Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

When players roll their own perception checks, they learn something from the number on the die roll. Players with bad rolls know that their search may have missed something; players with great rolls may trust the game master’s report that they found nothing.

As a game master, you can make perception checks in secret, but players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the GM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bysander watching the game rather than participating.

Who should roll perceptions checks?

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

Many players take pride in running their character without relying on any metagame information. These players can roll, obviously blow their check, and press ahead knowing that if a trap awaits, they missed it. If you have such players at your table, let them roll their own checks. Still, even for these players, knowing the rolls can rob the adventure of some sense of peril and mystery.

Some players take the unearned information that comes from the number on the die and they use it to make choices. For them, remind them that their characters don’t know they blew a search check, so the characters lack any reason to repeat the search. If they keep searching anyway, roll the second check for them, out of their view. And if you simply ignore the second roll, no one will know.

Roll substitution

If you want a game that emphasizes a sense of challenge and risk—or you have a table of unrepentant metagamers, I suggest an occasional roll substitution.

Tell the players, “Whenever you make a perception check, I will secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If I roll a 1 on the d6, the information I tell you will be based on my d20 roll rather than on yours.”

With this approach, most of the players’ rolls still apply, so players remain connected with the game. The visible roll gives the players a fair sense of how their characters performed, just as you might have a sense of your performance on a real-world test. But players can never feel certain that a 19 on the die means they found everything to find. And when someone rolls a 1, but sees a glimmer on the horizon, it may be more than a mirage.

Misdirection

If you only ask for perception checks when something can be noticed, the checks will put players on alert. Once or twice a session, when nothing can be found, you should call on players to make a Spot or Perception check. No matter what the roll, frown, shake your head, and tell them nothing. Not only will this unnerve the players, but it trains them to avoid assuming that they must have missed something.

Next: Is it noticed? How to run alertness

4 thoughts on “Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

  1. Eric

    This actually came up last night. How I wish I had this article before then. Brilliant idea.

    When I play, I enjoy playing as my player character would, regardless of effect. Responding to challenges is part of the fun, and by playing thusly, I have opportunities to explore something about my own personal character that I might not be able to in the real world, or to do so without the attendant real-world costs, if you will. I think playing the character as the playing character would is a skill, especially for folks that GM and have a lot more knowledge. As a skill, however, it can be developed. It, also, takes a willingness to allow a journey to unfold, and not to concentrate on beating the system or winning, per se. If I want to play a tactical game, I have plenty of table-top games to do so. What I enjoy about roleplaying, is role, is narrative, is unfolding.

    Again, David, great idea. I will incorporate this next time I run a game. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Eric,
      Glad you liked it. In my experience, most RPG players take similar pride in playing their character true to character, some better than others. Of course, if a game’s tone favors overcoming deadly challenges over narrative, then you cannot really expect folks not to take every available advantage.

      Dave

      Reply
  2. Don Holt

    I assume you set those dice aside, to be uncovered at the appropriate time? What a great idea. If I ever play D&D again (like at a convention), I’ll have the DM do that for me. Maybe they’ll adopt it.

    Reply
    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Don,
      I may have been confusing. I make my own d6 and d20 rolls when a player rolls a perception check. When I tell them the result of their perception check, I sometimes base the outcome on the result of the d20 roll I just made. This works as an alternative to always secretly rolling on the players behalf. The same procedure works for insight/sense motive.

      Dave

      Reply

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