19
\$\begingroup\$

If an ability says a character (or creature) can tell that something is real with a successful ability check, does the character automatically attempt the check? Or does it require an active choice on the character's part?

For instance, a green hag has the Mimicry trait:

The hag can mimic animal sounds and humanoid voices. A creature that hears the sounds can tell they are imitations with a successful DC 14 Wisdom (Insight) check.

Does a sentence like this mean that if a character hears the mimicry, they automatically attempt the Wisdom (Insight) check to identify whether the sounds are imitations? Or is it saying that if a character wants to listen closer to the sound as an action, then they make the check?

In other words: Does the DM immediately ask the character(s) to make the ability check? Or should the DM wait until a player says they're trying to listen closer/identify whether the sounds are real, and only then ask the player to roll the ability check?

\$\endgroup\$
3
  • \$\begingroup\$ Judging from your comment on enkryptor's answer, you're not asking about the rules for passive checks - you're asking if the DM should have the player attempt the ability check automatically, or if the DM would wait for the player to try to ascertain whether the thing is real. I've edited your post to try and clarify the focus of your question. (Though I'm still not sure what sort of things you're asking about - monster/NPC traits, illusion abilities, spells, etc., or all of the above.) Please check to make sure I've maintained your intent, and edit to clarify if you can. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jul 20 at 23:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast I think your edit is a good clarification. It comes down to if you're say, a bird expert, and you hear a bird sound, you'd probably know straight up if it's fake or not assuming you're familiar with the bird and you get a good listen to it. So I'd assume you'd simply roll straight up when you hear it not as an action. But at the same time, perhaps the green hag for example is a good imitator and to any casual listener it sounds genuine, and only someone suspicious or someone trying to learn more would spot it, in which case they automatically believe it's genuine until hey check. \$\endgroup\$
    – NibblyPig
    Jul 23 at 1:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast cont: So the question is really, what is the official ruling on this? And it looks from the answers that there is no official rule for 'a creature that hears the sounds can tell on a DC14 check' being passive or active. Of course, anything is subjective and up to the DM, but I was focused on what the official ruling was. \$\endgroup\$
    – NibblyPig
    Jul 23 at 1:04
25
\$\begingroup\$

The rules expect the DM to decide on a case-by-case basis

First and foremost, there are no skill checks in 5e anymore. Things like "Wisdom (Insight) check" are ability checks, and they differ from skill checks as they were in previous editions.

Moreover, "passive check" is a game term which has a special meaning in 5e:

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn't involve any die rolls

What you're asking about is probably a regular ability check made by a DM's call, not a passive check. Keeping in mind that all ability checks are made by a DM's call, the real question is: does the DM have to wait for a specific question from a player before asking for an ability check?

And the answer is — no, the DM does not have to wait for a specific question. The 5e ruleset is a toolbox the DM is free to use at their own discretion. It does not set any hard limits on the DM anymore, especially when we're talking about ability checks.

It was the 3.x thing to explicitly frame the process. 5e left the prescriptive paradigm regarding ability checks. Now the game expects the DM to decide, what checks would be better for the story. This is also known as the "rulings over rules" principle.

So it's up to the DM if she thinks it'd be better to wait for a specific question before asking for an ability check in each case. What I want to suggest is two things: avoid no-brainers and don't expect specific "right words" from the players.

Avoid no-brainers

If players get a chance to learn additional information only when they say "I want to listen/look closer", they will be saying this every time, getting zero results most of the time. It is a no-brainer and no-brainers are bad design — they waste real time and make games less exciting. Instead, assume the characters are always aware and asks for a check only when the outcome is uncertain.

Don't expect specific "right words"

Don't expect the players to do only specific things you had in mind when you was preparing the adventure. This is also true regarding puzzles. If you allow a dice roll only if the player says "I want to check if it's an imitation", they probably never get any dice rolls. Instead, treat any examination effort as a potential revealing of an imitation.

Know your players

DMG p.236 allows a playstyle when players do not roll dice at all (unless it's a combat, but combat is a different story). Some players just like rolling dice and enjoy randomness, some prefer more predictable approach. The DM's job is to decide what would be better for the table. The DM can still use passive score for the information PCs are able to get intrinsically and/or ask for a check. Both options are "correct" from the rules perspective.

Putting this in a nutshell:

  • assume proactivity and competence of the players' characters
  • allow broad interpretation of what is the right thing to do for moving the story forward
  • don't hide information if it is important for the story

How would this work in-game:

— You can definitely hear a sound from this cave. It's like a baby crying.
— That's creepy! I draw my sword. Can I say if it's a human baby?
— Make a Wisdom (Insight) check.
— Eighteen!
— Suddenly you realize it's not a baby. It is an imitation, quite crude, actually. Like some kind of non-human creature is trying to mimic a toddler's babbling.

or

— You can definitely hear a sound from this cave. It's like a baby crying. (checking the PCs Wisdom (Insight) passive score) You insight allows you to understand it is an imitation, like some kind of non-human creature is trying to mimic a toddler's babbling.

\$\endgroup\$
4
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ In this particular case, it's possibly also worth noting that the DM could quietly check the characters' Passive Wisdom (Insight) scores before the DM narrates the scene. If any characters' scores are higher, the DM could choose to just let the players pass the check, no roll required, and work it into their narration naturally. A roll is only necessary when there's a chance of success, a chance of failure, and both options are interesting. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19 at 0:35
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ "does the DM have to wait for a specific question from a player before asking for an ability check" - that is the question though, a player could choose to investigate a baby crying, or perhaps they would intrinsically be able to tell as part of just naturally hearing it. If there are no specific rules though then it's up to the DM entirely so that answers the questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – NibblyPig
    Jul 19 at 9:31
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @NibblyPig the DM can still use passive score for the information PCs are able to get intrinsically and/or ask for a check. Both options are correct — the 5e ruleset is a toolbox the DM is free to use at their own discretion. DMG p.236 also allows a playstyle when players do not roll dice at all (unless it's a combat, but combat is a different story). Some players just like rolling dice and enjoy randomness, some prefer more predictable approach. The DM's job is to decide what would be better for the table. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Jul 19 at 9:43
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisBouchard good note, added to the answer \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Jul 19 at 10:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.