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In last weeks Dresden Files game, the players followed the bad guy using a tracking spell, and found him in the projects at an apartment that they knew little about. Seeing his car, they decided to set it aflame to get him out of the apartment (and to identify it).

The wizard's spell was a bit too ambitious, and ended up turning it into a roman candle (how I love compels), but the actual plan was successful, as the bad guy came running out to see about his car, and the wizard was barely able to get out of sight before he exited the apartment. As the bad guy was dealing with his vehicle, the group snuck into the vacated apartment. They found that there was still someone there, lounging on the sofa, obviously having partaken of some 'herbal entertainment'. As they entered, I had them make an alertness roll, ostensibly to see something in the apartment- but it was actually an empathy roll, to determine if they saw through the person's deceit. He was high, but was still quite lucid, and was the actual threat.

My question is, how valid is deceiving the players about what they are rolling for in order to maintain a layer of the unknown in the game?

(Just for completeness, I'll state that the players are still unaware that the person that they fought was just a messenger/dealer/mercenary and that the doped up stoner was playing them...)

UPDATE: Though the question could apply to multiple circumstances, the accepted answer brings up a FATE specific point, so I changed the tags and update the question appropriately.

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I would say this is bad practice. You've just had the players roll alertness when they should be rolling empathy. Say one of your characters has Empathy as a Superb skill. They get a huge bonus on the roll. Say they also have only an Average Alertness. You've just denied them a +4 on that roll and they don't even know it! (If they find out they will be rightly angry.)

If you want to test a skill without the players knowing you can always roll for them in secret. That way they have no idea what you are checking against merely that you are checking for something.

However in a system like FATE where players can spend FATE points to modify rolls, etc I wouldn't even do that. I'd have them roll empathy, you don't necessarily have to explain the roll but that lets them leverage their stunts, powers, and aspects as per regular play. If the players figure out what's going on but fail the rolls then their characters are still in the dark. If the players have their characters act on player knowledge you can gently remind them that their character is blissfully unaware of the problem. It can make some interesting tension in the game the same way you don't want a person to open that door in a horror movie! Roleplaying is partly about being able to separate player knowledge and character knowledge.

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I didn't use their alertness on the roll, I just told them that was what they were rolling. I used their empathy for the check behind the scenes. I just didn't want my rolls to be their rolls, which was the reason that I did it. –  wraith808 Oct 11 '11 at 18:04
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So they rolled and you just looked at their sheets and added the appropriate modifier? I'd still argue that cheats them from using their aspects. What if one of them had the aspect "I know a liar when I see one"? How would they know to apply that if they thought they were just looking around the room? –  mirv120 Oct 11 '11 at 18:12
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This. FATE rolls aren't about succeeding or failing, they're about setting the baseline and then asking how much the player wants to pay for success in points and narrating their aspects into the story. Better would be making them roll in the open, all the relevant facts on the table. If they fail, put the "Blissfully Unaware" aspect on them and compell it liberally if they want to act on player knowledge. Then it's still their choice, but it will cost dearly in FATE points to do even mundane things with the knowledge. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 11 '11 at 18:23
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I see your point. I did look at their sheets and added the appropriate modifier- and I did look at the aspects to see if there was something that I could compel- but it does disallow creative uses of non-obvious aspects. –  wraith808 Oct 11 '11 at 18:25
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Most answers here fail to address the player vs. character duality and the power vested in the player in FATE. FATE is quite a different system, and age old RPG tradition simply doesn't work with it. The GM is not the ultimate authority(He's even called a referee, not a master), all he does is play the rest of the world, sharing the responsibility of authority with everyone at the table.

I'd say, players should be aware that their characters are deceived. In FATE, deceit can be modeled as a maneuver by the deceiver to place an aspect on the deceived. Once a character has the aspect Unaware of the real threat on them, the player should play the character as such. The aspect can be tagged to gain a bonus against the character, or compelled to force the character into a course of action/inaction. Heck, the player can even invoke the aspect for a bonus when acting towards the false belief.

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Lying to them about what they're rolling is silly. It robs the players of their agency. If they're not interested in assessing the situation, they shouldn't be rolling for an assess. If they don't care if they're being lied to, then they shouldn't roll empathy.

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How I would have done it:

Alertness roll to notice anything out of the ordinary. If they meet a certain difficulty then they notice something odd about the guy. THEN, and only then, if they ASK to inspect him further would they get to roll to see through his disguise

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Nice medium solution between the one I chose and outright giving it away. –  wraith808 Oct 12 '11 at 15:35
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As long as it serves the narrative and it doesn't get in the way of everybody enjoying the game then I would say it's completely valid.

I do know that some people say you should never hide dice rolls and/or never fudge them, if you play with people like this then it's not going to be valid.

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FATE rules in other settings explicitly call for the GM to not obfuscate the rules being tweaked, and note when NPC's don't function like PC's (and it's always making them pretty much more fragile than a comparable PC, and usually weaker to begin with.) And with the way aspects work, if you don't know your oponent's aspects, you're robbed of the chance to spend fate to use their aspects against them. –  aramis Oct 12 '11 at 9:06
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I'd say that's at the least highly unusual, if not unethical. Usually when a DM wants to maintain some secrecy about what he wants me to roll, he just says "Roll me some dice". If you get into the habit of doing that periodically, you can even hide the importance of the roll.

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In Dresden that simply doesn't work well. The Fate point economy pretty demands that rolls have story purposes. –  Tynam Sep 4 '12 at 17:15
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I have not seen any single game that doesn't explicitly state that no matter what the rules say, the GM can do whatever he/she wants. This immense power is vested in you to ensure that you are able to keep the game fun and interesting when the rules either do not cover the situation at hand, or if doing it all by the book makes it less interesting.

This situation is a typical example of the latter. No doubt would letting the players know the true kind of check made there affect the way you could tell the story (and, it seems, for the worse).

I see two alternative ways of dealing with this situation: Either the way you did, or keeping a record of the player's stats and simply tell them to make a roll each, without divulging the kind. This, however, you would need to do each time any passive perception-ish roll would be made since the players would otherwise know you're up to no good when you suddenly tell them to make some kind of special roll.

I'd say that if you feel it works for you as a GM, and that it adds to your players' enjoyment of the game; keep on deceiving.

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There are many games that put strict definition on the GMs role. "GM tells the story" is a popular assumption, but not an guarantee. –  Sean McMillan Oct 11 '11 at 20:45
    
+10 Thank you, finally an answer I agree with. –  Sardathrion Oct 12 '11 at 7:28
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-1 Your experience is quite dated if you have only encountered "The GM is Always Right" games. FATE is explicitly NOT one of those. In fact, most FATE implementations put the group, not the GM, as the final authority. While I haven't read DFRPG, I've played SOTC, and read several other FATE system games; none of them I've seen include Gygax's Rule-0, and Both SOTC and Diaspora explicitly are at odds with it. –  aramis Oct 12 '11 at 9:03
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Generally when I'd need a roll like this, rather than telling them the roll is for something it isnt, I'd just tell them what dice to roll, and if need be, ask for the character sheet to look for modifiers. So instead of saying 'roll alertness' when what I really need is 'roll empathy', I'd instead say 'roll percentiles' and leave them guessing.

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