Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try

At last week’s game, the characters searched a room. After the first searcher rolled low, another decided to redo the search. The searching and the low rolls continued until someone rolled high enough to prove that there was nothing to find. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes at the obvious metagaming. If the scene had mattered, I might have told them that the characters lacked any reason to repeat the search. When players make perception, insight, and knowledge checks, players routinely glean information from the number on the die. This bothers me.

The obvious solution to this problem is for the dungeon master to roll informational checks for the players. Players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the DM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bystander watching the game rather than participating. Also, players enjoy having the unearned information from the number on the die.

So I tolerate the metagaming and I let the players roll. Besides, it may not be entirely unfair for the number on the die to give the players hints, because when you attempt something, you often have a feel for how well you did. Of course, in life, your sense may be wrong, while if you see the die roll, you know. (In life, the worse you are at something, the more likely you are to overrate your efforts.)

In the early days of the hobby, I learned a technique that I like better than rolling for the players.

When players make stealth, perception, insight, and knowledge checks, let them roll as usual, but also roll a d6 and keep the result secret. If you roll anything but a 6, treat the player’s die roll normally. If you roll a 6, flip their die roll so 1 becomes 20, 20 becomes a 1, and so on. Tell them the outcome of their action based on the inverted result. Now the player who rolled a 19 can feel fairly confident that there is nothing to find, but not certain. Now the player who rolled a 2, but feels a hunch that the informant is deceptive just might be right.

I’ve never used the method in play, because I know players will object to losing the unearned certainty that comes from knowing the die roll. Perhaps I’m not a mean enough DM.

Are you mean enough? If you plan to use this method, tell your players. They should know that the hunches they base on their rolls may be inaccurate. If you’re quick with arithmetic, you can flip a d20 roll by subtracting 21 and throwing out the negative. Otherwise, just create a table by writing the numbers from 1 to 20 alongside the numbers from 20 to 1 at the edge of your DM screen.

How do you feel about rolling for the players or otherwise adding uncertainty to perception, insight, and knowledge checks?

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8 Responses to Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try

  1. Don Holt says:

    Fortunately I have players that enjoy the game enough that when they make a bad roll, they will then do a wisdom save. If they fail the wisdom save then the player knows that the character is mistaken, but the character doesn’t. In fact, if the character fails the wisdom save badly, my players will have their character argue his point passionately even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Good role players make for great games.

  2. David says:

    The other option is to just disregard any dice rolls after say the second set, representing the *characters* lack of attention in searching the same spot yet again.

  3. Don Holt says:

    If the players want there to be something at the location, why would I prevent that? It’s as much their story as it is mine. It’s my job to come up with an intriguing item. Whether its part of the current task, a missing piece to a previous task, or the beginning of another task, who’s to say? If you can’t work it that night, just tell your players you need time to think about what they have found, and take it up in one of the next sessions. And if you’re still having trouble, ask them to have their characters discuss what they think it is. You’ll gain insight into how the players are viewing events.

    • ROBERT HRADEK says:

      I understand the whole “make it fun for the players” thing you are trying to do, but as a player, I really hate that. It makes the game world less concrete for me. In a way it even takes away my agency because no matter what I do, it will be what I need to do. My character might as well keep digging holes in his back yard to find a dragons hoard, because if he does it enough it seems your game would change to meet his desires.

  4. David says:

    Don – Sometimes an empty dungeon room is empty. Sometimes there are no secret doors. Sometimes players are just metagaming, not trying or actually wanting there to be something, just wanting to be 100% sure.

    Sometimes players just need to move on! And a wandering ogre (or 5) often helps with that.

  5. Darrin says:

    Something I have done is to have the players roll a few Initiative and Perception checks ahead of play and I write them down. Then when I need a Perception roll, I check off the first roll they gave me. They still get to roll for their characters, but rarely remember if their rolls were good or not. Having them roll Initiative at the start also helps speed combat up.

  6. Clay says:

    In 5e, you could use the Help action as a mechanic to mitigate the whole-party-repeating-the-same-check situation:
    – Player A’s character has the best Perception bonus, so rolls a wisdom (Perception) check, but rolls low.
    – Play B says “I Help” (I’d allow this before or after Player A’s roll, since this is not in combat).
    – Player A rolls a second time (has advantage from the Help action).
    – That’s it. Nobody else can roll for that check, and Help actions don’t stack (you can only have one instance of advantage).

    If the party’s character with the best Perception can’t find whatever is in the room, with the help of the other character(s), then nobody else in the party can perceive it.

    This works for other checks, too: the beefy barbarian helped by the other character(s) can either lift the portcullis, or no one in the party can.

  7. Pingback: Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads | DMDavid

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