During a discussion I had with @jgn based on the question discussing rolling twice on an investigation check, I realized we were operating with entirely different ideas of how dice rolls actually function inside of the narrative of the game.

For example:

A fighter searches a room he's never been in before. If he rolls a 15, he'll find the hidden switch that opens the secret laboratory of the mad doctor Fred. He rolls and it's a 3, he does not find the secret switch.

My point of view is that the fighter did his best to find something special about the room, didn't find anything, and has no reason to roll again, and he'd get a new try, or find it automatically, if somebody later informed him about the hidden switch in the room.

@jgn's point of view is that the fighter is aware of the fact that he did a poor job searching the room and can keep trying until he is confident that he did a good job. In essence, the fighter "knows" the dice roll and will stop trying when he rolls high enough.

To me, the later approach seems like it'd be better served with a taking 10 (passive) Investigation check and refluffing "Oh I rolled a 1, I did a poor job searching, I'll just roll again!" is essentially fishing for advantage based on meta game information.

In earlier editions, "try until you are 100% certain you gave it your best" was done with taking 20, but that no longer exists in 5e.

So which, exactly, is the official D&D 5e stance?

Notes based on comments:

  • There is, obviously, a risk of failure. The fighter can fail to find the room, so he should roll.

  • It is not critical that the fighter finds the room. This is not a case of "the fighter has to find the room".

Do characters know they did a poor job because of low dice rolls if a failed roll gives them no new information and their failure isn't visible?


8 Answers 8


It Depends

This is a matter of Player/Character separation of knowledge and what makes sense. The extent of RAW we have is that you are allowed to try again, but...

Multiple Ability Checks (DMG 237)
Sometimes a character fails an ability check and wants to try again. In some cases, a character is free to do so; the only real cost is the time it takes. With enough attempts and enough time, a character should eventually succeed at the task.

The kicker is the section I bolded. What does "In Some Cases" mean? We don't get a specific definition on that.

So you have to fall back on what makes logical sense. Think about if you, yourself, were trying to achieve the thing that your character is trying to achieve. Would you have a reason to try again? Is there some indication that you should try again?

We can assume that a dice result represents the results of your effort, not how hard you tried...so, at the least, characters know they were actually trying their best. This ultimately boils down to this: If you couldn't see the dice result (say, the DM rolled for you), only the actual output of what happened, would you try again?

Let's take a few examples...

Searching a Room

Suppose, IRL, you walk into a room and decide you want to look and see if there is a safe in the room. You search the room top to bottom and don't find the safe. There may, in fact, actually be a safe in the room--you just didn't think to tug the light-switch out from the wall and hit the button on the side, which would have popped open the hidden compartment where the safe is.

But here's the important thing... you were not certain there was a safe in this room. You searched the room, did your best...but didn't "roll" high enough to find the hidden controls to reveal the safe. You have no reason to assume you 'failed' to find the safe, and every reason to assume there's simply no safe there.

On the other hand...suppose you lost your keys in your apartment. Well, you know they're in there somewhere, so even if your first 'pass' of searching the apartment fails, you're going to try again because you are aware (or at least believe) that the thing you're looking for exists and is in the place you are searching, so you know that you 'failed' in your search, and will try again.

Climbing a wall

This is pretty cut and dry, honestly. You tried to climb the wall...you failed. Do you want to try again Y/N?


Again, cut and dry. You made a thing...how good of a job did you do? Well, you can inspect the thing you made and find out. But you may no longer have the materials to try again.

Lie Detection

This one is also pretty cut and dry. In the moment, did you believe that person or not? You have no clear in-game evidence to show you that your 'check' was incorrect.


Again, this one depends on the situation.

Suppose you're following a trail...you cut through some rough ground and lose the trail. Well, you know there's a trail there and the thing you're following probably didn't randomly cease to exist...so you'd think to double back to the last place you saw the trail and try again to follow it.

However, if you're searching a glade for signs that a deer was there and don't find any...well, you didn't actually know whether or not there was a deer there, so you can't tell the difference between "missed the signs" and "no deer here." So, again, your character has no ability to tell between 'failure' and 'nothing here.'

A bit of extra supporting evidence...

While this is not directly related to Skill Checks, it does relate in terms of a Character's ability to figure out how something worked, we have this bit on Invalid Spell Targets from Xanathar's Guide to Everything.

If the spell normally has no effect on a target that succeeds on a saving throw, the invalid target appears to have succeeded on its saving throw, even though it didn’t attempt one (giving no hint that the creature is in fact an invalid target).

So, again...as there is no clear evidence that the target was invalid...you simply perceive that the spell failed to effect them. You cannot tell the difference between "They passed their save" and "they are immune" in the same way that, without evidence, you cannot tell the difference between "I didn't roll well enough" and "There's nothing to be found."


In short...think about it realistically. If you couldn't see your dice result, is there some clear reason for your character to know that they failed? If yes, they have reason to try again. If no, they cannot tell that they failed.


It's very much up to the DM

How a skill check, whether it end up a failure or success, resolves at table is narrated by the DM. And there a few things to consider with regard to how this can be done:

  1. If there is no risk or consequence of failure, then there is no need to roll.
  2. Player knowledge can be separate from character knowledge, but it's very much up to the table to determine the level of meta-knowledge that's allowed/preferred for fun.
  3. Whether or not there is time or a pathway to success if they failed.

As a DM, there are times where I really want to give information to my PCs. In those cases, I may have them roll but still give them the information I want.

At other times, I draw a harder line and if they roll poorly, I simply say that they have searched and found nothing.

Strictly from the DMG (p.237), there is a pathway that allows it, but it still remains up to the DM if that path is available (emphasis mine):

Sometimes a character fails an ability check and wants to try again. In some cases, a character is free to do so; the only real cost is the time it takes. With enough attempts and enough time, a character should eventually succeed at the task.

Separating player from character

This is generally a really hard thing to do for many people. But if you want to have strict gates for finding things/learning things based on the DC, then you simply tell the players "You've tried to search and you've found nothing." The player needs to just take it in stride and move on knowing that they may have missed out on something.

Additional opportunities

As I stated above, time constraints may play a role here. If time isn't an issue and there are no negative consequences to failure, then a DM can either allow rerolls or just not request a roll at all.

If one player fails and another wants to try, that could be seen as the 'Help' action. However, you can also treat this as another attempt, but again: if you want the players to succeed, then let them succeed either with no roll or allowing success at whatever roll occurs to move your story forward.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ For what it's worth I have had one GM (and only one) who would roll the PC ability checks and Attack rolls and anything else in secret to avoid meta-gaming, it was... Interesting \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10, 2020 at 15:24
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 Yeah, I personally do all rolls open. Not a fan of hiding anything. And it's fun for them to 'guess' what i'm rolling for at times. I'll also just randomly roll a random die just to mess with them, too :P \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Jan 10, 2020 at 15:26
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Selectively secret rolling is one of the things I really love about running online via Fantasy Grounds. For things with obvious failure consequences, players can roll out where everybody can see. When the results of failure are not so obvious, players can roll where only the DM can see. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Jan 10, 2020 at 16:18

Characters may not know that they failed, but they may try multiple times anyway, even if they don't know the success/failure state

There are three questions we need to ask:

  • Can the characters try multiple times?
    • If they can't then the whole question is moot
  • What about consequences of failure?
  • Do they know they have failed?

Can the characters try multiple times?


The DMG has this rule in the Ability Checks section of running the game (emphasis mine).

Multiple Ability Checks

Sometimes a character fails an ability check and wants to try again. In some cases, a character is free to do so; the only real cost is the time it takes.


In other cases, failing an ability check makes it impossible to make the same check to do the same thing again.


This rule presents two sets of cases, ones where the character is free to do so, and others where the act of failing has made retrying impossible.

The fact that there is a rule suggests that characters do know that they didn't find anything. For example the in character motivation may not be "I did a bad job of investigating" but rather "I haven't found anything yet but I'm sure there is something here!"

For a real life analog, have you ever been looking for something in a room, not found it, but then gone back later only to find it almost immediately? This could be the same thing.

The examples given in this rule are guides. For example, it would be hard to provide an ingame justification for trying an insight roll again without a change in situation, as the insight skill represents your characters "read" of another characters actions and motivations. Similarly if the History roll was to see if they knew a piece of obtuse information, they can't try again to see if they "remember better".

On the other-hand, redoing a physical check like an investigation or active perception check is precisely the type of thing that this rule is designed for. If they aren't under time pressure (either self-imposed or environmentally imposed) and they want to persevere at the task then the rules allow them to do so.

What about consequences of failure?

The same DMG section also has optional rules on Degrees of Failure and Critical Success/Failure. If you are implementing these rules then their individual failures may have specific consequences that make further attempts impossible.

For reference these rules are:

Degrees of Failure

Sometimes a failed ability check has different consequences depending on the degree of failure. For example, a character who fails to disarm a trapped chest might accidentally spring the trap if the check fails by 5 or more, whereas a lesser failure means that the trap wasn’t triggered during the botched disarm attempt. Consider adding similar distinctions to other checks. Perhaps a failed Charisma (Persuasion) check means a queen won’t help, whereas a failure of 5 or more means she throws you in the dungeon for your impudence.

Critical Success or Failure

Rolling a 20 or a 1 on an ability check or a saving throw doesn’t normally have any special effect. However, you can choose to take such an exceptional roll into account when adjudicating the outcome. It’s up to you to determine how this manifests in the game. An easy approach is to increase the impact of the success or failure. For example, rolling a 1 on a failed attempt to pick a lock might break the thieves’ tools being used, and rolling a 20 on a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check might reveal an extra clue.

The botched disarm a trap check example would obviously make future attempts to disarm simple traps both unnecessary and impossible (since simple traps don't automatically reset once triggered).

Similarly, if a theif rolls a natural 1 on their check to pick a lock and break their Thieves' Tools, future picking attempts cannot be made until/unless they source a different pick set. Alternatively it may increase the DC of pick attempts using that set of Thieves' Tools as that set has a key component that is damaged.

Do they know they have failed?

Usually, when a character is making an ability check they are attempting something that has a success state at the very least (or at least the possibility of a success state). They will certainly know they didn't succeed. Whether or not they know that they failed is a slightly different question though. The answer to that question is "not necessarily"

I'll illustrate this with two examples from my game, one where the failure state is unknowable (or at least unmeasurable) and one where the failure state is knowable (or measureable).

Failure State is unknowable/unmeasurable

My group is currently dungeon crawling through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage. This mega dungeon has secret doors/rooms dotted throughout it. Not every room they go into has a secret door however. In order to not give away whether or not there is a secret door in a room I ask them for Perception/Investigation rolls any time they say they are looking for secret doors or secrets.

  • If they roll poorly, then regardless of whether or not the room has a secret door I say "You don't find any secret doors".
  • If they roll well (above the predefined DC for secret doors in this dungeon) then they either get "You're pretty sure if there were any secret doors in this room you would have found them, based on your experience with this dungeon to date" or "You found the secret door".

If there is a special secret door with a particularly high DC to be found, but they reached the "regular" DC, they still get one of those two answers. In that case, they don't know whether or not they failed with a low roll, but they also don't know if they succeeded with a high roll, they just know they didn't find anything. With a high roll however they have a pretty good idea that there probably isn't a secret door.

In order to discourage repeated rolling in every room, each check of this kind has a time penalty which works like this:

  • Each check to search a room takes 15 minutes for "regularly sized rooms" or "regularly sized chunks" of larger rooms. That means a repeated check uses up time, time during which the monsters on the level they are on could attack, or they could be doing something else.
  • If they want to try 2/3 times, they just roll the requisite number of times and I adjudicate the result based on each roll (depending on time pressure) and mark off the time
  • If they say we are going to search this room until they find something or get bored, I ask them for an amount of time that they want to allocate to this task.
  • I then ask them to roll a single d20 roll with their proficiency bonus for each character performing the task.
  • I then compare the results of those rolls with a predefined table I generated which translates the modified roll into a "how long it took" for each DC level in the game.
  • Based on that set of checks I then declare either "they didn't find anything in their alloted time", or "xyz found something/is pretty sure after x amount of time that there is nothing in the room".

Failure State is knowable

As a counter example, if the rogue is picking a lock and doesn't fail bad enough to break their lock picks, then they know that they didn't unlock the door. The failure state in this case is obvious. In this circumstance they can always try, and try again until they break their whole set of tools, or they open the lock. They may even have come across this type of lock before (Halaster does batch lock orders of course :P) and know roughly how hard the damn thing is to open.


Multiple ability checks at a single task are possible and explicitly allowed for in the rules. Whether or not a character gets to do them depends on whether or not the task has been made impossible for them to attempt again by virtue of their initial attempt.

Whether or not the character has an IC motivation to do try repeatedly is more fuzzy. Ultimately it's a question for the player and ostensibly the player can say their motivation is that they are particularly suspicious of their lack of success at the task and wish to keep trying. Or their character can think that they didn't do that well at the task and they want to do better.

If you as the DM feel that trying some checks over and over again is tedious/making the game unfun for you, then you need to talk to your players. Either come up with ways to shorten how much game time is spent on the task (I've presented how I handle that above), or come up with some other solution in conjunction with your players.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If you are downvoting as a result of a deficiency in the answer it would be good if you could point this out to me so I can improve the answer \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Jan 10, 2020 at 19:19

Characters have no awareness of dice rolls.

The dice are an element out-of-game to simulate the game worlds complexity and randomness. They do not exist in-game and thus a character is not in any way aware of what the dice rolled. What he is aware of are the visible results.

So the straight and simple answer to your question is: No, if there is nothing obvious in the result, the character has no information on how he did.

Imagine for a moment that you (the real-world you) are guessing a number between 0 and 100. Without the answer being revealed, you have no way to know if you were close or not.

For the game that means that results must be established by the GM. Note that I didn't say "success and failure" - the dice determine that. But it is the job of the GM to interpret the results. And that depends on context, skill tested and dice roll.

Think about the action taken and what the action itself, irrespective of result, would tell you.

  • sometimes, you can't know if you did well or not, you only get the result. When searching for hidden doors or traps, the only thing your character knows is if he found something or not. If he found nothing, it could be that he searched really good and there's just isn't anything. Or it could be that he searched badly, and missed it. Or it could be he searched badly but there wasn't anything to find anyway.
  • sometimes, you get immediate feedback of how well you did. If you shoot an arrow at a target, you see how far off the mark you went.
  • sometimes, you only find out if you did well. When applying for a job, or a quest with the king, you will get feedback on how impressed they were only if they take you, otherwise you get a polite rejection with no details to why.
  • sometimes, you only find out if you did badly. In some exams or when you work with a personal coach, the right answer is simply a point, but for wrong answers you will get an explanation what you did wrong.

As a GM you can also use the dice results as a guideline. For example, in a "search traps" roll, you could decide (beforehand, to be fair) that if the player misses the target number only by X - or scores a partial success in whatever way your game system knows - he didn't find the trap, but he has a gut feeling that he missed something. He can't say what (and you could refuse to let him try again) but you could make a difference between saying "you're sure there's nothing" (failed by a wide margin) and "you didn't find anything, but you have a bad feeling about this" (failed by a narrow margin).

One way how I avoid the problem of the player knowing that he rolled badly when his character would have no such idea is to let the player roll in a dice cup and then I look at the result, not him.

Of course, it also depends on your group. Some players enjoy having their characters fail sometimes and will roleplay wonderfully.


There Is No Official D&D Stance

TLDR: The GM should be prepared to rule on a case by case basis, taking into account his or her style, the style of the players, whatever common sense the in-game situation provides, and whatever seems to generate fun.

This answer space is densely populated with long answers that veer off into many tangentials, so I will try to keep this as focused as possible:

There is no official D&D stance. I am not aware of any rule in 5e that says characters (not players) have any awareness of the numerical quality of the die rolls. I am not aware of any rule that says they don't.

You may infer whatever you like from the rules.

  • You can infer from the possibility of do-overs, that characters should have some inkling when do-overs are useful.

  • But you can also infer from the removal of the "take 20" rule (which existed in some previous editions and thus was consciously left out of 5e) that the intent is that rolls shouldn't default to rolling 20, which is what happens with infinite do-overs, so maybe the characters shouldn't know that.

I personally lean toward the latter, but honestly I find both arguments somewhat weak, because I strongly suspect that the designers were not intending to address this question with those passages and constructs.

Do what makes sense in context, with an eye to consistency. Since the rules do not specify, it's on the GM. Consistency is always good, since it helps the players plan, and to not feel as though things are arbitrary and capricious. But in this case there will be situations where opposite rulings may make sense:

  • If a master thief rolls a 2 when climbing a wall not intended to be challenging, it's reasonable for the GM (at his or her discretion) to narrate this as a freakish bad-luck failure and encourage a do-over. Or not! Maybe there is hot pursuit!

  • If a master thief rolls a 2 on lockpicking, that is a highly grey area to me and it is just not obvious to me that the thief would know if it is due to a bad roll, or if the lock is deceptively (or magically) good. Likewise, searching a room.

The point here is not to focus on these exact hypotheticals and rule on them. The point here is to realize that there are infinite hypotheticals, and that they undermine the idea of a uniform rule or approach.

The GM should be prepared to rule on a case by case basis, taking into account his or her style, the style of the players, whatever common sense the in-game situation provides, and whatever seems to generate fun.

A footnote on meta-gaming: Ideally, the GM will determine what rule he or she is applying before the die roll, and if warranted, roll the die behind a screen. Yes, players are supposed to not meta-game with the information, but there's no point in making it difficult for them to do so.


I have this problem.

One of my players is a lovely chap, but he can't resist metagaming. If he's made a poor Perception or Intuition check, he'll stay in that room rolling until he gets one that's high enough that he either a) finds the thing or b) knows that there's nothing to be found.

I've tried the following:

No re-rolls: He gets grumpy because he knows there's a thing in the game that he won't ever know what it is. Not a problem, he gets over it quickly. I can live with this solution. But on the other hand, it would be nice to find a solution that means we can carry on with the game without him being sad, even if it's only for five minutes at a time.

Roll with an offset: I roll a d20 behind the screen for any perception check. I add that to any perception rolls (plus their perception skill, of course), and if the total goes over 20, I subtract 20 and use that as the actual roll. It's nice because it means he still gets to roll and succeed - or not - but the information about whether the character has rolled low or high is obscured from him. The d20 randomly offsets the roll. On the other hand it introduces a whole extra roll and calculation from me for every perception check, which is a bit of a PITA.

I'm planning to try out a new way of solving this the next time I run 5e, which is this:

If you're proficient, you succeed: If you're proficient in the skill, and you ask for information about anything, you succeed, at least at a basic level. If you look around the lab, and are proficient in Perception, then you find the switch. After all, if there's something fun there (a lab!) and the players don't find it because of a bad roll, then they're not having fun that they could have had if you'd just let them find the switch.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not certain about your options. For #2, what if your "secret roll" pushes the total over 20? They roll a 16, with +3, but then you roll a 6. That's a total of 25, so you subtract 20 and now their Perception is 5? Seems like you could end up punishing their good rolls. If you don't apply the rule consistently, it becomes unfair. How do you handle checks that require a roll of 20+? And for #3, being proficient doesn't mean you're always going to succeed. I'm a trained (proficient) programmer, but my code can still have bugs. What if I have a negative bonus to that skill? Do I still pass? \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Jan 10, 2020 at 17:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott - "They roll a 16, with +3, but then you roll a 6. That's a total of 25, so you subtract 20 and now their Perception is 5?" - I assume if you're doing the offset roll you apply the offset first and then any modifiers afterwards. Otherwise it can produce impossibly low results (such as 16 + 3 (bonus) + 2 (offset roll) = 21 - 20 = 1; which shouldn't be a possible outcome with a +3 bonus). \$\endgroup\$
    – aroth
    Jan 11, 2020 at 11:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but the offset works both ways. So if they roll a 3, and you roll a 10, the outcome is 16. Also not possible with a +3 bonus. The reasoning being they still get to roll, but don't know whether their roll is good or bad. The offset effectively randomises where their roll begins on the 1-20 level. \$\endgroup\$
    – piersb
    Jan 11, 2020 at 16:46

I think the real problem was that the rolling to search in that way doesn't make sense and should not be done. If there are no consequences for failure, you should not roll a die.

If the player wants to search for something, the DM should ask "for up to how long?"*. Until that question has an answer, it doesn't make sense to roll a die. Searching for longer will have a lower DC (possibly drastically), and searching for a shorter period would decrease the DC, but in either case, it doesn't really make sense for the character to try to repeat the task. The character has given up at this point, and will try something different.

*It often makes sense to assume a quick 1-3 minute check of a room to speed things along, if the players will accept that nothing interesting was found and move on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There are consequences for failure, you did not find the hidden room. You just don't know you failed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Jan 11, 2020 at 10:22

A poor roll of the dice means a poor attempt by the character

The basic loop of D&D is:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

In this case we can break it down:

  1. "You enter a room you've never been in before"
  2. "I want to search for hidden switches"
  3. Roll Investigation, you roll 3, "You take a quick glance around the room and don't see anything suspicious"

Dice roll abstract the game world

The rules go on to describe the purpose of rolling dice:

Does an adventurer’s sword swing hurt a dragon or just bounce off its iron-hard scales? Will the ogre believe an outrageous bluff? Can a character swim across a raging river? Can a character avoid the main blast of a fireball, or does he or she take full damage from the blaze?

The result of a dice roll directly represent things that are happening in the game world. If you rolled a 3 while searching, then things didn't go your way. Your DM should be describing why you did such a below average job at searching. Did you do it quickly? Did you get distracted? Did you spend time looking at the wrong thing? What happened?

Ultimately rolling a 3 as a player, means the PC didn't do a good job. There is a separation of knowledge here. The player knows they rolled a 3. The PC knows they did a bad job.

1 monolithic roll ignores the cost of retrying

While in an ideal world you can stand there and roll until you get a 20 you do not usually have that luxury. It takes a long time to guarantee that you will roll a 20, and that just may not be feasible.

You should only ever roll when there is a risk of failure

The rules for rolling dice also say:

In cases where the outcome of an action is uncertain, the Dungeons & Dragons game relies on rolls of a 20-sided die, a d20, to determine success or failure.

If you do happen to have the luxury to retry all day, then why are you rolling die? Take all day, get the job done. No dice need to roll.

There certainly isn't anything preventing players from making multiple attempts

It makes for a better game if DMs accurately describe the world

One common complaint is that "the DM described the failure as 'you failed' or 'you do not think there are any secrets here'". These are two things I would avoid.

Describing failures without granularity makes it difficult for players to understand the world. A player rolled a 10 on a climb check and them said "you failed", should the player try again? Wouldn't it be more fun and interesting to say "you got nearly to the top but then your foot slipped and you fell down", now the player can think "wow I nearly did it! I should try again!" If you say "you struggle for a handhold, you can't even get 2 feet off the ground without falling back down" they will think "wow I wasn't even close, I'll try something else." This leads to good and fun gameplay.

Describing how players feel or think robs them of their agency. Tell the player "you searched thoroughly but didn't find anything" not "you do not think there is anything here". The PC does think there is something there, that is why they are searching after all. Let the player have the control to decide how their character reacts to the world.

It is pragmatically impossible to separate the players knowledge of dice rolls from the PC's in game observations, and even so trying to enforce this makes for bad gameplay

Players will observe the rolls of their dice, and whether you like it or not they will take that into account.

It is unrealistic to expect a player to roll a 19 to hit, miss their attack, then continue to fight as if they still have a chance to hit. The player will change tactics, flee, or start using magic. They will not want to continue to fight knowing they have a 1 in 20 chance of hitting.

What's more, if you try to force them to act like they don't know what they rolled, that will really suck for you. Imagine being the poor fighter that has to keep rolling knowing you will probably miss every attack, just because you don't want to appear "metagamey" and your DM keeps telling you "you didn't hit". That isn't fun, that isn't exciting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10, 2020 at 16:20

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