When players make Wisdom (Perception), Spot, Search, Insight, and other rolls to gain information, the number on the die reveals things: A low roll with no discovery suggests the character missed something; a high roll without a discovery confirms nothing to find. Unlike the players, their characters never see the die roll, so they lack the same insight.
In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, dungeon masters avoided revealing such metagame clues by rolling secretly. To see if someone spotted a secret door, Gary Gygax rolled a 6-sided die behind a screen. Elves locate hidden passages on a roll of 1-4.
But when a die roll affects the characters’ fate, players like throwing their own dice. We all feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. Plus, dungeon masters see player rolls bring other benefits: Die rolls grab the players’ attention and keeps them physically engaged. (See How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice.)
Fifth edition D&D skips the roll with the innovation of passive checks. Just compare the DC against a passive score. In theory, passive checks speed play, avoiding all those secret die rolls to spot hidden doors. The DM simply decides in advance what hidden doors the party will find, and then sets the DCs accordingly. Phrased like that, the procedure seems like no fun at all. Die rolls add surprise, uncertainty, and even a sense of fairness to our games. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.)
Aside from secret rolls (less fun) and passive checks (no fun), gamers account for the metagame insights that come from seeing the die roll in different ways:
- The players roll, and then roleplay as if they didn’t see the die.
- The players roll, but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks.
Over the years, I’ve gone through periods where I’ve favored each of those approaches. When I asked folks on twitter for their favorite techniques, I even learned a new one thanks to Alyssa Visscher.
- The players roll, but the DM doesn’t tell what the roll is for.
For this technique, the DM has to know the characters’ perception bonuses. Just ask for a d20 roll, add the bonus, and go with the outcome. This lets players roll and grabs attention. For advantage or disadvantage, ask for two rolls.
I used to hope for a perfect method that brought player engagement without revealing metagame clues, but I’ve given up that search. Now I see a toolkit of methods, each with advantages.
How should you choose the right fit for a situation?
One situation always leads to a best approach. If a roll for initiative or damage would immediately follow a perception check, just let the player roll. Even players with imperceptive PCs immediately learn what t hey missed, so DMs gain nothing from a passive check or from metagame-thwarting tricks. (See How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite.)
Other situations offer nearly as much clarity. If the players have to find something like a clue or a secret door for the adventure to continue, just let them find it without a roll. Or play the odds and let everyone roll. Someone will nearly always succeed. I’ve used both tricks to guarantee success, but I’m never proud of it. Checks that require success hint at fragile adventures that require a dash of railroading. (See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)
Also, specific actions can eliminate any need for die rolls. The characters leading the party might need to make a perception check to notice a hidden pit, but if they probe the floor with their 10-foot pole, the discovery becomes automatic.
Choosing from the other methods calls for more judgment.
DM rolls secretly. Aside from depriving players of the fun of rolling, secret rolls suffer from a second disadvantage: In today’s roleplaying games, characters bring extra abilities likely to affect their chance of making a particular check. DMs can never expect to learn them all.
Still, for high-stakes insight checks that steer the course of an adventure, I ask players for their insight modifier and roll in secret. (See Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes.)
Instead of rolling, use passive checks. Despite my distaste for how passive checks rob players of rolls in favor of a mechanic uncomfortably close to DM fiat, I sometimes account for passive scores during low-stakes descriptions. Characters with high perceptions may notice clues or interesting details that deserve extra attention. When using this technique, mention that the character’s keen perception led to the discovery. Players deserve to know that their character choices paid off.
Players roll and roleplay as if they didn’t see the die. This method works best for low-stakes situations where the players have little fear of overlooking something dangerous or valuable. In perilous situations, the technique forces players into an uncomfortable conflict between risking their characters and playing their role. Also, by eliminating some natural uncertainty, instead of truly feeling unease and a sense of mystery, players just pretend to feel.
Players roll but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks. Every DM intuits one bluff: If characters search a door for traps, then someone rolls even if the door has no traps. But characters can notice hidden doors even when no player asked to look, which means asking players to roll checks. To add extra uncertainty, ask for checks at times when nothing important can be found. This camouflages the important checks and heightens the tension that comes from knowing peril might hide nearby.
For extra misdirection, respond to every knowledge check with some information, even something familiar. So if the players fail a check to spot the spy following them through the market, tell them about the smell from the fishmonger, the buskers playing at the fountain, or the urchin looking for pockets to pick.
When players gain such information, they feel unsure of whether they missed their check or successfully learned something unremarkable.
Players roll, but a table rule adds uncertainty. Years ago, I proposed letting players make their own information checks, but occasionally overriding their due based on a secret roll. Whenever a player makes a check for information, secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If the d6 comes up 1, substitute your d20 result for the player’s.
In life, people tend to get a sense of how well they accomplish a task. Likewise, using this method, players gain a sense of whether their character succeeded, but as in life, that intuition may sometimes prove false.
Players must know about this uncertainty in advance, or they will suspect their DM of overriding rolls to hurt the characters. So this technique requires a rule of the table that everyone accepts.
What‘s your favorite method?