I am currently running Princes of the Apocalypse for a small group, with a few of my own embellishments and alterations to characters.

Most pertinent to this question, Captain Merosska, the leader of the Feathergale Society freely admits that there are air cult activities in the area, and that they're a problem. However, he claims that the air cult is an insidious group infiltrating the Society that he is working on purging, while he instructs the party to find and destroy the earth cult, who happen to be the air's enemy. He gives a small speech about how the Feathergale Society is his family, and he is dedicated to remove this corruption himself and wants no outside interference. In short, his goal is to get the party to leave him alone and fight his enemies.

All the while, the players were not fully trusting of this. They passed their Insight checks by a wide margin (we're talking 6 Deception vs 23 Insight), so I had to reveal what they learned. The problem I have is, just saying

"he's lying, he's a cultist and is playing you"

is cheap, and ends an entire mini arc before it can begin. As a rule, I aim less for "you know they're lying/telling the truth" with Insight and more towards "they're clearly shifty/nervous/watching a particular party member/etc." to clue people in without giving any certainties or mind-reading powers. So, I gave them this:

He is clearly suspicious of you, and is nervous keeping you in his home. He wants you to leave as quickly as possible, though he is being diplomatic about it. He does seem genuine when he describes the society as his family, though.

I thought that was enough, but resulting player chatter made me realize that the players interpreted this as him being generally honest but cautious, and worthy of the party's trust. I don't necessarily have a problem with this, but I feel like I might have cheaped out on my players and steered them wrong after they got such fantastic Insight checks, which are meant to be checks that read the honesty and intention of a person.

Did I give too little information to my players? How much information are players entitled to with successful insight checks? Can this be reconciled with not giving away entire dramatic reveals at the wrong moment?

Maybe I'm just too attached to my deception arc. This whole situation feels reminiscent of the Goblin Dice issue to me.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I have answers for this, but unfortunately, they're all pretty subjective. I like the question, but I think it needs to be rewritten a bit (good subjective bad subjective?) before it can be a good question with a good answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 21:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I can see why you say that, but I'm struggling to figure out how to reword it. I've reread the article on subjectivity three times and still I fall into this trap :P \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 21:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ "What should I do"-type questions are generally too broad/opinion-based to be answerable. I think you could edit the question to ask something like "How do I let players make use of successful Insight checks without spoiling surprises?", and edit the body correspondingly as well. This can still be somewhat subjective, but as long as answerers are able to respond with answers supported by experience (or quotations from the 5e books), that seems more answerable. That said, such a question wouldn't be specific to your exact situation, so you might want to ask your question more specifically. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 23:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Potentially related: How to use, and not to overuse, Insight skill checks?, How to make deception by NPCs work in an engaging manner \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 23:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think I have a better-worded version now. I'm seeing the difference between "what should I do" and "how do I do", hopefully this is improved. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 2:36

3 Answers 3


"He's lying about something."

That's all you need to say.

Look at what the PHB says about Insight (p. 178):

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.

I don't know about you, but most of the time subtle changes in body language, speech habits, and mannerisms only tells me that something is up. It doesn't tell me what the truth actually is.

When I run insight checks, the options are binary: either the PCs don't sense anything wrong, or they do. If the PCs do detect that something is off, they have to continue the conversation in order to find out the true nature of the deception, with additional deception/insight checks along the way.

Mechanically, this softens the goblin dice-ness of the scenario, because the outcome is no longer determined by a single roll--instead, it's a combination of rolls and player decisions that leads to the final outcome, and characters with better insight bonuses will, on average, have "better" outcomes. Also, if you really want the NPC to keep the secret, they can just constantly seem suspicious but never actually tell the truth (you've probably met someone in real life like this). This forces the PCs to find independent evidence of the lie and the underlying truth.

Your explanation took it too far, though.

Now, what I described above is actually fairly consistent with what you described in your question. However, in this particular instance, you didn't actually say that the NPC was lying.

Indeed, your description is fully consistent with what he would have said if he was telling the truth the whole time, and the insight check just gives more context for his motivations. I suspect that this non-contradiction is what led your players astray--if I were at the table, I would see the high roll and your failure to say the NPC was lying as an indication that the NPC was telling the truth.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree, what OP told his players does not indicate to me anything about lying, just nervosity and animosity. It seems like almost the polar opposite from "he's lying, he's a cultist and is playing you". \$\endgroup\$
    – J.E
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 6:41

This is the type of question that makes people who have played and DMed older editions laugh(or rage depending on the person).

In older editions the culture around DMing was a lot less... kind. The DM really was considered the bad guy, and was more or less there to poetically crush the players dreams. However, in newer editions the DM has moved from the enemy behind the screen, to the buddy at the table. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it has made a lot of newer DMs forget the power they hold.

In the situation you described above I think you had a perfectly acceptable answer. A strong insight check does not give the player the ability to read minds, it simply gives them a gut feeling that something is wrong.

As the DM you should set the expectations around what an ability check actually is, and what kind of results they can expect. Just because they think that a high insight role should have a certain result doesn't mean you should go along with their interpretation.

At the end of the day the rules serve as a great guide for how to run the game, but as the DM you have the final say on how things happen at your table.


There is a problem of what the players understood and what the characters should have understood

From what you said, the characters should be suspiscious and thinking there is something wrong. The players thought completely different, though. This is something you should be solving.

For example, it's pretty common that I give a description of a room and my players get it wrong (not sure if my descriptions suck or if I keep doing too complex rooms, anyway) but that is a communication problem. The characters are literally seeing the room, there is no way they could have misunderstood where that door is. It is your job to clear these misunderstandings.

I honestly think your description was misleading. As your players understood it, I would as well think that he is just worried about he doesn't trust the party, not that he shouldn't be trusted. If you wanted to keep that line, I would still, at least, clarify that he wants the party to leave so they don't discover something fishy about him, not that he doesn't trust the party. He is not supiscious of the party, from what I understood from the rest of the text, he is annoyed or scaried by party's presence, which is pretty different.

Don't tell the party things they don't know, but tell them things that the NPC said that seem like a lie

You don't need to tell them "he's a cultist, he's playing with you", but you can clarify what part of the speech was probably a lie. Don't tell them the truth, just tell them what was a lie. Usually, that is not a binary decision (i.e., knowing that 1 is not true means 0 is true).

If Ralph tells the party "My name is Robert", you don't need to tell them "he's lying, his name is Ralph", you just tell them "he's lying about his name".

Same goes here: you wouldn't need to tell them he's a cultist - he never (explicitly) said he was not, so the party wouldn't know that.

In Lost Mine of Phandelver, a supiscious NPC gives the party a Side quest to kill an evil guy. A good insight gives them this info:

She has ulterior motives to want him dead.

That's all. In your scenario, you could say "he has ulterior motives to want the party to fight the Earth cult", while not actually stating these reasons or even saying he's a cultist. The characters are able to notice he is hiding something, they are not able to notice what is he hiding, though.

Either way, it's important that a good insight makes it clear that the party shouldn't be blindly trusting the NPC that is not to be trusted. You don't need to give them the whole truth for that, but you should give them enough to understand that. If they don't, clarify it afterwards.

Not sure this is a Goblin Dice issue, btw. If the players fail, they have an arc where they are deceived. If they succeeed, they might skip through some things. This is not stopping the story from going on in any way, which I feel is the worst problem of Goblin Dices (a failed dice means the story stops until some Deus Ex).


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