Deception 101 — 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks
Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is a rich game that codifies cooperative storytelling in a way no other has. One of the primary ways it does this is by representing what characters are good at through the skill proficiency system. In this series, we’re breaking down the different skill proficiencies: what they are, how they work, and understanding when to apply a skill check. As a quick disclaimer, every 5E D&D Dungeon Master has their own right to call for any skill check in any situation; this is just meant as a general reference. Today’s featured skill proficiency has been used in many games I’ve participated in. To quote one of my friends’ characters, “When things go to s***, we will lie, and we will lie, and we will lie.” That’s right! We’re talking about Deception.
What is Deception?
Before we get too into things, let’s see how the 5E D&D Basic Rules defines Deception:
Your Charisma (Deception) check determines whether you can convincingly hide the truth, either verbally or through your actions. This deception can encompass anything from misleading others through ambiguity to telling outright lies. Typical situations include trying to fast-talk a guard, con a merchant, earn money through gambling, pass yourself off in a disguise, dull someone’s suspicions with false assurances, or maintain a straight face while telling a blatant lie.
What do I get?
The gist of Deception, as I understand it, is all about trying to get something you want from someone by manipulating the situation. Obvious uses of this include things like telling lies and half-truths (as previously mentioned), but clearly the applications expand beyond this, as evidenced in the examples given in the description.
Fast talking a guard implies to me that attempting to be a distraction would fall under this category. So as the rest of the party sneaks past perhaps the bard attempts to draw the attention of those who would oppose their path. Making money through gambling (to me) implies using subterfuge and/or cheating. I would also argue Deception would cover attempting to maintain a poker face. Passing yourself off in a disguise could be mundane or magical, and I would even go so far as to apply it could be used by spellcasters with illusions to prevent the illusions from being touched or otherwise identified by mundane inspection, which is always the best way to determine the veracity of a suspected illusion.
In each of these instances, individuals are attempting to gain something from their target, whether it’s attention, lack of attention in plain sight or cleverly hiding the truth while having full attention upon it.
Flirting and seduction
One application I would argue I don’t see often is attempting to seduce someone. The reason for this is when people flirt, they often try to hide their flaws while simultaneously accentuating their best qualities. While it’s not necessarily lying it is an attempt to manipulate a situation in your favor.
I’ve heard many DMs argue Persuasion is a better application for flirting, and I can see how they would think this. I even tend to agree, in a limited sense. When it comes to flirting, I ask if these people have a history. If no, I always rule it’s Deception — if the goal is romance. However, if a character is being genuine, specifically with an intent focused on friendship, then I rule Persuasion. If the characters have a pre-established, genuine connection with one another I might rule either way depending on the scenario.
It might sound like a cop out but I think you as the DM just need to feel it out, and you’ll know. Generally if a character is trying to build a lasting relationship (like, years long) I’ll say Persuasion and if they’re looking for a one night or irregular hookup, that’s when I rule Deception. Once again, usually, you’ll just know which is right.
Body language speaks volumes
One note I immediately latched onto when it comes to Deception is it includes both verbal and nonverbal communication. As humans we pick up quickly on body language, often subconsciously, and expert liars and con artists master the subtle nuances of body language. Ever just get a skeevy feeling about someone? Have you had a time when you immediately disliked someone even though they never gave apparent reason? Chances are you picked up on something related to body language.
There was one time I was playing a character who was kidnapped by the villains and they were interrogating him. His capture was part of the party’s plan to infiltrate and siege the bandits’ hideout. My character’s job was to lure them into a false sense of security. However, in order to do that, I knew that my character would have to make them think they’d thwarted him.
People don’t tend to take kindly to being kidnapped. I used my character’s expertise in Deception to let the bandits think they had the upper hand on him. While the bandits were away my character produced a set of lockpicks he’d hidden in his mouth and waited until he heard the bandits returning. As the bootsteps neared the door my character picked one of the cuffs on his wrists then inserted the pins into the second cuff, ensuringthe moment the bandits opened the door, they’d catch him in the act of escape.
The door opened and the bandits entered. Sure enough they saw my character picking the lock and immediately confiscated the tools and locked the cuff back on. The DM called for a Deception roll, because my character wanted them to think they’d succeeded in thwarting him and that he was upset (though this was precisely what he wanted).
Next came the tricky part: the interrogation. The bandits took my character to a room to be interrogated and I told them exactly what the party was actually doing; how they were waiting outside with weapons at the ready and were about to storm the building. However! My character needed the bandits to think he was bluffing and trying to scare them into releasing him. He even offered to call them off if they released him unharmed right then and there.
Tricking people into believing a lie is truth is one thing, but I as a player realized another application of a Charisma (Deception) check was to convince someone the truth was a lie. Long and short of it, the plan worked and my character began the fight missing only 13 of his 48 hit points and the siege was a success.
SIDE NOTE: Using healing magic during a torture session can be a brutal and creative way to instill fear in your players.
What do you think?
Do you have a time when your 5E D&D character used Deception to great effect? How do you rule flirting and seduction when it comes to Deception skill checks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!