
- Arcana, Nature, or Religion – History caters specifically to the people, places, and things of a subject’s past. While these might overlap with things of a magical, natural, or religious persuasion, the specific information is centered on how this interacts with history. History might tell you that a sword was known to be magical, it might not be able to tell you specifics about the magic of the sword or give specific details that someone skilled in Arcana could. However, a History user would be more likely to recall the events surrounding the sword than an Arcana user.
- Omniscience – Not every single thing that happened in the past can be known by you or anyone. The history of certain things might be hidden or unknown by most people. Sometimes the DM might simply tell you that your character could not know the history of a certain subject.
The following are optional or edge cases for Arcana, and are entirely dependent on the Dungeon Master.
- Casual History – History seems to assume Academic history; that is, something presumably written down or that has some sort of record because of it’s importance and effect on the modern-day. However, it might be interesting to include casual history as well. This would include past gossip about a person or place, what a person was up to in their earlier years, things like that. If the person with the History skill is from a certain place, perhaps their lore is the lore of those living there. They know the names of everyone at the popular taverns, knows the number of children born in the past decade to prominent families, etc.
- Lecturer – One needn’t be a stage performer to capture people’s interest. Someone with a master’s grasp on history might be able to use their knowledge to entertain or enthrall a crowd. Explaining a nuanced part of history might also be a good way to sway opinion one way or the other or to make people rethink their positions on something.
Dungeon Master Examples
The following is meant to inspire a Dungeon Master to design with History in mind. Keep in mind that it need not be in the form of a large puzzle like what is below. Simply adding some relevant facts and myths to the creatures, places, and treasures of your dungeons and other settings will give a History user a chance to flex their character’s knowledge, and all the better if it allows them to gain insight to help them through their challenges. World-building, really, is the key to maximizing History.
- The Fable – An ancient civilization entombed its greatest sorcerer-king in a barrow that is a series of rooms, each representing a different animal fable popular at the time of the king’s life. In order to traverse the chambers, knowledge of these fables is key. The following are three examples, though you should make more to make it a truly remarkable experience. A DC 15 Intelligence (History) check is required to remember the fable in most cases.
- The Serpent Chamber – A round chamber with six pillars carved to look as if serpents entwine around them. The teeth of the snakes are metal and are poisoned. The exit door is a large ivory door with images of a heavenly place carved into it. The fable involves a great philosopher wishing to find out more about heaven, and so he go and asks all manner of creatures. The only creature that offers to help him is the serpent, who says it knows a way in which the philosopher can see first hand. The philosopher readily agrees, and so the snake bites him, thus killing him with poison. The trick is that the door will only open for someone who is poisoned. To make it more interesting, have snakes wriggle out of small holes in the ceiling to attack the PCs as they ponder.
- The Aurochs Chamber – A long rectangular chamber in the middle of which sits an intricately carved statue of a monstrous bovine creature of magnificent proportions. There is a simple door at the far end of the chamber. The fable involves an untamable aurochs bull that charged any who came near, and who was the bane of many hunters who sought him out in the wilds. The beast was named Bane of the Proud. The next part of the fable is less known, requiring a second DC 20 Intelligence (History) check. It involves a sorcerer-priest seeking out the beast and coming back riding the bull, unscathed. When asked what he did to tame it, the priest replied that he knelt as the humble will and the proud cannot. When they PCs enter the room, the statue should come to life and act as a Stone Golem with the attacks and abilities of the Aurochs from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. It will charge and attack the PCs until at least one of them puts away weapons and kneels on the floor. It will ignore those PCs and attack others until all are kneeling. When this happens, it will return to the statue’s plinth and go rigid. The second Intelligence (History) check should happen in the midst of the battle, don’t give them a chance until after the bull has charged.
- The Peacock Chamber – A large square room, the middle of which is a large chasm of 75 feet across with sheer walls that lead down into the bowels of the earth. Opposite from where the PCs entered, there is a platform sticking over the edge upon which is a statue of a rather plain-looking peacock with no tail feathers. The fable is that once upon a time peacocks had not the feathers or the song they do now, they were all plain and simple. A spirit from the sky grew interested in them, and so came onto earth in their shape, though a prettier more perfect reflection of them. The peacocks became so enamored with the new peacock, but thought themselves far too plain to be able to attract it. And so they began to collect flowers and leaves and put them on their tails like they were feathers, and to rub on colorful clay to make themselves a more brilliant color, and to collect songbirds to keep in their mouths to imitate their beautiful singing. They then all tried their best to attract the disguised spirit with singing and dancing and other attempts to get her to notice them. The sky spirit was so impressed with their ingenuity that she blessed them and made their disguises and tricks into reality. The trick to the room is that the PCs need to attempt some sort of performance. Music, dance, oratory, etc. Tricks with magic might work as well. Doing so, the peacock’s tail feathers will pop out and the platform with the peacock at its head will extend out to them, forming a bridge to cross.
Thanks for reading! Next week we’ll be emphatically covering Insight. Stay tuned!