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New DM here, playing casually with my friends for fun during Quarantine. An interesting series of events conspired last night.

Udaron the Monk says: “looks around and notices the goliath.” (he then asks OOC for a perception check on whether the goliath looks friendly or corrupt/zombie)

I say, uh ok.

-rolls an 18-

I respond: “so as you look at the goliath, you don't really notice anything strange about him. You don't know a whole lot about goliaths, maybe never even seen one before. But as far as you can tell, he's not undead, or corrupt. He also appears to be sleeping.”

First, I was taken off guard by the PC asking outright for an ability check. Nobody at the table had done this before, and it was strange. I let him roll, since that's what he wanted to do. The way we’ve been playing, looking and observing is not something that I normally require PCs to roll for. Realistically, I imagine that if you just look at something, you would be able to tell if it's a zombie. (Maybe flesh hanging off, a certain smell, or other things that are just obvious.) If he hadn’t outright asked to roll for perception, I would not have made him do so.

In the end, he was upset because he thought his roll allowed him to glean more information from observing the goliath than I gave him.

A similar thing happened later in the same session, when he tried to persuade the innkeep to let him and the team stay for free for 3 whole months. He once again asked to roll for persuasion, and he rolled a 16. Obviously you cannot convince the innkeep to let 4 total strangers stay in the inn for free, so I (secretly) made the DC 30. He therefore failed his persuasion attempt, and was not happy.

My questions:

  • Should I have even allowed the PC to make the rolls?
  • Should I simply have told him that a roll is not necessary and gave him the outcome of his efforts?
  • Since I allowed the PC to make the roll, am I bound to letting the events play out as the roll dictates?
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  • Should I have even allowed the PC to make the rolls?
  • Should I simply have told him that a roll is not necessary and gave him the outcome of his efforts?
  • Since I allowed the PC to make the roll, am I bound to letting the events play out as the roll dictates?

There's a lot going on here, so let's break it down.

It's OK to not have a roll and simply answer the question

From Chapter 7 of the PHB, under "Ability Checks":

An ability check tests a character’s or monster’s innate talent and training in an effort to overcome a challenge. 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. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.

The other convention generally used in D&D 5e is that only the DM calls for an ability check.

The DM asks the player for a roll, not the other way around

Here is what I have found works best. If a player tells me they want to roll an ability check, I respond with "What are you trying to do? Describe that to me." When they do that, we are back to the way the game is played by design.

Per "How to Play" (Basic Rules, p. 4):

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

I will either just answer the question, or go with the action moving forward (yes, you swing from the chandelier) or, I'll call for an ability check if it seems to need one: that's usually a matter of "This may succeed or fail, let's find out before we proceed."

What your player did was get the order of operations backwards.

What the player ought to be doing is describe to you, the DM, what they are doing and / or what they are trying to find out or to do. Then you, as DM, either answer the question (without a roll) or describe what they are asking about (without a roll), or, you ask them to roll an ability check that fits the situation since success or failure is in doubt.

In the above case, it appears to me that the roll (if you wanted one) might have been Wisdom (Insight) rather than Wisdom (Perception) if they are trying to discern the goliath's attitude toward them or the party.

A similar thing happened later in the same session, when he tried to persuade the innkeep to let him and the team stay for free for 3 whole months. He once again asked to roll for persuasion, and he rolled a 16. Obviously you cannot convince the innkeep to let 4 total strangers stay in the inn for free, so I (secretly) made the DC 30. He therefore failed his persuasion attempt, and was not happy.

You did the right thing. Persuasion checks are not mind control. Your player may be used to D&D 3.5e, where sometimes Diplomacy 'checks' had some outlandish results like that.

If your player pushes back when you remind them that Persuasion is not mind control, point them to the PHB and have them look up the 2nd-level spell Suggestion, or the 5th-level spell Dominate Person. Magic spells hold the kind of power they are trying to wield.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This has been my favorite article on skill systems. Rule *1 is my absolute favorite "Players Can Only Declare Actions or Ask Questions". \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Apr 17 at 18:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow thanks so much for all the information. I've been trying to push the players to be more detailed in their actions, and I think you gave some good advice for how to accomplish that. I'll definitely ask them "what are you trying to do" in those situations, to achieve this goal. \$\endgroup\$ – KMiner98 Apr 17 at 19:18
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Setting Expectations for PCs

So, first of all, in D&D 5e the DM calls the rolls. See relevant question. That's not to say players can't ask for rolls (they do, very often, and that's usually not a bad thing), but the DM has final say on whether a roll is made.

To address the meat of the issue, however: The problem seems to be that your player's expectations of the roll and the result of the roll were not in harmony. He expected that a high perception roll would give him some additional edge, and it didn't; he expected that a decent persuasion roll would grant him the result he wanted, and it failed.

When a PC is asking for a roll (or, more generally, when they are taking an action that warrants a roll), there are a few good practices to avoid this disappointment:

  1. Don't allow trivial rolls. Remember that the PHB (p.6) says that the DM doesn't have to call for rolls that are trivial- if they could have gotten it without rolling, just give it to them.

  2. Ask the player what they are attempting to accomplish with their roll. You, I presume, cannot read minds, so you cannot necessarily tell what the player actually wants to get out of a scenario. For example, perhaps your player said "Can I roll perception" but was looking for details that would give him some combat advantage, and was disappointed because he didn't get the information he wanted. (This also has the benefit of letting you call for a different ability than requested, if you think it would fit better.)

  3. Either do not call for an impossible roll or set expectations beforehand. If you take the latter approach, this generally constitutes a warning beforehand along the lines of "You can try, but this is an extremely unreasonable request you're making; in fact, it's probably impossible." (In this case, a high roll on an impossible task might mitigate some or all consequences of failure rather than allowing success.)

Session 0

It's also a good idea to have an idea of the game you want to play, and communicate that to your players. If you want a narrative game where things are taken seriously, or if you're up for just a crazy romp where a natural 20s make anything possible... Anything's fine, but you do need to make sure your players are on the same page. Some people walk into D&D hearing stories of impossible feats being accomplished on a high roll and that's what they expect, so you need to ensure that your players understand the game you are running.

Ideally this happens before the campaign starts, but there's nothing wrong with calling a brief meeting at the beginning of any game session to set expectations partway through a campaign.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great point about asking players exactly what they are trying to accomplish. That's an invaluable way of defining the scope of expectations and what is possible. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 17 at 18:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ After reading through your answer again, and considering that the question is from a new DM, this is very well laid out as a tutorial. Nice job. I pulled the key three points out with bold in the edit. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 18 at 14:22
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Players ask for checks all the time.

You say you're a new DM but then also say "nobody at the table had [asked for a check before]." and then go on to say they asked for another check later in the session.

It sounds to me like you're a new DM learning that players want to have agency and feel empowered to make educated decisions on how their characters respond to events. Players asking for checks is extremely common.

Or, if they don't ask for them by name, they'll prompt a DM to ask for them by saying something like "What do I see?" or "What do I know about ... ?" or "I'd like to try to do ..."

While these questions aren't literally asking to perform a skill check, they're asking the DM for permission (or if it is even necessary) to do exactly that so you're going to need to be prepared for it.


In your first example, I am not sure the Perception was the right check. A player could use Perception to see if they notice evidence of any weapons but, unless the Goliath is attempting to conceal a weapon, it's probably so easy to notice that it doesn't require a check. Think of a sword hanging off a belt or strapped to a character's back. It's pretty obvious.

Rather, I think the right call might have been to make an Insight check to see what sort of information the Monk can intuit about the Goliath and whether or not it's a potential threat. So the player might have said "can I make a perception check to see if the Goliath is a threat?" you might have responded something like "You can totally make a check but I think Insight might be the correct check to make because ..."

With a high roll for whichever check you decide to use, you might tell the player that they notice how powerfully built the NPC looks (this is kind of a given for a Goliath, so in this case that might be free information). A high check might also allow you to reveal the intelligent look on the NPC's face, or its apparent emotional state. These are subtle clues that help inform the players on what sort of situation is developing.

If you do decide to ask for a different check than what the player has suggested/requested, it's a good idea to explain your rationale because it helps prevent frustration and can open a dialogue that can be built upon.

Further to this end, as Carcosa points out it can also be helpful to ask the player exactly what they're seeking to achieve. This is something I do at my own table and I've found it allows us to set the scope of what is expected and what is possible. This allows me to refine the DC threshold or set a scale of outcomes, which brings us to your next example ...


In general, it's important to keep in mind that a "successful" check doesn't mean the player gets exactly what s/he wants. In your second example where a player is trying to get three free months of room, remember that the innkeeper is starting from a position of wanting the team to pay full price without any discount. There is a wide range of concessions between "No, you pay full price" and "Sure and I'll throw in my children as a bonus gift."

Also remember that quality NPCs have goals and desires besides money. A "win" for the PC might present an opportunity for the innkeeper to give some amount of free room to the party but only if they help her take care of something first.

For example, a shrewd innkeeper might say "I'll give you two months' of rent if you rescue my lost shipment of wine." Suddenly, you've turned a simple social interaction into a quest thread and allowed the player to feel like they've negotiated a bargain.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I love your idea about letting the players get what they want, but in way they had not anticipated. The innkeep has had problems with bandits in the past, maybe its time for him to ask for some help! Thanks alot. \$\endgroup\$ – KMiner98 Apr 17 at 19:20
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Players shouldn't ask for rolls but they will anyway

GM's should be the ones calling for rolls not players but they will ask for rolls and sometimes they will see an opportunity that you didn't so I personally don't mind as long as they are being reasonable.

You do want to discourage clicking. I have a player that used to say "I roll investigation" in basically every room they went into at which point I would ask "what are you investigating and how?" They wouldn't usually have an answer and after a number of times they started saying "I investigate X" instead and significantly less often which is much better to my mind.

Encourage players to make statements like "I look at X", "I try to pick the lock" etc and not to say "I roll X"

Players don't get to roll if it's not possible to succeed such as in the tavern situation; the tavern is a business they can't just give things away without going out of business.

Players don't have to roll if you think they would definitely succeed let them know what they can see is what they can see, perception is not for looking at someone or something clearly within sight. It is for listening to things that are difficult to hear, seeing things that are far away or obscured, smelling a subtle smell.

Specific to your situation

It seems to me like your player expects more than is realistic. Explain to them that DC 15 is of medium difficulty thus beating a 15 won't get you more than you would normally expect to get by doing the thing competently. A twenty is only a hard check so beating 20 wont succeed if it's very hard.
Make sure you set realistic expectations.

Perception would not tell him anything about whether the Goliath is friendly or not, Insight is generally used for reading body-language, Nature may give knowledge about a race or species, and Religion may (if the Goliath is wearing something that would indicate) let a player know where an NPC's allegiances lie. For example a 20 religion might mean they recognize an amulet as a symbol of a devil worshiping cult or a church of healing etc.

I would have been inclined to say in the first case that the Perception role allowed them to get a whiff of powerful body odor and the sound of snoring. Maybe a fart if it's a less serious table.

In the second case I would say the innkeeper says something like "Well aren't you cheeky" then to the others "I bet this one gets you in trouble from time to time eh?" In my experience one of the other players usually apologizes on their behalf and I'd end it with "we don't do handouts here, I can barely afford to keep this place running as it is but if you want to earn your stay I've got X problem you could help with." Let them try to fix something or go debt collecting or something for a weeks free stay and move on.

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When To Roll

Strictly speaking, players don't dictate to the GM when or what they're going to roll, and certainly not what the target is. Those are all GM decisions. That said, I have seen wide variation in how this is handled from table to table, and I don't think it's that unusual for players to suggest or request they be allowed to make a particular type of roll.

When I GM, I rarely refuse the request, because it is a pretty precise way for the players to signal their interest in doing a particular thing and therefore driving the scene in a particular direction. This is valuable to me.

But I also maintain GM control over the situation; see below.

How To Roll

This is also the subject of considerable debate, variation, and house-ruling. But in general, if the PCs are not going to obviously know the success/failure of their roll, I make the roll for them, privately.

This would absolutely apply to your example about the Goliath-- would the PC know the difference between successfully or erroneously judging peaceful intent? By definition, no, so the player doesn't get to know either, and the only way to hide that is by hiding the roll.

There are other ways to keep narrative control of the situation as well: I decide the difficulty the target of the roll, and the players just have to trust me to be honest. I decide how to interpret the roll I've made. I decide how to narrate it and how much information to give away.

In the case of the free lodgings request, I personally would have just chuckled, and told the player that I would save him the in-character embarrassment by not doing that, because part of his having that skill involves knowing when it's absurd and impossible.

Summary

I see nothing wrong in how you've handled this. You're the GM, and the player is the player. You may need to sit him down and explain what reasonable applications of skill are in your game with your GM-ing style. You may even offer him an olive branch of letting him redeploy some points away from those skills if they're much less useful than he thought they would be.

But this all seems in the boundaries of typical GMing style to me.

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In our group, that rotates DMs, players frequently ask to make a check for something specific, as a way of saying they are trying to do something, and it is okay for the DM to respond anywhere on the spectrum from "No, that's not possible here" to "No check needed, you immediately recognize it as ...", or to accept the thing the player wants to check for and assign a difficulty level anywhere from trivial to extremely difficult. Yes, the rules for 5th say the DM should call for the checks, but it's a useful shorthand for a player to suggest one.

And yes, you did right to not allow a persuasion check to get a month's free lodging. It's written into most persuasion rules that it does not magically control the NPC, making them do things to their own detriment to succeed on a persuasion check against the typical target number. Of course, if you think up a weird reason that the proprietor might actually accept such an excessive request that embroils the PC in more trouble and complications, that is a great way of creating a story element.

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All the current answers are good, but one thing they don’t take into account is that one of the ways a player knows what kind of character they are playing is through their stats. Thus when a player asks to make a particular kind of check (usually one their character has a high bonus in) they are, in effect, saying “I’m playing a character who is good at X, how does that inform their actions in this context?”

For example, in the first case the player has identified that they are playing a perceptive character: someone who notices things that others don’t. When they ask to make a perception check, they are in effect telling you, the DM, that your description does not appear to have accounted for this fact. This may be a false impression (from your perspective) but in a cooperative game it’s one you need to take into account. When narrating descriptions there should be some details that the perceptive characters pick up on that the less perceptive ones miss and that needs to be made explicit to them, whether or not a roll is involved. These details need not always be consequential, sometimes the suggestions of body odor, the sound of snoring, or something similar are all the PC gets because there is nothing there to be had. However, the details cannot always be trivial, otherwise the player won’t feel rewarded for playing the kind of character they are playing.

In my experience, how much of this sort of thing happens depends partially on the player, partially on the DM, and partially on the situation. Players who are new or heavily focused on stats do this more. DMs whose descriptions are generic and don’t regularly call out specific things for the appropriate characters trigger this player response more often. Situations which are ambiguous and unfamiliar either at the game (what does my character do in this situation) or meta (a one-shot with pregenerated characters) level also tend to trigger this type of behavior.

The important thing for you to realize as the DM is that this behavior is communicating something about the kind of character the player thinks they are playing and how they want to be rewarded for playing that character. It’s not explicit communication, and some players may not even be able to verbalize it, but all the strategies proposed in the other answers will only work at reducing this behavior if you also address the underlying need that causes the behavior.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ All answers should try to address the question independently; if you reference other answers, you should summarize/quote the relevant parts of the other answers that you feel are necessary to answer the question. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 19 at 1:52

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