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I'm a new DM and over the last few weeks I've been slowly learning the game and how it runs. My party consists of 5 PCs.

One thing I have been wondering after our last two sessions is:
What rolls should all the players see and which rolls shouldn't they see?

Is there a comprehensive list of what rolls are public and which go behind the DM screen, or is it more down to house rules or personal preference?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate of When should a GM roll behind the GM Screen? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 22 '17 at 13:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this should be closed as a dupe. I think that other one should be closed as opinion based, since it's "what do you like to do, for any game system." This is asking if 5e has specific guidance on the subject, which is clearly on topic and answerable. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jun 22 '17 at 18:45
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There are no set rules.

But it is discussed at length under Chapter 8: Running the Game in the DMG. There is a section on Dice Rolling, where it talks about some of the things to consider before starting the game. Best bit of advice in there, IMO?

Establish expectations about rolling dice.

It all comes down to your relationship with the players, and how you like to run the game. Just ask them! Be sure to tell them what you prefer too! Some of them may like all rolls to be done up front. But you should also balance that with speed of the game, and keeping an air of mystery. Also, making every roll in the center of the table where everyone can see can get to be a pain.

Personally, I do a hybrid system:

  • Default is to roll close to me. That is where my notes and Monster Manuals are. If that is behind a screen or concealed then so be it. But I am rolling for expedience, because in general the die roll should not get the constant focus of the game.
  • If it is for a roll where the results would give the players metagame information that might crucially change the course of the game, I will probably conceal the roll.
    • example. If the guard figures out you are lying, you could lose your patronage with the Queen. The bard spins his yarn. (I have them make a roll). After eyeing you, he gives you an inscrutable look with a half smile, then he waves you on (I make a concealed roll. They will find out the consequences later when they return to the Queen.)
  • If there is a lot riding on a particular roll, I will briefly summarize what the outcome of the roll means for the players then roll in the center of the table.
    • example. The barbarian has held off the giant for three rounds while you all have cleaned up its minions, but he finally fell. And now, the wizard is casting his last spell in the hopes that the giant won't come and make paste out of him. If Freja the Frost Giant makes this save, the wizard is likely toast. She needs to roll a 15 or better. (Makes a slow dramatic roll in the center of the table where everyone can see)

A Note on Passive Skills

Passive skills are akin to "rolling behind the screen". They are pre-calculated to provide an extra layer of concealment to avoid signaling to the players. Players will notice when the DM starts rolling dice. Especially after they said they take an action. Relying on a passive skill number allows the DM to assess a contested skill roll with no dice rolling at all.

There is a great Dragon Talk on Stealth that also talks about how to use Passive Skills. Give it a listen. It helped me grok how 5e handles Passive skills.

Also check out this great answer on Passive Skills and how to use them.

Using "Result-less" Concealed Dice Rolls To Motivate Players

Since players have a Pavlovian response to the DM rolling concealed dice, one very fun technique is to roll concealed dice to get the game back on track. Inevitably, every game stalls. It's just how it goes. I have found that sometimes, when the players are stuck discussing the best way to open a door, if you start rolling dice behind the DMs screen, they tend to get moving.

Fudging Rolls

Rolling everything concealed does afford you some more control over the flow of the game. If things start going south for the PCs you can turn hits into misses, lower damage, miss saving throws, etc. Conversely, if they are sailing through, you can turn misses into hits, etc.

Although this is possible, just be assured that there are other ways to control the flow of combat to make things easier or harder on the PCs. Like raising and lowering hit points mid-battle, changing monster tactics, decreasing monsters in an encounter, and others. So don't use this as your reason for concealing all rolls.

Overall, I would avoid any fudging. It can sap the excitement from the game, or turn the game into a slog. For me, there is one exception to this rule. When designing encounters, I have at times overestimated or underestimated a party's capabilities. If its not by too much, then that's OK. But if I grind them into the dirt, or they cake walk through the dungeon, I will probably fudge. And if it is a really bad PC rout, sometimes you have to fudge to-hit and damage rolls as immediate triage.

Roll Enhancing Abilities vs. Hidden Rolls.

Sometimes a player has an ability that allows them to modify rolls (Bardic Inspiration, Lucky, etc.) This is a limited resource, and players will want to use it judiciously. But, in the case of a hidden roll the DM is taking some of that decision making process out of their hands. IMO, the DM should honor player abilities, and give the player the benefit of the doubt. It lessens the fun to cripple a player ability because of how you choose to make your die rolls.

With that said, when a player has that ability, I typically give the players some indication of the result of the check, before I announce the results. I try to do this in game (as much a possible). Note: I also try to do this before initiative rolls - it allows the players to decide if they want to go to combat or try a different route. YMMV, but I find it to be much more fun as it gives the players a chance to surprise me. Example:

  • As the player rounds the corner, they see up ahead four bugbear guards about to turn into the same alley (they are not actively searching, and have a passive perception of 15 - not a hidden roll, but it could be). The player hides and rolls a 13. The bugbears are moving slowly but purposefully through the alley, and three of them pass by but the last one in line stops just short of your spot and starts sniffing like it has caught a scent. At this point I would pause a little, and imitate the bugbear sniffing the air, turning its head, and squinting at shadows. This should give the player or their party members the chance to use their ability, or heck do anything to better their chances.

IMO, At the very least the DM should give the player some idea how difficult the task is, if not outright give them the DC, if it is not opposed. If it is opposed, then give some indication of the antagonist's ability. Wolves are known for their incredible tracking skills and ability to find hidden things or You have only ever heard rumors about the Shadowmaster, so researching his father's name is going to be a very difficult task. You might want to use your class abilities or cast spells.

I typically do this whenever an opposed or hidden roll is close, say within 3 points - be it a success or failure for the player. It just adds to the tension and makes the game more fun for everyone. Somethings I have not considered, but probably need to:

  • Is is fair to get the players to spend resources by ratcheting up the tension even though I know they don't need to? Maybe? After all if I only do this when the player is failing but close, then I am sending a message. OTOH, it is a hidden roll so the players will not know that I only do this for failures. Maybe then it is OK. On the third hand, it sure is fun to slow down the action when the story reaches an inflection point.
  • Can the player use skills to decision to spend a resource? I think yes, but I would make it a passive check (active checks take time). Maybe a passive insight or investigation (or other appropriate skill as needed) DC 15(?), modified by environmental conditions(?). Not sure, I would have to think on this.
  • Should I increase the range where I indicate a potential failure? If so should it be out to the limits of what a bard could potentially change? Can I role play how close the roll is to the players satisfaction? Do I merely say, for example it is about to turn it's head to look right at you, do you do anything? Not sure here, other than to say if you are indicating close rolls when they are successes, don't expand that range upwards.

This comes with a caveat: if they have no way of knowing that there would be a hidden roll, then they must make the decision to spend their ability with little to no DM input. For example, if someone decides to stealth across a field, and they have no way of knowing that an owlbear nesting in the treeline, I would probably not indicate they might be seen. The only info they get to make a decision is their die roll.

So no firm answers, but in general, defer to they players abilities and them spending resources, and give them a fair shake. Follow the rule of improv, and typically answer "yes, and...."

Rolling For Players

One suggestion in the DMG is:

You might choose to make a roll for a player because you don't want the player to know how good the check total is.

I have to say that I have never tried that method. Most of the people I play with do not want others to roll for them. That is super old school though. Your players will probably be different. When the PCs are in such a situation I would then fall back to a passive skill.

In the end, just roll with it, and you'll get the hang of it. Just listen to your players and find a system that works for both them and you.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I will quite often roll for my players (and when they DM they do the same) under situations where players may struggle to not metagame knowing the results of their roll. A player that knows they rolled 1 for use rope is unlikely to let the prisoner out of their sight, but one that knows they rolled 20 probably will. \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Jun 23 '17 at 6:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer would be much-improved if it addressed how to handle options like the bard’s bardic inspiration that are supposed to allow you to see the DM’s roll (but not whether or not it succeeded) before choosing whether or not to use it. If you are hiding rolls in general, should you reveal those rolls? And if so, isn’t it strange that in addition to whatever effect such an ability has when you choose to use it, the mere fact that you could use it serves as a passive information-gathering ability? \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 25 '18 at 13:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Done. Hope it is of some use for you. \$\endgroup\$ – JWT Oct 30 '18 at 16:51
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RAW: It's up to you. DMG, Page 235

There is no hard rule for any rolls to be hidden or visible. It is up to you and your playstyle and what is fun for your table.

Please read DICE ROLLING on page 235 of the Dungeon Master's Guide for more details and WoTC direction on this decision.

Hidden Rolls

The positive of hidden rolls is that the players never know a modifier for a creature to help them figure out creature statistics. Some consider figuring out those values to be metagaming, but from an in-game perspective the more you fight someone the more you figure them out.

Visible Rolls

This puts you on par with your players. You have an expectation that they roll in the open and holding yourself to the same standard is a reasonable decision. This also helps with the abilities mentioned above that require decisions based on a roll without yet knowing the outcome.

Possible Exceptions

Passive Rolls are general done behind the screen so as not to give any clues to a situation that they might not notice in game. Gathering the passive scores for specific skills (like perception) is a good idea before you begin a session.

Another consideration is abilities like Bard's Cutting Words or Lucky roll decisions that need to be made before the result is announced. In the case of these mechanics, it very much seems like you do need to know the roll in order to get the full effect and advantage of their use. While Wizards of the Coast have stated that 5e is open to a variety of playstyles (including hidden rolls), it very much seems that they weren't thinking about the impact of some of the specific mechanics.

I've played a bard in a campaign with rotating DM and had one who did hidden rolls. It vastly changed how I used my resource and took away a lot of the fun I was having by making it about guesswork.

There are ways to do this, but it may reduce player agency and be frustrating. A DM does know the outcome, and knows the die value for the Bardic Inspiration. They could give a sliding scale of not possible/possible/probable to the player to help guide them in their decision making process. But even that can limit how a player acts because of limited information.

With Lucky, it's even harder because in that case it's a binary question and revealing whether or not it's worth it is basically revealing the result.

DM Fudge and Cavities

Some DMs like to have the freedom to skew rolls one way or another to reduce the impact of a fight or make a command decision that moves the story/event in one direction (or prevents a TPK.) Visible rolls do not allow for this. However, there is a danger here in doing this as well. Be careful not to fall into the trap of altering your rolls for effect too much - otherwise you risk reducing the impact of the randomness of the dice.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer would be much-improved if it addressed how to handle options like the bard’s bardic inspiration that are supposed to allow you to see the DM’s roll (but not whether or not it succeeded) before choosing whether or not to use it. If you are hiding rolls in general, should you reveal those rolls? And if so, isn’t it strange that in addition to whatever effect such an ability has when you choose to use it, the mere fact that you could use it serves as a passive information-gathering ability? \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 25 '18 at 13:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Are you recommending to add suggestions on how to do it? I do list that specific concern under the Possible Exceptions. But I was trying to stay more general in the answer to address the general question. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 25 '18 at 13:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, missed that you had, but yes, more detail there would be nice. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 25 '18 at 13:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Okay, let me think about how to add that in. I mention 'ways to do this' but don't say what they are (mostly because I think those rolls should be announced.) If you've got some ideas, i'm open to edits :) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 25 '18 at 13:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ To be honest, when that point was raised in a duplicate question, it shifted my opinion from “well it really is a matter of opinion” to “no, despite what the book says and ages of tradition, the actual mechanics make hiding rolls really awkward and that just isn’t going to be a good approach.” It seems like this is one of those cases where Wizards of the Coast said the game is open to a variety of playstyles... and then wrote mechanics that assumed one of them. They’ve done that a fair bit in 5e (cf. the discussion about actually sticking to the rules to begin with). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 25 '18 at 13:58

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