The players have followed up on the quest hook you carefully crafted and met the young alchemist whose research notes were stolen. She’s made her case as to why she believes her rival is to blame, a red herring you plan to use to ‘coincidentally’ lure the party down the rabbit hole and into the real plot of the adventure. The players seem sold. That is, until the cleric leans forward and asks the dreaded question: “Do I believe her?”
The characters have arrived with haste at the gates to the town, only to find they have been shut for the night. After being dismissed by the warden and told to return after dawn, they begin to lay out the urgency of their case. The goblin horde approaches quickly, and the alderman needs the relic the party recovered to complete his spell before the army arrives. To determine whether the party has made their case well enough for the warden to take them seriously, you ask the main spokesperson for the party to roll a Charisma check. As the die rolls, you stumble over how to measure if it succeeded.
These and other situations may be familiar to many DMs. They are occasions that have given pause to even veteran players since the social interaction checks became a mechanic way back in Third Edition. In this article, we will look at how Fifth Edition has tried to resolve these problems and where you might take it one step further.
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Way back in Third Edition, characters gained access to skills such as Diplomacy and Intimidate. Unlike in Second Edition, where your non-weapon proficiency in Etiquette would only inform you of proper protocol for an interaction (such as knowing that you address a duke as “Your Grace”, and do not speak to him until spoken to), now you could measure your success in social encounters with dice. The following is one such method that was included:
In negotiations, participants roll opposed Diplomacy checks, and the winner gains the advantage.1
By contrast, Fifth Edition’s social interaction rules begin with the premise that players will engage in roleplaying, with the dice being a resource to be used as needed.
Your roleplaying efforts can alter the NPC’s attitude, but there might still be an element of chance in the situation. For example, your DM can call for a Charisma check at any point during an interaction if he or she wants the dice to play a role in determining an NPC’s reactions.2
Notably, NPC attitudes are a mechanic that did survive the edition change, though in a greatly simplified form. There are now three levels instead of five; but more importantly, the system has been reworked to emphasize the importance of roleplaying. The Resolving Interactions section in chapter 8, “Running the Game”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide comes with the important caveat that it “isn’t meant to be a substitute for roleplaying”.3 The players aren’t supposed to know that if they can get the gate warden’s attitude to friendly, he might be persuaded to let them in after dark if they succeed a DC 20 Charisma (Persuasion) check. Instead, the players are supposed to ignore the dice and act or describe their character’s attempts to achieve this result through their preferred approach to conversation (which might later be assessed into one of three categories: Persuasion, Deception, or Intimidation).
That’s all well and good, but we run into a problem with the question of Insight checks. Intended as a counter to the Deception skill, this skill provides an easy method for the DM to resolve the question of whether a lie has been detected. Simply roll Wisdom (Insight) check opposed by the liar’s Charisma (Deception) check. Easy enough.
But what if the person is telling the truth? You can’t have a Wisdom (Insight) check contested by a Charisma (Persuasion) check, since the outcome will be the same no matter who rolls higher; if the persuasion roll is higher then the sincerity is conveyed, and if the insight roll is higher then the sincerity is detected. And ignoring the dice and waving it away as “they seem sincere” is simply not going to reassure your players, who will fish for a meaningless roll to confirm it. (And worse, it may only serve to throw them into paranoia if they are later asked to make a Wisdom (Insight) check for the same thing and fail.)
Fortunately, we can resolve this by shifting our paradigm a little.
DCs, not Contests
Chapter 8, “Running the Game”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a table for resolving Charisma checks based on the NPC’s attitude toward you. When the purpose of an interaction is to make a request, demand, or suggestion, this section offers a simple way to measure a check against one of three easy numbers. By focusing on the goal of the encounter, you can ask the players to roll a Charisma check and compare it to the table appropriate to that NPC’s attitude. The roleplaying leading up to this point can help determine what the NPC’s attitude is, and the result of the Charisma check shows what they’re willing to do.
Of course, not all interactions are quite so neat and tidy. Sometimes the character is not attempting to prompt the NPC to act, but rather is trying to scrutinize or convince the person when no deception is involved, or establish something as true so that their ultimate case is supported by facts. If exceptional roleplaying fails and a check is required in either of these circumstances, the DC should be based on the persuasiveness or astuteness of the subject and the matter being discussed. For this, we have prepared a solution outlined in these two steps:
Firstly, you want to establish the base DC. Page 174 of the Player’s Handbook has a table showing typical difficulty classes which can provide an easy starting point. The more difficult a claim is to accept, the higher the base DC should be. Trying to convince the dragon that you really did just stumble into his lair by accident and haven’t taken anything is going to be much more difficult than convincing the fellow you met in the tavern that you and your friends really did kill a dragon last week after it mistook you for thieves. (Again, this is only for occasions when you are trying to defend this claim in isolation, not for when you’re trying to convince the dragon to let you go or get free drinks. Those occasions are covered by the regular rules.)
Once the base DC is set, you want to modify it according to the appropriate skill bonus. If you are attempting to present an insightful NPC with the truth, subtract the NPC’s Wisdom (Insight) bonus from the base DC of your Charisma (Persuasion) check. And if you are attempting to determine whether a sincere NPC is being truthful, subtract their Charisma (Persuasion) bonus from the base DC of your Wisdom (Insight) check. Likewise, if the NPC has penalties, these are added to the base DC where a bonus would be subtracted.
To put it in the format of an equation:
Persuasion DC = base DC – target’s Insight bonus
or + the target’s Insight penalty
Insight DC = base DC – target’s Persuasion bonus
or + the target’s Persuasion penalty
For example, if the alchemist in the first example of this article’s introduction had a +1 bonus to Charisma (Persuasion) checks, her emphatically stated belief that a rival stole her research (say, base DC 10) would require a DC 9 Wisdom (Insight) check to verify is sincere. Anything less than this and you were probably too preoccupied by the other details of the situation to have gained any insight into the alchemist’s sincerity. It’s possible your scrutiny even puts her off, but that’s a kind of complication best left for another article.
And if you discover that her rival is innocent (which would go against her closely kept beliefs), you may have to succeed a Charisma (Persuasion) check with a base DC of 20 (modified by the alchemist’s Insight) to convince her to even consider the other leads you have turned up. If compelling evidence is presented, the DM can either reduce the DC and/or grant advantage on the check. For example, informing the alchemist that her rival had been drunk in a brothel at the time of the alleged crime could reduce the DC to 15 (“Well, he could have hired someone!”), and sharing that he wouldn’t sabotage her because he secretly loves her (as evidenced by a collection of old, unsent letters addressed to her trying to apologize for whatever slight he can’t remember making) might reduce the DC to 10 and grant advantage on the roll.
This issue probably belongs in its own article, but it bears worth touching on here. That is: Insight is not tantamount to mind reading. A successful Wisdom (Insight) check should reveal that the individual is holding back, deliberately avoiding the question, honestly confused, genuinely passionate on the subject, or some other observation about the subject’s attitude throughout a conversation, and not “They’re lying about [X]”.
Think back to murder mysteries you may have read or watched. The detective, private investigator, or other interrogator may gain insights into someone’s character during a discussion, but they can’t learn everything or read the subject’s mind. It’s only after evidence is gathered and the timeline examined that the truth becomes apparent. If the detective simply could discern the truth of someone’s words with some supernatural sense that allowed them to see past their face value, the story would be a lot less exciting.
It can be a difficult balance to limit the effectiveness of the Insight skill such that it doesn’t invalidate the choice to gain proficiency in it, and if you have an Insightful character in the party, you should give consideration to how to reward this when planning a social encounter. Perhaps the individual the party is talking to seems to speak more anxiously when he gestures in conversation, causing the Insightful character to notice that the man’s hands are shaking. Perhaps the individual’s surprise at a piece of news doesn’t quite seem genuine. People frequently get ‘gut feelings’ about something when they subconsciously pick up on tiny signals like tone of voice, posture, or slight differences in expression. Such nuances are far more appropriate to disclose on a successful Wisdom (Insight) check than a straight “he’s lying to you”.
You might also consider identifying points in a conversation where a NPC might give something away and proactively ask a character with a passive Wisdom (Insight) higher than the NPC’s Charisma score to make a Wisdom (Insight) check (contested by the NPC’s own Charisma check), thereby rewarding the player and preemptively halting everyone’s request to roll. While you’re at it, you can also work out ahead of time some of the ‘tells’ that an NPC might give away to an Insightful character.
Charisma and Insight checks work great when the situation calls for a contest, as with attempts to discern deception, but there are two occasions where this can become more complicated. When the party is attempting to assess an individual’s genuine sincerity or trying to convey their own, the standard rules for resolving social interactions are difficult to apply.
In these situations (and when the DM determines that a roll is appropriate), the option presented above allows for the skill check to be measured against an appropriate DC, one that has a basis in the nature of the claim being made and appropriately modified by the persuasive talent or insightful nature (or dearth of such traits) of the subject. Such a check isn’t meant to replace roleplaying, but rather is intended to complement it during gameplay where it seems appropriate. At the end of the day, D&D is a roleplaying game, so try to avoid disclaiming responsibility for your character’s actions in favour of a die roll.
Do you have an experience with awkward skill checks? What are your thoughts on this system? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Feature Image: A Bold Bluff, 1909. Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844–1934).