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I've been thinking about this for a while, and I'm not really sure how to address it. I read a GM tip once that stated that a low roll shouldn't mean the player learns nothing. I've taken to coming up with bad/sort of false information when my players roll poorly on perception/insight/etc.

For instance: If there's a cavern with a door in one wall, covered completely by some ivy, and a player rolls a four on their investigation check, I might tell them something like "You're very sure there's nothing on that wall." Or, if there are children playing on an otherwise-deserted street, and a player makes an investigation check to see if they can see anything else and rolls a crit failure, I might tell them they think they see movement out of the corner of their eye behind some buildings - that kind of thing.

I'm wondering what are the ramifications/consequences of this. I want my players to trust me, but I also think it's important that low rolls mean something. Is this style of GMing wrong? Should a failed check just mean that I tell the player they don't know/don't see anything? Or should I keep this up? I don't want to deceive my players, but I feel like it keeps the suspension of disbelief better if a failure doesn't just mean "no, you see nothing, next dice roll."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Since you ask us to clarify a GM tip you've saw once, could you recite this "a low roll shouldn't mean the player learns nothing" statement? I'm pretty sure it might mean that a low roll should always have negative consequences (e.g. a failed Perception check means you've triggered the trap), instead of just a zero result ("you've noticed nothing on the floor"). \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 30 '17 at 9:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ What if your plot depends on them figuring out/finding something and they roll low? What if they take some wild tangent because of misinformation and just waste a bunch of time while you desperately try to lure them back on course? First: don't make them roll if you don't want them to fail. Second: give vague or incomplete information on low rolls. \$\endgroup\$ – Glen Pierce Dec 30 '17 at 17:23
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If you think about it, it won't work to just say: "Oh, you rolled a natural one? Well, there's definitely no secret door there, then!" The players will quickly figure out that low rolls mean you'll tell them the opposite of the truth, and they'll start doing the opposite of whatever you tell them.

When a DM really wants to give false information based on the die roll, they have to do something more complicated: they ask for the player's modifier, roll for the player behind the DM screen, and then give an answer without ever telling the player what they rolled. Some groups like to do this, but I think it's not as much fun when you don't get to roll for yourself.

Here's what the rules say:

If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success—the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it’s a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the GM.

"Progress combined with a setback" might mean, for example, that the characters eventually find the door but it takes much longer than they expected. Or it might mean the characters find the door but the ivy turns out to be poison ivy, with some associated penalty. Or it might mean that the characters find the door but all the pounding on the walls as they search draws unwelcome attention.

In many cases, the act of searching might take significant time, so the penalty for a failed check is just that the characters get no reward for the time they invested.

But, if there's no obvious setback to be had, it's probably best to just say "no, you don't find anything" and let the players move on.

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In the campaigns I DMed, my players despised the idea that they flat-out missed their chance to acquire loot or information. In order to put a cap on groaning, I used a system where a failed check meant that a new route to acquire the loot or information becomes available, but if pursued, would clearly result in a penalty or more difficult experience.

For example, if the Bard is attempting to schmooze some nobleman for information but rolls a 6 on his persuasion, I'll say, "he sees you're trying to schmooze him and isn't falling for it, but you can try to grab his satchel with confidential documents and make a run for it."

In the case of traps, a failed investigation trap doesn't immediately result in damage, since my players would insist they were "just looking" from the entrance of the room, so they wouldn't have triggered anything. In that case, maybe guillotines start swinging through the corridor and they have to figure out a way to dodge through them or stop them from swinging, or maybe the next room fills with poison. A penalty, but not in-their-face and immediate.

As for finding secret doors or clues, sometimes they just won't find anything. If it's integral they find something, maybe in their careless investigation they snapped off the ancient door handle. They still get in, but have to work out some way to break down the big stone door.

I understand this isn't ideal, but for players who might resent harsh repercussions, it's a system that could work.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I made a minor edit to your answer: It's important on this site to Be Nice, and avoid belittling language, even for people who aren't on this site. You give valuable advice here, but there's no need to throw in an insult in there as well. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Dec 31 '17 at 9:45

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