Insight Isn’t Pass/Fail

5th Edition D&D uses ability checks in a pass/fail fashion. The DM sets the Difficulty Class (DC), the players roll, adding their ability modifier and any relevant skill proficiencies, and the result either meets/exceeds the DC (and passes) or falls short (and fails).

To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier. As with other d20 rolls, apply bonuses and penalties, and compare the total to the DC. If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success — the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it's a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.

While there’s some guidance in the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide suggesting a “fail forward” mechanic if you fail by two or less, this isn’t really hard coded in the system, or implemented in its adventures. Some D&D adventures offer differing degrees of failure (see, e.g. the avalanche and blizzard mechanics in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden). But, some skills are better suited to having varying degrees of success.

The Problem with Pass/Fail

Insight is the prime example. Insight should not be a pass/fail skill. When used this way, it falls into a boring “lie detector” cycle where characters can either catch the non-player character (NPC) in a lie, or “the NPC seems to be telling the truth.” This doesn’t really add anything to your campaign.

While your opinion may differ as to whether simulationism is a desired trait in a tabletop game, we can all agree that pass/fail is not how insight works in real life. While you might get an inkling that someone is not being truthful, the only way to take your notion beyond suspicion is to have hard, contradictory facts. And nobody needs insight if they have the facts to prove you’re lying!

How to Use Insight

So, how should the insight skill be used? It should give varying degrees of success. Based on how high you roll, you get more information.

Wait, no failures? Isn’t that too easy? Not exactly. The lower you roll, the more information is concealed. Low rolls can still be “failures” in that the character fails to get all the information to assess the NPC’s credulity:

  • Maybe they don’t get enough information to be useful in that moment, but the insight can give information that can fit with other puzzle pieces later.
  • Maybe they get so little information that it’s misleading! Seeing only a portion of the picture can lead characters to extrapolating erroneous results.
  • Maybe they roll so poorly that you look directly into your player’s face and tell them an obvious lie. Trust your players. They’ll probably do a great job buying in to the roleplaying opportunity.

Insight for the Whole Party

Since it makes sense for each player to get an insight roll, it can be tough to implement in play. The key to keeping this fresh and inspiring discussion between the party members is giving the characters different information.

When a full party rolls insight against the NPC (assuming you’re not using passive insight), they should each get different information based on their character. While the bard picks up on body language, the rogue notices a bulging pocket. Where the cleric senses a lack of spiritual connection, the paladin senses a lack of conviction. Where the sorcerer may feel that something is off, the wizard may have a vague recollection of something they read that contradicts the speaker.

If you’re having trouble conjuring up different information for your players, this serve yourself a prompt by asking the players what their characters are looking for: body language, speech, sensing auras, etc.

When you employ these techniques, the different information granted to each player generates discussion. Some players may feel that the NPC is being truthful, while other may be more wary. By combining all the information they receive, the party can work together to form their own conclusions. Striking a collaborative tone will lead to much greater roleplaying experiences than simply telling your players whether an NPC is lying.

For more insight on how to run your game, support us on the ThinkDM Patreon. You can find further discussion on insight as a skill in our articles “Passive-Only Skills” and “Passive Skills vs. Reliable Talent”. Today’s cover image is “Incite Insight” by David Sladek used under the Wizards Fan Content Policy.

2 thoughts on “Insight Isn’t Pass/Fail

  1. I do try to give rising amounts of information based on the check result. And DCs are adjusted by the target – someone people are “open books”, and others are naturally hard to read. I do not like “group Insight”, agreed; I have not thought about changing the *type* of information returned by the insightful charatcer – auras, concealment, etc.

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