5E Intelligence and Wisdom Checks (Skills) as GM Tool for Plot Rationing or Expository Dump

Do you use Intelligence/Wisdom Checks (Skills) as a means to ration plot or as an expository dump


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Manbearcat

Adventurer
This was said in another thread recently:

knowledge skills are a poor use of expertise.

They're mostly for uncovering plot info and, well...the DM has to get that to you somehow.
It seemed to me that the general bent of the thread's participants either actively agreed with this or didn't disagree with it enough to voice opposition.

I thought this was interesting.

Therefore, a poll.

Is this commonplace among 5e GMs on these boards?

Maybe you're one of those GMs and you'd like to post your thoughts on (a) why the output of Int/Wis Abillit/Skill action resolution is handled this way, (b) how it affects/propels play, and (c) how it intersects with the type of PC build decision-point thinking cited above?
 

Sadras

Adventurer
I'll attempt this.

Maybe you're one of those GMs and you'd like to post your thoughts on (a) why the output of Int/Wis Ability/Skill action resolution is handled this way, (b) how it affects/propels play, and (c) how it intersects with the type of PC build decision-point thinking cited above?
(a) I believe there should be a possibility for the character to make uninformed decisions. Removing that possibility would remove an aspect of the INT/WIS ability/skill.
(b) It affects play in that the character has limited information when making a decision and thus the decision taken could prove to be harmful (further consequences).
(c) I guess the benefit of having expertise on a knowledge skill would depend from DM to DM. Speaking for myself as DM, if the character has expertise in a Knowledge skill - I would try find a way to make that worthwhile.

Not sure if I have answered what you were asking.
 
I used to lean on this pretty hard in 3E and a bit in 4E but I'm really trying to cut down on it in 5E, because it doesn't lead to great places. If the players can end up not knowing vital or really interesting stuff due to unlucky rolls, that tends to make for a worse game and make the Return On Investment of your world-building much worse. I tend to put useful but not vital information behind such rolls instead, or make a way to get vital info earlier than when you'd otherwise discover it.

My experience is that, despite leaning on it in 3E and off it in 5E it has virtually no impact on PC builds. Despite me always having been strict on what social Skills can do, I see many more PCs built for those than knowledge stuff. Usually a PC or two takes Arcana, but History, Religion, Survival etc? They only get taken if the background of the PC demands it.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I will contrast it with another system: GUMSHOE

GUMSHOE is designed for investigative and "procedural" stories. It has at its root the assumption that the act of getting clues or information is not terribly interesting, but what you do with that information is interesting. So, in Gumshoe games, getting information is very easy. If you have the right skills in a scene, and think to use them to find information, you get the basic stuff available, no need to roll. There may be information beyond the basic clues, and there is mechanic for spending a skill-based resource to get it. It still isn't chance - if you pay a point from your skill pool, you get the extra information, too,, with no chance of failure.

D&D does not have the same assumption at its core. D&D assumes that you may well miss the information - "the DM has to get you the information somehow" is not a feature of the system.

The situation described in the OP - where the knowledge skill is being used for infodump, and the GM is not going to allow the PCs to miss anything, then you are playing in the Gumeshoe mode. Just having the skill gets you the basic information. However, I suspect often enough in D&D, the GM is not thinking about having "basic" and "extra" information, and so you lose the need for anything beyond basic competence.

So if the stated issue is actually going on in your game, there's two basic solutions. 1) Star allowing PCs to miss information, or 2) have two levels of information - that which the PCs can get with basic competence, and that which you probably need expertise to get.

There is another question - are you allowing your PCs do do things other than information gathering with knowledge skills? D&D doesn't actually have great rules for such, which is unfortunate.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
I absolutely have players make knowledge and lore rolls and give out information based on their results. But this information is "off the top of their head" info-- something they might already know in the midst of whatever adventure they are on. These rolls do not in any way preclude them from going places to gather requisite information (libraries, sages and the like.) If they leave the current path of what they are doing to go do some research, they will get the additional information that they need.

To me, knowledge and lore checks are just to allow the players to get a better idea of just what the heck is going on around them without needing to leave their story to head to a library to find stuff out.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
If I'm running a game with a plot (which is generally not my preference), then I cannot leave it to the dice to decide if the players get necessary information to follow the plot. This risks creating problems in the game where the players lack sufficient information to act.
 

Maestrino

Explorer
Or have different ways to resolve problems.

1. Hey, you hit a good Intelligence check - you realize these funky runes on the wall are somehow powering all the golems in here. [Player tries an arcana role to deactivate the runes;.]

2. Hey, you hit a ridiculously good Intelligence check - you realize that if you alter a couple of these runes with the chalk you're carrying around, you might be able to take control of these golems. [Player tries sleight of hand to make the necessary changes accurately. Failure makes the golems MAD.]

3. There are some crazy runes on the wall - you have no idea what they do. [Players proceed to just attack and smash the golems.]
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I put information into categories.
  • Information people need to know to move the story forward. They just know or will find this.
  • Information that will help. They may or may not know this, often there will be other (more difficult/dangerous) ways of finding it.
  • Information that's nice to know. This is fluff and just added background. Stuff I throw in because it's fun.

While a check will never be a gate keeper, I think character builds should be rewarded. Someone with a good history check should know more about history than others. At the same time, no historian knows everything and whether or not they know a particular tidbit is random [unless reasonably previously established] and will be decided by the roll of a die. Sometimes that tidbit is useful and will save significant effort or risk.

So a successful check helps overcome obstacle(s), it is never required. There will be other ways to overcome or avoid the specific obstacle.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
This was said in another thread recently:



It seemed to me that the general bent of the thread's participants either actively agreed with this or didn't disagree with it enough to voice opposition.

I thought this was interesting.

Therefore, a poll.

Is this commonplace among 5e GMs on these boards?

Maybe you're one of those GMs and you'd like to post your thoughts on (a) why the output of Int/Wis Abillit/Skill action resolution is handled this way, (b) how it affects/propels play, and (c) how it intersects with the type of PC build decision-point thinking cited above?
Ok so, yes these skills will be used as one of the vehicles for delivering plot info.

But that is not. all.

First, essential plot info that "the GM needs to give anyway" wont be locked behind these. I may give it freely thru these but there will be other ways. So in this way, they see utility as a faster and easier access or just as flavor for thst degree of info.

Second, in addition to that, they provide opportunity for quicker access to non- necessary but helpful info that may well open up new approaches or make existing ones easier. This is not stuff that is necessary but may be very useful in lowering difficulty or countering and bypassing some challenges. Not unlike stealth or survival or insight, they can provide alternatives.

So, in my games, its not true that they are played out to be a waste.
 

Stalker0

Adventurer
I put information into categories.
  • Information people need to know to move the story forward. They just know or will find this.
  • Information that will help. They may or may not know this, often there will be other (more difficult/dangerous) ways of finding it.
  • Information that's nice to know. This is fluff and just added background. Stuff I throw in because it's fun.
This is a great summary. Ultimately the checks aren't needed to get to the plot, but it can accelerate the plot.

I will also say that I do factor in people's stats and check results when I give out information. For example, my group currently has a wizard with 20 int, expertise on investigation, and routinely gets 30+ on various knowledge and investigation checks.

In those circumstances, I will let the player have conclusions that were probably not possible from the information....because honestly who could guess what the brain of a 20 int genius that has the investigation of Sherlock Holmes on steroids could figure out. I will always give them the needed basics, but they may be able to cut out part of the adventure with such a check....as they "figure it out" very quickly.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
Gating critical info behind a roll is silly. However, just because the party finds, say, the evil wizard's journal, that doesn't mean they can read it or interpret it if they can read it. For the second part I'd engage a skill check. Characters should be allowed their own hero moments based on build.

The balancing act, for me, lies in the resources available to the party to help them with the macguffin, whatever it is. Deep in a dungeon I'm not going to handcuff the party for exposition because they don't have skill X, or least not handcuff them too tightly. In a major city with resources galore I'm quite happy to give them a maguffin they might need help to figure out.

I'll tailor the exact nuts and bolts of the balancing act to the specific party in question. If I have skill monkeys I'll make sure they have space to use their skills. If the party is skills light I'll handle things differently. To me that's just good DMing.
 

tetrasodium

Explorer
Yes, but there are some caveats. The DC & kinds of information that can be gathered this way will often vary based on pc background/race/class from situation to situation. Sometimes I'll give bad or misleading information. The most important reason I do it though is tied pretty heavily to the fact that it can make players feel involved & useful. I also dislike the escort/guard npc carrying the idiot ball sort of trope & it allows me to avoid using it too often in place of letting my players be competent & interesting rather than lost & confused. The PCs know a ton of stuff the players don't (and vice versa)

Since the other discussion came up, if they fail I probably need to get the information to the group somehow & it looks pretty obvious if I'm not doing it often even when it's just things like "You notice there are fingernails torn out & gouges in the door above them, you get the feeling that the poor forgotten ghoul you just killed was someone who died a horrible death in this cell after the facility was abandoned".
 
Maybe you're one of those GMs and you'd like to post your thoughts on (a) why the output of Int/Wis Abillit/Skill action resolution is handled this way, (b) how it affects/propels play, and (c) how it intersects with the type of PC build decision-point thinking cited above?
I try to avoid it. Rather, I try to make knowledges a source of useful up-front information, or part of getting to a solution, not just the set-up.

If I'm using a knowledge-based character as a source of exposition, I'd prefer not to call for a roll. Sometimes, though, the table dynamics tempt one to do so.

Even so, I'm still not happy with the role of knowledges in D&D, nor in gaming, in general. Gumshoe had a nice alternative, BTW, but I've long been thinking in another direction.

That is, Knowledges as a component of collaborative storytelling: The PC using a Knowledge - either a successful check in a d20 style system, or expending a resource, tagging an attribute, or whatever - isn't told a predetermined answer (predetermined answers are all provided via exposition &c, or maybe uncovered like in Gumshoe), rather, it allows the player to establish a new fact, that informs how the game will unfold from that point on.
 

ad_hoc

Adventurer
In general many people call for far too many checks.

Most efforts should automatically succeed.

The only time a check should be called is when there is tension, when the roll is exciting.

Having players roll just so they feel like they're doing something isn't a good practice.

Knowledges can be very useful. Yes, between the entire party someone will probably know easier stuff. With 4 or 5 rolls those DC 15 checks will often be successful. Once you get into DC 20 checks it is very helpful to have those bonuses. The other party members aren't going to help much. Knowledges can give great clues to overcoming challenges. There is also the information that provides warnings. Knowledges can give clues about traps, monsters, NPCs, etc. which can help the party come make good decisions.

There is a difference between information that is needed to get the characters into the plot and information that is helpful for overcoming challenges. This is especially true if the adventure allows for partial successes. Most often this comes in the form of treasure.
 

ad_hoc

Adventurer
I'll tailor the exact nuts and bolts of the balancing act to the specific party in question. If I have skill monkeys I'll make sure they have space to use their skills. If the party is skills light I'll handle things differently. To me that's just good DMing.
This is tangential to the thread but I feel the opposite.

If the adventure is tailored to the party that means that their choice of characters doesn't matter. If there are more traps because there is a Rogue then all the Rogue has done is cause there to be more traps.

Having challenges that no one in the party is equipped to face results in opportunities for clever solutions.

So both ways I think you're missing out on good play.
 

tetrasodium

Explorer
In general many people call for far too many checks.

Most efforts should automatically succeed.

The only time a check should be called is when there is tension, when the roll is exciting.

Having players roll just so they feel like they're doing something isn't a good practice.

Knowledges can be very useful. Yes, between the entire party someone will probably know easier stuff. With 4 or 5 rolls those DC 15 checks will often be successful. Once you get into DC 20 checks it is very helpful to have those bonuses. The other party members aren't going to help much. Knowledges can give great clues to overcoming challenges. There is also the information that provides warnings. Knowledges can give clues about traps, monsters, NPCs, etc. which can help the party come make good decisions.

There is a difference between information that is needed to get the characters into the plot and information that is helpful for overcoming challenges. This is especially true if the adventure allows for partial successes. Most often this comes in the form of treasure.
That's a good point. Passive knowledge skills are massively underused. A passive 15 is going to/should have better results than a rolled 21. Sure that 21 is probably going to be "Hey, I read a thing about this once" & the passive 15 is going to be "I have a pretty good grip on X & most everything involved with it."
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm still not happy with the role of knowledges in D&D, nor in gaming, in general. Gumshoe had a nice alternative, BTW, but I've long been thinking in another direction.

That is, Knowledges as a component of collaborative storytelling: The PC using a Knowledge - either a successful check in a d20 style system, or expending a resource, tagging an attribute, or whatever - isn't told a predetermined answer (predetermined answers are all provided via exposition &c, or maybe uncovered like in Gumshoe), rather, it allows the player to establish a new fact, that informs how the game will unfold from that point on.
There are several RPG systems that work like this. The two I'm most familiar with are Burning Wheel and Marvel Heroic RP/Cortex+ Heroic.

The Streetwise skill in the original version of Classic Traveller also works like this. but I think was "corrected" to reflect GM control over worldbuilding in later editions.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
This is tangential to the thread but I feel the opposite.

If the adventure is tailored to the party that means that their choice of characters doesn't matter. If there are more traps because there is a Rogue then all the Rogue has done is cause there to be more traps.

Having challenges that no one in the party is equipped to face results in opportunities for clever solutions.

So both ways I think you're missing out on good play.
You misunderstand. I'm not talking about tailoring the adventure to the party or specific characters, I'm talking about finding ways in the adventure, whatever it is, to allow the characters to work as designed - at least onced in a while. If a player builds a skill monkey character, and I allow that character, it's just bad DMing to poo-poo skills and essentially ignore the characters strengths,
 

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