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In a campaign I'm playing in, players have to come up with a convincing approach to be allowed to try a persuasion, deception, or intimidation skill check...but, at the end of the day, the players are NOT good at those things, their characters are. This results in situations where it feels like the PLAYER has to be good at these rather than the CHARACTER.

For comparison:

  • Strength: A player tries to move heavy barrels in front of a door.
    • Simple: "I try to move the barrels"
    • Detailed: "I try to move the barrels. I lift with my legs to not hurt my back, and engage my quads and hamstrings to have more power"
  • Deception: A player tries to trick a clerk to give the party horses.
    • Simple: "I try to deceive the clerk into giving us horses"
    • Detailed: "I tell the clerk we are on important business, and are town heroes, and that we are supposed to be given horses so we can do our next job. Checking the paperwork won't be necessary"

For strength, the detailed example is never given, let alone required. The simple example will always allow the player to make a roll. For charisma skills, the simple example would always be rejected, and the detailed example will be rejected whenever the DM deems that it is not a good enough argument.

In this way, it feels like the charisma skills are singled out and not given fair opportunities to do anything without good use of those skills in real life. Even if the roleplay and premise are reasonable, the approach is evaluated in a way that feels much different than other skill checks.

All other skills can follow a simple formula of "I do X so I can achieve Y" followed by a roll, with roleplay available as an extra cherry on top. For charisma skills, this formula is thrown out, and leaves these skills a lot harder to utilize for someone who is not naturally good at being persuasive, deceptive, or intimidating in real life.

The DM says that to allow for a roll in any of these situations cuts off the ability for scenarios to evolve in story and the integrity of NPCs etc, which I can see being a problem if the players force shoddy premises via high skills, or give no premises for the argument at all and are still allowed to roll.

What is a good way to strike a balance for players who don't always know how to effectively create good premises to persuade, deceive, or intimidate, without boiling down the NPCs into mindless goons wrapped around the players' fingers?

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Your DM is asking for details of the approach so they can determine what checks, if any, to ask for; as well as what the DCs should be.

The core issue here is that some skill checks are straightforward and some are circumstantial.

In your two examples, you have one straightforward check (Strength to move some barrels) and one circumstantial check (Deception to trick a clerk into giving you horses for free).

In general, a straightforward check is one where the details of the situation don't matter. Physical checks tend to be straightforward, because fewer things affect the circumstances of physical actions. E.g., the specifics of how you lift something heavy don't meaningfully change under different circumstances. Assuming you have sufficient training as reflected by your bonus, you're always going to be performing the action the same way; there aren't usually multiple techniques whose use will affect the situation.

On the other hand, a circumstantial check is one where the details of the situation matter very much. Social checks tend to be circumstantial, because social interactions depend on the PCs' approach. In other words, how you convince a clerk to give you horses will change based on things like whether you're actually town heroes, whether the clerk knows and cares that you're heroes, whether it's normal for heroes to be given horses, what the risk is to the clerk if they give away free horses, and so on. Relatedly, the checks involved will change depending on whether you're taking an aggressive approach (Intimidation), a subtle one (Deception), or a friendly one (Diplomacy). A high bonus will help your character identify these factors and address them convincingly (see below about how the DM should help you here), but ultimately it's up to the player to choose the final approach based on all the circumstances in play, and then to the DM to call for the appropriate check(s) based on that approach.

Another way to look at it is to consider whether the target of the check cares about the PC's approach. Physical checks often interact with objects, which typically don't care what the PC does. The barrel doesn't care if the PC lifts with their legs or not; the wall being climbed doesn't care if the PC uses pitons or not. That's what makes it straightforward.

With a social check, however, the target of the check is usually an NPC, who does care about the PC's approach. A clerk who gives away free horses could lose their job, or worse. There are multiple ways the PCs can handle the encounter - Deception is one way, but if the approach the PCs describe is aggressive, the DM can and should call for Intimidation instead. Or if the PCs do a few knowledge-gathering checks beforehand to identify the best lie to tell, the DM may not call for any check at all because the PCs did their research. (Or may only call for the check to see if the PCs can tell the lie convincingly.) The way the PCs approach the interaction will change depending on the situation - that's what makes it circumstantial.

Physical checks can be circumstantial, but social checks are rarely straightforward.

For example, if a player wanted to lift heavy barrels containing an explosive rigged with a tilt fuze, I might ask for details about how they're doing so because it matters to both the check DC and the outcome of a success or failure. In this case, the barrel does care about the player's approach. If they're simply hefting the barrels without considering the fuze, the DC to lift might be low but the barrels will explode for sure. On the other hand, if the player gives details about how they're lifting the barrels to avoid tilting them, the DC to lift will be higher, but the barrels will be less likely to explode depending on the player's explanation.

However, there are very few social situations in which the details of the players' approach don't matter. If the players offer the clerk a bribe that mitigates the risk of losing their job, the Deception DC will be lower. On the other hand, if horses are not normally given away for free to anyone, town heroes or not, then as the GM I might not allow the Deception check because the players' story doesn't fit the circumstances. If the PCs try that story anyway, get rebuffed, and then threaten the clerk, now the situation calls for an Intimidate check.

This is not to say that social checks can never be straightforward, but in my experience, it's so rare that I couldn't even think of a good example.

The DM needs to work with you

This is the part where your group needs to sit down and have a discussion. Be careful about how you approach this so it doesn't come across as you players "against" your DM or as though you're trying to bully your DM into letting you use Charisma skills in ways that don't make sense. What you want is for the whole table - which includes your DM - to agree on how to handle skill checks and social situations so that everyone is on the same page and having fun.

As a group, lay out some ground rules about how much detail is needed for circumstantial checks, especially in cases where the player's skill is wildly mismatched from the character's. (Note that this applies in both directions: if a wizard with a negative Strength is played by a professional weightlifter, they shouldn't benefit from the pro lifter's knowledge to move those explosive barrels.)

In my groups, we typically agree on the following:

As a GM, I promise to:

  1. Provide as much relevant context about a social situation as possible before calling for a check, to allow the players to pick an appropriate approach
  2. Add additional context if it's clear that the players are missing something important which their characters would be aware of
  3. Give prompts or hints if my own expertise outweighs the player's
  4. Adjust the check DC, and what check or checks I call for, depending on the details of the players' approach
  5. Expect and accept a reasonable level of detail for the situation at hand (see @DarthPseudonym's comment below).

In exchange, I ask my players to:

  1. Make a good-faith effort to provide reasonable detail based on the situation
  2. Ask questions if they feel like they don't have enough information to select a good approach
  3. Be willing to explore the RP opportunities that come from social checks, successful or not.

An agreement like this will help players develop interesting premises for social skills, make circumstantial checks of any kind feel more doable, and preserve the realism of the game world and the social interactions between PCs and NPCs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The amount of manual handling training I have to do tells me that lifting is not straightforward, it is just that the rules make it seem that way. I think this entire answer falls into the trap of thinking conversation skills have to have player input more than other skills, which was the entire premise of the question. This reads to me like "yes social skills need player skill, and here is why" \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jul 23, 2022 at 13:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Heh, I do more than enough physical therapy to also be aware that lifting IRL isn't straightforward at all. An in-game skill check to lift something, however, usually is, for the reasons I describe in the answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Jul 23, 2022 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri The point is that "how do you lift it" is not really going to have more than one meaningful approach for a given situation. You aren't going to pick a DC based on how the character is lifting. There are times it does matter -- like if there's a secret door with a specific method to open it, and somebody says "I want to try to force it", you need to know what exactly they're doing because the DC depends whether they're only fighting the door's latch or trying to force it off its track entirely. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 23, 2022 at 22:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think sometimes DMs do go overboard with social rolls. It doesn't need to be detailed to determine what's going on. "I try to convince him by appealing to his patriotism" or "I want to trick the guard into thinking I'm an envoy from the King" are perfectly valid requests, as long as it's more than just "I want to trick him" or "I want to convince him". I often ask my players, "What are you trying to accomplish with this?" to get a little more direction to their actions. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 23, 2022 at 22:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym your last comment is really good, you are effectively asking the player 'what skill are you trying to use and what outcome are you expecting?' and that is really all that is needed and it works fairly for every type of check. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jul 24, 2022 at 21:31
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Balance player and character skill

The Player skill vs Character skill question is an age-old problem. As a player, you are not able to slay dragons or throw fireballs, so you must rely on the character stats and abilities. But many players are very able to make convincing arguments through roleplay to try and trick an NPC to believe something.

Social skills like deception or persuasion are also problematic, because it is frustrating to role play a great argument, only to be then told to make a roll, and fail if it fails, as if you had not said anything. On the other hand, it also is problematic if the character’s ability does not influence the outcome. After all you spent resources on these skills, and if you can not use them like other skills, it devalues them.

There are long articles written on the subject of how to deal with this. It is not easy. As you can see from this Q&A there are many different ways to approach this, and none is truly right or wrong. In my experience, balancing the two aspects has worked best:

  • You cannot ignore player skill. As a player making a great and believable lie why the guard should let you through, only to then be told to make a roll, and if they roll low being told you fail is super frustrating.

  • You cannot ignore character skill. Treating social skills mechanically purely like any other skill may feel like it sucks the role out of role playing, but it is mechanically fair. The player spent resources on these abilities. The picked Deception, when they could have picked Perception. They should not be punished for doing so by jumping trough a lot of extra hoops to use their skills.

  • The DM cannot use social skills on the players. Imagine the DM rolling Deception for their charismatic evil sorcerer against your Insight check, and then telling you: "You believe that you need to kill the king for them." This is not OK. The player is deciding what the character believes: player agency is at the core of the game. So the DM must roleplay it out and actually trick or convince the player (or at least the player's character, if the character is unwise or dumb, and the player honors that). But if that is so, is it not fair to demand the same of the players?

So how to resolve this?

A practical approach is to first understand what the characters want to achieve, and think about if it actually can be achieved. You do not even have to set a DC or set up an opposed check, if it is clear that there is no way it will work.

The DMG advises about this on page 237

When a player wants to do something, it's often appropriate to let the attempt succeed without a roll or a reference to the character's ability scores. For example, a character doesn't normally need to make a Dexterity check to walk across an empty room or a Charisma check to order a mug of ale. Only call for a roll if there is a meaningful consequence for failure. When deciding whether to use a roll, ask yourself two questions:

  • Is a task so easy and so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure?
  • Is a task so inappropriate or impossible-such as hitting the moon with an arrow-that it can't work? If the answer to both of these questions is no, some kind of roll is appropriate.

If the dragon won't gift their hoard to a super charismatic asker, there is no check.

Next, it probably should not just be "I want to use Deception to convince the guards to let us pass". Deception is not magic. You would not expect to break through walls with a naked Strength check, so why would you expect to walk past guards with a naked Deception check? What's more, under The Role of the Dice the DMG explicitly says:

One approach is to use dice as rarely a s possible. Some DMs use them only during combat, and determine success or failure as they like in other situations. With this approach, the DM decides whether an action or a plan succeeds or fails based on how well the players make their case, how thorough or creative they are, or other factors

There is no right to demand a skill check of any kind for the players, Deception or otherwise. This is up to the DM to offer, and the more well-thought out the player's plan is, the better the chance it will succeed. Offering no arguments or story is not having a plan for it.

This is not about in-character play, or the exact words the player lets the character say. It should make no difference if the player speaks in-character to the guard: "My good man, we are here on orders by the chamberlain. The new program to have undercover guards mingle with the guests to check for thieves more effectively. Have you not read the notice? Ah, you cannot read, too bad. But you surely heard from your superior? You better let us in without delay and make no ado about it, or the chamberlain will be furious, and you know what that means for your future." or if they just state to the DM: "I want to convince the guard that we are in the employ as an undercover patrol and they should let us pass".

Rolling dice, finally

If there is a chance of success, a chance of failure, and a consequence of failure, what then? As a DM you need to determine the DC or that it is an opposed check, and have the player roll their check.

Scaling a castle wall is made easier by a rope and hook, and is very hard without any tools; having a good argument to convince the guards will improve your chances, and having no argument will make them a lot worse.

As a DM to balance both aspects, you can use the believability of the argument that is presented by the player, to modify how hard the roll is. For example, you could give them Advantage for a fantastic story, or Disadvantage for one that was inconsistent and had obvious flaws.

How you do this exactly is up to you. Advantage/Disadvantage is the standard way in 5e, but you also could give a fixed bonus or malus. This will allow you to make both the players ideas, and their characters abilities count.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a person who can kick out a locked door but has problems with making convincing arguments, I disagree with "you cannot ignore player skills" part. If charismatic player should never fail charisma check, I should be allowed to kick out doors before or instead of the roll. It would only be fair, now wouldn't it? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Jul 23, 2022 at 11:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot While I don’t think kicking of a comment discussion on this is going to be fruitful I appreciate you leaving an explanatory note. I personally don’t think a good argument should invalidate the roll, but it should make it easier. There are people who are firmly in the “roll mechanics only” camp, and you can play like that, but that’s not me or my advice. For what it’s worth, we actually had players act out physical moves to demo it can be done (a wizard pulling out a flying carpet, unrolling it and sitting down on it in one 2-second Dark Eye round. They made it.) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 23, 2022 at 11:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot . To be clear, I’m not saying a good argument should replace the roll. Players with a good story can fail their check, (wether they are personally charismatic, or not). I’m not sure where you get the impression I say you should not roll (“should never fail charisma check”). That said, if you went to kick out a door for real to demo what you want to do, I’d probably not demand a roll for your PC on it afterwards. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 23, 2022 at 11:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri: That’s not what I say. Having a good plan is important for physical skill checks too — see the wall scaling example. The reason players need to come up with the plans is because otherwise you have no game. Characters have intelligence too, why not just roll dice and see what they come up with and let the DM tell you? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 23, 2022 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is very good point: "You cannot ignore character skill". A friend of mine who is shy and has ADHD played a Bard/Rogue with Cha of 19 and expertise in Persuaxion - she wanted to play a character very different from herself, yet the DM we played with would fail her checks if she didn't sound very convincing. We protested this, but he behaved like a despot DM. Needless to say... we left the group. I mean you wouldn't ask a Barbarian with Str 20 to prove their skills in game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jul 25, 2022 at 12:33
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The advantage/disadvantage mechanic was invented for this

First, it is entirely possible to decide that the specified method is so good (or bad) that it just works (or not).

However, if you roll, detailed plans get advantage is they are advantageous and vice-versa.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love how your answers are typically the soul of brevity, getting right to the point. +1 \$\endgroup\$ Jul 24, 2022 at 3:02
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TL;DR: Treat all skills equally. Either don't let roleplay have any effect on the rolled skill, or give bonuses based on them. Always let the player attempt what they want to attempt, with appropriate DCs.

Treat Social Encounters like any other

A social encounter is just that - an encounter. Attempting to deceive somebody takes skill, just like picking a locked door does. It's just different skills.

A locked door might have a DC of 15 to successfully pick, that a player might need to roll for. Similarly, you can set an arbitrary DC for convincing the clerk to give the party horses of 18 against their deception check. Like you said, just because it isn't explicitly said, more can happen within the world that isn't obvious, like lifting with your legs and a straight back. Similarly, just because they say something simple, a slight twinkle in the eye and soft, trusting smile could equally sway a clerk.

Reward good roleplay and ideas

You can also consider rewarding their roleplay, if all of the players agree to it. If the player wants, they can act out a complete sob story to try to convince the clerk why they need the horses to save a kitten stuck in a tree. You as the DM can reward them with an additional +3 (or whatever number you want, depending on how satisfied with their performance you were) to their Deception check - or maybe even advantage.

On the flip side, you can easily also apply this to physical acts. Maybe the player doesn't just want to lift with their legs, they want to wedge a plank of wood underneath to use as a lever, with a barrel as a fulcrum. This is something I would gladly allow a +3 to their Strength check (or advantage for simplicity), since they're doing more than just lifting a barrel with their bare hands - they're critically thinking.

Don't forget DC

You stated "For charisma skills, the simple example would always be rejected, and the detailed example will be rejected whenever the DM deems that it is not a good enough argument." The same can be said for physical attempts, like trying to shoulder-check a solid stone wall and expecting it to crumble. It's all about how difficult the situation is.

As stated earlier, this is an encounter, just a bit of a faster-paced one. Examine everything the player is saying in their roleplay, and when they try to do an action - such as trying to deceive - you as the DM need to come up with an appropriate DC based on what the player said. For example, if the players are trying to get free horses:

  • "We were told we would get free horses" - DC 25
  • "We don't have time for this! The town is in danger and if we don't stop it now, your shop here will be nothing but ashes!" - DC 12
  • "But that horse is so pretty, I really want it!" - DC 30
  • etc.

It all depends on how the NPC would react in a specific scenario, just like how a stone wall would react to being shoulder-checked - with a DC 30.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Be careful about suggestions that an impossible check should have DC 30, plenty of characters can succeed at that. But generally a decent answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jul 23, 2022 at 8:32
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Set this out in session zero

As you and other answers have pointed out, it is frustrating to be make a good persuasive argument and then fluff the roll, but in my opinion that is where DND differs from other games. In DND if there is a chance for success and a chance for failure (and both options are meaningful in some way) a die is rolled to determine the outcome.

I explicitly tell my players this at character creation. I say something like "Make your character good at what you want them to be good at, pick your stats and roleplay those stats, don't put your own personality into your character". So if someone makes a character bad at persuasion, but is super persuasive in real life my answer is "stop giving me persuasive arguments, that's you not your character, pack it in".

When you get into situations where you are seeing a player being better at something than their character then they are no longer roleplaying and need to be brought back into the game.

If they can make a good argument in character (ie the dumb barbarian just says blurts out the obvious truth about the elephant in the room that everyone is politely dancing around) then I might give roleplaying inspiration, which will let them roll again and have a higher chance of success, but I do that for staying in character in any interesting situation.

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You are right that it's unfair to have a social skill require you to perform the skill in order to get the result.

You don't make a barbarian swing a sword in real life.

So don't make a bard sing a song in real life.

And don't make the paladin give an inspiring speech in real life.

(If they want to do so - great - but don't require it).

Instead, they just need to say "I make an inspiring speech", and roll the relevant skill. In the same way as a fighter says "I hit the goblin with my sword". If they want to add flavour in either case then encourage them to do so, but don't require it.

To return to your example:

Strength: A player tries to move heavy barrels in front of a door.

Simple: "I try to move the barrels"

Detailed: "I try to move the barrels. I lift with my legs to not hurt my back, and engage my quads and hamstrings to have more power"

Deception: A player tries to trick a clerk to give the party horses.

Simple: "I try to deceive the clerk into giving us horses"

Detailed: "I tell the clerk we are on important business, and are town heroes, and that we are supposed to be given horses so we can do our next job. Checking the paperwork won't be necessary"

Are these examples the same? If they are then I agree with you. The simple description should be fine in both cases.

But there is one huge difference here. There are only so many ways to move a barrel, and how it was moved is very unlikely to matter in the future.

With the deception though there are a huge number of ways that you could deceive the clerk. And while that may not change the immediate result - it could well change things should you ever visit this town again.

So you don't ask for detail to make it harder. You ask for detail in order to update the world and have it react to what the players did.

In the same way, as if the strength player says "I try to collapse the tunnel" you might ask for more detail on how they are doing it - not because it makes it harder but because you need to know what condition they are leaving the tunnel in after, how likely the ceiling is to come down on their head if they get it wrong, and what resources are consumed in the effort.

In other words, you ask for details when the details matter. And it just happens they tend to matter more often in social situations.

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There are actually two different kinds of skill checks.

You've pointed out two hypothetical skill checks — a strength check to move a barrel and a charisma check to convince a shop-keep to take some course of action. You've attributed the difference in expected narration to the relevant skill, but actually the difference is due to the complexity of the action. I don't have a particular source for this distinction, but I'll categorize actions into two buckets, which I'll call immediate actions and narrative actions.

Immediate actions are things that could be accomplished in a short time-frame — often in a six second combat round, but possibly some other relatively short time-frame, up to maybe a minute or so. This would include the strength check to pick up a barrel, or even to move a barrel from one side of a room to the other. Other examples include

  • making an attack (strength or dexterity),
  • jumping over a chasm (strength),
  • recalling a fact (intelligence),
  • noticing something (wisdom),
  • threatening to break someone's arm (charisma), or
  • flirting at the bar (charisma).

Narrative actions are things that take longer. They can't be accomplished in a round of combat, and they often take several minutes to hours or longer. This would include the charisma check to deceive the shop-keep. Other examples include

  • copying a spell from a scroll (intelligence),
  • searching a room for loot or traps (intelligence),
  • performing a song (charisma),
  • scaling a castle wall (strength), or
  • putting on a display of acrobatics (dexterity).

Narrative actions often require more description because they cover a larger slice of the overall story.

Immediate actions can usually be summed up in a few words. “I attack the orc with my sword,” is a relatively complete — if uninspired — summary of those six seconds. There's of course room to expand, and I'll often encourage my players to do so, but with even that short description we can get a sense of how the story has progressed. Similarly, “I flirt with the bartender,” or, “I jump across the pit,“ are probably enough to describe those actions. Everyone's on the same page (or close enough) afterward. And whatever details were elided are either narratively important, or can be nailed down later if they become relevant without changing anything major.

But narrative actions that take minutes to hours (or even days) often can't be summed up so easily. They cover a larger part of the ongoing story, so we need to supply more details to keep everyone's understanding of the story in sync. “I convince the shop-keep to give us horses,” leaves too much unspoken. Did we fast-talk them and confuse them? Did we lie? Are they going to figure it out later and tell someone? How long do we have? And if there are five people at the table, there will probably be five different expectations for how it went down.

Similarly, a wizard copying a scroll into their spellbook should account for the hours this action will take. Where will they work? How do they acquire the required materials? An athlete scaling a castle wall should explain their route. What tools are they using? Are they climbing the tower or the wall? This will impact where in the castle they emerge and who might see them, and possibly even the DC for the check.

So for narrative actions, the DM needs to ask for more. The whole table needs a description that's detailed enough to keep everyone on the same page.

The description should be detailed in proportion to its slice of the narrative.

Note that the amount of the narrative an action takes up is not the same as the length of time the action takes. Deceiving a shop-keep to get horses is likely more narratively impactful than a wizard copying a high-level scroll into their spellbook, even though the former might take five or ten minutes, and the latter the better part of a day. The specifics of how the deception was accomplished are more likely to come up and matter. So the table may take more time nailing down exactly how the deception took place.

And sometimes something that would otherwise be an immediate action is treated as a narrative action. “I touch the wall,” is usually an immediate action — and usually so simple that no roll would be required. But if there's a secret door or a trap, suddenly the DM may want to zoom in on that action and ask the player to describe it more precisely.

It's ok to slow down and zoom in on important events — that's why time slows down to 6 seconds per round in combat. If combat were a narrative action, an entire fight could be resolved with a single opposed strength check — in which case you bet the DM would ask for more description than, “I attack the orc with my sword.”

The goal is not to penalize players but to move the narrative forward.

This isn't the sort of thing the DM should be using to cudgel their players, but rather they should be encouraging their players to expand. The DM can guide players through this so that, even if the player wouldn't know how to accomplish this action in real life, everyone can at least agree what happened in those minutes or hours.

And note too, there's no requirement for exact verisimilitude here — as long as the course of action is reasonable in the game world then we're fine. And it's the people at the table that decide what's reasonable in the game world. Maybe in this world it's reasonable to appeal to the shop-keep's sense of adventure and the mystique of the elves. That probably wouldn't fly in the real world, but in the real world elves don't exist. It isn't any more reasonable in the real world to channel magic into fireballs.

The line between immediate and narrative of actions is blurry, and different tables will have different expectations — and tolerances — for detail in descriptions. I think the best thing to keep in mind is that you're all working together to tell a fun and interesting story!

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As the DM, ask about what you need to know

As others have pointed out, your examples are different because (most of the time) how a party tries to deceive a clerk is much more likely to be narratively important down the line than how they move some barrels. I don't think the difference should be seen as the DM requiring the player to be good at deception (choosing a lie and telling a lie are different things after all), but rather the DM requiring enough detail about what the player wants to do so the DM can properly update the world-state and narrate outcomes in the near and long term. Sometimes as the DM I'm asking for detail because I'm not a master of social skills either and I don't know immediately if there's even a way this NPC could be convinced or deceived at all, and maybe the players have an idea I haven't thought of.

This means that as the DM you can prompt players to get the info you need, you don't need to require them to come up with something entirely on their own. Ask questions based on what you need to know to narrate the response: "Do you have an angle you want to play here? are you trying to appeal to the clerk's generosity? sense of duty? guilt? are you trying to fluster them?" Provide details about the situation when the players ask, and if they seem lost or overwhelmed, provide some proactively that could spark ideas (making them up as needed): "the clerk does seem pretty tired" or "the clerk keeps checking the clock" or "they seem in awe of your gleaming armor" etc. If they can't come up with anything, but you or the other players can, just ask "ok, does your character say something along those lines?" You're not looking for proof that the player can be convincing, you're looking for the information you need to parse and present outcomes.

On the flip side, of course, you only need to do that if the details of how the social encounter plays out are actually important. If they say "I schmooze the shopkeeper for a discount" I'd just have them roll, it's clear enough what that looks like and there's no reason to expect the details of their schmoozing will ever come up again.

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Your examples show that you are not treating the situations equally, you start off on a faulty premise.

In the strength example the goal is to (un?)block the door. In the deception example the goal is to deceive the clerk into giving the horses.

In the strength example we accept that "I block the door" is not enough of an explanation. We require an executable plan. "I try to move the barrels to block the door" is an executable plan.

In the deception example we should also not accept that "I deceive the clerk" is not enough either. We require an executable plan. "I tell the clerk we are town heroes and are here to pick up the horses" is an executable plan.

Both of these are held to the same standards.

No one has to be deceptive, the players skill at deception does not come into it. Social skills are treated the same as any other, you do not have to execute the plan you just have to come up with it. This is the bare minimum you need to do to play D&D; tell the DM what you want to do so they can decide what happens. Ultimately player skill is part of the game. A good player will be able to put their PC's strength and deception to greater effect than a bad player. That's part of the game, and that's a good thing. It's good that good players are rewarded, it adds depth and a skill aspect to the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ My point was that "I tell the clerk we are town heroes and are here to pick up the horses" was not accepted as a plan, ruled as not a good enough premise, which is where the problem was \$\endgroup\$
    – Paul
    Aug 5, 2022 at 13:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Paul I understand. "I try to move the barrels to block the door", so if the DM accepts one but not the other then asking "how do I handle deception equally" won't help you. You need to ask "why won't my DM accept this" and you are probably best off asking your DM because that's something none of us can answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – user77842
    Aug 7, 2022 at 23:57
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There are a lot of ways to look at Charisma (and Intelligence and Wisdom), and there's a grain of truth to most if not all of them.

I Agree With You

Social stats are often treated differently than physical stats. I wrote a detailed answer here, from one perspective, that makes basically the case you're making: All six stats are a sort of an interface between what the player wants and what the character can immediately achieve. They should not be on fundamentally different standings in the framework of the game.

I Agree With Your GM

But I also agree with your GM. "I roll persuasion to [achieve affect]" does tend to siphon the vitality out of a game when used often and without details. I, as both a GM and a player, want to generate an actual story. That usually means details-- an endless sequence of, "Karol the Charismatic grifted some horses, and then free rooms at the inn, and then convinced the sheriff to go away," just isn't interesting.

There is a natural but very real tension between these opposing viewpoints that seems to be the strongest in Perception and Deception checks.

How I Handle Things

How I handle it is to take a step back, remember what the roles of the players, the GM, and the dice are, and analogize as much as possible to other situations. Preferably, to combat situations, although to be fair in advance the analogy stretches a bit thin.

If it's a major scene with important consequences, I sometimes also take inspiration from the fourth edition "skill challenges" where the basic idea is that you need so many successes before so many failures to get you to where you want to go.

Players: The role of the players is to decide what pivotal, granular actions to take, and what sequence they should take them in to maximize their chances of success. The granular actions are tactics, the order and sequence of events are strategy.

In a combat, the granular actions might be the fighter maneuvering into position, the rogue making an attack, and the cleric casting a bless spell. The ordering is the fighter moves to where he and the rogue can flank, the cleric blesses the rogue to maximizer her chance to hit whatever she's trying to hit.

In a persuasion attempt, the granular action is the persuade roll and any attempts by other characters to assist or otherwise influence the outcome. But to stretch this analogy, I consider it part of the players' job to tell me what kind of persuasion (or deception) they're trying to pull-- what is the basic line they're trying to sell? I consider this to be the equivalent of the battlefield strategy above.

The GM: The GM is the arbiter/enforcer of the rules.

In a combat, this is often straightforward, until you come to one of the many edge cases that aren't well defined. But as I mentioned above, for the social encounters, it is completely unspecified except that it's the GM's job to figure this out. If the players have some piece of information about the setting or the NPC or the situation that they think can influence things, this is where I want to hear it-- that is how I decide if they have a bonus (capitalizing on Gordon the Guard's fear of geckos) or a penalty ("Are you kidding? The Captain isn't even in town today!") or nothing at all.

The Dice: The dice, of course, are the element of chance. This is what makes Charisma skills unpredictable in the same way that physical skills are, under duress.

The GM, Again: The GM not only enforces the rules, he or she interprets the results of the dice, making a narrative out of them. I can only do this well, in an entertaining way, if I have some notion of how they were trying to do something in the first place.

How I Don't Handle Things

But critically important are these two things:

  • I don't (or at least, I try not to) as for more spontaneously-played details than the player can give. We all want to be Matt Mercer and his crew, effortlessly staying in perfect character through long sequences of high stakes play. But most of us also have to face up to the face that this is a hobby-- we are not trained actors who may even have taken classes in improv technique. Some players are just not great at that kind of spontaneity. Heck, I have a lot less confidence in those situations as a player than I do as a GM. I don't ask fighters for feats of strength to roll an attack, so I don't ask bards for theatrical performance to roll deception.

  • I don't put individual players on the spot or give artificial time pressure. Unless the mood and situation demand otherwise (which is rarely) I will let them consult with other players to get a good idea, or refine one idea into a better one.

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PbtA works around this - don't roll to succeed, roll to get information!

Systems Powered by the Apocalypse have a much neater way of dealing with this. Social skills frequently work like this:

When you try to figure someone out, roll some dice. On success, ask that character's player some of these questions:

  • Who’s pulling your character’s strings?
  • What’s your character’s beef with ______?
  • What’s your character hoping to get from ____?
  • How could I get your character to ____?
  • What does your character worry might happen?
  • How could I put your character in my Debt?

I've deliberately omitted how PbtA dice work because it's not particularly relevant.

This way of handling social skills is really handy, since it allows less-confident roleplayers to still play a slick character by directly asking the GM for advice. Their character is cunning enough to be able to figure these things out by looking at body language, so you can just tell them what their character concludes, and the player can then focus on playing out the scene with their cunning and informed character.

You could easily transplant this sort of system into D&D by just letting your players directly ask questions like this:

"OK, we need to get some horses from one of the clerks. I think I want to see if I can swindle them. Can I roll deception to figure out how?"

"Sure, and it looks like you succeeded! You've spotted that one of the clerks is leaning back in his chair, feet on the desk, idly flicking through the pages of some fantasy novel about epic heroes and triumphant deeds. Actually, looks like he's got the whole series on his bookshelf. And a poster. I bet he'd love to feel like he's a small part of one of these stories - you could probably impress him with some modestly embellished tales of your adventures..."

At this point, the player knows exactly how to play their character in order to get those horses, and since they know they've got the GM's backing and have succeeded the roll, they can dive in with both feet without worrying they might screw it up, and you're all about to play out a very entertaining scene.

You can do similar things for skills like Diplomacy and Intimidate; "you see one of the clerks shift uncomfortably in his chair as he looks at the wizard in your party. I'm not sure he's too comfortable around magic users..."

Not only this, but you've also got fun opportunities for failed rolls. If your players are on board with it, rather than refusing to answer the question, you can give them a totally useless answer if they flub the roll, and tell the player that their character confidently believes this false information; "hang on a minute, you look a lot like the guy on that poster behind the clerk's desk. Seems like the clerk likes that guy a lot. I bet he'd believe you if you told him that was actually you!".

Of course, if players come up with their own ideas you can still reward them for doing that, but with this method you can stop the game grinding to a halt while an unconfident player wracks their brain trying to come up with some kind of smooth lie from scratch.

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