Skilled: Sense Motive

April 9, 2015 under Skilled

Pathfinder can be an extremely complex game, and even the most experienced Gamemaster can learn something new. “Skilled” aims to clarify some of the more complex aspects of Pathfinder to help Gamemasters adjudicate their games more accurately and players learn the nuances of the rules.

There are many ways to handle oneself in the social arena, and much like any combat, having a good defense can give you an edge or prolong your life just a little while longer.  Pathfinder is no different.  In this edition of Skilled, we discuss one of the oft-forgotten but crucially important social skills available to players.

Sense Motive


You are skilled at detecting falsehoods and true intentions.

–Paizo PRD, Sense Motive

The NPCs of the Pathfinder world are subject to the whims of the players (and sometimes the GM).  They can be charmed, pushed around, and even lied to, and the only thing that stands in the party’s way is a DC.  On the flip-side of the coin, a PC can react freely to whatever an NPC might tell them — a genuine offer of courtesy could be rudely declined, a guard’s attempt to dissuade you from an action can be ignored, and a deception must be accepted at face value, which could have negative real-life ramifications on the game if done excessively.  However, players (and NPCs) have a tool to deal with this: Sense Motive.

A successful check lets you avoid being bluffed (see the Bluff skill). You can also use this skill to determine when “something is up” (that is, something odd is going on) or to assess someone’s trustworthiness.

–Paizo PRD, Sense Motive

There are three specific tasks that the Sense Motive skill states that a character can do, but many of its uses fall outside of the actual skill entry in the Core Rule Book.

The first task is your character’s raw intuition, or “hunch”.  “This use of the skill involves making a gut assessment of the social situation. You can get the feeling from another’s behavior that something is wrong, such as when you’re talking to an impostor. Alternatively, you can get the feeling that someone is trustworthy.”  The Sense Motive DC is 20 to develop a hunch, and knowing if an individual is a straight-shooter, disingenuous, pompous, or pathological liar can help guide your interactions with them.  One of the best things about hunches is that the DC never increases; the DC is always 20.

The second task is sensing enchantments.  “You can tell that someone’s behavior is being influenced by an enchantment effect even if that person isn’t aware of it. The usual DC is 25, but if the target is dominated, the DC is only 15 because of the limited range of the target’s activities.”  This is a variation of hunches, in which you can determine if someone has been charmed into doing something they normally wouldn’t.  As a GM, I may lump this and hunches together into one roll.

The third task is discerning secret messages.

You can use Bluff to pass hidden messages along to another character without others understanding your true meaning by using innuendo to cloak your actual message. The DC of this check is 15 for simple messages and 20 for complex messages. If you are successful, the target automatically understands you, assuming you are communicating in a language that it understands. If your check fails by 5 or more, you deliver the wrong message. Other creatures that receive the message can decipher it by succeeding at an opposed Sense Motive check against your Bluff result.

–Paizo PRD, Bluff

While secret messages are another underutilized skill, but Sense Motive is potentially your protection against the room of bad guys with the audacity to talk about your immanent death right in front of you.

The uses of Sense Motive go way beyond the implicit entry in the Core Rule Book skill descriptions.  Bluff checks are opposed rolls, and a player can protect against such deception by making an opposed Sense Motive check.  Feinting in combat, which renders an opponent flat-footed against the assailant’s next attack, normally has a DC calculated based on the target’s BAB and Wisdom modifier, but a character with Sense Motive can increase their protection from this maneuver dramatically.  For characters with the Snake Style combat feat, you can make a Sense Motive check and use this as your AC against certain attacks.

For the most part, classes that serve a support role receive Sense Motive as a class skill (as many arcane specialists have ways to see through deception, and martial characters can typically soak a hit sans catastrophe), but anyone can make a check untrained.  A 2nd level Cleric with 18 Wisdom and maxed ranks in Sense Motive could successfully receive a hunch 50% of the time (4 [Wisdom Bonus] + 2 [Skill Ranks] + 3 [Class Skill] = 9) and have a 50/50 chance of avoiding deception from a similarly-leveled guileful Bard.  While the arms race with a highly-trained liar will always be a stalemate barring any feats or magical enhancements, a Cleric with at 11th level with no other enhancements but their two attribute points (5 [Wisdom Bonus] + 11 [Skill Ranks] + 3 [Class Skill] = 19) could guarantee a successful gut feeling on everyone they meet.

TL;DR Version

Sense Motive can be used actively to get an intuitive read on a situation or individual, giving your character insight even before a social encounter even begins.  Passively, Sense Motive acts as a character’s protection against deceptive ploys both in and out of combat.

How Much Do I Need?

That really depends on what you want your character to do.  The most powerful active task a character can perform is the “hunch”, which is always DC 20.  Enough points to be able to reliably “read” others might be sufficient for some.  However, Sense Motive opposes Bluff checks, which will almost always place a character in a precarious situation.  Proactive characters may consider maxing this skill out as an “early warning” system for their party, while more reactive characters will likely find better uses for their skill points (and their picture in the dictionary next to the definition for gullible).

Quotes taken from the Paizo PRD.

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