Everyone is Wrong but Me: the Nature Skill

The Nature skill is not what you might call a community favorite. Like all knowledge skills, it goes unused too often for my taste. For many people, it overlaps too much with Survival and this problem isn’t new to Fifth Edition. The proscription has always been the same:

Survival is for active bushcraft: “The DM might ask you to make a Wisdom (Survival) check to follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide your group through frozen wastelands, identify signs that owlbears live nearby, predict the weather, or avoid quicksand and other natural hazards”

Nature is for the scholarly knowledge of nature: “Your Intelligence (Nature) check measures your ability to recall lore about terrain, plants, and animals, the weather, and natural cycles.”

What’s the Problem?

Now, I don’t mean to be difficult, but it seems obvious to me that someone who can recall ‘lore’ about “the weather, and natural cycles” should be better able to predict them than someone who can’t, at least in a fantasy setting. Likewise, recalling ‘lore’ about terrain should help you avoid terrain hazards, and knowing about animals should help you hunt them.

In more mechanical terms, Survival is also the game’s chosen skill for foraging; this is a choice that seems to suggest that a trained botanist would promptly forget which plants were edible upon being presented with a real live forest. Amusing criticisms of the Ivory Tower aside, this notion has an ugly shadow. There’s an insinuation here that a person who lives off the land by hunting game and foraging (a hunter-gatherer) somehow understands less about ‘Nature’ than a cloistered academic.

A hunter and a gatherer are depicted in a woodblock print
A Kali’na Hunter with a Woman Gatherer, 1743 engraving

There’s Got To Be A Better Way

But enough criticism. Let’s talk solutions. 5e would seem to have an elegant one right on hand: divide the skill into Intelligence (Nature) and Wisdom (Nature), depending on whether you’re talking about theory or practice.

But I think we can do better.

I think the definition of the Nature skill is pretty indicative of the people who produced it: twenty-first-century urbanites who think of ‘nature’ as parks and ecological reserves. For a medieval person, the comparable terms would have had a much broader reach.

The Natural Philosophers who populated non-theological European thought from the classical age to the early modern period did not think of nature as being a matter of botany, geology, zoology, and climatology. They were interested in the world as a whole: chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, and anatomy. The period most vanilla ‘fantasy’ takes place in (an anachronistic smear spreading from roughly 700ce to 1500ce) was not nearly as ignorant of these matters as we pretend.

And so my solution is simple: we kill the Batman. No, sorry – scratch that.

Redefine Nature as Natural Philosophy. This divides the pure knowledge skills into Arcana, Religion, History, and what we might call Science. As applied skills, you maintain Survival, which is now the only skill that defines knowledge of the wilderness, and Medicine.

Some will protest that they like Arcana as a fill-in for science, physics, and chemistry, but I think this cheapens the occult. While I’m certainly not opposed to Asimov-style confusion between magic and technology, I do think it’s worth maintaining a distinction between the study of the world and the study of those things beyond this world.

So there you have it: my take on one of the game’s long-running issues.

Don’t like it? Think you know better? Lonely on a Saturday night? Leave a comment and let’s fight about it.

Everyone is Wrong but Me.

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