Today's post is a bit of classical GM advice. No, seriously, this is something from the old days with AD&D second edition, perhaps even earlier, but it seems to get forgotten every now and then. I've been told this trick, and advised others to do this trick, more times than I can count, and yet in my current games I'm not doing it. However, the new GM that runs a game I'm in is, and well, it got me to thinking that it might be worth bringing up again for those who may not have heard it somehow.
The trick is easy. Quite simply, when you are GMing, make the awareness, search, and other perception rolls for your players behind your GM screen rather than having them make the rolls themselves. Done right, it doesn't even slow down the game, with the added benefits of raising the tension and allowing you a bit more freedom with the things that you want to do.
Why Do It?
Picture the following situation. You have your group walking down a hallway in the Ancient Castle of K'zak Vul. As they go down the hall, you check your notes and see that there is a secret passage that they may notice as they go by, so - being the dutiful GM that you are - you ask everyone to give you a notice roll. Unfortunately, the dice gods do not favor the PCs, and no one makes the difficulty to notice the secret door. You try to gloss over this by giving a bit more detailed description of the hall, even making up a tapestry that can be noticed by some of the players, but despite your best efforts a change has come over the players' attitudes.
So, what just happened? Well, the players were just tipped off to two things. One, there was something in the hallway that was worthy of being noticed. Two, they rolled badly and thus probably didn't make the difficulty for the check. Now, even if your players are good players and strive to not metagame, they've still got that thought inkling in the back of their head that there are hidden things in the castle. Suddenly, they're a bit more cautious, a bit more thorough. They react to mundane changes in ambiance differently. None of this is even their fault, it is simply how we as human beings start to react when we know that there is potentially something hidden just around the corner.
Now, picture it the following way. The group moves down the same hallway, and you secretly roll some dice behind your GM screen. You compare the results against your cheat sheet of their notice skill, and determine no one made the check. You describe the hall as normal, and the players go on never knowing that there was even something there to be noticed.
But They Know You Rolled Dice
One of the earliest developed counters to this technique by GMs, was the players simply paying attention to when the GM rolled dice. Like I said, this is an old technique from the bygone days of the Evil GM. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of ways that you can avoid this being a sure way to tip off your players that something is going on.
First, and this is a favorite for any GM with idle hands, just make idle die rolls behind your screen whenever you aren't doing anything in specific. Try not to be too loud with it, you don't want to distract your players after all, but once your players are used to the fact that you roll dice constantly, they have no way of knowing when it is significant and when it is not.
Second, roll ahead of time. If you've done your preparation right, you know when things are going to happen. You should know ahead of time if an enemy ninja is going to tail the PC home, and you should know ahead of time if there are hidden doors the PCs can find. So, roll for those things before it is actually going on and just make a note of it. Hell, you can even roll some of these things out before your session even starts - just be sure to account for any status modifier changes that happen in game before giving the results. My personal recommendation when rolling ahead? Do it when other dice rolling is going on. For example, if a fight is happening, and after the fight the PCs have a chance of noticing their tail or the hidden lever, than in that last round of combat make the check for the PCs. They think you're rolling combat dice, not notice checks, so no one is any the wiser.
This is all well and good for reflexive things like notice and listen rolls, but what about times when the PCs are being more active in how they're handling things? Like, say for instance, if the PCs decide to ransack a room looking for hidden treasure.
Honestly, in this situation it can be better to roll for the PCs still. This may slow things down, but it also keeps the unknown as more of a quantity. There is just something inherent in human nature, something we can't turn off, that makes us more suspicious - or assured - when we know more of the factors. For example, if you have a PC roll to search a room, and he rolls a critical success and then is told he doesn't find anything, the player now "knows for a fact" that the room has nothing to hide. At the same time, if your player rolls a botch and doesn't find anything, she has reason to suspect that it is only because of her bad roll that she found nothing. (there will be more on the possible results of this phenomenon tomorrow or Thursday)
However, if you roll for them. Well, then the Player has no idea what way the dice came up. They just have the results that you gave to them. With nothing else to go on, the player's mind has no choice but to go with what you've told them. Nothing is there to color their expectations, and so things will just go on from there.
Fudging Die Rolls
The temptation may hit you while you're rolling for your players to fudge your die rolls. Whether this is in or against their favor, I recommend against doing it. Why? Because if you're just going to give them the win, or the loss, then what is the point of having them rolled in the first place? Sure, it may look fair, but it is also a waste of time. So, if you're going to just fudge a roll so that the person who did the best notices something, then just give that person the information. If you're going to fudge it so the players can't spot their tail, then 1) re-evaluate what is going on with the tail that you are giving it an auto-win and 2) don't waste time giving them a roll that can't win anyhow.
Basically, if you're going to roll the dice for noticing something, then let the dice determine who notices things.
That's it for this blog. Have any comments, insight, or advice on making the rolls for your players? Sound off in the comments below.