A Brief Note on Insight Checks

When you DM, you spend a lot of time worrying that despite having pumped hours of work into session prep, your players are going to do something (or ask a question) that you were nonetheless unprepared for. On top of that, when you’re doing the prep work, it’s impossible not to envision how you see the session playing out, even though it’s all but guaranteed your players will do things you don’t expect. Nevertheless, it is very, very easy to get up your own ass about controlling every aspect of the game session. Attempting to do so is the path to madness, and yet, it is an understandable form of madness.

Two related and common symptoms of this madness are hypersensitivity to information management and fear of metagaming (when players make decisions and act based on their knowledge of the game and its rules, rather than deciding and acting based on the information the player characters have at their disposal, which is contrary to the ideals of tabletop RPGs). When you’re DMing and in the grip of these fears, Insight checks seem t0 exist solely to throw you off your game. When a player makes an Insight check, she/he rolls to determine whether she/he believes an NPC to be lying or being truthful. In the event that the NPC is lying, the DM makes an opposing Deception check. If the Insight check is higher, the player character believes the NPC is lying. If the Deception check is higher, the player character believes the NPC is telling the truth.

This presents an entire minefield of metagaming and information management issues for the DM. For example, a player who rolls low on their Insight check is going to instinctively assume that whatever result the DM provides is the incorrect one. Therefore, she/he is likely to act on that basis and not based on the check result provided. Also, If you’re DMing and feeling tense and/or panicky about how the session is going, a successful Insight check may prompt you to provide the players with more information than the success calls for. “You think this person is lying” all of a sudden becomes “This person is definitely lying about [whatever] because she/he is trying to duck questions about [some other thing]”.

Because Insight checks are such a sticking point for many DMs, here are a few pointers I’ve picked up in my time DMing to keep in mind when running them.

  • Remember, a little metagaming here and there is normal. Listen, I get it. When you put in the work to DM a campaign, you want your players to believe they are being transported on a magical journey (or something like that), and metagaming gets in the way of that. That said, some metagaming from time to time is human nature, and if you want to DM and not go nuts, you will need to accept this. I can’t tell you how much is metagaming is too much for your game – you will have to determine the limits of your own metagaming tolerance. But you must accept it will happen sometimes.

  • Make your own rolls well in advance, and roll occasional dummy checks when they aren’t necessary. Making rolls in secret (and fudging results) is a topic for another day, but suffice to say a Deception roll made to oppose an Insight check needs to be done in secret. Since you’re already making the Deception check in secret, try making it before the characters even start talking to the NPC. Or, if the NPC isn’t going to be lying about anything, make a ‘dummy’ roll in secret to discourage your players from acting based on whether or not a roll was made. Your players won’t know exactly what you’re rolling for, and even if they have suspicions they won’t be able to prove anything.

  • Don’t stop your players from making Insight checks, even when they don’t have to. If your player is in conversation with an NPC who is telling the truth and she/he wants to make an Insight check, let her/him, and set the DC for the check at 0. This way, she/he will get the correct result regardless of the quality of the roll. Once this has happened a few times, the players will bee less inclined to read into the results of the die roll itself.

  • Remember, the scope of Insight checks is narrow. A successful Insight check only informs the player what her/his character believes regarding whether or not the NPC is being truthful. It does not tell the player what a lying NPC is lying about specifically, nor does it tell the player why a lying NPC is doing so. You’ll note that the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ questions of NPC lies are much, much more interesting that the ‘if’ question. A successful Insight check is an invitation for the players to question to NPC further and try to get more information out of them. It does not provide the information by itself. An Insight check is the means, not the end.

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