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I am struggling with something in my sessions: should I ask for an ability check only if the player attempts to do something?

For example, the players stumble upon a stone door with some symbols on it. I, as the DM, would like to tell them some lore about the symbols, but only if they pass in the necessary ability check for knowing it. Otherwise, I expect them to be curious if they fail the test and search for the symbols later. The thing is I don't know if I can just say "it's a stone door w/ some symbols, make an ability check to see if you recognize them" because the players might just not care about them and not attempt to discover something about them, so I feel that I'm forcing them to hear the lore stuff.

What am I supposed to do? No need to present some RAW rules from the books, just want to hear some more experienced people as to what is normal procedure in this situation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome! When you've got 20 rep (which'll probably happen in another five minutes) you'll be able to participate in Role-playing Games Chat. There are almost always experienced game masters in there--and a variety of opinions/experience--so feel free to pop in if a "wondering what people do" question comes up which doesn't seem like a fit for the main site. Happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Mar 10 '18 at 3:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the title should be edited. Players aren't supposed to ask for ability checks explicitly. They ask questions and describe what characters do. So it would be "can I read these symbols", not "I want to make an INT check". \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Mar 10 '18 at 12:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks nitsua! I'll pop in the chat for sure when I have some other questions like this one! And enkryptor, the title might cause some confusion, but I wasn't meaning about them saying "let me make an Int check", sorry for that haha \$\endgroup\$ – Tesaigo Mar 10 '18 at 15:01
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What the rules have to say:

1. DM describes the environment.

2. The players describe what they want to do. (This may occasion GM calls for die-rolled resolution.)

3. The DM narrates the results.

So the structure laid out for you by the system would say "no, don't prompt them for checks. Sit back and listen to what they're narrating their characters doing, decide whether a check might be implicated, and issue it then."

This is a great system for players and GMs who have mastered evocative and informative narration and are expert listeners. This is not, I'm sad to say, every group.

What I have to say:

I assume when running a game that (a) I'm not very good at conveying my mind's-eye view of the fiction in my brain via language, and (b) my players only internalize some portion of what I'm saying anyway. (Ambient noise, catching up on spell-slot bookkeeping, poor sequencing of ideas in my presentation, that cute boy at the next table, whatever.)

With that ^^ said, I often end a moment of narration with a little summary which includes some choices for how to proceed. "You're at the magically-locked portal. You-all found some clues making you think that the Amulet of Guffin is on the other side. You could be looking for mechanisms, poring through the rubble, scouting the surroundings, or any number of other things. For the next few minutes or so what would you be doing?" Then I go around the table to everyone.

So I'm not exactly saying go as far as "here's a magically-locked door, Wizwiz please make an Arcana check," which kinda locks the players out. But you can prod things in that direction with "Sneaky McStabbins, while you were looking for traps you found a spot that seemed to make your fingers tingle... but you don't see anything there. Some magical mystery beyond your skill, perhaps."

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, I guess I've got the idea. Presenting them with some options about what to do after I end my speech seems a good idea since they are first time players, so I don't force them to do something and still present the option of making the check if they want to know more about that object. \$\endgroup\$ – Tesaigo Mar 10 '18 at 15:05
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It Varies

The correct answer will vary depending upon the situation, the story, and a number of factors. The big ones are:

  • Player Tastes: Some players expect the DM to call for a roll any time their character might know something. Other players only want to roll when they ask for it.
  • Story Roadblock: If there is some knowledge the players need to overcome a challenge, and they've been failing to realize it despite the characters already having access, then calling for a roll can be productive and useful. This is common when dealing with riddles and in game puzzles.
  • Importance of the Information: If the information provides important clues then calling for a roll is one way to guarantee the players have a chance to learn it. It will also ensure the players are more likely to remember or record it, since they had to roll dice to get it.

In the case of lore and description, such as your carved door example, you can save the roll for when a player expresses interest in the location, the door, or simply looks around for more details. Or you can mention the option to roll for more information in the door description. Something like, "You see a stone door carved with runes. You can roll History to know more of the meaning of the runes or Arcana to identify any magical properties."

If your players don't want to learn things then don't spend your time explaining what their characters know; they don't care and watching them ignore your description will make your game less fun.

Good luck, and remember to have fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's also worth noting that as the DM, you can say something like, "There seem to be statues of various deities around the room. If you want to check whether you recognize them, make a Religion check." That lets the players know that they can make the check if they want to find out that information, but if they don't care they can easily ignore it. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Mar 10 '18 at 3:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, those informations will help me for sure. Since they never played before, pointing them with actions they could possibly do seems a way better idea, so, given the right time, they will be used to ask if they can make an ability check if they want to. \$\endgroup\$ – Tesaigo Mar 10 '18 at 15:08
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It depends on the nature of your players -- do whatever helps the game run more smoothly. I am running two 5e campaigns right now, each with 4 players.

In one campaign, the players are pretty new to the whole idea. For 3 of the 4, this is their first RPG experience. So I do more "handholding" and if there's a situation where I think the characters would look into something, but the players don't know to try it, I will be likely to offer some clues.

The other campaign has two players who I have been playing D&D with for nearly 40 years, and their children, who have grown up with the idea, so I don't offer them much in the way of hints. More often, with this group, I need to head them off from investigating every little detail to death. Random encounters sometimes become whole adventures, as they chase down threads and ask questions, and I have to make up answers, until an entire plotline arises from the chaos.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks Phil! In my case they are first time players, so, as most of you guys stated, I will present them some options about what to do in the beggining. This way I wont either handhold them too much or force them to something. \$\endgroup\$ – Tesaigo Mar 10 '18 at 15:10

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