Insight Check

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.

12 thoughts on “Insight Check

    1. Well, I think it is both admirable and necessary that we adapt how we play the game to the needs of those we play with.

      That’s a great link too. I especially like how eloquently he lays out the problem, though I have a few issues with some of the solutions. I think there is maybe too much in there that I want to react to for the comments section. Perhaps a follow up post is in order.

  1. For me, a low Intelligence score is a license to bring a certain type of humor to playing a character. As long as it raises a laugh around the table, you can put a *lot* of creativity and wit into being as dumb as possible. You just need to let go of any pretense of that character being cool, and go all in on being a lovable, hapless doofus. It’s more fun, honestly, and probably more memorable and interesting in the long run.

    I’ll always remember your turn as the brothers Bingsly, or a super low Int barbarian one of my brothers’ friends played who when informed that he would have to provide for feeding his horse on a sea voyage they were embarking on said: “I’d better start fishing, then…”

    As for coming up with clever ideas above your character’s mental “pay grade”, folks should remember that even a stopped clock is right once in a while. As long as you present your idea in an appropriately misinformed, bass ackwards manner as possible, you can still make it happen. Sometimes simple minds are capable of flashes of insight, and it’s usually pretty funny when it happens, especially if a cleverer character would be stymied by over-thinking things. “Mongo is only pawn in game of life…”

    All in all, “I’m just playing my character.” should *never* be used as cover for being mean, disruptive, or worst of all *lame*.

    1. Agreed on all points. It takes a little skill, but I definitely think you can play a dumb character while still allowing your own payer intelligence to contribute fully to the group’s objectives.

  2. Aaaargh!

    I will not vent my spleen here, but this once again touches a nerve. I’m done with all “ability checks.” In any edition. Done.

    1. I appreciate your restraint, but I think it’s an interesting enough topic to warrant poking the bear a little bit…

      While new editions (really 3+) have codified ability checks to the point that it’s basically a major part of the system, I think older editions also have some tradition in their use. As a general mechanic I do feel like it’s a bit of a crutch, and I often feel a bit let down that I wasn’t able to come up with a better means of setting the odds for a given situation than simply rolling against an attribute.

      How strongly do you avoid using abilities as odds-setters? Do you use ability derived values like bend-bars/lift gates or percent chance to learn a spell? How would you handle a situation where a player has their character walk across a precipitous ledge and feels their 18 Dexterity should be taken into account in their chance to make it across?

  3. For systems with social checks, I try to draw it out of the player before rolling the check. (Keeping in mind I play with folks who are performance averse)
    If they really get into it, or some up whit something novel, I will make it a clear I will give a bonus to the check.
    If they go full impassioned speech or whatever, i make it clear I may forgo the roll.

    “I want to convince him to let us in”
    “OK, how? What sorts of things would you say/do?”
    “Ummmm, probably say we heard great things”
    “Do you know anything specific you could mention?”
    “Oh, yeah, there was something about their horse riding prowess, right?”
    “Ok, that will give you a +2 (rolls), ”
    and so on.

    Eventually we get into a rhythm and the player’s get comfortable interacting in character (not necessarily speaking or acting in character) and less worried about screwing up.

    So the same way one might reward a player who described how he took the high ground and then made his attack with a bonus to hit or damage, I make it clear that interacting with the social landscape will also provide advantages

    1. I feel like this is a good step in the right direction, and similar to how I handle trap finding. I usually make a point of telling my players that if they interact with the environment I will give them information based purely on logic without rolling dice. However failing all else they are welcome to request the die roll.

      For example, if the players suspect there might be pit trips and thus prod the floor with a staff or drip water on the ground to look for cracks it drains down, then I will tell them outright the outcome. The staff finds a spot that feels like it has some give, or the water drains through a long crack leading across the passageway that suggests the location of a trap door.

      If they don’t think to do such things or the trap is different such that their method would not work (eg. it was a trip wire not a pit), then they can ask to “check for traps” and I will be happy to roll a standard find traps roll and tell them the result. Of course I always make these rolls behind the screen, so they can’t tell the difference between failing to find something because of a missed roll vs. there’s nothing there to find.

      Of course, the back and forth of “I check for traps”, a clatter of dice behind the screen, and me saying “you don’t see any traps” may induce the players back to more interacting with the environment if they are especially paranoid or have good reason to think the dice were simply against them.

      Is your method an attempt to eventually lead them down the path of actually speaking / acting as their character, or is this simply the mutually agreed upon middle ground that everyone is happy with?

      1. Eh, it started as the former, but is probably the latter. Maybe I have gotten complacent too and its a good reminder to not get in a rut.

        But these days I try to engage the player’s on the level they want to be engaged on (Something tactical for the tactical players, some lore, some play acting) As long as they are participating, that’s good enough for me.

        It is usually some form of “how do you want to this?”
        It works for combat too to draw out more than just a roll.
        “I attack this guy”
        “Ok, he is on the other side of the table, how are you going to get there and attack?”
        “Umm, I jump on the table and kick the tankard in his face”

  4. I feel like this is a good use for passive insight, rather than players going ‘I want to see if I trust this guy’.

    Set up some d20 rolls ahead of time, and if the NPC is doing something would trigger an insight check, instead check off a number as the roll for the NPC’s deception against a target of the PC’s passive insight. If they fail, ham it up. That way there’s no need to disrupt the flow of the conversation with game mechanics (other than checking off a pre-rolled number). It also (hopefully, over time) cues the players in that they will know when their character knows when someone’s lying, as it’ll be obvious on its face.

      1. I very rarely call for an active insight check. When I do, it’ll tend to be someone asking ‘what can I tell about this person’s social background’ or the like. I might also use it for something like a courtroom-type scene or perhaps a bureaucracy-type scene, but not usually for regular day to day social interactions.

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