Curing NPC phobia

This is a another version of Curing trap phobia, but as you can guess, the party is now using Insight checks on all NPCs they meet!

I've cut down encounters with unnecessary NPCs, so every NPC they interact with is important, or somehow able to give information or a (mini) quest.

These players have read a lot of DnD stories, and I think they are worried about a quest-giver that turns out to be the bad guy, or hiding something. I have used no quest NPCs like this.

How can I cure their NPC phobia?

Note that in the future, I have a quest about the cliche corrupt mayor who asks for something to be taken care of, but turns out it's for his shady business. I would expect answers that do not simply suggest not using "bad NPCs" at all.

I was thinking about using Passive Insight, but I'm concerned with the low Wisdom the characters have (cleric is going STR build), so there will be no chance of them spotting the hidden agenda.

I read a passage in the DMG the other night that without having the book at hand I think I can roughly paraphrase as

"Each NPC should be built with flaws, bonds, ideals and [whatever the last one is] in the same way as a PC. An insight check gives the PC an insight into one of these so they can use them to craft a convincing roleplay against the NPC"

So you simply don't allow insight to be a lie detector test, you let them find the personality of the individual they are talking to and decide for themselves if the person is trustworthy and if they can use those features to convince themselves.

You also make all conversations grow organically, when they reach a suitable point to ask for an insight check you can allow them, but they can't have insight if they don't engage in meaningful conversation.

Example:

Flaw "The mayor is a compulsive liar"

Bond "The mayor will do anything to keep his pet Kangaroo safe".

The PC's chat to the mayor and ask him about something they know. You roleplay the mayor as a liar and say something like "The mayor looks away from you for a second before replying with [wrong answer here]". This is the clue for the PC to ask for an insight check which will reveal the flaw. They now know they are dealing with a liar and have to find a way to get the truth.

You know the only way to get that truth is to threaten the Kangaroo, so the PC's have to do something to either ask about the Kangaroo and insight check the relevance, or see the huge painting of the mayor and his kangaroo frolicking in the pastures and deduce it for themselves.

This relies on you giving more depth to the NPCs however and properly roleplaying them according to those characteristics. How hard this is I couldn't tell you.

TL/DR:

Insight isn't a lie detector, it is a clue to the personality of the NPC which will allow them to deduce for themselves. If the NPC has no personality it is hard to do and almost has to be a lie detector test which is where the bad habit comes from.

• Could you provide a page number? I find this answer interesting but i can't find the passage you are referring to. – Fritz Mar 29 '18 at 17:08
• PHB/Basic Rules describes Insight as... "Your Wisdom (Insight) check decides whether you can determine the true intentions of a creature, such as when searching out a lie or predicting someone’s next move. Doing so involves gleaning clues from body language, speech habits, and changes in mannerisms." dndbeyond.com/compendium/rules/basic-rules/… So yes...it is kind of a lie detector as well. – guildsbounty Mar 29 '18 at 20:09
• @Franz I'm guessing either DMG p. 89 (Detailed NPCs) or DMG p.91-92 (Monsters as NPCs). I can't find the exact passage, but it was paraphrased slightly probably from here. – Justin Krejcha Mar 29 '18 at 20:26

Shut down their insight checks

It's worth noting that you, the DM, are the one that calls for ability checks, not the players (DMG 237):

Only call for a roll if there is a meaningful consequence for failure. When deciding whether to use a roll, ask yourself two questions...

Additionally, you are never forced to let the roll determine what happens:

Remember that dice don't run your game- you do. Dice are like rules. They're tools to help keep the action moving. At any time, you can decide that a player's action is automatically successful.

If your players' attempts to insight NPCs irks you, you can say that they don't see anything suspicious before your player rolls. This isn't a great general-purpose strategy, but I've had DMs use this on me and my party to effectively indicate that something is not important.

Expose them to a ton of NPCs

You say that you're trying to reduce the number of "unnecessary" NPCs, but in doing so you signal that the remaining NPCs must be somehow significant. Therefore, if your players encounter a seemingly unimportant NPC, they are primed to think that that NPC must have some hidden depth. However, by having a ton of "chaff" NPCs, your players will eventually learn that not all NPCs are important, for any reason.

When me and my friends were new to D&D, we often did this too--we only knew the online stories and thus thought every NPC was a big deal or harboring a secret. In our earlier sessions, we would spend tons of time grilling NPCs to no avail. Eventually, we learned that not every NPC had a secret, and that some weren't even worth interacting with.

You might lose more time in the short term as your players also do this, but they too will eventually learn that some NPCs are important and others are not.

Give real clues if the NPC really is suspicious

If your NPC is actually suspicious, you should drop hints so that the players know that something is up. While this might give away your "secret" at the moment, it also reassures your players that they won't get blindsided by a turncoat. This helps build trust between the DM and the players for most cases, and gives you some real trust to break if you do decide to blindside the players for whatever reason (though I'd be very careful about doing that!).

• "...but I've had DMs use this on me and my party to effectively indicate that something is not important." On the other side of that I have had a DM lead you to believe everything is important. I am trying to find some middle ground at my table. – Slagmoth Mar 29 '18 at 12:45

Give your players the intrigue they are so dilligently searching for

Take the hint: If your players keep looking for something, it’s because they want to find it.

Your players are making Insight checks either because they want to, or they feel they need to (see "Abused Gamer Syndrome" below.) By your description, though, it sounds like they just consider this part of the game, and are pushing for some more social interaction.

Your players are investigating these NPC’s because they are interested in “what makes them tick.” Trying to squelch their curiosity about your world is the wrong way to go.

Provide NPC’s who have real motivations, and let your players figure out who are the social climbers, pious religious types, cowards...and yes, the occasional scheming villain.

Rolling d20’s is what we all came to do

If you described your NPC motivations a little more, maybe your players would stop calling for constant Insight checks, but maybe they just like that little ritual. If they are having fun rolling dice, why stymie that?

I figure the Insight checks are irritating you because you are getting caught a little flat-footed. (Maybe you tell them on a good check, that they don’t perceive any deceit, and they are never satisfied with that?) You know the Insight check is coming, so just have some tidbit ready for them.

If the NPC’s motivations and emotional state are less of a mystery, the party will know better where they stand. A few examples:

1. Frantically worried about the person they’ve asked you to rescue, and is barely able to stay calm
2. Sizing the party up, considering whether to invite them into a guild or secret society (a la The Harpers, etc.)
3. Fairly disinterested in the quest, per se and primarily interested in not offering too much reward

Consider running an adventure where a few different NPC’s are trying to get the players to do slightly different things. One says, “Drive the goblins away.” Another says the undead are the real threat, and the party should try to strike a deal with the goblins.

Maybe one or two NPC quest-offerers are outright villains. Not all the others need to be saints, either.

So, is this Abused Gamer Syndrome?

You mentioned you thought your players were suspicious of quest givers because of fiction they may have come in contact with (and I've answered accordingly). But comments and other answers bring up the possibility of this being Abused Player Syndrome, that is, a defensive style of play caused by playing too long with a DM that was constantly trying to trick the players.

You can ask your players if they've played with a DM like this, and what they think about it. If the Insight checks are just a rigamrole players feel they need to go through to keep from getting shafted, let them know out-of-game that's not going to happen in your campaign. But still, back that up with the additional details about the NPC's.

Your players are looking to spend more time figuring out social puzzles, rather than having a few sentences with Mr. Quest Exposition to get directions to the next dungeon. Find out how much more time the players want to spend doing social interaction, and adjust adventures to accommodate, if you possibly can.

Don’t try to get your players to stop taking initiative and looking for adventure. That will put your players into reactive mode, a very dull way to play.

• To add to this, a common theme for policing is that "everyone is guilty of something". And generally we are. :) Perhaps we were speeding yesterday, or we had one drink more than the law says we should have. Maybe there's a bag of weed in your sock drawer. Maybe you're cheating on your partner. Maybe you "borrowed" some money from the petty cash box at work, or took pens from the stationery cupboard, or ran off a hundred copies of your band's flyer on the work printer. Throwing that kind of stuff at your players will swamp them in trivia pretty quickly! – Graham Mar 29 '18 at 11:47
• " If your players keep looking for something, it’s because they want to find it." Not necessarily. It is possible that they have been trained by one DM or another in the idea that nothing will go your way and you shouldn't trust anything at any time. Abused Player Syndrome. I read that thing and realized something and will never play with that particular DM again. – Slagmoth Mar 29 '18 at 12:41
• @Slagmoth, fair point, but providing insights into NPC motivations can build trust with the party, a lot more than saying "STOP ROLLING INSIGHT CHECKS!" (See the example motivations.) I'll try to edit the header to reflect that (later). – Tim Grant Mar 29 '18 at 13:12

the party is now using Insight checks on all NPCs they've met!

How?

You are the DM, you decide when the players make an ability check (PHB p.174):

The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure.

• Well, they just kinda: "I want to see if this NPC hide something" (mainly when giving a quest, or offering something) – Vylix Mar 29 '18 at 3:07
• @Vylix "You don't think so" - no roll required – Dale M Mar 29 '18 at 3:24
• if i as a player were to be suspicious of NPCs, The GM shutting me down with "I decide when you roll" and "You dont think so" would only serve to make me more suspicious. – semiomant Mar 29 '18 at 8:19
• @DaleM I suggest expanding your answer to explain how to handle the situation of the players trying anyway. One sentence and one pointer to one rule doesn't make for much of an answer -- remember brevity is acceptable, but fuller explanations are better. – doppelgreener Mar 29 '18 at 9:24
• @semiomant Sounds more like Meta-gaming rather than role-playing. – Slagmoth Mar 29 '18 at 15:43

...the party is now using Insight checks on all NPCs they've met!


The answer is correct as far as it goes, but there are several caveats, possible complicating factors, and practical issues to go with it.

First, I well understand that at many tables, including mine, the players often call for their own rolls in some informal or advisory status. It may be a technical violation of the rules, but in my experience it is an extremely common one and one that may develop over time. It's not at all uncommon to slip from suggesting a roll ("Should I roll to detect traps?") to asking for a roll ("Can I detect traps?") to simply assuming one ("I'm gonna roll for traps.")

So just saying, "That's not how it works," ignores a common convention and ignores what may be the reality at the table.

Second, if that's the case (and it seems to be here) the issue is really how to nudge the players from assuming rolls and from over-using that assumption, back into a more productive zone, without ramping up their paranoia. I've had to do this course correction several times, and I do it generally like this:

• A table-wide brief discussion where I remind people of the role of passive and perception rolls, that I'm not obligated to allow them if I don't think they're justified, that I often make passive rolls for them and don't bother saying anything, and that I would like the game not to get bogged down in this

• It's a bit of a hard habit to break, though, so when given, "I want to detect lies!" my instant response is, "I'm sure you do!" And I do mean instant, like it's a spinal reflex. I condition my players to take an answer of that form as shorthand for, "I understand your desire and it is reasonable, but it is not supported by the rules in the form of a simple roll. How will you do that?" This has to be done very consistently, though.

• In this case, if they really persist, I will start imposing real world costs on overuse. For trap avoidance I would be putting time constraints on them. In this case, I will point out that constantly scrutinizing every detail of a conversation will cause the players to come off as untrusting, invasive, and creepy. (Because think about it-- wouldn't you? We all know what it's like to have someone talking to us and realizing this person thinks we're lying through our teeth, or cross-examining us looking for holes in our statements. It's annoying.)

That third one is farthest down on the list for a reason, though-- it puts more of an adversarial face on the GM-players relationship than I prefer.

In essence you are dealing with two problems here.

1. The party has come to be distrustful of every NPC they meet - surely, that's not an inherently bad trait, since many people do have some hidden motive.
2. You try to place quest giver in front of the party who is quite shady, and given the party's mistrust it would be a difficult thing to do.

So, referring to the Abused gamer syndrome, you're pretty much trying to do what the players already expect you to do and act accordingly.

Simply putting a blanket ban on insight checks will not help things. Your players would go for other means to discern the truth/hidden motive, for example by snooping through the mayor's private documents. In fact, I expect them to do so since that blanket ban would put up a big sign that you (as the DM) would try to hide the NPC's hidden agenda.

I see only a few means how to deal with it.

1. Grin and bear it - so the party is distrustful of everyone they meet. I'm sure the NPC's wouldn't like it either to be constantly under suspicion.
2. Reactions. If the party turns out that way that they constantly pull the skeletons in the closets out in the open, NPC's might even be less inclined to talk to them.
3. Time constraints. Their insight check might give them the idea that the mayor might not tell them the whole story, but the party may have neither the time nor the means to investigate further, save concentrating on the actual mission they got.
4. Overload. Everyone has his secrets. Whether they are relevant to the matter at hand or not, that's another question.

On a closing note, the quest giver you have in mind is a politician or at least dabbling in politics on a local level. I would be much more suspicious if I don't sense a hidden agenda on a person like this.

I don't understand the problem on this one to be honest. Every single one of us does an insight check on every single person we meet.

• Do we trust them?
• Are they honest?
• Are they hiding something?
• Why has this person stopped me? "not trying to sell you something!" my arse.

They are just trying to model what we all do every day in every interaction. If every NPC you supply them with is honest cheery guy well that sounds a bit dull.

As Tim Grant says they want a bit more interaction with their NPCs.