As a dungeon master, I rarely ask everyone in the party to make perception, investigation, or knowledge checks, because someone almost always rolls high. With these checks, just one high roll yields the information the players want. Why bother rolling for a virtually certain outcome?
I asked this question of Dungeons & Dragons fans and gained hundreds of responses.
Many comments mentioned that passive checks—especially passive Wisdom (Perception) checks—fit most times everyone might roll.
So why roll instead?
Even though DMs realize that saying “everyone roll” almost guarantees success, they ask because players enjoy rolling. For many players, the game only begins when the dice fly.
Plus, “everyone roll” is D&D theater. You know the outcome but asking grabs attention and spurs the players into real-world action. Jamie LaFountain writes, “Everyone rolling is a nice smoke-and-mirrors trick when you want to get a piece of information out to the group and give the illusion of risk of failure.”
Sometimes everyone rolls without a request from the DM. One person makes a check, and all the other players snap to attention and try too. For example, the character at the dungeon door looks it over, muffs a perception check, and then everyone else starts rolling and calling numbers. What should a DM do?
First, you might gently remind your players that rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a slight lapse of table decorum. “When I’m a player I loathe that everyone at the table feels the need to also roll a check,” Sam Witkowski writes. Such piling on robs the active player of their moment—their chance to be rewarded for their action. Checks should happen when a DM decides that a character’s action in the game world merits a check.
Ask the other players what their characters do. If nobody approaches to spot the door’s faded inscription, ignore their checks. If everyone takes a turn up close, consider any time pressure, but let everyone roll (and maybe a wandering monster opens the door from the other side).
Actions prompt checks, so making a perception check typically means taking a closer look. If the party just crosses a room and you want to see if someone notices a trap door, D&D’s rules suggest using passive Wisdom (Perception) rather than calling for a roll. You can limit passive checks to those closest to the trap door, so players benefit from letting the perceptive character lead. (And remember in dim light, the check is at disadvantage, a passive -5. Darkness counts as dim light for characters relying on darkvision.)
Players pile on lore checks too. These are checks against skills like History, Arcana, and Religion to discover if a character brings some knowledge to a situation. Everybody rolling for knowledge typically assures success. Such group rolls often show that the most unlikely character knows some bit of obscure lore.
Group knowledge rolls diminish the choices of players who invested proficiency in knowing things. If you always let everyone roll for an inevitable success, the value of knowledge skills drops to almost nothing. Success comes from making five rolls rather than from proficiency.
When everyone rolls, the one sage proficient in a skill will seldom roll a better success than the four know-nothings in the party. Still, some DMs enjoy the surprise of seeing the barbarian beat the wizard’s arcane knowledge. Such occasions can reveal character.
The next time every character wants to pile on a knowledge check, consider letting them, but ask players to roll only if they think their character might know something. Then if the barbarian lucks into a 20, say, “I’ll tell you about the enchantment on the door, but first can your tell me how someone fostered by wolves knows about wards forged on the plane of Mechanus?” Asking “how can this be so?” fuels creativity. “The barbarian may not know what that symbol means is or what civilization used it, but they remember seeing something similar 10 years ago on a crypt outside of Blahland,” writes Jonathan Hibberd. Either players add interesting bits of background to their characters, or they admit to knowing nothing.
Letting everyone roll a lore check works best when you have lots of information to offer. Every success yields a fun fact. By granting information for good rolls, you can make an information dump feel like a series of rewards.
For extra value, try to make the tidbits feel unique to each character’s background, nature, and outlook. D.W. Dagon writes, “A Religion check from a cloistered scholar is going to be resolved very differently to the same check from an outlander. It’s a great opportunity to bring forth each character’s unique backstory in a way which forwards story.”
DMs who want to see if a character discovers a secret may ask for everyone to roll. The player who succeeds gains confidential information. Don’t do this if you expect players to share the information. Players tend to guard secrets, even when they have no reason to.
Everyone roll almost guarantees success, but sometimes no one rolls better than a 6—including the character starting with a +5. If you call for everyone to roll, expect success, but be ready for a fail. If the adventurers must know something, then just tell them.
Some DMs keep track of characters’ proficiencies for this purpose. “If I can prepare,” Thomas Christy writes, “I love to find out who is trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” During the game, the players can reveal their knowledge in-character. When players remember their knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.
You can treat knowledge skills as passive. Without a roll, tell players what their character knows based on, say, their Intelligence (Religion) bonus. I often reveal lore based on characters’ proficiencies and background. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine. This technique works especially well for the information players must learn to continue. Essential backstory feels like a reward for a character’s choices. Players won’t know what knowledge comes from their characters’ aptitude and what you had to reveal to advance the plot.
If you want to make checking for a bit of obscure lore into a real test, allow fewer characters to roll.
Limit the check to characters with proficiency. This rewards the cleric proficient in religion even if their knowledge is hampered by low Intelligence.
Limit the check to the active character, possibly just the person who asked, and then grant advantage based on the party’s advice and assistance. This encourages action.
Limit the check to the most knowledgeable character, and then grant advantage based on the party’s help. I love when this enables a quiet player to gain the spotlight based on their character’s aptitude.
You can impose similar limits on investigation. Limit Intelligence (Investigation) rolls to the best detective or to the active character, and then grant advantage based on the help from other characters.
Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead to pile-on checks. If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, then more than one person should never roll a Wisdom (Insight) check. Next week, I’ll explain how to cope with Insight.