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I've been thinking about a method to utilize secret threats without removing player agency. This is especially important for when a character would be forced to make a saving throw by a stealthed enemy or a hidden trap without a perceptible effect. Are there any good methods of accomplishing this?

My goals include:

  1. Preventing metagaming by avoiding player knowledge of the event

    In so far as the player may have his/her character continue more carefully if they know they failed a check against a Wisdom save (since that is the save affiliated most with curses, etc.). My players are very knowledgeable about the game and highly skilled in deduction; they have figured out what the rolls mean even with very little information.

  2. Avoiding feelings of unfairness such as if I were to not allow them to roll

  3. Maintaining the feel of player agency such as by not just rolling myself

To clarify what I mean by by player agency, at one point in time I discussed with my players the idea of me rolling behind a DM screen using their stats to avoid their knowledge and they said that, even though they do trust me, they prefer to know that they failed the roll leading to the negative effect rather than having me roll low on their behalf. This is the feeling I'm trying to avoid (even though mathematically it has the same result barring modifiers like Bardic Inspiration).

Example

One example that came up in my game revolved around detect thoughts. My players were exploring an abandoned Duergar mine and discovered markings of strange hexes throughout the mine. When my wizard casts detect magic followed by dispel magic on the markings, the Duergar imprisoned in the wall emerged and told them a group of dark cloaked beings had invaded imprisoning the Duergar and stealing a significant number of diamonds. My players began planning a way to track down and assault the thieves, but unbeknownst to them, a scout from the group was sent back knowing the adventurers were on their way to the mine.

While the bard did cast zone of silence, the scout knew the spell detect thoughts and would be able to learn their plan if they failed the save. The players then realized upon noticing that the enemy somehow knew the plan, that detect thoughts must have been used on that "random roll" I had them perform. I don't know if this factored in to their decision making as my players tend to avoid metagaming too much, but the bard and wizard did use mind blank "just in case" when they reached the old lair of the enemies they had tracked down (a cave that used to house an elder brain).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you include a concrete example of a situation and the problem occurring? It'd be easier to give a focused answer that way :) \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Mar 9 '18 at 12:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ "maintaining player agency such as by not just rolling myself" — Telling a player to make a roll gives them no more agency then rolling it yourself. A random number is generated that affects the game. There are no decisions that a player can make which would influence it. \$\endgroup\$ – Quentin Mar 9 '18 at 13:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Quentin unless they could influence the roll (bardic inspiration, etc.). \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Mar 9 '18 at 14:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ What kind of effects of metagaming are you trying to avoid with this? As in, what do you expect to happen if you just did the rolls like normal that you are trying to avoid? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Mar 9 '18 at 14:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ It seems there are some things that are unclear about this question right now (including the question of what player agency means here which is key to the question according to OP). I'm voting to put it on hold for now until OP has a chance to answer so we can get them better answers. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Mar 9 '18 at 14:53
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There's no need to roll the saving throw immediately. Wait until it has a perceptible effect, then have the player roll retroactively at that point.

For example, if they're inside a haunted mansion and an undetected enemy casts a curse on them which prevents them from leaving the mansion, they can wander around inside the mansion all they want and it makes no difference whether the curse worked or not. But, when they finally decide to leave, tell them "You were hit with a curse that confines you to this building. Make a saving throw to see whether it took effect."

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    \$\begingroup\$ This would reveal to them that it's a curse such that remove curse would function; I would probably say, "some mysterious force compels you to stay within the mansion. Make a Wisdom saving throw." These types of cases are easy, but what about something like a hidden creature using detect thoughts which may never have a perceptible effect but merely improves the foresight of the villain? \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 9 '18 at 19:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron "You reach for the door handle to open the door. What lies in this room depends on whether a creature succeeded at something in the past. Roll a d20....You got a 19? As you enter, you see a group of orcs that appear to be snoring away in their beds." or, "...You got a 3? As you enter, you are ambushed by a hail of arrows. You can see fortified positions of orcs in the two far corners and a quick glance reveals that there are at least six orcs dressed for battle and looking straight at you, two in each corner and two in the middle. Roll to see how much damage the arrows did...." \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 7 at 15:05
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Ask for the roll and do not tell them anything (yet).

It is pretty much a given at the tables I've played that the DM might ask a roll from the players, without specifying why. You can simply ask the player "Roll a d20" and when he asks "What happened?" reply something on the line of "Nothing attracts your attention" or "Nothing relevant". Then, if and when something would happen because of that roll, you reveal the relevant information, optionally saying "You threw for the save back then".

This has the advantage over postponing the roll that you know if the effect is there or not, for example, in case someone might notice active spells or any other reason.

If the players get used to it and start going meta by - consciously or not - expecting something whenever you ask for a roll out of the blue, start asking them to roll even when there is no reason to. Literally just ask for a roll and ignore it. If you make a habit out of it, it will force them to ignore random rolls and just focus on the in-game description of events.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ See my added example for why that might not work. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 9 '18 at 19:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ In your example they deduced that Detect thoughts was cast on them since the enemy unexplicably knew their plan, so they started being (justifiably?) paranoid and trying to prevent this from happening again. I'm not sure I see the problem. \$\endgroup\$ – Marco Capitani Mar 10 '18 at 22:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ They deduced that it was detect thoughts in particular as opposed to scrying because of the roll which led them to realize it was Illithid earlier than they should have. I'm fine with clever deductions but this stems exclusively from the roll which is out of characteer. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 10 '18 at 23:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Then the second part of my suggestion applies: ask them for random rolls with no purpose at random times, just to hide the rolls which have an actual purpose. BTW, scrying also requires a Wisdom saving throw, so if all you asked for is "roll a D20" they couldn't know wheter it was the one of the other. So if they jumped straight to anti-detect thoughts measures, they must have had some other reason (either they suspected that somehow, detect thoughts is the only thing they could impede somehow, or they just didn't think of scrying). \$\endgroup\$ – Marco Capitani Mar 11 '18 at 13:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Scrying doesn't require a Wisdom save if the location is targetted. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 12 '18 at 20:38
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You should have copies of your players' sheets, or at least notes of each player's modifiers. You can generate (with dice or a random number generator) 200 d20 rolls in advance, and have them written out on paper. When it's time for a secret check, just use the first on your list, apply modifiers, and you'll know if they make the save or not. Then cross out this roll and move down the line as needed.

I've been at conventions where every d20 roll for the entire module was generated in advance, including attacks. This removes opportunities for misunderstandings (temptation).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ ugh... every roll? Might as well watch a movie. \$\endgroup\$ – user47897 Feb 25 at 17:28
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What I've done successfully before is Have each player roll 20 d20 dice rolls. I write them down in order. I keep the adjustments written down for each characters standard Saves. Then I roll a d20 for each character to establish where in the sequence I start using their rolls. So later in the game if I want a subtle save for the Half-Elf Wizard I consult his previous rolls. A will save is required, I had earlier started with his 8th roll so I just look at that dice roll apply his current will save adjustments and apply that to the save. It really works much easier and faster than you would think. Also it allows me to do things without a meta gaming player being the wiser.

This also puts it on the player as you are using the dice rolls he actually rolled earlier. So if there is a fail, then he rolled it before you began play. Boom, problem solved, mic drop.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer but the system I asked about is 5e (not that this method wouldn't work in other systems) but there are no will saves :) ) \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 26 '18 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ My mistake, but again the principal should work regardless of the system or the game so long as the dice rolls are essentially what you are looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Steel Duke Mar 26 '18 at 5:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ certainly, it's a great answer. Just check the system next time to make sure as in some cases there are differences in what answers would work :) \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 26 '18 at 5:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ My opinion: as a player I would not really care whether I pre-rolled those dice or whether the gm rolled for me. Either way I'd miss the just-in-time sensation of rolling dice I cared about right then. Actually even worse, if I had rolled before and knew my rolls were below average, I'd go into the game feeling gloomy assuming I'll fail everything anyways. If I knew my rolls were above average, I'd go into the game more recklessly assuming I'll succeed anyways. Neither of which really would represent an in-character choice. \$\endgroup\$ – mkl Mar 27 '18 at 4:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I understand mkl but, as noted by the original problem David asked about was about how to do something without alerting the players. It was the best I could come up for from the DM perspective. May not be ideal for a player, but I thought it met the intent. \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Steel Duke Mar 29 '18 at 20:43
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Misdirection

If you want them to roll for a saving throw but not be suspicious, tell them the roll is for something entirely unrelated, or just ask for a plain D20 roll, then reveal a semi-related rumour they remember hearing or even spotting a discarded gold piece on the floor, they'll think they've won out on a sudden perception challenge.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A DM wouldn't want their players lying to them, why would a player want their DM to do the same? \$\endgroup\$ – Yannick MG Mar 9 '18 at 13:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ The difference is that the DM is the arbiter of the story, asking the player to make an unspecified roll and then revealing an effect other than the secret one isn't on the same level as a player fudging their stats \$\endgroup\$ – Josh Mar 9 '18 at 13:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ While that's true, I strongly caution against eroding the players' faith in the DM by making it a regular habit to lie to them, unless it's a rare occurrence (or even part of a gimmick session where lies abound). Although your examples seem more like "misdirecting" than "lying." Maybe your technique would be more accurately described that way? \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Mar 9 '18 at 13:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a good point, I'll edit my header. \$\endgroup\$ – Josh Mar 9 '18 at 13:28

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