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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the Jester

Legend
I'm not sure I understand the question, or that the question is, in fact, one question instead of two.

Do I use knowledge checks to ration plot? I run a sandbox, so there's no plot per se to ration.

Do I use them as expository dumps? I'm not exactly sure what you mean- do I use them to impart relevant information? Absolutely. But I'm not sure what else you would call using them in any case. What's the difference between "here's something you know" and an expository dump?
 

the Jester

Legend
Everyone:

Are any of you using 'Success at a Cost' (DMG 242) and could you see the following action resolution handling occur in your game?

Situation: The PCs pass through a Fey Crossroads into the Feywild and must find their way from their unknown point in an enchanted frozen forest of perpetual night to the Dawnmote (lets say its a Winter Fey guarded oasis in this place that doubles as a means to travel to the Summer Fey's domain).

To your South and West, a stand of trees rise to extraordinary heights before the darkness cuts off what lies atop them. The trees sway rhythmically with unseen wind (or something else). To your North and East, a precarious field of ice stretches out before you in all directions, eerily cracking and groaning. There is no breeze. There is nothing.

Let us say the Survival Proficient Fighter figures that maybe the heat of the Dawnmote is creating a pressure gradient which generates the unseen wind upon the stand of trees.

Wisdom (Survival) check of 18 vs DC 20.

GM (success but an obstacle that changes the nature of the situation): "It almost must be so. In the moments you think on this and get your bearings, the groaning ice fractures, sending cracking tendrils this way and that. Its coming apart beneath your feet...and by torchlight, you can see something...moving...beneath the ice...

What do you do?!


Questions:

a) Would this be a case where (i) the Fighter's action declaration and result was allowed to stipulate the location of the Dawnmote in the setting...or (ii) would this be a case where you would simply say "no" because you or your AP or your hexcrawl has a preordained "Dawnmote" location?


The Dawnmote (or whatever) is where it is. Your skill check might help you find it, but won't let you put it somewhere it isn't.

b) Is this an obstacle that you would allow to emerge from the Success With Cost/Complication? What do you feel about the "to be determined thing" beneath the ice? The roll generated that bit of fiction along with the icefield hazard. Yes? Too much? What other complications would you envision being appropriate?
I wouldn't have a monster appear because of a skill check in almost any circumstances. There might be a planned encounter, a placed encounter, or a random encounter there; an appropriate skill check might well let the pcs avoid the encounter by seeing signs of it in advance (tracks, droppings, claw marks on trees, the remains of its meals, etc).

If there's a set DC for the task, a near miss will almost get you there, but not quite. I introduce complications all the time, but not (usually) because you fail a check by only a little. Sometimes random encounters will include something like "the pc with the lowest passive Wis (Survival) score steps in a hole and twists her ankle" or something, though.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
@Manbearcat

"Are any of you using 'Success at a Cost' (DMG 242) and could you see the following action resolution handling occur in your game?"

I use Success at cost for attack rolls and saves only.

I use the basic PHB definition of skill checks in the PHB for ability checks such as survival. That definition lists "some progress with setback" as a core resolution for failing to meet the DC - right alongside "no progress".

So, the DMG option is not applicable for Survival checks, not needed, it's already a part of that.

That said, failure on a survival check is often a key for triggering "unplanned encounters" in my games. A common description is your trail having been picked up and you being stalked. Another lpmight be you being so focused on observations of ABC that you did not notice tracks and signs and wandering into a feeding ground or den that a creature would react to. Many others exist.

The basic PHB inclusion of "with setback" right there for failed skill checks was a key 5e element for empowering on the fly styles.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
I've noticed it helps keep my players engaged, encourages incorporating their backstories, and most importantly reduces the knee-jerk reaction to ask for a pile-on lore check. Here's an actual play example from my game:

Lizardfolk Rogue/Warlock Player: (party is encountering a yellow musk creeper for the first time, having just rolled initiative when it surprised them) "What do I know about yellow musk creepers based on my herbalism and Survival proficiencies, and maybe lizardfolk lore?"

DM: (giving some baseline information based on PC background, then calling for a check) "You know it's a dangerous plant monster that disguises itself as tropical bromeliads. Make an Intelligence check with proficiency?" (player rolls a 9) "You know it creates other plant monsters using corpses of poisoned victims." (this is misinformation that twists the truth – it actually creates undead and poison isn't part of the equation, in fact a yellow musk creeper doesn't use poison & can be affected by poison just like a human can)

Wizard Player: "Hmm. What does my character know about yellow musk creepers? Can I make a Nature check?" (asking for a pile-on check)

DM: (instead of saying No outright, I present stakes) "Sure you can, but your Nature check will represent hands-on study of a yellow musk creeper which you dissected during your arcane studies. If you roll low, that means during your studies you accidentally cut open its musk sac and have suffered a low-grade infection and chronic cough since then, meaning you'll be more susceptible to its attacks and musk than normal. Would you like to roll?" (I was thinking disadvantage vs. musk WIS save and vulnerability to psychic damage delivered by the yellow musk creeper)

Wizard Player: "Uhhh, no. It's not worth the risk. I listen to my lizardman friend."
Do you ever tell the player the DC they need to hit to succeed? I try to make that common practice for ability checks at our table along with telling them the consequences of failure. I'm still working on a consistent way to rule on knowledge checks, though. I'm currently thinking on a success they get solid info whereas if they fail they get info that may or may not be solid. Not too worried about metagaming here - if they make a bad assumption based on rolling low, that's on them. Or on a failure, they get the info (especially if it is info critical to moving the action/plot forward), but are distracted enough that any attack on them has advantage or a saving throw would be made at disadvantage.

Thanks for linking back to your contributions here from the other thread - very thought provoking!
 

pemerton

Legend
@Manbearcat, this is not a post about 5e but we did have a couple of knowledge-type checks in our last Prince Valiant session.

System context: Prince Valiant, in its basic dynamics of play, has (i) rolls count, and (ii) GM has predominant authority over new scene-framing/background-type content that is introduced into the fiction.

First example:

The PCs, having landed in Dalmatia and being on their way to Constantinople, are leading their warband ('the Knights of St Sigobert') across the Balkan peninsula. Exercising GM scene-framing authority, I decide that they are attacked by a band of Huns. The players declare that they are arraying their forces for battle, and with a successful Battle check the player of the Grand Master of the order establishes a good position, meaning that a penalty die will be suffered by their rassailants.

Exercising further GM authority, and following a suggestion in the episode description I am working from, which mentions an ambush by the Huns, I decide that part of the Hun force is separate from the main force and is ambushing the PCs on their flank. In discussion with the players, we agree which PC (the Marshall of the order) is in command on that flank. And then, as per the rules of the gam, I call for the player of that PC to make a Presence check to see what he notices. He succeeds, and so the ambushing Huns don't get a flanking bonus, but they do avoid the penalty from the advantageous position that is being suffered by the Huns attacking the force from the front.

In this example, the framing of the situation is establsihed using GM authority; the knowledge check determines whether or not the PCs suffer a disadvantage coming out of that framing.

Second example (for which memory is a little hazier):

The PCs, travelling through a forest in the vicinity of Transylvania, encounter an undead knight and entourage. They are trying to lifft the curse that keeps these beings in their state of undeath. When I read and amplify a description of the undead from the relevant episode text, the players take it as a sign that these people are Celts, and I run with that.

The players of two PCs, who have Lore skill, make checks to try to learn various things about the past and the details here: from memory at least one of these is an attempt at recollection, while the other is an attempt to understand the significance of a seemingly magical wooden dais, engraved with a sigil, that one of the PCs has found by spending a player fiat resource (a Storyteller Certificate) and that seems to be connected to the curse (because that's what the player had stipulated his PC was trying to find, when he spent the Certificate).. I don't think there were any failed tests. On the successful tests I narrated more stuff about the history of these ancient Dacian Celts and why they had become cursed, which include mystical visions of past events at the timber dais. The players then use this information to help with the declaration of their actions to persuade the undead knight to move on from his curse, and let them pass through the forest.

In schematic terms, I would describe this as: successfurl knowledge check obliges the GM to establish more background/framing context, which the players can then use as material for their action declarations. The successful checks, besides establishing some fun colour, help generate the momentum towards successful resolution of the situation that the players are trying to establish. I think it's worth noting how this doesn't require the players to themselves be able to author that new background/framing stuff. But it does require the GM, when authoring it, to do so in a way that respects that the players succeeded on their checks.

While this was done in a different system from 5e, I think these sorts of approaches might be usable in 5e also.
 
@pemerton

I'm going to use your post to break down my thoughts and the nature of my inquiry of this thread:

ACTIVE VS PASSIVE

What does it mean to be active vs passive in terms of actual play?

I would say passive looks something like (1) all modern D&D Perception checks where a player hasn't made an action declaration ("triggering a move" as in PBtA systems); the table is just trying to determine the framing of a situation (akin to your Prince Valiant Presence procedure listed above). Another example would be what we're seeing in this thread; (2) "I, the GM, feel like the player should/may know thing x (due to the conception of their character/setting/metaplot etc), so <roll Intelligence/Wisdom>." Two final examples would be another item we're seeing in this thread; (3) "I, the GM, need to ration the plot so I'm going to give them the information outright due to character y's Background or Ability Modifier or (4) I'm going to pretend to gate it behind an Ability Check (so it feels like there is something at stake and therefore manufacture tension in the roll; ouija board play or classic Illusionism) when I'm actually going to give them the information no matter what."

Dungeon World, for example, will never put players in a passive position. All procedures require the players to be in an active position while the GM is mostly reactive. Spout Lore and Discern Realities and the Trailblazer/Scout roles in Undertake a Perilous Journey won't be triggered by the relationship of player passivity meeting GM proactivity. It will always be the inverse.

GM REVEAL VS PLAYER AUTHORSHIP VS GM AUTHORSHIP VS SYSTEM AUTHORSHIP

I hope these are pretty clear intuitively, but I'll break them down if not.

GM Reveal - The GM discloses information about character, setting, or situation that was conceived prior to play (either by the GM's on construction or within the module/adventure path they're using.

Player Authorship - The player is granted constrained authorship (eg it cannot contravene established fact/continuity) over some aspect of the fiction.

GM Authorship - The GM is required to author some impromptu, relevant fiction (which could be advantageous or disadvantageous to the players, depending on system procedures/resolution outcomes), triggered by the system's procedures.

System Authorship - The GM is required (or allowed to defer GM Authorship) to consult dice (a Reaction Roll, a Twist Table, an Encounter Table, etc), triggered by the system's procedures, and coherently make manifest the result.

Your final example is one of GM Authorship as outlined above.

Dungeon World's suite of "knowledge/divination moves" will overwhelmingly be an example of GM Authorship with limited cases (certain playbook moves or "asking the players and using their answers") having a component of Player Authorship.
 

pemerton

Legend
@Manbearcat

I was going to post a follow-up to my Prince Valiant post just upthread and now also want to respond to your taxonomy.

Passive vs Active, Reveals and Authorship
For me this is rather system-specific and also about minutiae of techniques.

Some systems have basically no space for a "passive" knowledge check - you've mentioned PbtA and I could add from my own experience Marvel Heroic RP/Cortex+ Heroic, Burning Wheel, Cthulhu Dark and skill challenges in 4e D&D.

Where systems do have the space for it, I think one then needs to think about what the technique is for. In my first Prince Valiant example, the point of the check is a GM reveal: the GM-established situation contains an element (the ambushing Huns) which the PCs could encounter more or less advantageously, and the point of the check is to settle that question of advantage. So it's not a "plut dump" - rather, it contributes to the details of the framing.

Here is the relevant rules text from Prince Valiant (pp 13, 23):

An important use of Presence is in observation. Whenever a character’s powers of observation are tested, Presence is used. For example, if something hidden is searched for, or an ambush could be detected, use Presence to determine success. . . .​
Rain, darkness, or fog reduces one’s powers of observation. Apply at least a –1 modifier to Presence for purposes of awareness. . . .​
[As an example: ] anyone who makes a Presence throw with a Difficulty Factor of 2 observes the softer-looking skin under the dragon’s belly.​

It's not fully clear whether this encompasses passive as well as active, but I think that's implicit in the idea of an ambush that could be detected that the GM might call for a check. In 4e D&D (as a point of contrast) these sorts of things (eg if there's an invisible foe) would be handled differently - passive perception, or active perception checks declared as a minor action. But Prince Valiant doesn't have any purely defensive stats like AC, passive perception etc - everything is a check - and it doesn't have an action economy that funnels players into using minor action slots to declare active perception checks.

I think plot-dump-type checks (your 2 through 4 in your passive vs active list) are adifferent technique and I don't know what to say about that at the moment.

Follow-up on earlier post
It's very common when the fiction is concerned with physical action to have plaeyrs declare checks whose main purpose, if successful, is to generate new exposition from the GM that will open up better player-side possibilities for action declaratins, and more generally turn the momentum of things in the players' (and their PCs') favour. An easy example is climbing a cliff so as to make it possible to shoot.

I think that knowledge checks (active in your terminoloyg) can do exactly the same thing - learning more about so-and-so so that I can learn what will move him/her. But they seem to be far less often seen that way. I think my second Prince Valiant example is like this, and many of my other games exemplify it to.

To put this point another way: before we get to talking about consequence for failed knowledge checks, or at least while we're also talking about that, let's talk more about what they are for - what they add to play - if they succeed.
 
Do you ever tell the player the DC they need to hit to succeed? I try to make that common practice for ability checks at our table along with telling them the consequences of failure. I'm still working on a consistent way to rule on knowledge checks, though. I'm currently thinking on a success they get solid info whereas if they fail they get info that may or may not be solid. Not too worried about metagaming here - if they make a bad assumption based on rolling low, that's on them. Or on a failure, they get the info (especially if it is info critical to moving the action/plot forward), but are distracted enough that any attack on them has advantage or a saving throw would be made at disadvantage.

Thanks for linking back to your contributions here from the other thread - very thought provoking!
You're welcome. There's a lot of great DMs on ENWorld, who've worked on many of the same issues we deal with today, it's just a question of finding those old threads that are diamonds in the rough. I'm trying to get better at cross-linking my stuff to make it easier to find.

To answer your question, with knowledge checks it depends. In the case that there's a specific thing the player is wondering about, I will reveal the DC. Which I usually do for other checks, as well as consequences/stakes, like you do. However, in the case that the player is asking "what do I know about Red Wizards?" then I don't bother with assigning a DC.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
To answer your question, with knowledge checks it depends. In the case that there's a specific thing the player is wondering about, I will reveal the DC. Which I usually do for other checks, as well as consequences/stakes, like you do.
Cool.

However, in the case that the player is asking "what do I know about Red Wizards?" then I don't bother with assigning a DC.
Say more about this...

Do you really not assign a DC or do you just not tell the player the DC? If the former, how do you judge what is "low"? If the latter, is that done to conceal the veracity of the information or is there some other motivation on your part as DM?

From my table's perspective, the "what do I know about Red Wizards?" question (or any other generic "What do I know about...?" type query) lacks the specificity that helps game play at our table. As DM, I'd be inclined to ask the player what about their backstory or background or class or race would lend credence to knowing about "Red Wizards". That would help me, as DM, better adjudicate whether or not they know anything at all and if the situation calls for a check. And before someone tries to take this down the "then a player can just make up some backstory malarky on the spot to auto-succeed on knowing about anything in the world" rabbit-hole, let's assume everyone at the table is playing their character in good faith.

There's also the possibility that if players are asking such generic questions about important plot points, I haven't fulfilled my role as DM in describing the environment very well. Which is something that definitely happens from time to time. Always trying to improve...
 
However, in the case that the player is asking "what do I know about Red Wizards?" then I don't bother with assigning a DC.
Say more about this...
Sure. I apologize in advance for the long reply. There's some nuance here that's easily lost in writing, so I wanted to be exhaustively clear about how I do it. Also, bear in mind that my DMing style in this regard may not translate well to your table; for instance I love Matt Mercer's games, but his frequent calling for "throw away" checks would not work for me as a DM.

Do you really not assign a DC or do you just not tell the player the DC? If the former, how do you judge what is "low"? If the latter, is that done to conceal the veracity of the information or is there some other motivation on your part as DM?
The specifics matter. For the example of "what do I know about Red Wizards?", the PCs had just found a Red Wizards symbol on a corpse, and the wizard player was asking. I also didn't have anything prepared written down. You may recall in some adventures – or in the 3e/4e monster manuals – there were lore sections gradated according to check DC? On rare occasions for plot critical stuff, I do that, and then it's simply a matter of cross-checking the DC table and regurgitating information. But IME most lore checks require a lot more hands-on adjudication. This was the case with "what do I know about Red Wizards?"

There's a bunch of lore in my head about Red Wizards. I'm aware of the general 5e DC guidelines (5 very easy, 10 easy, 15 medium, 20 hard, 25 very hard, 30 nearly impossible). And I know these PCs pretty well in terms of backstory, background, race, class, areas of specialty, etc. And I just winged it from there.

I did not define a DC – either in my mind or spoken to the players – because any number I came up with would be disingenuous. This is where having a DM shines. I can make a judgment call based on a multiplicity of factors that an algorithm can't reasonably be expected to handle.

I don't make "information about Red Wizards" a DC 10 check or a DC 20 check. There's a wealth of information about Red Wizards that might be pertinent to the player asking and the current situation the PCs face, and this information is spread across a range of DCs.

If I had to define how I adjudicated this, something roughly like this might be accurate (but also bear in mind all the posts I've made in this thread about pile-on checks!)...the player got cumulatively more info the higher the check...

Intelligence check regarding faction knowledge (Red Wizards)
DC 5 – faction's name, symbol, base of operations, rumors which may or may not be true (because the wizard player couldn't possibly roll lower than about 9, I gave this info automatically)
DC 10 – general purpose/intent/mission (e.g. magic item traders seeking political influence)
DC 15 – leader, specific purpose/intent/mission at local level (e.g. Szass Tam)
DC 20 – major redefining historical moments for the faction, faction ranks/titles, and possibly capacity to sift through false rumors (e.g. loss of zulkirs and transformation of Red Wizards & Valindra Shadowmantle as major ranking member)
DC 25 – a possible minor secret (e.g. Valindra Shadowmantle is leading Red Wizards in Chult)
DC 30 – a possible major secret (e.g. existence of Doomvaults & Valindra Shadowmantle is a lich)

From my table's perspective, the "what do I know about Red Wizards?" question (or any other generic "What do I know about...?" type query) lacks the specificity that helps game play at our table. As DM, I'd be inclined to ask the player what about their backstory or background or class or race would lend credence to knowing about "Red Wizards". That would help me, as DM, better adjudicate whether or not they know anything at all and if the situation calls for a check.
I agree – more specific questions are better. However, there are many situations where a player won't drill down to specifics:
  • The player is tired, rushing to attend to an off-table matter, and/or trying to move a scene along. All legitimate reasons.
  • The player genuinely doesn't know what to ask because they don't know anything about the subject (faction, in this case). They don't know what to ask...yet.
  • The player is a veteran with lots of lore in their head, but they don't want to metagame, and they're using the check as narrative justification for how much lore they can dispense. This was definitely in play in my example.
  • The player doesn't want to "tip their hand" to the DM. I view this as problematic, since it derives from a players vs. DM mentality that I don't fully subscribe to, but I treat this compassionately. Usually, like you say, follow up questions will help drill down to what they actually want to know.
Because the player was running a fairly experienced wizard from Waterdeep, it seemed entirely reasonable he'd know at least something about Red Wizards. However, there are plenty of other examples where I'd flat out tell the player their PC didn't ever cross paths with the subject before...generally, instead of dismissively saying "you know nothing", I try to seed some rumors (with plenty of falsehoods or superstitions). This requires me being familiar with the player characters, so it often is harder at the beginning of a campaign (when the players are still feeling out their PCs and I'm not 100% recalling their race/class/background/bond/flaw/ideal choices yet), but gets easier the deeper in we get.

And before someone tries to take this down the "then a player can just make up some backstory malarky on the spot to auto-succeed on knowing about anything in the world" rabbit-hole, let's assume everyone at the table is playing their character in good faith.
Obviously, play with good players. But even good players can succumb to this sort of negative metagaming on rare occasion. What I like to do is use "yes, and..." or "yes, but..." in situations like that. This dovetails back to my earlier comment about making Flashback Facts a potential stake attached to knowledge checks. The more negative metagaming a player might slip into, the more license I allow myself to creatively twist what they come up with.

There's also the possibility that if players are asking such generic questions about important plot points, I haven't fulfilled my role as DM in describing the environment very well. Which is something that definitely happens from time to time. Always trying to improve...
Yeah, that's something to watch out for, but I don't see that happen very often. Usually, if a DM is glossing over information, it's happening at the specific detail level of room description (or something similar), which doesn't impact major plot points. This is a pretty natural consequence of a DM being a person with limited ability to recall minutiae or glossing over poorly written boxed text.

More often, when I see my players asking generic questions it's either (a) their effort to curtail their own metagaming around D&D lore, or (b) them jumping the gun on me, whereas if they'd been patient enough to give me another minute or two, I was about to get there.
 

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