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As a GM, can I roll in secret so my players don't even know I rolled?

For example, a PC walks past a secret door; if I ask the player to roll perception he may suspect there is something. Can I roll behind the GM screen for him to see if he passed the check and act accordingly? And I don't mean to hide the result of the roll, but to hide the fact that I rolled at all.

I am playing pathfinder, but this is a general question.

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10 Answers 10

up vote 37 down vote accepted

Of course! There is no reason why you would not be allowed to roll in secret. If you suspect your players will metagame when they realize they rolled low and might have missed something, it is reasonable to roll in secret so they do not know if they succeeded or failed.

However, even if you roll in secret, players may still get suspicious. You're rolling for a reason after all and even though they didn't see the result, they can still hear the dice being rolled.

In this case it is handiest to simply assume that they rolled 10 (taking 10) OR scribble down a pregenerated list of numbers beforehand and simply cross one off every time you "do a roll". This way, the players won't even know that you rolled at all.

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You're rolling for a reason after all. This is why I like to randomly roll dice when I'm GM'ing for no reason at all. The players never know if I'm rolling just to roll or rolling because I'm doing a check. ;) –  Roger Feb 19 '14 at 21:56
If you're going to make secret rolls just to keep the players paranoid, its also fun to ask them questions like 'where exactly on you do you carry your gold?' after the roll. –  GrandmasterB Feb 19 '14 at 22:52

A technique I've used is to have the players all roll spot* at the start of a game/dungeon/scene. When a secret spot check is needed, use that roll.

The players will still know how well they've rolled, but they won't know when they failed. It helps to minimize the meta-gaming but the players still get to roll their own die.

*replace spot with your setting-specific skill

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Yeah, most players/DMs consider this fair play.

To avoid rolling the dice at all and thus tipping off your players that they should, I don't know, look around for hidden doors or something, I find it best just to pick the dice up, hold it behind your dm screen (laptop screen?) and glance down at it, whatever side is pointing directly at you is the number that was "rolled". Or for dice where that is too hard to tell, hold your finger and thumb on opposite sides of a number, and read that number - makes it impossible for it to be ambiguous what the result should be.

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It really depends on the game!

In many modern-day RPGs, rolling for stuff in secret is unnecessary, and even downright impossible to do without abjectly breaking the rules. For example, in Burning Wheel, you can't engage the mechanics without engaging the other players, since we have to come to agreement about the intent and task behind a roll before we make a test; in Apocalypse World, moves are the result of describing something — how are you gonna roll if you haven't introduced anything to the story to prompt it in the first place?

Older games, as well as games that are part of long-running game lines, tend to have a structure that's more friendly to secret rolls, though it's rather rare that you absolutely have to use them.

Secret rolls generally fit best in the context of a game where the group is trying to avoid "out-of-character knowledge." This is typically the result of:

  • Direct "immersive" play, wherein the assumption is that syncing up a character's knowledge and reactions to a player's is a worthy goal in its own right.

  • Challenge-focused play, where drama takes a back seat to tactics. Especially in the context of situations that are prepared ahead of time, like published scenarios, since you know that there's a cache of potions in room D that the players can find with a difficulty 16 search check or whatever.

If you're more interested in "author-stance" dramatic play, in contrast, players often enjoy the extra sense of tension, irony, or humor that comes with knowing a little bit more about the situation than the fictional characters themselves do.

Good use of secret rolls

As a matter of technique, rolling in secret generally isn't a problem in games that already assume GMs have broad unilateral power to decide the scope of any given skill check. I think the main virtues are helping players avoid unintentional "metagaming" in the context of the playstyles I mentioned above.

The main pitfalls to watch out for are:

  • "Roll to see whether or not anything interesting happens" is a mechanic that only really works in small doses. Too much and the game starts to look like "Roll. Nothing. Roll. Nothing."

  • Just because the players don't get to see the process doesn't mean it should be less principled than the other rolls you make in play. If you wouldn't half-ass a normal roll, don't half-ass secret rolls just because no one is watching.

  • Secret checks can seriously bog down play. Generally you want to avoid rolling dice just to go "Nothing happened!" Also, some GM advice suggests faking secret rolls just to keep players guessing about what's going on — that's just adding empty filler to the game; it's even worse if players get spooked and end up turtling massively as a result. RPG play can already be super-slow even without the GM dithering around making fake rolls just to conceal the existence of other rolls.

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Another option is to ask the player to roll their die, and tell you the result.

And then, don't tell them why they rolled.

As a DM, you should have a copy of their character sheets on hand, and you can know for yourself whether or not they succeeded whatever secret roll they just made.

Good players will gladly ignore that nothing has changed because of this roll, and metagaming players will get paranoid and start actively checking every corner of the room for every possible thing they can find.

If you have the second type, make them randomly roll their die for no reason, and enjoy the fun. ;) (Or seriously consider rolling in secret, but at least now you know if you can trust them or not)

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Others have noted this before:

In some systems it is easier to integrate hidden roles than in others.

Also: Players tend to have different opinions on the matter and you have to find a compromise that works for the whole group. If you cannot find a consens right away, you might want to try different amounts or criteria for hidden rolls at different sessions and then discuss whith a common backround.

It is OK (recommended) if your players are all right with the general idea.

A few more additions:

  • Never let any secret roll affect the flow of the game (dialogue, description etc.).

  • If there are passive rolls like luck, sense danger, sense motiv etc., some of which can be used by explicitely concentrating on them, in some sense, they are always on, even if the character does not actively try to use them: keep notes on the characters values. It can pay to always roll certain unintentional checks in secret and only let them influence your desriptions, so that the players never know, wether you rolled for them or for something unrelated (does the monster notice the loose boulder above it?).

  • When rolling in secred and the roll is a critical failure, noone saw it and could complain about you handling it like a normal failure. Done right, this kind of cheating can enhance the fun for the whole group. It is also important, that you never let them deduce from your descriptions what you rolled for and wether it was a success or not.

  • When rolling for enemies, I always roll in secret. As well as keeping the initiative list secret — this can make fights a lot more interesting. Also, so that players may not know how many enemies there are (some could still be hidden but may need to roll to prepare some spell), you can take different coloured dice for each enemy and roll all at once.

I also, tend to always play around with my dice, so players can never be sure wether I actually rolled them for a check. With some exercise, they will even have problems determining wether you looked at the result or not.

If you know your situation and your characters well, you will be able to roll in advance, such that the result will affect your descriptions several minutes after the roll … by then, there might have been other rolls to obfuscate what you were rolling for.

An important aspect (imho) is, that even, if the players are in full control of their characters there can always be situations in which following a complicated chain of dependent rolls would disturb the gameplay … a very bad example: the character steps on an unusual rock and this needs a roll for some sensibility or other to determine wether the character felt that through his thick shoe and if that is the case, other senses have to be rolled for to determine wether the character notices that something is off.

  • Now, if you let the player roll all of that, you won't get past the first roll before the whole group jumps to action — wether that roll failed or not.

  • You could just decide, wether the character feels something through his thick shoe or not. But if players want to be in control so badly, that they do not want you to make hidden rolls, just deciding something will cause problems as well.

  • If you do all rolls hidden except the one that lets the character spot that something is off, the situation feels entirely different. If the players roll succeedes and the character thinks about, why he feels that way, you can always make your previous rolls public.

This has a lot to do with how much control the GM has over the storytelling part. This is partially regulated by the game mechanics and the rest is again the social contract of the group.

And the group has to decide how much control they want and how much suspense they want etc. So, if the players want, for example, to be able to feel the horror, tension or confusion of their characters, it can be helpful to not always know all variables. Also, not knowing why you feel a certain way, or wether that shot was a good one, is a sort of suspense.

Some claim that avoiding to roll in secret for the players makes the game more realistic. I tend to disagree.

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First: yes of course you can roll for your players in secret, just make sure you won't cause your players to feel over-ruled. Allow them to roll their own dices when they want to.

To hide the dice-roll there are two techniques that I use frequently:

Roll a dice every now and then

Just so whenever it fits, make a brief pause, roll a dice, continue the story. Just so your players no longer know if you rolled as a joke or because there actually is something. You can even dice-roll some NPC personal decisions to make the story more interesting if you want to.

Have a list of random results prepared

Have a list of random numbers prepared and just pick the next number from the list whenever it is appropriate instead of rolling a dice. If you have a list of true random numbers and use it frequently it will be as random as a dice, because the actions of the PCs act as the random factor here. You never know beforehand if the next 20 on the list will be used on a spot check, to determine an NPC's reaction or in the next tavern-drinking contest. And your players will never know that you just looked up another number.

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You have many solutions for that.

You may prepare some rolls in advance. Roll your dice as many time as you think you'll need (and a little more just in case), and note the results. When you need a secret roll, just pick the next on your list. This way, your players can not even know that you "rolled" a die. Keep track of your PC skills that you might use this way (Perception, Sense Motive, I can't remember all skills in Pathfinder) just to avoid asking them.

You can throw in random rolls for nothing, just to confuse your players. This way they can not know which one is a real roll and which one is a fake. (Even if you choose another solution, try this at least once just for fun. ;) )

Or you can trust your players. You might want to make them understand that this kind of metagaming ruins the fun, that they have to make a distinction between what their characters know, and what they know as players. This can be difficult if they are not used to it, and you might want to reward them when they do so. Also, this depends a lot of your social contract. But making a character act in some way while the player behind knows that it is not good for him, is what I personally call good roleplaying.

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In terms of game theory[1], it's fine, if you want to see if the character discovers something without alerting the player that there's something there to be discovered, but I prefer to avoid it for several reasons.

First of all, if you as the GM put something hidden into the game, it should be meant to be discovered - maybe not right now, if you're talking about the Vizier's evil machinations, but at some point.[2] So putting something there in the hopes players won't notice it defeats the purpose of having it there in the first place.

Secondly, the players are supposed to be the agents of the character's actions. By not letting them roll, and more importantly by not having them decide to use their character's abilities themselves, you're breaking up the illusion of the game. Your job as GM is not to decide the characters' fate, but to create the environment and "supporting cast" so player characters decide their own fates.

Moreover, in terms of atmosphere, a small amount of information can keep players on their toes better than no information. You can tell them to make a perception roll, and if they fail either give some foreshadowing ("You hear an angry hiss and see a cat scamper out of the shadows into an alley") or distract them with something else ("Something looks out of place about the suit of armor in the corner...").

Finally, well trained players should not need prompting to perceive most things; they'll constantly be asking if they can make checks on everything worth looking at anyway. Novices might not know to do this, so you could just always ask them if they way take a check to examine anything about their surroundings when they have a free action.

[1] Not in the sense of economic game theory, but in terms of the theoretical concept of simulating whatever it is via gaming. [2] A friend in Middle School always used to have Excalibur buried underneath a tree in all of his games. What's the point of that? In-game rewards are supposed to come from taking risks and making good decisions, not completely dumb luck or reading the DM's mind.

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Yes, but....

It's entirely appropriate to roll in secret for almost everything.

You, as the GM, are responsible for being an arbitrator and as such you need to have that power. You don't roll a spot check and let players know if they got an awesome success or a miserable failure, because then they'd always ask to roll again.

Secrets for the GM are also important. I look at it like a present; I went to the effort to create an experience for my players that I think they'll enjoy, so I'm going to keep it wrapped up until it's time to let my players know what's going on.

...openness is good.

However, I usually let my players roll most things. A good criteria for this is: "Do players know what they're rolling?". If they do, it's usually better to let them roll. On the other hand, if there's any chance of ambiguity, I do the rolls.

Another thing I do occasionally is to give mood feelings; if a player fails a spot roll, I tell them that they feel off-balance, or hazy, or unfocused. The reason I can do this is because I roll for them when it's not needed as often as I do when it is, so they can make an informed, but not entirely certain, decision.

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