The Alexandrian

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Banksy - Blind Water Sniper

A subject somewhat related to hidden vs. open difficulty numbers is the matter of open and hidden stakes. In other words, whether or not the players know why they’re rolling the dice.

In most cases, of course, the stakes are known: If you’re trying to jump over a crevasse, the dice roll is determining whether you do so or not. But there are action checks where that isn’t necessarily true: If the GM calls for a Perception test while the PCs are traveling through a jungle, the players don’t necessarily know if it’s to notice a tribesman lying in ambush, a hidden treasure, a treacherous piece of terrain, or something else entirely.

Perception tests are, in fact, probably the most common form of this. (Since they literally determine whether or not you’re aware of something.) But the principle can be applied to other tests and reactive mechanics, too. Calling for a saving throw against undetected dangers or unknown spells before explaining what the consequence of a failure will be is a great way to ratchet up the anxiety at the table (particularly if it’s the exception rather than the rule).

I’ll sometimes do the same thing with Sanity checks in Call of Cthulhu, Stability tests in Trail of Cthulhu, and similar mechanics: Call for the check (the magnitude of which in Trail of Cthulhu can foreshadow just how bad things are about to get) and then describe the eldritch horror, allowing the players to immediately respond according to whether or not (or how badly) their character failed the test.

(Enabling this immediate, immersive response to narration by preemptively resolving a mechanical component which might normally follow the narration is why I also roll initiative at the end of each encounter and keep it stored for future use.)

One potential pitfall of such checks, however, is that you’re unable to take advantage of a player’s familiarity with their own character: If you’re asking them to make a saving throw vs. fireball, it’s much more likely that you’ll forget that they have a +2 bonus to saving throws involving fire than it is that they will. And if you do forget, then the subsequent revelation can deflate as the mechanical resolution needs to be revisited.


The existence of hidden stakes also opens the opportunity for another technique: Rolling meaningless dice.

This generally falls into two categories. First, rolling dice behind the screen for the sound effect. That can be valuable as a tool of misdirection, but it’s not primarily what we’re talking about here.

Second, having the players roll for checks that don’t mean anything.

Now, we’ve already established that dice should only be rolled if the potential failure state is interesting, meaningful or both. And if it is neither, you shouldn’t roll the dice. If that’s the case, it would seem to follow that you should never have people rolling meaningless dice.

But here’s the exception: You only roll if failure is meaningful or interesting… but sometimes you’ll roll the dice because the character believes failure could be meaningful or interesting and saying that dice will not be rolled will reveal information that the character does not have.

Searching for a trap that isn’t there is an obvious example of this.

Paradoxically, the reason you roll the meaningless dice generally isn’t to the benefit of the meaningful role; it’s to enhance the meaningful roles of the same type. For example, there’s seemingly no harm in cutting to the chase with exchanges like:

Player: I search the hallway for traps.

GM: There are no traps in the hallway.

It even seems to follow logically from the principles we’ve established. The GM is defaulting to yes (the “yes” in this case being “yes, your search of the hall is successful in determining there are no traps”; don’t be fooled by the presence of the word “no” in what the GM said). But if do that a dozen times and then have this interaction:

Player: I search the hallway for traps.

GM: Okay, make a Search test.

The player automatically knows there’s a trap in that hall before they even pick up their dice. The GM’s pattern of behavior has revealed metagame knowledge that puts the player in the position of knowing something that their character does not.

And sometimes metagame knowledge is unavoidable (but in this case, it’s unnecessary). And sometimes that’s desirable (but in this case, there’s nothing being gained). And some players believe it won’t make any difference (but for someone who values immersion, it will). In my experience, nothing ever seems to be gained from this interaction and almost always there is something lost, so I recommend rolling the meaningless dice and preempting the loss.


In some cases, you can deliberately use this effect reactively.

For example, as I’ve discussed previously in Metagame Special Effects, I not infrequently call for Perception checks even when there’s nothing to perceive. In addition to camouflaging which Perception check failures are important and which aren’t, this can also be an effective technique for heightening paranoia at the table.

The biggest reason I do it, though, is that I’ve found it’s the single most effective way to refocus the table’s attention on the game world when extraneous distractions and chitchat have derailed the players. (You’d think that just saying, “Okay, let’s focus.” would be equally effective, but I’ve found that it isn’t. Ask people to focus in a kind of general way and they engage in a “focusing process”. Ask them to do something specific and concrete, on the other hand, and they become immediately focused.)

Eventually, of course, all of my players eventually figure out that I’m frequently “crying wolf” with these checks. But it doesn’t matter: The more experienced heroes may no longer be quite so skittish or paranoid as they jump at imaginary shadows, but the tool still works.

And, of course, in a dangerous universe filled with wandering encounters, some of the Perception tests you use to refocus the table won’t be meaningless at all.

Go to Part 14

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11 Responses to “Art of Rulings 13 – Hidden vs. Open Stakes”

  1. J.L. Duncan says:

    I keep the wilderness check and the trap check the same. The players roll and don’t know why they are rolling…

    Are they rolling to hear/smell/see something? (notice)
    Are they rolling to detect a trap?
    Are they rolling to detect a secret passage?
    Are they rolling a meaningless roll.

    If you’re running a system that requires different dice (which I do), you have to modify it all so that the checks require the same type of dice.

  2. S'mon says:

    The more I get used to 5e’s Passive scores, the more I like it. I only just noticed that the Passive score (10+bonus) is used for repeated routine attempts – a bit like “take 20” in 3e D&D. I have started noting PC Passive Perception myself, then rolling for task difficulty instead of using a fixed number – eg instead of fixed DC 20 to spot secret door, I roll d20+10 for the door and compare it to PC PP. This seems to give the best of all possible worlds – does not disclose metagame knowledge, maintains uncertainty, and high scores don’t give auto success.

  3. S'mon says:

    Refocusing players – ostentatiously rolling my d6 for a wandering monster check does this very well!

  4. zgreg says:

    I honour your opinion but (same as with previous part) I think that you focus on a specific play style. I do believe that there are players preferring to avoid having non-character information who could benefit from meaningless rolls. I think that your article could benefit more from presenting the different perspective.

    You mention the “immersion”. I find that term vague and often overused but I hope you agree that there are different kinds of immersion. While the technique you present may fit people who like to “feel in character” it would also irritate me the moment I realised the GM is using meaningless dice rolls. If I don’t know the stakes or I know that a roll may mean nothing the tension associated with the roll result disappears and my immersion in the game suffers.

    The other thing that you mentioned in the previous parts and failed to comment on here are the meta-mechanics present in many games which allow players to change the outcome of a roll such as Luck, Bennies, Fate points, Character points etc. They usually are implemented as a resource or have some other cost. When such mechanics is present in the rules I find any meaningless rolls simply unfair to the players, as such roll may provoke them to waste such valuable commodity.

    I don’t think that the traps are the best example as this is quite a problematic topic itself (Can you imagine the Fellowship of the Ring checking for traps all the way through Moria mines? Me neither, unless they are player characters and we are talking about book-reenacting RPG session… 😉 ). There seems to be an easy solution for this though, just ask the player what her character will do if there are no traps and expect that she will do it even if she fails the roll. So have the player change “I’m searching for traps” into “I’m searching for traps in this hallway and if I find none I walk through it” or “I check this box for traps and give it as a present to the Queen if it’s clean”. This is not a perfect solution as it works best if there is little time between both actions (which may not be a case in the gift example) but should help to reduce the need for meaningless rolls.

    That said, I can imagine a situation when I could ask for a roll when there is no actual reason for that just in hope that the player fails it what gives a chance to introduce some interesting complication. But I would definitely keep it rare, and only when I have something really fun in mind. This is obviously rather for the players who have no problem with having the player-only information.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    @zgreg: I’m certainly open to the possibility that I’m overlooking some advantage of giving the players unnecessary metagame knowledge (like knowing that there’s a trap on the door even if their character doesn’t because they failed their Search check), but I’ll note that you haven’t actually explained what those are supposed to be with the exception of meta-mechanics.

    Would you be willing to consistently give that same information without the mechanical revelation? For example, would you ever say, “The Duchess tells you she is faithful to the Duke, and I, as the GM, am telling you with absolute certainty that she is not lying.” In other words, are you really OK, for example, never having any doubt at the table about whether or not NPCs are lying?

    Re: Meta-mechanics. The same principles of the “routine check” mentioned in Part 12 can apply here as well to reactive uses. (I don’t feel the need to repeat myself.) Beyond that, I disagree with the general assertion that all uses of bennies must happen in situations of certainty. If the players are so totally convinced that a particular door in the Tomb of Horrors MUST be a deadly danger that they feel a need to spend bennies to verify it, I’m not going to undercut that paranoia by negating their choice.

    Would you similarly disallow the use of other abilities? For example, if a wizard wants to cast see invisibility, would you really respond by saying, “Don’t bother. There’s nothing invisible here.”?

    Basically: You say that you’d prefer playing poker if everyone showed their cards before betting. I would like to more clearly understand what the advantage of playing poker like that is supposed to be.

  6. RobC says:

    @zgreg: “There seems to be an easy solution for this though, just ask the player what her character will do if there are no traps and expect that she will do it even if she fails the roll.”

    I like this idea. I am running a campaign now with new players, and they have a tendency to metagame obviously failing rolls. “I rolled a 2, so I failed. You come over here and search, too.” This request may help drive home the separation of metagame knowledge. Much better than the GM saying “No, you can’t ask someone else to search, too. Your character doesn’t really know they failed. You didn’t ask someone else to search when you rolled a 19 and didn’t find anything.”

  7. Wyvern says:

    Re: Metagame currencies:

    I’ve run a number of FATE games, and I have two things I do that, for me, completely resolve the issue of a player spending a fate point they didn’t need to.

    The first option is to invent a reward for success – a player spending a fate point on a perception roll that was intended to be purely for paranoia’s sake will find -something-; perhaps there’s a hidden floor safe, or a trap that contains a half-dozen poisoned darts they can loot. Perhaps they find subtle evidence – footprints in the dust or something – that gives them a heads-up about dangers later on. That sort of thing. (Or, in FATE mechanical terms, treat the spent fate point as a declaration, rather than as a bonus to a roll.)

    The second option is to simply refund the fate point. Generally I use this option when there were meaningful success and failure results, and the player would have succeeded even without the fate point expenditure. For a paranoia-perception check, this could still work with a declaration of the fate point not being enough to succeed… But that opens you up to escalation if the player decides that it’s worth multiple fate points, so I don’t really recommend that use.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Good ideas, Wyvern. Another thing you could do is a variant “let it ride”: By spending the Fate Point, the GM can jot down the result you got and “bank” it against the next time the check actually does matter. And the GM can then adjudicate that check result with the better result (the one that was banked or the one that’s freshly rolled).

  9. Elda King says:

    I dislike the idea of making unnecessary rolls for many reasons (including that I’m not really into “immersion”), but one is that you have to make unnecessary rolls all the time so that when the roll is actually meaningful you don’t give away the “secret”. If you don’t roll in certain situation, you can’t use that situation as a secret later. Every time you don’t roll, you are leaking information that there is nothing that could happen (unless you use passive scores or something similar). I much prefer the way my last DM did: we players declared an action, he said “there is a trap/something hidden/something suspicious, roll the dice to see if you notice it in time”. If we had success, we could go back and declare another action (don’t open the door). It didn’t work perfectly for every case (NPCs lying for example, it was hard to avoid metagame knowledge if we failed the test) but it was fun.

    As a GM, I also dislike not firing Chekov’s gun. If the players made a check, at some point I have to reveal to them what was the consequence – you missed some treasure, there were more enemies in this encounter, you avoided an ambush, the enemies weren’t alerted to your presence. This makes those situations and the skills of their characters much more meaningful. I could presumably tell the players “and that time was just misdirection”… but then I think the benefits to immersion, of never being sure, are gone and now the players are mildly disappointed instead of unsure.

  10. Beoric says:

    I have found that so-called unnecessary rolls should be used sparingly or they lose their effect. They should also not be used randomly, but with a view to pacing, tone, and what lies ahead for the PCs.

    For instance, if there will be no traps to find for the foreseeable future, or if the PCs are in an environment where traps would not be expected, unnecessary rolls add nothing. On the other hand, if I ask for one, it changes the mood of the players at a time when the PCs can sense that they ought to be on their guard. That and a foreboding description are a nice one-two punch.

    @Elda King, if you always “fire Chekov’s gun” in a way that is explained to the players, and therefore remove uncertainty about the consequences of their choices, you close off future choices and reduce the players’ agency. Their choice to look again in a different way, and maybe find the treasure, is tainted. They can’t choose to go back the same way, knowing that an ambush is there.

    By all means, give appropriate hints (the blaring horn could explain why there were more enemies), but I would let them draw their own conclusions.

  11. Elda King says:

    @Beoric, you only reveal the consequences after you know it won’t affect any choices: after they already decided to leave the region, after the ambush is no longer possible, even after the adventure/campaign ends sometimes. It shouldn’t affect choices or agency – though it does affect uncertainty. But personally I’d rather have the players aware of how their actions impacted the story than having them uncertain to increase immersion.

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