Is Intimidation in D&D 5th Edition Meant for Combat?
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
How to Use Intimidation in Your Adventures
Many of the behaviors in Dungeons & Dragons are violent, and the rules spend more time on combat than on anything else. You have physical attacks with swords, and staves, and bows. You have magical attacks with spells like Fireball and Magic Missile. And you have other spells and abilities—like Healing Word and Bardic Inspiration—that can turn the tides of combat indirectly.
But you also have rules for behaviors outside of combat. Skill checks allow you to apply the same rule-structure that governs combat to your characters’ non-combat behaviors—their diplomatic efforts, their attempts to sneak around and infiltrate buildings, and their attempts to recognize when that friendly halfling baker is lying to them through his teeth.
Sometimes, however, the rules are not entirely clear about when your characters can use their skills, how they can use them, and what consequences might follow upon their successes or failures. This is the case with the Intimidation skill in 5th Edition.
A Little Bit of Context
To understand how Intimidation works—and how it might work for you—it will help to start with a little bit of context: the current rules, the rules from previous editions, and how you and your Dungeon Master (here at Quest Chests, we prefer “Quest Master”) might apply your successes and failures to different types of situations.
First of all, let’s look at the Intimidation skill. In 5th Edition, it reads:
“Intimidation. When you attempt to influence someone through overt threats, hostile actions, and physical violence, the GM might ask you to make a Charisma (Intimidation) check. Examples include trying to pry information out of a prisoner, convincing street thugs to back down from a confrontation, or using the edge of a broken bottle to convince a sneering vizier to reconsider a decision.”
All of this is highly intuitive. However, what it is not is instructive. It’s not clear what the difficulty class is for any given Intimidation check. It’s not clear how—or even if—the check is opposed. Would it be opposed by a saving throw, another skill, or just an ability check?
It’s also not clear if the skill can be used in combat.
Look at the examples within the rules; With the possible exception of the street thugs, these situations all exist outside of combat. The thugs situation also likely exists out of combat. This is because Intimidation is all about the threat of violence (or another form of hostility, such as the exposure of a powerful secret)—without the actual violence.
However, there’s a solid argument to be made for the use of Intimidation in combat. This argument leans on the fact that Intimidation has a long history within the combats of the game’s 3rd and 4th Editions, as well as the fact that successful Intimidation checks render their targets fearful. This depends on whether or not your Quest Master feels that fearful state is the actual Frightened condition, which would apply disadvantage to its rolls against your character.
In 3rd edition, not only could you use Intimidate to manipulate social encounters (as a proxy for Bluff or Diplomacy), but you could use the skill to render your target shaken in combat. Shaken was the lowest level of fear in the game, but the message was clear: your Intimidate skill could be used to frighten your enemies in combat.
In 4th Edition, the rules for the Intimidate skill were even more explicit. It could be used in Skill Challenges and in combat, and your successes in combat could prove even more dramatic than in 3rd Edition:
“Success: You force a bloodied target to surrender, get a target to reveal secrets against its will, or cow a target into taking some other action.”
The rules were also explicit that intimidation wasn’t the same as mind control, but the ability to force a bloodied giant or wizard to surrender was undoubtedly powerful—especially if that successful intimidation check saved you five more rounds of getting beaten by the giant’s club or stopped the wizard from casting the Meteor Swarm that would have finished off half your party.
So if the combat uses of Intimidate were clearly defined in both 3rd and 4th Editions, what does that tell us about how it should be used in 5th Edition?
You and Your Quest Master
One of the ways that 5th Edition broke with the previous editions was that it relaxed a lot of the non-combat rules. The Intimidation skill is an example of this, but it’s not the only one. It’s representative of an entire philosophy that moved 5th Edition away from the heavily codified rule-set that defined 3rd Edition and—more strictly—4th Edition.
In 5th Edition, rules are meant to be clear enough that players can understand how their characters function, Quest Masters can adjudicate the situations that arise, and neither side feels forced into a corner by the rules—especially a corner in which there’s limited room for role-playing and creativity.
Much of this movement is exemplified by the system for Advantage and Disadvantage that replaced the numerous bonuses and penalties that could increase or decrease your dice modifiers in 3rd and 4th Editions. Sure, you can find reasons for granting Advantage or Disadvantage that are explicit within the rules: attacking while Invisible, being blinded, being frightened, or using the barbarian’s Reckless Attack ability. But your Quest Master is also encouraged to grant you Advantage when you try something cool and clever—or, conversely, to grant you Disadvantage when your action is either extremely foolish or fails spectacularly.
This is where we find Intimidation in 5th Edition—at the crossroads between clever role-play and mechanical benefits in combat.
The result is that Intimidation becomes a skill that relies upon a shared understanding between the player and the Quest Master. It is possible to use the skill to frighten your foes in combat—and force them to suffer Disadvantage against you—but only if the Quest Master agrees.
This means that if you’re thinking about creating a character who can put Intimidation to good use, you'll want to see if your Quest Master will allow you to make your intimidated foes frightened. Perhaps you play a rogue with a flourish for the dramatic in combat; Your rogue could use Expertise to double her bonus to Intimidation, as she whips her daggers about her with uncanny speed prior to slashing at her enemy.
Likewise, as a Quest Master, you’ll want to give the skill some thought. How will you reward your players’ use of Intimidation? Will your decision to grant Advantage or Disadvantage be based upon the flair with which they role-play their Intimidation attempts? Or will it be strictly about the skill’s success or failure? How will you even decide if the skill is successful? Will you decide to set a Difficulty Class based upon whether you feel the check is Easy, Moderate, Hard, or Very Hard? Or will you declare that your player character’s Intimidation effort will be opposed by the character’s Insight or Wisdom save?
Whether you’re the player or the Quest Master, you’ll want to discuss the way you’ll resolve your Intimidation before you get to them. There’s nothing worse than planning to flex your 20-Strength muscles and send the goblins running—only to have your Quest Master declare the action has no chance of success because you’re already in combat.
But—if you and your Quest Master can agree on the terms—Intimidation is a fun and fitting way to build extra role-play into the roughest and surliest of barbarians and fighters. It’s great for sinister rogues and sly bards, as well.
Depending what you and your Quest Master agree to, Intimidation might allow you to do everything from rendering an enemy frightened or forcing a badly wounded giant to surrender. If you’re feeling extremely creative, it could even allow you to cut short an entire combat encounter by casting your steely-eyed gaze at the newly arrived bandits, lifting up the nearest corpse as you stand, and wiping the blood off your greatsword with the dead man’s tunic. Drop the corpse back to the ground, and shout, “You want some of this? COME GET SOME!”