I recently came across the video – Charisma Checks in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition are TOTALLY BACKWARDS – from Taking20. I don’t know much about the channel but they sometimes pop up in my Youtube recommendations and this one caught my eye.
One of the really relevant sections starts at about 3:25 when he describes the order in which checks are handled and how a Charisma check should work. Should you not have time to watch the video; here’s the premise.
Most checks – whether to hit a monster or to lift a log out of the road – start with a stated intent (“I attack”), then get a roll, then the player and/or GM narrate the result based on the outcome of the roll.
Charisma-based checks like Deception tend to go a different way – The character walks up to the NPC, spins a lie, and then the GM calls for a roll. The roll is still the determinant of success or failure but the narration happened before the roll instead of after. So, as the guy in the video acknowledges – that is handled differently. But he’s not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. And honestly, how you feel about whether it is a good or bad thing likely speaks to how you feel about mechanical interactions at the table in general.
Let me pause a moment to say that none of this is particularly new territory. Handling social vs. “other” kinds of skill checks is a discussion that rolls back to the beginning of time (gaming-wise) and I’m not sure we’ll ever truly escape it. But the guy in the video makes another point that tacks right on to this that is why it always seems to matter.
He talks about the two sides of the Charisma problem. On the one hand, we don’t care how strong the Player is when their Character makes a Strength-related check. But we do tend to judge Players for their ability to make up a convincing lie for their Characters to tell “on-the-spot” when they want to make a Charisma check. So this might mean that a shy or quiet Player – or one who just isn’t super witty – might not gain the same benefit of a high Charisma stat compared to a non-athletic person playing a Character with a high Strength stat. Which diminishes their participation in the game.
The other side to that, he points out, is that some players enjoy the act of role-playing that lie-spinning and the challenge of it prior to rolling. It’s part of the fun, part of the enjoyment for them… But then he admits that when he does spin a convincing lie or come up with a logical argument, he is frustrated by the dice thwarting him because his Charisma bonus is low and maybe he only has a 50/50 shot. That feels a little like wanting it both ways. Again, it’s complicated and there are layers. And it’s a problem gaming has always had.
If you look at a document like, A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, by which they mean original editions of D&D and AD&D, they discuss the “skills vs. no-skills” problem in detail. And if you look at older games like D&D they tend to have a base-line assumption that the player is going to ask a lot of questions, poke and prod at the mysteries of the dungeon, and tend to play in a very Active manner. The authors of the primer largely focus on investigation and exploration vs. social skills but the point is the same. Old School is focused (for better or worse) on player skill and can fail to account for character ability. (Because why does the Wisdom 4/Intelligence 8 Fighter think of all the same things when searching as the Wisdom 12/Intelligence 16 Magic User?) New School versions of D&D tend to shed that in favor of a more character-skill-based system where player skill can become lost by virtue of solely focusing on the rules of rolling for character skills. Again, I am not fully endorsing one over the other and your comfort zone as a group probably determines how you feel about the whole argument.
So the issue of Charisma checks isn’t so much that they are uniquely backward in a vacuum. It’s more that they have become an artifact of different styles of play interacting as the D&D rules have shifted from the more Old School mindset to the more current mindset of 3/4/5th Editions.
On a related note, there are some little details to be gleaned from how systems handled things in the old-school that tend to get overlooked by modern discussions. The DM had a handy tool in their pocket for encounters that could be co-opted for other NPC interactions – the Reaction Roll. It wasn’t perfect, but could provide a baseline for the tone and tenor of a social encounter. If the noble you want to persuade starts off feeling indifferent, you might be able to convince him better than if he starts off hostile. And if the lucky PC with the 18 Charisma is the one “smoochzing” his Lordship, then the chance of getting a Friendly result improves. But if you are all 6 Charisma bozos who only think you’re slick, then he might not be inclined to listen to you in the first place. A tool like this made it less about the success of one roll or one attribute and focused instead on staging the encounter – just like the GM might describe all the obstacles a PC has to deal with during a fight when setting the scene.
Again, it’s not perfect, but for my own preference, I find that sort of thing more engaging than any of the extremely convoluted sets of Social Mechanics I’ve found in many games that essentially turn social encounters into another form of combat. And I’m sure that those are perfect for some other gamers who are not me. So, pick your poison and enjoy it.
I tend to prefer the older way – but I also want to point out that much of my mindset is formed from really cutting my teeth as a GM on a weird game called Amber Diceless Roleplaying. It was a game without randomizers, without a lot of rules in general. It encouraged player skill and heavy character involvement/role-play. But it also understood that not every player was a thousand year old immortal with an almost infinite well of mundane skills to draw upon. There’s a great little part of the game where the advice to the GM goes something like, “Hey, if the character has established that they are a trained surgeon, don’t ask them to explain how they do surgery… just know that they can do it and then focus on outcomes, etc.” There’s more to it than that – but the advice stuck.
It is my opinion that the best way to handle these sorts of things – including Charisma checks – is with a balance of rules and rulings. The 6 Charisma goon is sometimes going to say just the right thing and the 18 Charisma courtier will sometimes say the wrong thing. It happens.
Your character’s stats should mean something concrete in the game world. If you took Charisma as a dump stat, suck it up when you fail Charisma rolls. You brought that on yourself. But role-playing still matters too. I’m not talking about having to come up with the best lie as a Player. I’m saying, Hey, so the lie feels a little transparent when the shy kid at the table comes up with it in two seconds and says it to you (the GM)… But when their insanely attractive half-angel bard spins that same lie… Is the guard even listening? Or is he entranced by their grace and charm? It’s cool. Blend the action of RP into the action of the imaginary world that RP represents. Use modifiers if you think they are warranted. But don’t think too hard about it. At the end of the day – it’s fun we’re hopefully after.
That’s my take on it. Hope it helps if you are confronting the same thoughts at your table. And, as always, thanks for reading.