5E D&D Deception skill check

Investigation 101 — 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks

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Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons mechanics revolve around the ability checks and the proficiency bonus. When it comes to skill checks as ability checks, the check is written like this (for example): Intelligence (Investigation). The reason for this is Intelligence is the applicable ability score, and the Investigation 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. Ever want to play a character like Sherlock Holmes or Batman? What about the ghost whisperer, or Veronica Mars? Some of the greatest plot points in D&D games include intrigue, mystery and suspense. The ability to navigate complex plots and solve mysteries might very likely be solved by a character trained in the Investigation skill.

5E D&D Deception skill check Investigation
Illustrator Robson Michel describes this as a redesign of the Sheila character from the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. She’s a thief with a cloak of invisibility. [Art by Robson Michel]

What is Investigation?

Before delving into this article, let’s look at how the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook defines Investigation:

When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check. You might deduce the location of as hidden object, discern from the appearance of a wound what kind of weapon dealt it, or determine the weakest point in a tunnel that could cause it to collapse. Poring through ancient scrolls in search of a hidden fragment of knowledge might also call for an Intelligence (Investigation) check.

The new Streetwise skill

Back in the dark days of fourth edition D&D there was a skill called streetwise. It was just what it sounded like — a skill your character could use to navigate settlements, find or seed gossip and even suss out hidden thoroughfares or black markets. Basically, if it dealt with living in the city it fell under streetwise.

These days, streetwise is no longer a skill. The ability to live on the streets would now fall under 5E’s Survival, and seeding rumors is definitely a Deception kick. But where does that leave the rest of the things I just mentioned?

Those other aspects would fall under Investigation.

Investigation is about knowing where to look and what to look for, particularly if you have a goal in mind. It’s about recognizing clues and pieces of a puzzle. It’s the ability to put those pieces together into an accurate picture. It can help your character navigate the rugged streets of a big city, or it can assist with navigating how to get by in a small village.

While Insight would help with traversing the social scene and picking up on local customs, Investigation lets you put together clues about why those customs came to be or what those customs might affect within the town on a physical or economic level.

Investigation vs. Perception

Oh, boy… Here we go. I cannot tell you how often I see people misuse or mix up Investigation and Perception for skill checks. I also can’t tell you how many times I see competent DMs require an Investigation check immediately after a character succeeds with Perception.

Look, I get they aren’t the same thing. That’s part of my point here, but requiring multiple checks for a single thing feels cumbersome when it’s not a skill challenge (another topic for another day).

In a scenario where a character must first notice something before being able to piece things together, I would rely on a player character’s passive Wisdom (Perception). This streamlines things significantly. Doing it this way also allows the DM the opportunity to include multiple characters in the same encounter, facilitating more cooperation.

Maybe the character with the best Investigation score isn’t the most perceptive one in the party? That allows the perceptive character to call over the investigator and ask for their opinion. Maybe a successful Perception skill check from one character can count as an assist to grant the investigator advantage.

Investigation dependent plot points

When it comes to plot points relying on investigation the game usually halts if a player can’t make their Investigation skill check. By allowing another player’s Perception to count for an assist, it makes it much more likely to keep the game flowing.

This is where things can fall apart quickly with a newbie DM, if they aren’t careful. The reason is because it’s entirely possible for a character to roll two natural 1’s, even with advantage. I’ve seen it happen, and it absolutely sucks.

That’s a big reason I don’t think a single plot point should depend solely on an Investigation skill check. I tend to like the “progression at a cost” model, here. Instead of only allowing a plot point to progress after the players succeed an Investigation roll, make the Investigation success allow the characters to avoid a nastier or more difficult scenario.

Maybe the big boss is set to enter the room where the party is either way, but with a successful Investigation skill check they discover there’s a jumbled runic circle inscribed with chalk, and a lever that moves the floor tiles. By succeeding their Investigation they can piece together that by destroying the chalk drawings the floor tiles can move all day long, but they’ll never activate the spell.

This is just one example of how Investigation could help a party avoid a more dire confrontation later. The point is the roll doesn’t feel hollow or useless, nor should it halt progression until success.

Knowledge is power

The last use of Investigation mentioned relates to acquiring knowledge. Whether you’re trying to get rumors off the streets, find a specific bit of information in a library or looking for where the secret assassination receipts might be hidden, Investigation is your skill. Being able to piece together bits of information or history into a coherent narrative would also fall under Investigation. This hearkens to murder mysteries and other logical puzzles.

I would also rule Investigation might grant a hint, or possibly even an answer when it comes to riddles or puzzles within a dungeon. Anytime a character is putting on their proverbial thinking cap to solve a problem, I’d rule Investigation applies.

What do you think?

Can you think of other scenarios where Investigation might come into play? How do you use investigation in your games? We want to hear from you in the comments!

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Follow Steven Partridge:
Steven Partridge is an aspiring author and experienced tabletop gamer. As a child, he dreamed of growing up to be a dinosaur, but as with many children, his childhood dreams were dashed when the rules of reality set in. However, our valiant Steven never allowed this to sway his ambition. He simply... adjusted it to fit more realistic aspirations. Thus, he blossomed into a full-fledged nerd with a passion for the fantasy genre. When he's not writing or working on videos for his YouTube channel, Steven can be found lap swimming or playing D&D with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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