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Roll Sense Motive on this Post

In the suggestion pot, Clem asks [1]

How about an article on ways to handle sense/detect type rolls? The spectrum goes from “player knows what attribute to roll against, what number is needed for success, and what is being checked for” to “player knows attribute only” to “just roll the dice” to “gm rolls openly” to “gm rolls secretly” to “gm rolls before the session and applies the result if/when needed”. Perhaps some discussion on which methods players are likely to accept and when to use them and whether it ever makes sense even with good roleplayers to say “you missed your Vision roll and you don’t see the python in the tree”.

Are Sensing Rolls Different?

In many instances, yes, a sensing roll is different from an attack roll or a climb check. By announcing that players need to roll a sense, you’re introducing the idea that there’s something to sense. Announcing that a player needs to roll for his PC to hit or to see how well they hide is usually a reaction to the PC’s action.

Despite that contrast, how you handle announcing target numbers is often constant across the game. (Everyone alters their general guidelines to achieve specific effects; here I’m talking about standard procedure.) If your players enjoy the numbers and metagame considerations, you’re likely to announce target numbers and identify threats; while if they’re concentrating on getting in their character’s head, you’re more likely to align player and PC information.

Keeping the Players in the Dark

Some players really enjoy having the same information as their characters and no more. While some things are quantified by any game system, these players often like getting into their character’s headspace and feel that extra knowledge is just an impediment– something else to work around.

For players like these, your “just roll the dice” suggestion tracks most closely if you like keeping the dice in the players hands. You might find it even more rewarding for the GM to roll stealth (or effective stealth, the DC of the trap/object concealment -10 in D&D) against the passive perceptions of the PCs. [In 3.x D&D, roll the stealth of the object against 10+the PC’s Spot (or equivalent) skill.] Since the GM often rolls for things throughout the night (random encounters, warming up the dice, etc.), it draws less attention to a specific moment or location than asking a player to roll. Other good methods include having the players provide a dozen rolls before the session starts– when it’s time for the player to roll a sense, just quietly cross off the top roll from their list and use that value. (You’ll want a copy of the PC skill bonuses so you can add them to the roll you scratch off.)

Total Trust

This approach is a polar opposite of trying to align player and character knowledge, as in the example above. The GM embraces metagame knowledge, trusting the players to use their out of character information to make the game more interesting. The GM clearly announces what’s being rolled: “OK Simon, your character Reyna needs to make a DC 17 listen check, or the muggers in the alley will surprise her.”

An advantage of this system is that the player can tweak the roleplay of the PC to match the metagame roll. So if Simon rolls a 6, with a resulting total of 13, he might say, “As Reyna cuts into the alley, she’s still thinking about the strange corpse that attacked her earlier that night. She’s lost in her own world, her feet taking her home almost on autopilot as she replays the scene in her mind.” An advantage is that you allow the player to define how their character succeeds or fails. This can let a player define their high search checks as consistent attention to detail (like Sherlock Holmes) or as bumbling that just happens to always illuminate the critical clue (like Shaggy and Scooby).

In Between

Unlike many compromises, picking a point between the two options above is usually worse than the extremes. Giving partial but incomplete information often strips away the advantages of both systems above– by announcing a roll, you disrupt the immersive player’s attempt to stay in their PC’s head, while hiding target numbers (or skills) doesn’t allow the PC to roleplay success or failure until they know the result. Further, by not announcing the effect of failure, the game hangs at that moment… which some players will take advantage of.

How many players have been in a group where the GM calls for spot checks and immediately the PCs are described as being on high alert at that very moment? Or when a thief examines a chest and rolls a 2 on the search skill, the thief responds, “Well, I don’t trust that so important a burgher wouldn’t have a trap on his chest…” and they roll again? [One solution to the “rolling again” problem is Burning Wheel’s Let it Ride— you roll a skill once and keep applying it to every opposed check until circumstances change.]

Buy In

What will your players accept? In most cases, players expect rolls for their senses to match their other rolls in the game. If you typically announce the DC of an skill roll, you’ll probably want to explain why you’re treating senses differently. Many of the reasons will be apparent as soon as you bring them up– but not until then.

The hardest time to get buy in to restricted information is in the moment. If you wait until the rogue fails his search roll and deny him a chance to “examine the walls” instead of continuing his movement onto the trapped square, it may sound like you’re railroading him into damage. Or, worse, the game may stall while you discuss whether specific description elements are enough to justify a different action or provoke another roll.

In Your Game

How do you and your group handle sensing skills? Have you tried different styles and come on one that you like best? Did the post work for you Clem, or is there another angle you’d like to see discussed?

My thinking has changed a bit over time… three years ago I responded to Martin’s Blogging for GMs Project [2] with this post [3] about sensing and spotting. (Though I worried more about what the target numbers should be rather than technique in the post above.)

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Roll Sense Motive on this Post"

#1 Comment By PatrickWR On October 24, 2008 @ 7:31 am

Great article — that’s definitely a quandary. One way GMs can keep the mystery alive is by asking for sense rolls constantly, but keeping the results vague. That way the players are always rolling dice, but they’re never quite sure which check is a fake-out or an actual perception roll.

#2 Comment By pak21 On October 24, 2008 @ 7:32 am

The tactic I’ve occasionally taken is to ask for checks even when I know there’s absolutely nothing to be found. Players quickly learn there’s little point in taking 20 (or whatever the mechanic is in the appropriate game) after they spend 20 minutes searching an area of muddy road 🙂

#3 Comment By deadlytoque On October 24, 2008 @ 9:03 am

I used to do secret rolls, but now my players have developed enough as RPers that they are able to play along even when they missed a roll.

In D&D4, I just roll a stealth check against my players’ Passive Perception (which is info I take down before we start).

My rule is that if something secret is happening, I either -want- the characters to know about it, or I don’t. If I don’t, then I make it very hard — but still possible — to notice, and if I do, then I give out some information even on a failed roll.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On October 24, 2008 @ 9:18 am

[8] and [9]: I’ve done frequent rolling too. I don’t mind it for a while, but as a GM I find it hard to sustain (eventually, I seem to boil down to rolling only when it’s important) and as a player, I’m frustrated because my highest rolls are wasted!

[10] – It sounds like you and your players have reached a good point. Having a backup plan for failed rolls is very wise. It’s a bad mystery if one failed roll derails it– or if one success cuts out several fun encounters.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On October 24, 2008 @ 10:18 am

I’m blessed with a mature group. I can’t recall any time when in my games or those of the others when the GM in which players have gone for repeat rolls because the first apparently failed. We’re all comfortable with failing in these ways and the opportunities it presents us for roleplaying interesting encounters.

The way it works is usually something like, “Roll a Spot check,” or, “Make a Wits + Composure roll at minus 2” and the consequence are discovered through play.

#6 Comment By BryanB On October 24, 2008 @ 10:26 am

Good write up Scott.

I used to have everyone make about a dozen d20 rolls before the game started. Then I would look at their list of rolls whenever the need came up for a hidden check. If they used their last one, I asked them to make a dozen more, writing them down as they rolled. It seemed to be a good compromise between “rolling for the players,” which the players didn’t like, and “make me a d20 roll please” pseudo rolling that often became tedious.

I’m not sure why I stopped doing that. I think in my current group, I’ve just been asking for the roll when they have needed to roll. This might be because of Saga Edition’s species abilities or class talents, which give player’s a second roll if they don’t like the first, or because my group is experienced enough not to act upon something their characters “failed” to perceive. Might it even add tension to the game if the players (not their PCs) know that there is something they missed?

Combat usually follows such “failures” (flat footed!) but not always. Sometimes the unknown roll is over finding a clue or detecting the fact that a PC is being followed by an NPC.

As far as searching for clues go, I think it is poor adventure design if the entire scenario relies upon the result of single die roll, hidden or not. “Well, everyone failed to spot the widget, so the players simply fail,” just kind of stinks to me. I’d much rather see if anyone spots the critical clue right away, thus saving the PCs a lot of time (gain advantage), or if their failure just means that it takes them much longer to find the clue than the PCs would like (maybe giving opposition time to contest the recovery of the widget).

There certainly are several different approaches to “hidden” checks that one can use.

#7 Comment By Swordgleam On October 24, 2008 @ 11:25 am

The passive perception/insight stuff in 4e helps with that – or at least I assume it would, for most groups. Two of my PCs have passive perception of over 20, and they’re only at lvl 3. But that’s an issue for another post, I guess.

My group assumes that all checks to determine character knowledge should be made by the GM, but we never do it. It usually goes like this:
“Roll knowledge(arcanum) to see if you know anything.”
“I roll a natural one.”
“I really need to start making these checks for you people.”
This happens in both our ongoing games, so I don’t feel so bad when I do it, and I suspect our other GM feels similarly.

The thing is, it’s frustrating as a player to have control of your character taken out of your hands. In theory, the GM rolling his d20 is going to have the same probability of any given outcome as you rolling your d20.. but how many of us actually believe that? If the GM rolls a 1 for me, I feel somehow cheated; if the GM rolls a 20, I feel cheated then, too. In theory I wouldn’t know these numbers anyway, but who wants to roll a 1 or a 20 for an important check and not share it? It’s just as true for GMs as for players.

Most of the time, knowing the roll won’t matter. “You think it has something to do with necromancy, but you’re not sure” makes it pretty clear to the player that the roll was mediocre. And while “You’re positive there’s no traps” can mean either very high or very low, most players I know enjoy roleplaying their character as a moron every once in a while when they roll that 1 and convince the party of something that’s completely untrue. Likewise, players who roll high should be allowed to feel confident in their success, rather than constantly second-guessing themselves.

It’s also just a lot of work for the GM to make all those rolls, especially when half the party immediately chimes in with, “I make a knowledge check, too! Does my bonus for nature count?”

So I guess I would say that while I appreciate the immersive effect of hiding rolls, it’s more often easier and more fun all around to just let the players do it.

#8 Comment By Adalore On October 24, 2008 @ 11:26 am

My group is a bit on the “Total trust” range, but the DM prefers to roll stealth behind the board.

2edition here.

Though it’s some thing when the DM has now decided to roll ROPE-USE behind the screen… with the logic if I failed I woundent know it… come on… I’m rolling versus 17 dex…

Other wise, when we fail to notice stuff, we just say that we are counting the tiles on the roof or some such. 😛
Oh hey critical failure to notice the dragon… oh pretty daisies, might fine arrangement, who ever is the gardener ought to get a metal.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On October 24, 2008 @ 11:37 am

[11]– We’ve had the “I should have rolled that” discussion too. I think you’re right, that it’s nice as a player to make the rolls for your character. Similarly, I roll for plenty of things as a DM– I don’t need to add your senses to my list. My dice are wearing off their corners anyway…

[12] – I think that there is tension from a failed roll, and that it can be harvested by a GM. While I’m likely to lay out the full deal (roll spot to see the glint of light off the scope before they fire, DC20), incomplete information can do a wonder on getting people to concentrate and worry about what shoe is about to drop.

[13] – Sounds like your group’s comfortable and has their expectations set. The work part is done and you get to concentrate on making the game cool. That’s a nice place to be.

#10 Comment By kevinrichey On October 24, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

Nice article, something I’ve been pondering recently with my new on-line 4E game. I have a mature and trusting group who just goes with the flow.

Players roll their own perception checks when they explicitly say their PCs are actively looking or listening. I don’t roll for them, and I don’t ask for rolls out of the blue. It’s their responsibility to keep the PC’s eyes and ears open, and they’re pretty good about it. The rest of the time I rely on my own judgment, or passive perception when the conditions are not obvious.

The nice thing about opposed checks is that a low roll doesn’t necessarily mean failure – the opposition could just as likely roll an even lower stealth.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On October 24, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

[14] – Sounds like total trust works for you. It’s fun to mock your characters every once in a while… though it sounds like your poor characters all have a touch of Adrian Monk. 😉

[15] – Sounds like a system that works. Passive perception’s a great shortcut for skipping over “do you see the posies?” type questions.

#12 Comment By nblade On October 24, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

A method I have employed in the past (but not currently) was to have each player make sense rolls twenty times and have them all written down on a sheet of paper. I would make twenty sense rolls. I would then use that sheet for all sense rolls for both players and NPCs. By using those rolls for both the players and NPCs, it would prevent the players from trying to jack up their die rolls, since they didn’t know for whom the die roll was for. Each time a check was needed, I would just use the next roll and mark it off.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 24, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

I like the 4e passive checks, and will integrate them into my next game, whatever system it is. If a player is suspicious, and asks for an active check, I will gladly let them take it.

When it comes to “Sense Motive” type things, I usually try to RP first, then go to the mechanics. If we can handle whatever it is with RP, then all the better. (As with the passive check, with my next game, I plan on using the character’s pertinent bonus as a guideline here.)

Finally, I tend to roll everything in the open. If the actual rolls are close, and the player character has a large bonus but still loses the roll, it tells the entire party that the opponent is really good at this.

#14 Comment By Lee Hanna On October 24, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

I liked in Living Death games, the DM would ask everyone for a handful of Spot, Listen and Sixth Sense rolls before the game, not just a batch of raw d20 rolls. Then, as events in the module cropped up, he/she would cross them off.

I do like the idea of a player RPing a roll result, *why* it was an awesome or sucky result, and sometimes I even remember to do it as a player or DM.

#15 Comment By Omnus On October 25, 2008 @ 8:39 am

I enjoy making the player roll “panic rolls”, where, for instance, I may make them roll a Spot check, listen to their result, then say, “Hmmm…*long look at my notes*…Nope, you don’t see anything!” The same goes for saving throws vs. poison or will effects…making them make a save and refusing to let them know why both keeps them guessing, slightly on edge, and satisfies my sadistic streak.

Since 3rd Edition D&D introduced the “take a 10” concept (seems so obvious now…) I’ve been using that in 3rd Edition for Listen and Spot…unless a players declares they are using the skill, in which time I let them roll it. Of course, now there’s the Persistent Insight and Perception, which is the same thing in 4th Edition. When they roll their own numbers, though, I never let them know the number, so if they fail, they can’t be sure it’s not a panic roll. Letting them roleplay rolling a natural 1 can be fun for all…though usually very wrong for my groups.

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On October 25, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

[16] – Using the same pre-rolls for NPCs is an interesting twist.

[17] and Omnus – I’m also a big fan of passive checks (in 4e) or take 10 in 3e– they’re very nice for cutting out routine rolling.

#17 Comment By nblade On October 25, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

You know, its odd, but I actually hadn’t thought about use a take 10 for passive type checks before. I guess I’ve been gaming for so long, I sometimes don’t see the forest through the trees.