Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons revolves around the ideas of ability checks and the proficiency bonus. When it comes to skill checks as ability checks, the check is written like this (for example): Charisma (Intimidation). The reason for this is Charisma is the applicable ability score and the Intimidation proficiency allows further modification of the ability check. Quick Disclaimer: a 5E D&D Dungeon Master can allow or require any ability check or skill proficiency, even outside this purview. This article is meant to act as a guide for new players and DMs to explain how skill checks work and what they look like narratively. The worlds of D&D are full of monsters, mayhem and all sorts of scary stuff, but suppose you want your character to be one of the scary things of the world? Maybe you want your cleric to put the fear of the gods in people? If you’re looking to coerce, bully or unnerve then Intimidation is the skill for you!
What is Intimidation?
Before delving into this article, let’s look at how the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook defines Intimidation:
When you attempt to influence someone through overt threats, hostile actions, and physical violence, the DM might ask you to make a Charisma (Intimidation) check. Examples include trying to pry information out of a prisoner, convincing street thugs to back down from a confrontation, or using the edge of a broken bottle to convince a sneering vizier to reconsider a decision.
When should I use Intimidation?
The definition of Intimidation is pretty clear on instances where Intimidation applies. If threats, violence or pain are involved then intimidation is your go to. It’s all about striking fear into your target and using that fear to manipulate a situation. So, let’s talk about how I treat Intimidation at my own tables and some outlier fundamentals most people wouldn’t think about.
One of the most common mix ups I see new DMs make when it comes to Intimidation is confusing it with Persuasion. As a DM I believe one of the core reasons all tieflings receive a Charisma bonus is due to their intimidating appearance.
See, when a character receives a racial trait that means all members of the race receive the same bonus. This might sound fundamental but I promise this is going somewhere.
Charisma represents force of personality, or in other words your character’s ability to influence others and tieflings (in most campaigns) possess infernal heritage. Obviously if it were just because they are intimidating, tieflings would receive racial proficiency in the Intimidation skill, much as half-orcs do. But if our communities on places like Pinterest teach us anything it’s many people also find tieflings attractive. There’s a sort of alien familiarity to a humanoid with horns, a tail and or vibrant coloration. It’s alluring in a dangerous or taboo sort of way.
However, an honest soul from an entire race facing things like objectification and prejudice is likely going to work harder to be genuine and friendly. Hence, their bonus to Charisma on the whole. But being friendly and genuine isn’t enough to warrant a Persuasion roll.
I’ve seen some DMs call for a persuasion roll from a character who was being friendly but was clearly terrifying their intended persuadee (yes, I made up that word; don’t judge). This is where subjectivity comes into play. Much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder (in the colloquial sense, you nerds), so Persuasion is subject to the one being persuaded.
The story of Krunk the barbarian
Let’s take one of my friend’s characters, for example. Krunk was an enormous human barbarian. He wore a dire wolf cloak and a leather thong, and he carried his massive greatsword on his shoulder wherever he went.
One day Krunk decided to go shopping and the shopkeeper was very clearly terrified of the 7 foot tall, half-naked human in his store. Side note: Krunk had a Wisdom score of 4 (we rolled for Ability Scores). Thus, Krunk ignorantly leaned in close to the shopkeeper to ask about a price, and when it was too much Krunk decided to haggle.
How did Krunk decide to haggle, you ask? He leaned in, nose-to-nose with the owner, and said, “Surely we can work something out, friend?”
Picture this for a moment: a muscle-bound, half-naked man who’s clearly killed a monster (a dire wolf) before comes thundering into your store, a huge sword on his shoulder. After the scrawny shopkeeper tells this giant of a man a price, the man leans in uncomfortably close and delivers that line.
All of this description was in jest, and the whole table was rolling with laughter.
While the character was well meaning, the owner of the store did not perceive it this way. So, I called for a Charisma (Intimidation) check. When my friend asked why Krunk couldn’t attempt Persuasion, I delivered the same synopsis of events as above, and realization dawned on my friend’s face. “Oh, that makes sense, now,” he said, suppressing a laugh. He rolled Intimidation, and (of course) rolled a natural 20. Thus, the event lived on in infamy.
This narrative does make a good point though. While Deception and Persuasion are largely determined by the intentions of the character making the roll, Intimidation rolls are determined by the perspective of the target of said attempt.
Intimidation vs. Deception vs. Persuasion
In a similar vein I would rule an imposing character might make an Intimidation roll instead of Deception. After all, it’s not so much about if the target is genuinely deceived if they are too scared to even scrutinize what’s happening in the first place.
As a rule of thumb whenever a player at my table attempts to influence someone I begin by asking, is the target afraid or otherwise intimidated by the character? If yes, the rolls I call for are Intimidation-based, even if the character is well meaning. If the NPC is not innately afraid then we move onto deception or persuasion as appropriate.
What do you think?
How do you differentiate intimidation from other Charisma focused skills? Do you have a great story about a time you or a player at your table used Intimidation in a unique way? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments!