Insight Isn’t Pass/Fail


5th Edition D&D uses ability checks in a pass/fail fashion. The DM sets the Difficulty Class (DC), the players roll, adding their ability modifier and any relevant skill proficiencies, and the result either meets/exceeds the DC (and passes) or falls short (and fails).

To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier. As with other d20 rolls, apply bonuses and penalties, and compare the total to the DC. If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success — the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it's a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.

While there’s some guidance in the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide suggesting a “fail forward” mechanic if you fail by two or less, this isn’t really hard coded in the system, or implemented in its adventures. Some D&D adventures offer differing degrees of failure (see, e.g. the avalanche and blizzard mechanics in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden). But, some skills are better suited to having varying degrees of success.

The Problem with Pass/Fail

Insight is the prime example. Insight should not be a pass/fail skill. When used this way, it falls into a boring “lie detector” cycle where characters can either catch the non-player…

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