Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

In Dungeons & Dragons Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead players to pile-on checks. One character talks to someone, asks to roll insight, and then everyone adds their roll. The group supposes that just one success will spot a lie. If the dungeon master allows such checks, someone almost invariably uncovers any deception. By such rules, lying to big groups becomes impossible, which makes insight checks the most unrealistic thing in a game with djinns in bottles who grant wishes.

If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, never roll group insight checks where one high roll brings success. Instead, opt for one of two methods. The choice of method depends on whether you, as DM, want players to roll their check.

  • If the players roll, the numbers on the dice give players unearned hints. Low numbers tell the players they probably failed and not to trust their insight; high numbers suggest they succeeded and that, for instance, an NPC who appears honest can be trusted.

  • If you roll in secret, the players feel deprived of some control over their fate. After all, some DMs will fudge rolls to protect a planned narrative. Also, players like rolling dice, especially if rolling gives unearned hints.

Players roll group checks

If you allow players to roll, call for a group check where everyone makes a Wisdom (Insight) check and at least half the group must succeed.

This method may see odd, because group checks apply to situations where one failure could potentially cause the whole group to fail. For instance, one noisy character could alert the guards the party wants to sneak past. But group checks actually fit insight checks with no sure answers. If at least half the group succeeds, the successful characters reveal their insight to the others. If too many characters fail, the group suffers a difference of opinion that leaves everyone uncertain. Or perhaps Terry the Apothecary just proved hard to read.

Don’t tell players which characters suspect lies. Players who know that and their die rolls gain a metagame-based lie detector.

Set the difficulty class for the checks by adding 10 to the liar’s Charisma (Deception) bonus, so the DC equals the liar’s passive deception.

DMs roll a single check

As a DM, you could roll a secret, group Wisdom (Insight) check, but tracking several die rolls and bonuses would slow the game. Instead, roll one check for the character in the scene with the highest Wisdom (Insight) bonus. By using the highest insight score rather than a group of scores, this method benefits the players. On the other hand, the players lose any hints they gain from seeing the numbers. Don’t grant advantage for help coming from the other players. We don’t want to make spotting lies unrealistically easy. This method presumes that the rest of the group offers little help to the most insightful character. Either the others also spot the deception, or they muddy the waters by being more easily fooled.

Alternately, roll one Charisma (Deception) check for the liar against a DC set by the group’s highest passive Wisdom (Insight) score. If the deceiver fails, describe signs of deception. On success, the liar seems legit. I like this reversal because the odds stay the same, but you roll on behalf of the more active character.

Usually a liar only needs to make one deception check, but if the pressure increases thanks to sharp questions, or their lies begin to unravel, you might require fast talking and another check.

Success and failure

Whatever type of check you use, if the outcome favors the players, a liar shows signs of deception and an honest character seems trustworthy. Otherwise, the target of the check seems hard to read.

Rather than flatly stating that someone lies, describe signs of deception: A lying person may sweat or otherwise appear anxious. Perhaps they start speaking in a manner that seems rehearsed. Someone with something to hide might avoid eye contact or become hesitant while speaking. Perhaps their words and body language fail to match. For example, they might nod yes during a denial. For countless more symptoms, search the internet for “signs of deception.”

When a check goes badly against the players—call it a fumble even though D&D lacks critical failures—the party may get the wrong impression. Perhaps an honest person shows misleading signs of deception. Follow what works for the story and your inclination to deceive the players. Maybe an honest person just feels nervous in the presence of such esteemed adventurers (or such temperamental and murderous treasure hunters).

14 thoughts on “Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

  1. Don Rice

    As a DM, I use multiple checks when I want the players to earn something through successive efforts, or to build tension because a single check will spoil it. For the situation described, where multiple Insights are combined, I would sometimes play as Aid Another where there is one character roll with Advantage.

  2. Simon

    I think Insight is only useful if player rolls and can see their check result. I generally want to reward players paying attention who say “Hm, that sounds dubious. Can I roll Insight?” If they roll well I’ll describe body language and other non verbal cues to truthiness.

  3. Shinigami Raptor

    Personally, I’ve used multiple checks successively to make an insight deduction. The initial check is comparatively simple, based solely on catching onto something being “off” (the other party seems suspicious, or an offer is seemingly odd). A second check could be either diplomacy (minority of the party sees the discrepancy), or a second insight check to confirm a suspicion. Third may be any of the social rolls

  4. Dr Sepsis

    FYI: Someone who is lying is more likely to make eye contact as they check to see if they’re being detected.

    1. Robin A Blair

      I think there are a ton of good points put forward here.

      One thing I’ve started to think lately as a DM is that all opposed checks should be vs passive NPC/monster scores. The passive stat is the ‘average’ you’d get over many rolls right? Why throw more random chance into the mix. The player rolling d20 on top of a (probably 20% bonus at the most commonly played levels) is already random enough.

      For this reason I’m also going to start trying 3 checks for most things. I view these ‘encounters’ as alternatives to combat ‘encounters’ which are basically a string of Str or Dex checks (or whatever combat stat is used). Combat encounters are seldom determined by a single roll, why should others be? If it’s not worth the 3 (or more) rolls and associated narrative, maybe skip the checks? This is what I plan to explore anyway (along with replacing Wisdom with Awareness, as in 5e its clearly more about perception (spotting and hearing stuff etc).

      With 3 checks you get more nuance in terms of failure and success, and less chance of one bad roll spoiling things. Also, if it’s vital info for the plot progression, don’t base it on a check like this or you have to railroad around it. A single roll might be fine for something like a really fast (6 second) scan of room to spot something, because that is kinda/almost random. If they spend a full minute or more looking over the room and the thing is spottable, they should spot it (as in take 10 or take 20 rules). If they carefully search a room and a clue/thing is hidden somewhere, they should find it, otherwise why bother having it there? One caveat to that is a scenario where they are likely to search several rooms. You can have the DC go from high in the first room down to 1 in the last room. This works fine with narrative.

      Side note (personal peeve) – if you adjust DC’s based on party skill you’ve thrown out the whole system. Now you’re just making arbitrary calls on the odds of success and are punishing players for investing in stats/skills.

      Other side note, the group spotting an liar problem also works in reverse (both ways really) with stealth checks. A rouge can’t effectively stealth or hide against a group of 4 of more monsters rolling individually. A party can’t stealth against 1 creature if they all have to roll (well, the odds are terrible). Even a group check against an opposed roll is just super random. Letting the sneaker, or sneaking group take 10 against a passive perception would be better IMHO.

  5. Brian P. Evans

    Another ploy is that the player needs to be specific about what they’re trying to get insight into. “To see if they’re lying” isn’t specific enough or would only be good for one person, usually the one having the direct interaction. Anybody else wanting to use Insight needs to come up with a result for what they are trying to learn: Are they trying to cut the conversation short or drag it out? Are they specifically positioning themselves to focus on attention in a certain direction? Are they trying to avoid a certain topic (assuming the PCs aren’t directly taking with the NPC)? That sort of thing.

    And don’t forget that other PCs may not be able to try because they’re busy doing something else. The muscle making sure they don’t break their bonds as the wisdom focus interrogates the prisoner can’t pay attention to their words and their hands at the same time.

    And no, the PCs never get to see the results of their Insight roll. If they fail or succeed, they are still convinced of their result.

  6. Aaron

    A successful insight check that then relies on the player’s ability to discern a lie from any other anxiety is just as bad as letting someone else roll after they see a low result.

    The funny thing about real insight, is you need it to know you’re not sure about something. A person with poor insight will tend to come up with the wrong conclusion whether it’s a lie or not.

    As to uncalled for rolls, insight is perfect for 4th wall shenanigans. You can tell joe is unsure about something, but realize you wouldn’t know what without asking him.

  7. Drew

    Because there is also passive insight, “active” insight checks are obvious and should always decrease any chance of rewards, regardless of success. In RP explanation, the NPC is clearly being honest, but having the PC squint and cock their head (“active” insight) makes the NPC uncomfortable, choosing to omit something they may have said otherwise.
    This would make checks riskier and allow DM’s to have the story flow more naturally…maybe.
    Would this work? Anybody try it or something similar?

    1. ericscheid

      That’s exactly what came to mind when I read “one character talks to someone, asks to roll insight, and then everyone piles-on their checks” (paraphrased).

      DM: Yeh, OK, you get the insight that the merchant is awfully uncomfortable with 6 heavily armed strangers crowding his personal space acting all squinty-eyed. Back off creeps!

      In practice, mechanics wise, either handle the extra checks as a help/aid bonus to the lead check, or handle the extra checks as separate but with each one at some penalty.

  8. HDA

    Come on man. Make your players think, observe, ask questions, learn from the world around them instead of rolling dice to get information. As the DM, maybe raise your eyebrow a bit. You know, emote. What is even the point of having intrigue and deception in your game if the players can just roll to see through it?

  9. Tardigrade

    Here’s the thing: if someone says something to a group of people, whether what is said is true or not, there is a good chance at least some of the people will think that person is lying while others will think it’s true. But you won’t know who’s right unless you verify somehow.

    Because you are only invoking the mechanic when a lie is being told, the insight mechanic is not just raising a suspicion, but it also validates the suspicion. Which it should not do.

    So unless you roll every time the party talks to anyone about anything, giving chances that they will make a Type 1 error (think they’re lying when they really aren’t), I see the whole “intuit lie” mechanic as baloney.

    1. Brian P. Evans

      That’s why the players must initiate the request for Insight and not be shown the results. The DM simply indicates if the player believes or thinks something is up. And even then, you don’t say what but rather ask: What are you trying to achieve? If the players are paranoid, then they always suspect lies even when told the truth. You can then roll Insight for the NPC to see if they pick up on that and start manipulating the characters that way. If they think everything you say is a lie no matter what, then use that.

      The PCs can then be more judicious about their Insight. If something sounds too good to be true, don’t use Insight as a lie detector. Instead, ask the DM to roll your Insight to see if your character can determine why they are being told about this amazing thing. As the DM, you might just give stuff like “You think there’s something about his kids connected to this” instead of, “You believe it’s the truth.” That leads to more interaction on the part of the PCs to actively acquire information rather than rely on a die roll.

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  11. Ben

    One way I like to deal with this is to prepare accurate and inaccurate information, and then based on what they roll, the likelihood that they are getting accurate information increases, but is not assured. After they roll, I roll a D100. If they roll an insight of 25, I give them accurate information if I secretly roll an 80 or lower. A thirty or higher, I give them a 90% chance of getting the correct info. This gets modified depending on how cagey the person they are talking to is. I use this if they are trying for a clear yes/no insight check, such as “are they lying?” It doesn’t work well for things like trying to figure out a NPC’s motivations.


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