Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons has a variety of skill proficiencies a player character gains, especially at character creation. These skills represent a character’s capability in each designated area. In this series, we’re diving into a look at the different skill proficiencies that can modify ability checks. Skill checks, or ability checks are written like this (as an example): Wisdom (Insight). This is because Wisdom is the ability check being made, and Insight is the skill proficiency that’s further modifying the ability check. Quick disclaimer: a 5E D&D Dungeon Master can require or allow any ability check and/or skill proficiency, even outside this purview. This article is meant as a guide for new players and DMs as to how certain ability checks and skill proficiencies can be applied. Speaking of insight, that happens to be our focal skill check today!
What is Insight?
Before we go further, let’s see how the 5E D&D Basic Rules rules define our focal skill: Insight.
Your Wisdom (Insight) check determines whether you can determine the true intentions of a creature, such as when searching out a lie or predicting someone’s next move. Doing so involves gleaning clues from body language, speech habits, and changes in mannerisms.
NOT a lie detector
Before you throw rocks at me for this, please hear me out; I’m fully aware Insight can be used to determine if someone is hiding something. However, one of the most flagrant misuses of this skill check is being a catch-all lie detector. I can’t even begin to talk about how many times I’ve sat at a gaming table (especially among new players), and one person exclaims, “Insight check!” the moment a nonplayer character makes a statement. This is, of course, the player’s way of telling me, the DM, they don’t believe what the person is saying.
Players often just expect to be able to make an Insight skill check whenever they want, but much like other ability checks the player must ask the DM or get a prompt from them to make a check. Insight is a vastly overused skill, in my opinion. I have literally seen players try to coax the DM into letting their Insight skill check give them knowledge of the truth after learning an NPC was lying. That’s not how it works.
Generally when it comes to contested Deception vs. Insight the rules call for the deceiver to make a Charisma (Deception) check against a character’s passive Wisdom (Insight). Passive Wisdom (Insight) is calculated as follows: 10 + Wisdom modifier + proficiency bonus. It works much like an attack roll against a character’s Armor Class but instead of AC the “defender” uses passive Wisdom (Insight), while the “attacker” makes a Charisma (Deception) check.
When a player rolls for Insight, they actually take a risk. This is because they don’t benefit from that baseline of 10. Rolling lower than a 10 actually causes a character to do worse on their Wisdom (Insight) skill check than if they’d used their passive score. This works well thematically, as active suspicion can lead to misinterpreted information or jumping to conclusions.
Strategy and the game
Another application of Wisdom (Insight) skill checks is determining a person’s next move. This could be someone immediately in front of your character, or it could also be someone with whom your character is familiar but is not necessarily right in front of them. An example of the latter could be in the case of opposing military leaders. By knowing the enemy, a general might be able to predict his next move or ploy. Wisdom (Insight) checks also work for political interactions.
In the last article covering the History skill, I mentioned the Dragon Age RPG. Dragon Age is one of my favorite fantasy settings outside of D&D. In that setting, the nation of Orlais thrives on political maneuvers and interactions. Wars are fought in the courtroom of a dinner party just as often as on the battlefield. Wisdom (Insight) is an invaluable tool for having character navigate high stakes social encounters, where a lie might prove more effective than a sword and intuition is the most important armor of all.
Do you speak a language?
Ever met someone who’s just good at “reading” people? They can glean a wealth of information from a person simply by subtle observations and putting pieces together, specifically as it relates to personality, outlook and disposition?
Wisdom (Insight), as defined earlier, examines cues from paraverbal communication. It’s through this savvy a character can read the underlying intentions of those they interact with. This does however imply the creature with which a character interacts must speak a language and have a body which it can manipulate with mannerisms. Language in our society has a plethora of contexts, but in the mechanics of D&D, spoken language is thematically used to communicate a degree of self awareness. In order for Insight to apply to a creature (as opposed to, say, animal handling), said creature must have enough self awareness to possess a spoken language.
As mentioned previously, your character’s Wisdom (Insight) can check a creature’s true intentions as a result of their body language and mannerisms, as it’s much harder to deceive with paraverbal communication, which largely draws on subconscious and muscle memory.
What do you think?
Do you have any stories about your players using Insight effectively or in an innovative way? Do you agree or disagree with Insight being a sort of “lie detector?” Let us know in the comments!