Charisma Checks are Backwards

An interesting idea came up in a Youtube video I was watching today from Taking20. The video claims (as the title so adequately mentions) that Charisma Checks in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition are TOTALLY BACKWARDS. It’s like a light bulb went off over my head as they were saying it. I’ve been handling most of these checks backwards for years. And, what’s more, this is the way that it should be done!

Normal Checks

But first, what do I mean by Charisma checks should be done backwards? Skill checks in most systems have three distinct parts that happen in the following order:

  1. Desired Action – this is what the player wants to be able to do, it’s the actions they are going to take to accomplish their goals.
  2. Outcome – The rolling of the dice. This is the random element in any given system.
  3. Narrative Conclusion – The shared story created by the players and Game Master based on the outcome of the result.

Let’s start with a normal skill check. Let’s say your character, Charlie the sneak thief, needs to infiltrate a guard tower.

If Charlie decides to scale the wall as their Desired action, your GM would ask for an acrobatics or climbing roll, and based on the outcome, the Game Master, or the Player would describe what happens narratively. A poor roll, and Charlie probably won’t be able to scale the wall, whereas a good result may have him scaling it silently.

Now, instead, let’s say Charlie is trying to get into the guard tower by deceiving the guards in to letting him gain entry. Many Game Masters would first ask Charlie’s player what they are going to say. What is their narrative lie they are going to tell before the Game Master even calls for a roll. You come up with “Shift Change, you’re relieved of duty for the night”, a fairly risky lie, but it may pay off big in some cities with lax security.

The Power

In my group, if there is a particularly convincing lie, or persuasive argument made, whoever is GM that session may not even call for a roll, deciding that the narrative argument makes the roll easy enough to not even be worth rolling. This is the true strength of calling for Charisma based rolls backwards. The players are able to help decide the outcome based on good decisions and clever roleplay.

For me, this is the crux of what makes Tabletop RPG’s special. You have the option to do Anything. There aren’t limited options like with a video game. Oftentimes player actions and decisions can have an outcome that the Game Master couldn’t even see coming.

The Problem

I’m sure this is how many people reading this article handle Charisma checks at their table. However, there does exist one problem with this method, and that’s usually for new players. New players may not feel entirely comfortable speaking for their characters in a group of new people.

I’ve also heard some say that this is also a disadvantage to many shy or introverted players that I’ve played with over the years (I mean, I’m one too). I disagree. After enough sessions, every shy and introverted player and group member I’ve ever played with has gotten over most of their shyness and started joking around with the gaming group, becoming a lot more comfortable.

Another problem that I’ve seen is with inexperienced players. Oftentimes inexperienced players will be unsure of what can or cannot be done, and what is the proper way to handle social situations in game. The problem here lies within that these skills rely on Player Skill to come up with lies, and arguments instead of the character that they are playing.

The Fix

However, as for many problems, there is a solutions, And I just happen to have it.

GM’s should always ask players for their argument or lie before asking them to roll for the outcome.

But, this doesn’t fix the problem outlined above does it? Well, not yet, but this is an important stepping stone. As a Game Master you should always give your players the most tools available for them to solve the puzzles and solutions to set them in. You should always give them the Option, whether or not they are able to take it.

Now, I assure you, I haven’t forgotten about the inexperienced players, or even experienced players whose minds sometimes go blank on the spot. One of the most important things to remember is that Tabletop RPG’s are meant to be collaborative storytelling, and that means that other players can help when you get stuck.

In my group we have a “Help Me” option for any charisma checks. The player that is taking command always takes precedence, however, if the acting player gets stuck on what to say, they can open up the floor by asking if anyone has some ideas. This can help keep the game moving fairly well, while still giving the players the edge.

The other option that we have is the “I’m Stuck” option. This is always the last option. If all of the players are stuck, or determining what to ask is taking too long, the Player, or the GM may call for the roll. This is a normal skill check, much like scaling the wall earlier. It follows the traditional format of skill rolls.

The Ending

Really, it all comes down to the Game Master should allow players to use any tool available to them. If they are able to narratively argue something for their characters, you should let them at least try. But, that’s just my opinion.

What about you all, do you think that Charisma checks should be handled like every other skill check, or should more agency be given to the players?