Various skills, tools, spells, and abilities in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons enable characters to hide in plain sight. Employing techniques to guise a character’s voice, change their appearance, or create writings can be invaluable to their survival.
Wielding this power is up to you: Do you want to slip past the tavern bouncer to grab a pint without being harassed about paying your tab? Do you want to pass off a fake work order to trick a rival empire’s quartermaster into outfitting your keep? Do you want to impersonate the virtuoso bard to impress the fair maiden? (I’ve heard you practicing that one song after the rest of the party goes to sleep.)
What’s the best way to do it?
Basic Skills: What Can Everyone Do?
Deception. Let’s set a baseline by looking at what you can do with the basic Deception skill. Visually, you can pass yourself off in disguise. Verbally, you can mislead with a straight face; con, lie, fast-talk, or falsely reassure for desired effect. Behaviorally, you can imitate the mannerisms of another. And of course, you can forge signatures, copy documents, and duplicate wax seals.
Performance. Secondarily, let’s consider what you can do with the Performance skill. You are able to delight an audience with your acting and storytelling. This was designed to be used a certain way: impersonation. Consider that the Disguise Kit and the Actor feat both provide bonuses to Performance as well as Deception.
Any character can use these skills. “Skill monkeys” with proficiency and expertise will be better. Employing tools will also give greater latitude to use the skills in creative ways.
Judging Success: Setting DCs and Rolling Against
As with most things in 5th Edition D&D, the DM is permitted a lot of latitude to use the skills as desired. There are two conventions you can employ. You can set the difficulty and make the player roll. Where appropriate, you may ask the player to roll against whomever they are trying to deceive. Typically, this is a Deception vs. Insight check.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything outlined some specific DCs when using two different tools that are essential to strong Deception: the Disguise Kit and the Forgery Kit. These can provide some guidance for how to play Deception at the table.
The Disguise Kit sets a an easy DC for covering injuries or distinguishing remarks, but a hard DC for copying a humanoid’s appearance. You should adjust the DC of this check appropriately. If the guards are watching for an adventurer who took an arrow in the knee earlier that morning, they are going to be wary of a bundled leg, warranting a higher DC. As for copying the appearance of another humanoid, raise or lower the DC depending on the viewer’s familiarity with the impersonated.
Alternatively, use the player’s Deception roll to set the DC for an Insight check. Since the viewer already has an Insight modifier, consider conferring advantage if they are familiar with the impersonated, or disadvantage if they are strangers. Granting advantage and disadvantage to the viewer should not interfere with Deception abilities which instead confer advantages on the deceiver.
The Forgery Kit specifically contemplates use to enhance an underlying Deception. It sets a medium DC to mimic handwriting and a hard DC to duplicate a wax seal. While these DCs are a little harder to adjust than the Disguise Kit’s, consider that more prestigious houses may have more expensive materials, artful writing style, and intricate seals than their counterparts. Adjusting the DCs this way allows your Players can do cool stuff when they’re scheming in small towns, without allowing them to run rampant by hoodwinking the entire kingdom.
If you prefer to employ the adversarial system, use the player’s roll to set the DC of the forgery, and then roll against it when they try to use it. This works because you escalate the difficulty as they try to use it: “Sure, you might get past the guard with that note, but the lord’s scribe is a little more discerning.”
Being a Decepticon: Hiding In Plain Sight
Tools. A Disguise Kit is the most basic method of disguise, and its available to any character. A good disguise may have its credibility bolstered by convincing documents authored with a Forgery Kit.
Magic. As you might assume, casters benefit from Illusion and Transmutation magic which can assist with visual Deception. However, there are limitations until very high levels:
- Illusion Magic. Disguise Self (1) is probably the most commonly used spell in this context. Its big brother, Seeming (5), is basically the same spell for your whole group. Both allow you to alter your character’s physical appearance within limitation. Viewers roll Insight against your Spell DC to uncover the illusion. Even if they don’t, the illusion will not hold up to physical inspection (i.e. touching).
- Transmutation Magic. Polymorph (4) is great because it gets around the illusion problem by actually allowing you to become what you are trying to impersonate. However, with regular Polymorph, you can’t speak or take actions that require hands. Thankfully, stepping up to True Polymorph (9) will allow you to speak and interact with your hands, so long as you assume the form of something that can do so. True Polymorph is the best option for visual deception. Unfortunately, you’ll be waiting a while for Polymorph functionality, unless your party boasts a skilled ventriloquist.
Class Ability. A level 13 Rogue (Assassin) gets the awesome ability Impostor. While it is silent as to how the Assassin can visually mimic the impersonated, it does state that the ruse is indiscernible to the casual observer. Even if a “wary creature” realizes something is amiss, the Assassin still has advantage to deceive them. This implies that in the majority of circumstances, you should not be making the Assassin roll to mimic speech, writing, or behavior. You can keep them honest by holding them to the visual clues.
Feat. Available to every class is the Actor feat. While it’s not as surefire as the Impostor ability, it confers advantage to Deception and Performance whether you’re imitating speech or behavior. You can also pick it up a lot faster than the Impostor (1 minute vs. 3 hours). If you find this overpowered, again temper it by enforcing the visual element.
Racial Ability. If you’re the type that hates to wait, then pick up some goodies at Level 1. Kenku have two racial abilities that assist them in copying speech and text. The Mimicry ability allows Kenku to imitate voices by rolling Deception vs. Insight. Expert Forgery grants advantage when creating forgeries or copies.
Good luck disguising that beak.