Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons revolves around the mechanics of ability scores (physical and mental character traits) and how those scores apply to proficiencies (what you’re good at). Both are represented numerically, as modifiers to any number you roll on a d20 whenever you make a skill check. Ability checks are written like this: Ability (proficiency). For example, your DM might call for a Charisma (Persuasion) check. The reason is Charisma is the applicable ability score, while your Persuasion proficiency allows you to further modify the skill check. Quick disclaimer: any 5E D&D DM can require or allow any ability check or skill proficiency check for any reason, even outside this purview. This article is meant as a guide for new players and DMs to explain how skill checks work and what they look like, narratively.
What is Persuasion?
Many would attempt to manipulate a situation in a pinch, but for a truly earnest soul, convincing someone can prove more difficult, especially if their worldview conflicts. So today let’s talk about how being genuinely convincing can help your character make allies of enemies and turn the tides in their favor.
Before we get too far, let’s examine how the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook defines Persuasion:
“When you attempt to influence someone or a group of people with tact, social graces, or good nature, the DM might ask you to make a Charisma (Persuasion) check. Typically, you use persuasion when acting in good faith, to foster friendships, make cordial requests, or exhibit proper etiquette. Examples of persuading others include convincing a chamberlain to let your party see the king, negotiate peace between warring tribes, or inspiring a crowd of townsfolk.”
I’m not convinced…
There’s a lot to unpack with this official description, and much like with Perception, I have some thoughts that are likely to ruffle feathers. Firstly, in its current interpretation Persuasion is broad… like, really broad. It’s broad to the point I’d argue it teeters on being a “right” choice for a character, much as hex could be considered for a warlock. There’s just too much here to unpack and some of the elements infringe on other skills that are relegated to more niche situations as a direct result.
Specifically in this instance I’m seeing a lot of things that would could fall under Performance and make it more interesting. Things like etiquette and political negotiation really don’t fit neatly into Persuasion or Deception and by including Performance as a means of conveying those complexities I think it makes for a much more nuanced and interesting game.
Already, Persuasion is a huge part of 5E D&D just by virtue of the fact it comes up so much, especially in roleplay with good aligned parties. This covers the aspects related to acting in good faith and fostering friendships, as listed above. That’s plenty for a skill check and while I’ll grant oratory would make sense in equal measure under either Persuasion (as mentioned in our definition) or Performance (as I discussed in my article on Performance), this definition as presented above lacks identity and is actually quite a bit more confusing than I’d like as a DM.
The importance of being earnest
In 5E D&D fostering a friendship with an NPC can be invaluable to the character and to the party on the whole. Contacts can help you access places your character normally could not, provide plot points and offer goods and services for discounts. A character can swindle an NPC out of their wares once, maybe twice, if they’re good at it. But building and fostering a lifelong contact is a powerful tool for any player.
This capability in itself feels more than sufficient in terms of stakes. Failing that initial Persuasion skill check can be devastating. I can’t recount the number of times a very tense, high stakes scenario hinged on a single, earnest Persuasion roll, a roll only allowed because Persuasion was being used as opposed to Deception, Intimidation, or Performance. Persuasion is an extremely useful and powerful skill to have, without the additions that infringe on performance.
Persuasion is for people
While Persuasion relies on words and Charisma, many assume its use is excluded to humanoids. That’s racist (LOL).
Many creatures in the 5E D&D multiverse speak languages, not only humanoids. Beholders, dragons and countless others can be persuaded, same as any other speaking NPC. Granted, perspectives and values might seem alien, but if a creature speaks a language, it can be persuaded. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Even ice toads speak a language — their own!]
Languages in 5E D&D are used as an indicator of a degree of sentience. Even giant owls and giant eagles have spoken language, which they can understand. I tend to excuse this as the Pokemon mindset; the notion that the creature has a language, but you won’t be likely to share it. However, it’s the presence of this language that allows the bleeding of borders between Persuasion and Animal Handling in certain contexts.
I suppose, to a degree, that’s part of the nature of the game and specifically of skill checks. There’s always going to be a degree of overlap between skills, especially among niche contexts. The key when it comes to skill checks is to know how you’re justifying which check you call for as a DM.
What do you think?
Do you have an epic story about a time you or your party convinced someone using Persuasion? Was there a tense moment clenched by the skill check? We want to hear from you in the comments!