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Two Ways to Do Hidden Checks

Posted By Phil Vecchione On October 14, 2010 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 19 Comments

Image: Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.netIn all games there are times when it is important for a character to make some kind of skill or attribute check where it would be more dramatic if the player (and the rest of the table) did not immediately know the outcome of the result. As a GM I have handled this a number of different ways during my time behind the screen, and today I am going to describe two of my favorite techniques for making hidden checks at the table.

“I think I just failed a Spot check.” -Belkar Bitterleaf (Order Of The Stick)

Every gaming table has had a moment like Bekar’s, where the GM calls for a roll to determine if the player sees something, knows something, hears something, detects a trap, etc. The act of calling for the check has now alerted all the players that something important has happened, and if the player fails the roll, then the table is aware that they have missed something important. A disciplined group will play on, pretending to be unaware of the check and its failure, but even at the subconscious level the minds of the players want to take action or at least ready themselves for what is coming.

The old school solution for this was for the GM to make secret rolls on behalf of the players.  Not every group is cool with this for a few reasons: The first, is the GM needs to keep copies of the character sheets behind the screen, otherwise asking the player for his skill level and then making a roll defeats the purpose. This just adds to the pile of papers and work the GM is already doing during the course of the game. The second and more controversial is that the GM makes a skill check for the player, and the player has no control of their fate.  If the GM’s dice suck (technical term: negatively player biased) the players become victims to the outcome of the GM’s roll.

I have always been sensitive to the second issue, having been on the receiving end of some poorly rolled secret GM checks, resulting in several dead characters. Because of that, I hate to make rolls on behalf of my players. If my roll blows a player’s spot check, and the resulting ambush or trap kills one or more players, I feel that, that is on my hands. Because of this, I have tried to come up with two ways to empower my players to make the roll, but to conceal the outcome until the most dramatic moment.

Hidden Check 1: The Proxy Roll

Technique: In this case, I create a matrix: numbers by players.  The numbers column is typically the same as the main dice rolling technique for the game ( 20 for D&D and Pathfinder, 12 rows for Conspiracy X, 20 for Corporation, etc).  At the start of the game,  I have the players then take the main die and roll and log the results in their column. The end result is there is a table of random numbers for each player. Then when the GM needs a check, I can either have the player roll or I can roll, consult the table to find the player’s roll.

What I like about this technique, is that the technique combines the players rolls, with the ability for the GM to make a secret roll when needed. I have also used this matrix for the players when I want them to make a skill check, that is not a secret, but I don’t want them to know the outcome (such as knowledge check). I have the players make a roll, and then I find the number on the table, and determine the outcome of the check.  This is great for things like Gather Information, Knowledge Checks, and Spot checks.

Hidden Check 2: The Covered Roll

Technique: In this case, there is a roll that needs to be made, where the outcome will have an effect on an upcoming scene, such as a hacking check to plant a virus in the security system so that later in the day the system goes offline during the robbery. The player is aware of the need to make the check, and the action for the check is done in an early prep scene. It is more dramatic not knowing the outcome before the scene where the outcome comes to fruition. What I like to do for these checks is to have the player place their dice in a dice cup, shake, and then flip the cup upside down on the table, and leave it.  Then at the appropriate time during the game,  when the outcome needs to be known, the player lifts the cup and reveals the roll.

What I like about this technique is that the player makes the roll, but the cup hides the outcome from everyone (including the GM), at the table. There is a real tension with the covered dice sitting on the middle of the table. Sometimes if a GM knows the outcome of a secret roll, they can consciously or unconsciously narrate the scene around the known outcome, before the outcome is revealed to the players. By the outcome being concealed from everyone, the GM cannot affect the story and everyone at the table shares in the reveal of the dice.

Roll But Don’t Show

Hidden checks are always tricky. They can sometimes break the fourth wall at the table, and how they have been handled have become a cliche at times. Despite their negatives, they are necessary in the course of the game. They create that tension and drama that brings enjoyment at the table for both player and GM. Techniques that can hide the outcome of a roll but empower players bring the best of both worlds.

How do you handle hidden rolls at your table? What techniques do you use the most?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Two Ways to Do Hidden Checks"

#1 Comment By Kristian On October 14, 2010 @ 5:57 am

I never really had a problem with rolling behind the screen. I always kept intiative cards with GM-rolled skills on each PC’s card. Spot rolls (3e) were rolled without the players even knowing what die I was rolling and for what purpose.

Search is a little bit different as it is an active action. Depending on what they were searching for, I’d roll for them or let them roll. For example, if a rogue was searching a door for traps, I’d roll it. If they were scouring a pile of debris for treasure, I’d let them roll it so they could get a sense of how well their character was performing the task and whether or not they feel there is still a possibility of something hidden away. (“I kind of half-assed it” vs. “I scoured that pile, and I don’t think there’s anything there.”)

#2 Comment By DNAphil On October 14, 2010 @ 7:10 am

@Kristian– In regards to your search example, my issue with the players making an open roll like that (sometimes not all the time) is that if they fail the roll, they know they know that they may have missed something, and then want to search again, because they don’t know if they missed something or that nothing was there.

With a hidden check, like the Proxy Check, I would just tell them that they did not find anything, and it would be up to them to wonder if it was because there is nothing there or they failed to search well.

One final point, I wrote an article last year: http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/how-to-make-skill-checks-not-suck

This was about what things to make skill check for. Using your search though the treasure example above, I would only call for a check, if there was a cool reason for not finding the thing hidden in the treasure. For checks where there is nothing at stake for failure, I typically do not call for a check, just assign some amount of time, and give them the item.

Thanks for the comment.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On October 14, 2010 @ 8:47 am

I think this is a case of the GM overthinking some minor issue and turning it into A Problem as a result. I mean no insult here, as you clearly have to be easy with whatever method you eventually use as a GM and that is an entirely personal choice governed by your own personality and concerns.

However, presenting this as an “issue” in the gaming world is, I think, overstating the case somewhat.

I’m sure there are players who believe they won’t get a fair shake of the dice unless they make the rolls themselves. This is, at heart, a distrust of the GM – possibly baseless but possibly hiding some deeper, more problematic issue. It could be that a GM seeing this behavior is conveying a sense of untrustworthiness in some way, or it could (and this is more likely) be a sign of immaturity or psychological problems in the gamer.

Of course, one might successfully argue that a demand for a secret roll is nothing more than a public display of distrust in the player’s ability or desire to role-play a failed roll.

What I have found by experience is that those players who routinely object to hidden dice rolls are the least able to role play past a bad roll for Spot or Search, and that if the group majority doesn’t care about the issue, the dissenter(s) will suffer the hidden die rolls with a stiff upper lip (in general: we all know players who break away from the grade curve on these things).

As a player, some of the best games I ever had were those in which ALL skill rolls were made by the GM (because the dice were so hard to find we only had one set of percentiles).

One idea I find compelling, given to me by a web correspondent (clear credit: Thank you Simons Mith) – in the context of Call of Cthulhu where spots and searches are sometimes crucial to the game being finishable – was that a failed roll might in this context (spot/search) more usefully be conveyed as a success that takes longer to occur. I think this is eminently sensible, far more so than inventing an entirely new game system (Gumshoe) to obviate the “problem” of missed spot checks. Then again, maybe I’m underthinking the problem here 8o).

Now that “extra time” idea doesn’t work for all cases in the D&D genre, where a spot is what tells you the bandits are in the tree-line *before* they shoot at you with large numbers of arrows, but it still has legs when it comes to searching: A search of a dungeon room can take several times longer for a fail, allowing Tucker’s Kobolds that much more opportunity to fortify the corridor outside.

I prefer secret rolls myself, when GMing. I don’t keep copies of the players’ sheets, I just ask to see them every so often. Were I to keep stats I would keep just the skills where hidden rolls are most likely: Spot, Search, Detect Trap and Disable Device for example.

All the above offered to the Article’s Author in a reasonable tone over imaginary beers in an equally imaginary pub.

#4 Comment By DNAphil On October 14, 2010 @ 10:16 am

@Roxysteve–Thanks for the comments and the imaginary beer. We Gnomes love disagreeing points of view. To the point of distrusting the GM, my example of a number of character deaths occurring at the hands of secret rolls, were under a GM who was not well skilled at GMing to the point of being a bad GM.

While I fully understand that a random roll is a random roll…regardless of who rolls the dice, there is a perception of being in control of one’s fate when the dice leave your hand rather than another. With perception often being reality, there is a psychological not mathematical case for some people wanting to roll their own checks.

As for knowing the outcome, less mature GM’s and Players have trouble overcoming these issues. I know as a GM, for all the years I have played, that at a subconscious level, I still root for the players, and will angle minor elements of a scene in their favor. Thus the second technique of the covered roll prevents me from doing that

If your group is cool with you rolling all the rolls, thats great, and I would not change a thing. Consider these techniques as alternatives, and in the case of the covered roll, a technique for building tension at the table.

Next imaginary round is on me..

#5 Comment By evil On October 14, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

I tend to do this two ways….First, I keep all of my player information on a laptop, and I use a random number generator to make hidden rolls. Since I’m always tapping away at my computer, it’s rare that players notice this. Second, I also tend to make duplicitous rolls. I’ll call for a roll, write down the answers, and use it later. Some games I call for more rolls than needed, and those hold over until the next game. That way the illusion is maintained and the need for players to make their own rolls is fulfilled.

#6 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On October 14, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

Oftentimes I will ask for a die roll from the players, and that die roll will be nothing. Sometimes I ask for a perception/spot/smell test, and won’t use the results for 15 minutes or longer. And then sometimes when I ask for a roll, it pertains to something happening right now.

I keep my players guessing with regards to those kind of rolls. For repeatable rolls, like search rolls, I’ll just let them keep rolling until they get tired of it. Sometimes if they roll well I will make up a terrain feature whole cloth and tell it to them. If they roll poorly, I may do the same thing. It depends on how well they roll and if there is anything particularly interesting to note (hidden doors and such).

If they look for something in particular, then I let them roll to see if they spot anything. I don’t give them numbers unless the situation calls for the really obvious.

#7 Comment By XonImmortal On October 14, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

@The_Gun_Nut – Calling out for a random dice roll is my favored strategy as well. And the players know that their roll may or may not be actually needed or relevant… but then again it may or may not be.

I find it also helps to cultivate that certain level of paranoia necessary to make the game more immersive. After all, if you aren’t feeling paranoid in a dungeon crawl, on the battlefield, skulking through back alleys, meeting your accountant, etc., then you really are not paying attention.

#8 Comment By Toldain On October 14, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

I have two responses to the article. First is, I really like the notion in 4e of “Passive Perception and Passive Insight”.

If the players walk down a hall, or enter a room and say nothing about looking around, etc., I use their passive values, which I have written down. If they say they are looking around, I let them roll. The thing is, since they initiated the search, they have no idea if there was anything to find, so I just let them search repeatedly if they want to. They soon get bored with this.

Unless, of course, they have other information that suggests that there was something to find. Then the repeated searching portrays the extra time they spent on it.

Running 3e on this, I might be tempted to use the Spot value plus 10 as a passive, (and maybe also Listen and Sense Motive). But never Spot as active, using Search instead, though Listen and Sense Motive would be both passive and active.

Second, I think there’s a problem somewhere if one failed die roll is responsible for character death. It can put them in a tight spot, to be sure, but that’s the fun thing, isn’t it?

#9 Comment By nolandda On October 14, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

I always use secret rolls for perception/spot type skills. I don’t keep a copy of each character sheet, but the elected party scribe for the session fills out a simple “marching order” sheet which lets me know who is scouting / who is in the rear as well as what character armor classes, perception skill(s), and saving throws are.

That way I can roll a secret perception check or save vs some charm effect without alerting the players.

#10 Comment By BishopOfBattle On October 14, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

I like the second method, I’ll have to try that sometime.

My general approach is to simply ask for common rolls up front for sections of an adventure. For instance, when the party goes into a building to meet their contact, I’ll ask for Perception checks all around. I’ll do this whether they are really going to meet their contact and nothing crazy happens or if they are walking into an ambush. Since I do so frequently, and not immediately following specific actions, they never know if they’re missing something important if they roll poorly.

#11 Comment By DNAphil On October 14, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

One of the things I love about comments, is that it is great to hear all ways that you all have solved the same issue.

I tried the secret roll thing for a while, but I would then forget to call for the fake ones, having been all caught up in in the story.

I too liked the 4e Passive Perception checks.

Great comments.

#12 Comment By unwinder On October 14, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

I mistakenly read this title as

“Two Ways to Do Hidden Chicks”

Missed opportunity, IMO.

#13 Comment By E-l337 On October 15, 2010 @ 5:26 am

I love hidden checks.

In fact, I love them so much, I’ve begun to refer to them lovingly in my online game as “sekrit rolls”. Because they are secret! In an online game, it can be a lot harder to draw your players into the action, and I find that allowing them to hear the rolling of dice on my desk over Skype (or announcing that I am secretly rolling dice in the chat) can help keep them on their toes a bit, resulting in some interesting roleplaying. Interesting in a good way, I assure you.

@Kristian and @DNAphil, my main reason for replying here is to touch on your short discussion of utilizing the search skill to find treasure. When my players ask for something, I tell them to roll a search check to find it. If they succeed, they find it. If they don’t, it simply doesn’t exist. At the moment, I’m running a post-apoc game, so it makes a little more sense, but I think this is a fair way to deal with secret treasures, by offering little incentive bonuses now and again by “searching for secret treasure” or the like. Sometimes they’ll get lucky. Maybe the baddies had a little stash hidden in the wall. Perhaps there’s some artwork hidden under the floor. I tend not to prepare those sorts of things in advance, but I think it works incredibly well, particularly with the setting I am running (where sometimes, the loot you are looking for is, in the end, actually destroyed).

I also utilize search checks for salvaging scrap from robots/vehicles/machines/etc. Once you make the check, though, that’s it – you can either salvage something from it or not. Using this simple rule to avoid that pesky “search the entire room until you roll a 20″ makes things move along quite a bit faster, in my opinion.

So if there’s no way that they couldn’t find something, like DNAphil mentioned, don’t make them roll. That’s just dumb. But on the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with letting them make the one-time roll themselves for something not dramatic like that – it makes those special nat 20 rolls all the sweeter for them.

#14 Comment By Bastian.Flinspach On October 15, 2010 @ 6:11 am

I use these kind of rolls in two ways:

The roll may be a shortcut to not playing something out or just nor knowing it yourself. So, to take an example of treasure placement found in old D&D modules like the Keep: A box with some gems is hidden on a ledge inside a chimney. Now, if the player states he wishes to search the room, he may roll for the search, and if the outcome is exceptional, he finds the box. If he states he searches the fireplace, he has to roll as well, but it will be much easier to find the box. If he flat out states he checks the chimney, he finds the box without the need of a roll. No need to roll in secret, because the way the player approaches this solves the problem, not the roll itself.

The other situation would be an ambush or something along the way, where the player does not have much influence. Here I go the way of asking for such rolls fairly often. Not only has the player to roll for an ambush, but also to notice the goblin graffiti on the wall, notice how the innkeeper frowns at him etc. So the players never know, if the thing they missed might have been important. But then, these rolls should also not be meaningless. I try to give such rolls an interesting outcome. So, if you noticed the goblin graffiti, you know they all hate frank and when encountering them, you might use this to your advantage. But no big deal, if you missed it. Just makes things a bit harder.

I really think life or death, or even complete failure or success, should not be decided by one simple roll on which the player has no influence.

#15 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-10-15 On October 15, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

[...] Two Ways to Do Hidden Checks [...]

#16 Comment By Bradd On October 18, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

I’ve never been a fan of rolling dice for players. It’s especially frustrating when I’m playing something like a scout, because I often feel like the GM hasn’t done the best job of representing my character’s abilities.

Therefore, I let the players roll their own “hidden” checks, and I openly ask them for things like passive perception values. Instead of secrecy, I use other methods to build tension. Sometimes a perception test means an ambush, sometimes a trap, sometimes a secret door, sometimes dungeon dressing, sometimes nothing at all. It’s kind of like the harmless cat that jumps out of the closet in horror movies, just before the villain strikes, you never know when the scare is a real scare.

Lots of times, you don’t even need the variety and red herrings to create tension. If the players know that a failed perception test means they’re about to get screwed by an ambush, and there’s nothing they can do about it, that’s tension enough in my experience.

#17 Comment By jdebelly On October 19, 2010 @ 7:25 am

Hello – I actually registered just to post.

I run a 3.5 Ravenloft / Homebrew campaign which tries to emphasize in horror.

Any dice rolling and mechanics take away from the effect I’m trying to establish – so my idea has been to plug the stats / skills into an Excel file and just hit a button which will randomize for everyone.

I’m going to build it this weeks, and I’ll have each party member in a column to the left (one per row), and then the columns going to the right are all the modified random roles.

For example, if I don’t want a character to know they’re taking a Will save or a Spot check; I will have columns for Will and Spot – which will Randomize a 1-20 roll adding their modifier.

This way, also, I can have the Excel file open with all characters and with a click of the button – everyone has made a Spot roll without anyone realizing it; I’ll check the results – and next comes the Listen check.

I’l let you know how it works.

#18 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 19, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

I used Phil’s method for keeping a roll hidden with a cup at Con On The Cob and I am hooked on it now! It worked fabulously with my game system SinisterForces (a Fudge variant) where I use simple situational rolls to keep the story and action interesting.

You are a genius, Phil!

#19 Comment By Harald On October 31, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

Note to self:

Use dice cup method at earliest opportunity.

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