I’ve become fairly addicted to Critical Role. I think the key to getting into actual play recordings is simply giving it longer to hook you than other media. It’s kind of like Parks and Rec — I casually watched an episode or two and didn’t really like it, then later I committed to watching a full season and it became one of my favorite shows ever. However, there’s one thing about Critical Role that drives me nuts every time I hear it – their overuse of Insight checks.
My general disdain for any skill system is well documented. I believe having a discrete list of what your character can do in front of you all the time encourages you to try and fit every problem into the box of one of those skills. I’d rather see players engage with the environment and think outside the box more. I do like like that 5e has made skills a pretty thin wrapper around ability checks. Proficiency in a skill is really just an excuse to give a bonus to a player making an ability check when the situation matches their character’s background. It definitely streamlines things a bit for the DM, who can start to think of challenges purely in terms of which of the six abilities they test and then let the players lobby for applying a specific skill.
That said, in my mind not all abilities are equally attractive to test against. Physical ability checks are the easiest pill for me to swallow. In general, most of us are playing characters that are far more physically adept than we are. And honestly there’s not really a good way to demonstrate character skill with player skill for physical activities. When your fighter wants to break down the locked door, I’d really prefer you not smash down my game room door. Rolling dice with a probability of success based on your character’s Strength is just fine.
Intellectual tests are OK. Yes, your wizard is quite smart, and may have read a book about the problem at hand in the past which you the player have not. In fact likely that book didn’t exist until this very moment when we invented it to explain what this roll represents. Thus I’m fine with you rolling against your Intelligence to a get a little more DM prompting on what that strange sigil means, but if you were clever enough as a player to take notes earlier and can just reference them for the answer I’m much more into that. The flip side of this though drives me nuts. I hate hearing a player say something like “I have a great idea, but my character’s Int is really low, so I’m not going to say it.” Come on, bring the fun the table!
Finally there are social tests, which in my mind are the worst of the bunch. I just hate rolling dice for “can I convince him?” or “do I believe her?” In this case, can’t we just play pretend? You talk as your character and I’ll talk as the NPC, and we’ll both use our real world acting skills instead of rolling dice. Let’s face it, you’re usually asking for an “Insight check” because you don’t believe what I’m saying. Maybe just go with that instinct?
I suppose it comes down to where you want your game to live on the spectrum of trying to portray characters in a fantasy world vs. having the characters be the player’s avatar into that world. Personally, I want something in the middle gray-area of that spectrum. When your character is talking to fictional characters in the world, I want to enact that at the table as closely as possible. On the other hand I’d prefer it if you didn’t do things that are detrimental the fun of the whole table simply because “it’s what my character would do.”
Above all else I want my game to feel immersive, like you are really there experiencing this strange world first hand. If you build this iron curtain between “you” and “your character”, that becomes much harder. I want there to be a good dose of “you” in your character, which honestly I think we all do anyway. We can never completely remove our personalities from our characters. But I also want you to delight in your character’s foibles, laugh at them when they get in over their heads, and not take it personally should they die.
I think Matt Finch puts it quite well:
These games aren’t simulations of what a dwarf raised in a particular society, and having a particular level of intelligence, would do when faced with certain challenges. Old-style play is about keeping your character alive and making him into a legend. The player’s skill is the character’s guardian angel – call it the character’s luck or intuition, or whatever makes sense to you, but don’t hold back on your skill as a player just because the character has a low intelligence. Role-playing is part of the game, but it’s not a suicide pact with your character.
I am trying to figure out how to deal with this when I run 5e. A few times I’ve tried the simple statement of “I prefer to play out social interactions without dice. If you feel really strongly that you want to roll a social skill check, just say so and we’ll give it a try. But I absolutely forbid the use of any social skills against other players.” That last one is a hard line for me. Nobody should be able to dictate what your character does by simply having a high Persuasion skill.