A flash of Insight into skills

In my previous post, I examined the development of skills checks in the Basic Boxed set D&D line, and gave a quick contrast with the 5th edition skills.

I never really got the chance to use the skills in earnest in my games – I only invested in the first four gazetteers before I moved away to university and no longer had an appropriate group to play with, and Scottish dancing became my primary hobby instead. So I didn’t come onto skills in any form until my children asked to try D&D and I decided to round out my Gazetteer collection from the PDFs on DriveThruRPG. I also looked into what the current version of D&D was and invested in the PHB, DMG and MM.

So the first time I really played with skills was with the 5th edition skills. And some of them made sense to me – Athletics for swimming/climbing sort of things. Acrobatics for things needing balancing or gymnastic sort of skills. And I could see that the set of skills, along with the proficiency and the class-based availability of skills to be proficient in added a nice mechanism for making characters more individual in what they could do.

What I struggled to get my head round was how to balance them with the more narrative-based approach I was used to, where the players told me what they wanted to achieve and I decided what the result would be, and maybe made up some sort of ability check on the fly. Just having that list of skills and where they were used made it feel like everything was supposed to be boiled down to a skill check of some sort. Which made it less of a narrative and more of a board game: “I play the Investigation card and roll a 15”. “Congratulations! You find the trap.”

And I have to confess, I was still struggling a week ago, until the latest blog post from The Angry GM dropped through my Patreon letterbox.

In it (once you get past the usual 2000 words of preamble and waffle) he talks about Insight and Perception, but Insight in particular. Well, it was certainly a flash of Insight for me (sorry!) which crystallised both my problem and the solution.

Realistic Soft Skills Checks

Coming back to that “board game” check:

Player: I look for traps
GM: Roll an Investigation check
Player: (successful roll)
GM: yes, there’s a pressure plate trap

Sounds reasonable, yes?

Er, it feels unsatisfying to me. And thanks to Angry’s article now I realise why. It doesn’t put the character into the scene. There are a couple of things missing.

First: Passive Perception. They should get clues from the environment just by being there and being alert and being an expert adventurer. So they have a passive perception of 10+(their Perception modifier). Meaning if they have a PP of 12, they will automatically notice clues with a DC or 12 or lower.

However, this shouldn’t mean they automatically get given the full details. Instead they maybe get told about scrapes on the floor, a discoloured floor tile – hints that there’s something worth investigating. Hopefully the player will pick up on this and ask to investigate in more detail.

At which point they discover the floor tile is loose and there is a wire attached. Maybe an Intelligence (Investigation) check to determine how much they find – that the tile is loose should be a given, but maybe they need to score 10 to spot the wire and 15 to spot the crack in the wall where the blade will come out. With that information they can take action to try to prevent the trap triggering or avoid it.

And suddenly they’re very much there in the situation as the character, deciding how the character will act, rather than just moving squares on a board.

Or take Insight. How often have you had this conversation at your table:

Player: I want to see if they’re lying
GM: Roll an Insight check
Player: (successful roll)
GM: Yes they’re lying

Sound reasonable?

Er, no. There is no reliable way to detect for certain if someone is lying and certainly not what they’re lying about. Read Angry’s article if you don’t believe me… Even polygraph tests just detect if someone is anxious, but that may be for any sort of reason, potentially unrelated to the statement they just made.

Market stall in Zurich

So what should the response be? Well, maybe “they’re trying to avoid eye contact. They’re certainly anxious about something, and they seem more anxious when you press them.” Or maybe they’re not lying, but they’re afraid of the big person with lots of weapons: “they don’t want to look at you, and they mumble, but they’re cringing like they’re scared.” Or maybe they don’t dare give information because of consequences: “they suddenly stop talking and they avert their gaze like they’re trying pretend you’re not there. As you push them they shake their head from side to side trying to avoid looking at you.

In other words, describe their behaviour and clues that the character might pick up that give them hints to the internal mental state of the NPC, and let the players work it out for themselves. Tune the quality of the clues to the level of success of the roll.

Side note: from what Angry says, polygraph tests work most like the traditional tales such as the East African tales collected by Geraldine Elliot in Where the Leopard Passes and subsequent books which I grew up with. There are several tales where something bad is done, and no-one knows who did it. So one by one, all the animals come in to a hut where there is some sort of trial by ordeal – in one case they have to lean over a cauldron which emits noxious fumes which makes their eyes stream. All the innocent animals blithely lean over the cauldron, their eyes start streaming, they cry thinking this is accusing them incorrectly of guilt, and they are sent on their way. When the guilty party arrives, they are scared of the cauldron detecting that it was them, so they just pretend to lean over, their eyes don’t end up streaming, and their guilty conscience is clear to see. The polygraph isn’t admissible in court, but it can be enough to get the guilty people to confess.

There’s another big issue with Perception and Insight which Angry also mentions: it is very hard to avoid metagaming, even with the best of intentions. That’s one reason why the passive checks are so important and why I will be bringing them in instantly – the very fact of asking the players for a check alerts them to the fact that there’s something to check for. And with that knowledge, they will either try to make use of it, or possible overcompensate and not do investigation they might have done had they been none the wiser.

Also, I try to make sure that my response to a failed roll is along the lines of “you really can’t tell” or “you don’t notice anything” – even if there is nothing to notice or find.

Skills review – what does the player know?

So which skills fall into this category where the player should get clearer indications? And what other categories are there? Let’s go through all of the skills.

Note, when asking for a check, the gold standard as recommended by WOTC is to ask for (e.g.) a Strength (Athletics) check rather than just an Athletics check. This is because technically the check is an ability check, to which if you have that particular skill you are allowed to add your proficiency. However, while this is good practice for publications, in most cases it’s bleedin’ obvious, so at the table it’s only worth stating the ability to use if it’s not the default. For example the Constitution (Athletics) check to swim a long distance suggested by the PHB. I’m just concerned with the skill here anyway, so I’ll leave out the ability.

Group 1: physical actions; success is obvious

  • Athletics: difficult situations you encounter while climbing, jumping or swimming.
  • Acrobatics: ability to stay on your feet in a tricky situation, plus acrobatic stunts including dives, rolls, somersaults and flips.

The character clearly knows whether they succeed or fail. Just state the result.

Group 2: trying to remember information

Book, quill, scroll and candle
  • Arcana: recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, planes of existence and their inhabitants.
  • History: recall lore about historical events, legendary people, ancient kingdoms, past disputes, recent wars, lost civilisations.
  • Nature: recall lore about terrain, plants, animals, the weather, natural cycles.
  • Religion: recall lore about deities, rites and prayers, religious hierarchies, holy symbols, the practices of secret cults.

The character knows whether they can remember it and what they remember. This is a perfect skill for shades of grey – change how much the character remembers based on how good their roll was.

I will sometimes make a bad roll an incorrect memory rather than just failure. And of course, what they remember even on a good roll may be incorrect if what is generally known is incorrect…

  • Investigation: look for clues and make deductions – location of a hidden object, identification of weapon that caused a wound, weak point in a tunnel which could cause it to collapse, searching scrolls for a fragment of ancient knowledge.

Again, the character knows what information they find…but this skill particularly lends itself to incorrect deductions on bad rolls. However, sometimes “you can’t work it out” is equally appropriate.

Group 3: gaining clues about a situation

  • Insight: whether you can determine the true intentions of a creature.
  • Perception: spot, hear or otherwise detect the presence of something.

These are the two we talked about above. Try to avoid labels in your response – describe what they notice instead.

Group 4: trying to conceal some sort of action

  • Sleight of hand: manual trickery such as picking a pocket, concealing something in your hand, planting something on someone without them noticing.
  • Stealth: trying to conceal yourself from enemies, sneak past guards, slip away without being noticed, sneak up on someone.

The character can only tell whether they were successful based on the reactions of those round about them. Never tell the player success or failure, just describe the behaviour of those around.

Of course the other PCs are around, so on a failure I will sometimes tell the other players they saw it, or heard the stealthy character step on a branch, or similar.

Group 5: trying to influence others

  • Deception: whether you can convincingly hide the truth through word or deed: fast-talk a guard, con a merchant, cheat in gambling, pass yourself off in a disguise, dull someone’s suspicions, tell a convincing lie.
  • Intimidation: influence someone through threats, hostile actions and physical violence.
  • Performance: delight an audience with music, dance, acting, storytelling or some other form of entertainment.
  • Persuasion: influence others in good faith using tact, social graces, effective arguments, good nature.

Similar to group 4, a character can only really tell whether they succeed or fail based on the reactions of those around them, particularly the target. Again, never tell them success or failure, just describe how the targets respond.

Of course, the target may not have been taken in/influenced, but have decided to play along for a while to gain an advantage of their own…at which point we’re into Insight to determine how well the characters realise this…

Group 6: it depends…

These skills fall into multiple categories depending on what you are trying to do with them.

  • Animal Handling: calm a domesticated animal, stop a mount from getting spooked, control your mount during a risky manoeuvre (or stay on them), intuit an animal’s intentions.
    Most uses it is obvious to the character whether they succeed or not (Group 1), but intuiting the animal’s intentions is closer to Insight (Group 3).
  • Medicine: stabilise an injured or dying companion or diagnose an illness.
    The character would (probably) be able to tell whether their ministrations have succeeded (Group 1), but diagnosis is more like remembering information (Group 2).
  • Survival: follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide your group through the wilderness, identify signs that particular animals might live nearby, predict the weather, avoid natural hazards.
    In many of these cases it would be obvious to the character whether they had succeeded or not – following tracks, hunting, safely navigating the wilderness, avoiding the hazards (Group 1). Others, like identifying signs of animals and predicting the weather, are trying to gain clues about the situation (Group 3).


I hope this gives you more guidance on realistic adjudication of skills checks in a way which helps the players feel immersed in your world rather than just playing a board game.

Now to turn this into a quick guide I can attach to my GM’s screen – and make available to my lovely patrons.

Further reading

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