Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?

Have you heard of dungeon masters who keep character sheets from players and who make all the die rolls? Instead of revealing hit points, these DMs say, “Your character feels badly injured and close to death.”

To improve a TV audience’s immersion and to avoid numbers, the Dungeons & Dragons games on Community adopted this style. The creator of Community, Dan Harmon, brought this style to his HarmonQuest live-play show. For performance, the style makes sense.

Some real DMs also took the style for simulation and immersion. They explained that the characters’ don’t know their numbers, so why should their characters? In theory, hiding the mechanical guts of the game lets players focus on the game world and on immersing themselves in their characters.

In practice, when a DM takes such measures, players see a control freak. Players worry that the DM will fudge numbers to force a plot. But even when players trust their DM’s impartiality, the hidden numbers create discomfort. The game rules serve as the physics of the characters’ world. When the DM hides numbers and mechanics, the players lose some ability to make good choices for their characters. They feel robbed of control.

Also, everyone likes to roll their own dice.

Aside from performing D&D for an audience, most stories of DMs hiding the game’s numbers date from role playing’s early days. Then, gamers experimented with styles of play that no longer seem appealing. In White Dwarf issue 75 from 1986, an article titled “Gamemanship” recommended preventing players from reading the game rules. “Players who haven’t read the rules will be unable to spring anything ‘new’ on you.” The author, Martin Hytch, aims for better role playing, but he seems like a control freak.

Nowadays, tales of DMs who hide the game’s numbers from players seem like legend. Any DMs committed to the style probably wonder why no one wants to join their game.

But every DM weighs how many game numbers to share with players. My research turned up contemporary game masters willing to hide a character’s hit points from their players.

Martin Hytch would approve. “Telling a fighter he has lost eleven hit points can have a totally different effect if the DM says, ‘The beast strikes you in the face, breaking your nose.’” I suspect few players share Martin’s devotion to immersion.

A mere description of damage leaves players confused about their characters’ conditions. The broken-nose example falls particularly short. In the DM’s estimation, does the injury leave a character halfway to death, or just a little battered? The DM knows. In the game world, the fighter knows. Only the player feels baffled.

The characters see, hear, smell, and touch the game world. They sense more of their world than even the most vivid description shows the players. The characters bring years of training and experience. They know nothing of hit points, but hit point numbers provide a measure to bridge the information gap between a character living the battle and the player at the table.

DMs rarely hide hit-point and damage numbers from players, but most DMs conceal difficulty classes. Until recently, I kept DCs to myself, but now I typically share them.

As with hit points, the difficulty class number helps span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and a player learning from a DM’s description. When a rogue decides whether to climb a wall, she can see the bricks, mortar, and slick condensation. She can compare to walls she has climbed. At the kitchen table, a DC just sums a character’s experience.

Some folks object to sharing DC numbers because they feel numbers hinder immersion. But hiding the DC leaves plenty of immersion-foiling game in the check. The player still looks up numbers on the character sheet. They still roll a dice and add the result to a number on their character sheet. What’s another number?

In games like Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS, players make checks by rolling under a skill number. These games put a chance of success on the character sheet and make hiding difficulties cumbersome. These games still thrive. Even though players almost always know their chance of success, no one accuses Call of Cthulhu of undermining immersion.

Characters might have more trouble telling the odds of making a saving throw than the difficulty of a jump or climb, but the benefits of revealing save DCs encourage me to reveal them too.

Especially with a high-stakes save, revealing a DC heightens the drama of a die roll. When a character’s fate rests on a roll, when a roll seizes the table’s attention, a player can figure the number they need before throwing the die. A known DC tells players that the DM can’t fudge the line between success and failure. Then the moment the die lands, everyone knows the outcome without asking the DM for an interpretation. By revealing a DC, the DM sides with the players. No one sees where the next roll will take the game. Only the dice decide.

As a DM, revealing a DC frees me from any urge to nudge the narrative by moving a hidden target to land a success or failure. My transparency shows players that their characters’ fate rests on their choices and the luck of the die rather than on a DM’s whims.

Revealing DCs also speeds those situations where several players need to make a roll. Instead of forcing each player to report their role to learn an outcome, just announce DC and let them figure the result.

None of this applies when the characters can’t know the difficulty of a task. Don’t reveal DCs for checks…

  • made to gain information using skills like Insight and Perception.
  • involving a non-player character’s state of mind, such as with Persuasion and Deception.
  • where characters know too little to estimate a difficulty.

The rest of the time, try sharing DCs. I think it makes my game better.

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16 Responses to Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?

  1. Trevor J says:

    First time poster, long time reader… big fan of your blog 🙂

    You’re totally on point here. IMO completely hiding numbers can be fun to try as something new, or as a one shot, but I can’t imagine running or playing in an extended campaign where that’s the norm. No matter how good the DM is at describing things and how familiar the DM is with the players, what’s in the DM’s mind is never going to completely match what’s in the players’. The numbers bridge that gap, and that’s OK.

  2. Dan says:

    On the topic of saving throw DCs, I’ll also note that the idea of hiding those is a fairly recent contrivance – in 2nd Edition and earlier, the number you had to roll to beat was based entirely on your class, level, and what sort of effect it was (e.g., poison, petrification, or what-have-you) and those target numbers would be written on your character sheet.

  3. I completely agree. “Just roll the dice and I’ll tell you what happens” (Arneson?) is a much used “old-school” slogan, but if interpreted in the wrong way, it misses many things:

    1. As you say, the CHARACTERS know all sorts of things the PLAYERS don’t know and can’t know, but hit points and other similar factors are one way of representing that in the game.

    2. A game is only fun if you (as a player) feel that you have enough information to make intelligent or reasonable decisions.

    3. Part of the suspense of the game and the fun of rolling dice is knowing what you need to get.

    4. Too much hidden stuff makes the players feel like they’re under the control of the referee. He may be doing stuff secretly to help you or kill you (or he may be doing nothing at all) but the player is given to feel that his actions may not matter.

    I’m almost of the opinion that the players should roll wandering monster checks, weather determination rolls and so on. Why not? “Immersion” doesn’t mean you have to give up dice. Often rolling such things can make the players feel MORE involved and present in “the world.”

  4. Given that streaming games are trying to engage the audience as much or maybe even more than the players, I can see how this might be a novel approach that could create suspense. But after awhile it would get pretty frustrating for me as a player and I would lose interest, no matter how good a job the DM does at describing what’s happening. Quite frankly I expect the DM to be descriptive anyway, as I am. I never just say ‘You take x damage.’ I’ll describe the attack and include the damage with it. In general I dislike anything that further erodes player agency. The DM already holds all the cards and controls the entire universe, he doesn’t need to take away what little insight I have into the game world via my character and their statistics.

  5. Jesper says:

    Very interesting article! Taking this to the logical conclusion, would you also reveal enemies’ AC and hit points to the players? After all, as experienced fighters they should be able to get a pretty good image of how ‘tough’ an enemy is.

  6. Mike H says:

    I may be in the minority, but I would absolutely play a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with hidden rolls and HP values. I love knowing what’s going on and rolling my own dice (I’m the DM at my table), but as a player I wouldn’t mind trying that at all. Tell me how it FEELS, even overplay how hurt I feel if I fail a constitution check. This could help to develop a nice narrative tension, and have players exercise caution with their characters lives, like they would their own.

    But how I feel as a player doesn’t matter at all in this instance. Because of the collaborative nature of the game, you and your group should reach a consensus about what what makes you comfortable and what is fun prior to play. You should enter into the game with a reasonable understanding of mutual respect and address anything that you didn’t enjoy after the game. The DM is catering the content to the group and they can’t do it without feedback.

  7. Great article! I tend to be very upfront about everything….even AC these days, where I used to just describe the armor worn and let players figure it out. In terms of DCs though if I don’t offer one it usually means “success is more of less guaranteed” but I want a die roll to determine the degree of success. All other cases it’s simply easier to be up front with the numbers I’ve found.

    And on the initial idea….yeah, I’d never game with a GM who held my character sheet hostage. Nor as GM would I want to do that.

  8. David Wintheiser says:

    It’s not a perfect system, but I find I like giving the DCs to characters who are proficient in a given skill or save, and hiding the DCs from characters who are not proficient — this effectively models the Dunning-Kruger effect in RPGs, where those who don’t have a baseline of knowledge about a given subject also don’t know how much they don’t know about a subject.

    I also find myself sympathetic to Jesper’s perspective — if it’s so important to be open with information that characters would have some ability to extrapolate in-game, then why not openly share monster ACs and HPs? Why such revulsion to the idea that players might consult the Monster Manual at the table to figure out how to direct their attacks most effectively against their opponents?

    • Cam says:

      I love that idea about revealing the DC’s if they are proficient! It gives more weight to the characters’ training and experience.

      I will be shamelessly stealing this idea. 🙂

  9. Marty says:

    I’d totally play in that game. While I understand it would require a really good GM that would be able to translate the numbers into useful, actionable descriptions, I think the immersion from this kind of game could be a blast.

    Perhaps a more abstract combat system like Savage Worlds might work better because one could use terminology like “Shaken”, “Stunned”, “Wounded”, etc and give the player a little more meta-knowledge to bridge the gap a bit more.

    • stitchlipped says:

      In an effort to improve immersion I try to reduce hit point talk at the table a little bit using a system that is somewhere in the middle.

      Sometimes it just feels a little inappropriate to be “crunching the numbers” – like when the cleric asks “who needs healing?” and the party start comparing their respective statuses right down to single hit point differences. “Well, I have 9 hit points left but George only has 8. You’d better heal him first!”

      We use minis, so I introduced a system where a character or monster has a coloured token underneath the mini – yellow for 1/4 hp lost (“Weakened”), orange for 1/2 (“Bloodied”), and red for 3/4 (“Critical”). The healers can tell at a glance who in the group is most in need of their help without those immersion breaking conversations. It’s obvious which monsters are looking most beat up. Players can still figure out the numbers, which monsters are weak and strong etc., by how much damage has been dealt to them and what colour token is on the mini. But they don’t have to talk about it as much.

  10. I used to feel it appropriate to play with hidden numbers ~ I ran an Alternity game that way, which worked because the system was new to the players and they were getting a feel for the mechanics ~ but in hindsight, I doubt I could have sustained it beyond a few sessions. Part of the appeal to the game is the fact that it’s a game. As you said above and as many have said before, the numbers represent something in the game world and help us to quantify those things, which aids in our immersion. But I think there’s something missing from the conversation. Immersion is like fun: it can’t be quantified or explained, it just happens. So we shouldn’t seek to increase immersion in our games; we should seek to increase our players’ investment in their characters’ situations.

  11. Drul says:

    Earlier I used to think that hiding numbers would be a great concept, but now I think that If I try to use game mechanics to enforce my preferred style, I’m going the wrong way.

    “Good” players (from my subjective judgement) can have all the metagame information they want, and still make ingame character decisions.
    “Bad” players lacking knwoledge of numbers wills still try to find a way to metagame decisions.

    Of course, mutual agreement on hidden numbers can lead to fantastic gaming experiences, but hidden numbers a means to enhance gaming experience doesn’t really solve the problem, I guess.

  12. John Higgins says:

    I once ran a game this way, with two neophytes who had never played D&D before. Their character sheets just had descriptions (Strength Average, Dexterity High, Constitution Below Average…), and I kept their hit points hidden and just described the characters’ condition in combat to the players as hale, winded, battered, exhausted, etc. The players were fine with it (not being used to anything else), and it did indeed make the game more immersive and exciting; but it was a lot more work for me as DM, and I don’t think I’d want to do it again except in very special circumstances (such as, again, dealing with only a small number of complete newbies for a one-shot or very short campaign).

    I do, however, want to someday try running a game where only the DM rolls all the dice. I want to know how that would go, and how it would change the way the players act and think, if at all. And likewise, I’d like to reverse that sometime and try a game where the players roll all the dice (“You cast Fire Ball at the trolls? Roll damage and then get started on their saving throws!”) That sounds even better, because it would be less work for me while I run the game, and nobody could ever worry that I was fudging rolls.

  13. Daniel Boggs says:

    Bravo David, very thought provoking. I think this topic deserves more attention than it gets. You mentioned Arneson – If you are interested, I took a look at Arneson’s approach in this post http://boggswood.blogspot.com/2016/11/megarrys-blackmoor-character-sheets-iv.html

    Hedgehobbit made a perceptive comment on my post regrading Hit Points and Damage. Basically, without the numbers it is too hard for a player to gauge the actual state of the character in play. Some numbers enhance play, rather than detract from it.

    That said, any time in recent years I’ve played a “new school” game of D&D, I came away feeling disappointed and i see the same thing when I watch games online or wherever. The railroad nature of the adventures is part of that (what do you mean I’m not allowed to cast my web spell on the merchant?), but another big part is the constant, never ending rules talk. It seems to me that 3/4 of the things people say at the “game” table are about rules. All the numbers, talk of checks, abilities, this, that and the other per turn is plain boring, like skull numbingly boring.

    Rules are Boring.

    When I run games for my home group or at conventions I try to build an atmosphere of suspense and exploration, and avoid talking numbers and rules except when needed. Usually that means the only time numbers are discussed are in combat, usually the player telling me the result of a roll or a particular stat on their sheet. The advice I try to follow – and I can think of no better guide – is that given by Jaquays in her Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, especially chapter 3, Pacing and Theatrics.

    I have no difficulty attracting repeat players.

    Of course I don’t use “DC checks” (and can’t even remember what the c stands for at the moment – I hope is isn’t “check” because difficulty check check is just absurd) but when a roll is called for in a given situation I’ll either have the players roll against an ability or a d6 or percentiles, depending. So in many situations they will have the TN themselves on their sheet, and they can tell me if they succeeded or failed, The other players don’t need to be distracted with me announcing a bunch of rules and numbers that don’t apply to them.

    So, color me dubious about the extent to which you seem to equate the “control freak” moniker with number talk conservation. I’m sure it is possible for a referee to be overly controlling at the expense of fun play. Of course it is, and not letting the players roll dice strikes me as a good example of such – but with that caveat in mind, the dungeon master is supposed to be the master of the game.

    The opposite, and what I would argue we see in “modern” editions is that the rules are in control of the game to an extent I would call freakish. Where the rule book, abetted by complicit DMs running tightly scripted adventures, is “in charge”. it is “the rules” who is the real control freak, dominating play to the extent that even the adventure itself feels superfluous. Instead of an adventure, today’s game sessions feel like collective intensive rules studies, with a bit of a story background added to serve as rule illustrations.

    • Ilbranteloth says:

      I’m of a similar opinion to Mr. Boggs.

      I’ve introduced a lot of players to the game, and I still like the AD&D approach where the bulk of the rules are under the control of the DM. For me it really has nothing at all to do with control. It’s all about the immersion in the game.

      Part of this is also fighting against the trends of the later rulesets. The more rules there are, especially player facing ones, the more the players engage the rules instead of the adventure.

      For example, it’s quite common to hear a player just ask, “can I make a Perception check to see if I notice anything?”

      I don’t know, can you? What are you actually doing when you “make a Perception check.” What actions are you actually taking?

      I’d prefer that they tell me what they’re doing, and I’ll let them know what they see, or if they need to make a check. My players learn to do that quickly, because I use a combination of their passive score, their capability (20 + modifier), and their description as either automatic success (they look under the desk and find something attached to the bottom), failure (searching the bookcase won’t find the secret door hidden under the carpet under the desk), or a modifier (advantage/disadvantage). They actually get to do things, impact their chance of success, and if a roll is needed I let them know.

      But the focus remains on the adventure, the activity within the game, and not the rules of the game itself. The rules are consulted as needed to determine success/failure.

      Instead, the game is more tied to the rules, where engaging the rules alters the actions that the players take. Rogues target a creature that is fighting an ally, move in for Sneak Attack, and then using Cunning Action to move out of reach. Every. Single. Round.

      In our campaign, the fighter is engaged with an orc, and the rogue tries to move in, the orc circles around the fighter, keeping the rogue and the fighter in front of it. The fighter charges and shoves the orc back between a large rock on one side, and a couple of closely spaced trees on the other, while at the same time the rogue sprints around the trees to get behind the orc. Literally trapped between a rock and a hard place, it can’t prevent the rogue from flanking it and gaining an advantage.

      The orc sees the situation for what it is, though, and judges the rogue the softer target, and makes a desperate attempt to overbear the rogue and charges. The fighter takes advantage of the opening and attacks, pressing it and following closely behind. The orc succeeds in grabbing the rogue, and attempts to shove him back into the fighter to slow the pursuit.

      I’ve taught a lot of players over the years (four of the current group were new), and I still use the AD&D approach, where the players don’t need to know the rules, just have it on their character sheet to reference when needed. Sure, they use the rules over time. But they also aren’t limited by the rules. All too often I find an experienced player joining my campaign “playing to the rules.’ That is, they expect the rules to tell them what they can do, and don’t consider that there are lots of other options. The new players, though, aren’t constrained by that. And most of the time I find that it’s the new players that “teach” the experienced players that I don’t limit you to what the rules say you “can do.”

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