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I had my first session as Dungeon Master (DM) yesterday playing pathfinder ("First Steps In Lore" from the "Pathfinder Society" series) with a group of first-time tabletop RPG players (myself included). Overall the sessions went well, a good crash course for everyone and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

My question is a problem I personally had while DMing. I taught the players that they can roll for perception to check things out, finding traps and secrets, etc. The players got the idea and started saying "roll for perspection to check out the room", etc., and they found a couple of traps that way, and that's fine. The problem I had was: What do I do with all the "useless" rolls?

Most of the time they were rolling when there was nothing to find. Even on a natural 20 I kind of just described the room in more detail while saying something like "but there is nothing of interest".

Is there a better way of approaching this? Do I make something up?

I'd like to add: I would prefer my players roll their perception checks when they are actively looking. I am not a fan of the hidden-DM-rolls-for-all-perception idea.

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The problem

The problem I had was: What do I do with all the "useless" rolls?

Other answers on this question attempt to give these useless rolls a not-so-useless purpose. My answer attempts to help you reduce the rolls which you think are useless.

The useless rolls are a result of the players picking up the dice and start rolling for checks that weren't called for. As the Game Master, you are the adjudicator. That means that you decide if the intention of the players must be randomly determined through the use of dice.

As you are all new to table top RPGs, it's possible that there is the idea within your group that all actions must be determined through the use of dice. Pathfinder is a very mechanical RPG, and has a rule or throw of the dice for most things you can think of. But it's not true that you have to roll for everything.

The fact you labeled the rolls "useless" is an indication to me that you want to avoid these rolls, as you're getting to the point where you have to keep saying there is nothing of interest in the room. Again, other answers try to give new purpose to those rolls, but I'll go into how you could avoid having these rolls in the first place.

The style of play I am about to describe is one of the methods you can play the game and mix fiction with mechanics. This is only one ethos of many you can follow to play the game, and it has really worked well for me in my campaigns.

Adjudicating actions differently to reduce the number of useless rolls

To address your problems of having too many "useless" rolls, let's look at how we can reduce rolling in the first place. Consider letting the players only do one of the following things:

  • ask a question about the game world, or;
  • state their intended action(s) and their approach.

Doing this, players don't state the skill they want to use for a given situation, they state their intentions. As the Game Master, you know how that intended action can be adjudicated, and you can (or not!) request the player to make a Perception / Diplomacy / Bluff / Whatever skill check.

They used to state

I want to roll a Perception Check to look around the room.
I want to roll a Diplomacy Check to tell the guard to calm down.
I want to roll a Stealth Check to sneak past the sentry with these clothes I found.

Now they'd state

I want to look around the room. What do I see?
I want to unsheathe my sword and tell the guard to calm down.
I want to use the clothes I found to sneak past the sentry.

When a player has stated their intention and approach, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the action possible? Does their approach actually bring about their intention? If you determine the action is not possible, the action fails and you do not require a die roll.
  2. Do I need to use the game mechanics to figure out what happens? If the action can't actually fail or failure is extremely unlikely, the action succeeds and you do not require a die roll. If the action can fail, but failure carries no risk or cost and the player can freely try again and again, the action succeeds. But, if the action can fail and failure somehow changes the characters' situation, you need to use the dice.
  3. How do I determine random success? The player's stated approach should clue you in to which ability score, skill, attribute or ability should be used to determine success. This is the part where you crack the book and roll the dice.

You see a mural that depicts the battle of your ancestors. [You roll Perception Check behind screen, succeeds] You also see a key lodged between two bricks in the wall.
You pull out your sword and tell off the guard. Roll for an Intimidate Check Initiative.
You put on the clothes you found in an attempt to blend in with the crowd. Roll a Disguise Check.

  1. How do I describe the result? By letting the players state their intention, you know what success looks like.

Players are focused on what they are good at

Note how in step 3, you asked the player to roll a different skill than what they stated. Players often look at their character sheets, find a skill that is highly trained and try to use that over something else. They might try to use Acrobatics instead of Climb, or Intimidate instead of Bluff. By making it a rule of thumb that they are not allowed to ask for skill checks, and only state intentions or ask you questions about the in-game world, you can (or not!) ask them for a skill check. This can eliminate a lot of "useless" rolls.

The Angry DM has a very good article on adjudicating actions. It has helped me with situations like this.

A parting thought

The main reason to keep the crunching with the GM and the fiction with the players for me was that, in the end, it's going to be the GM's call. By avoiding to create 'rules lawyers' and keeping them focused on describing their intentions and approach rather than zoom in on one of their skills I think I have made the games I ran more fluid and fun. However, this policy is a mixed bag, and you'd be wise to find out for yourself if this policy works for your group. It may not directly answer your specific question about the Perception roll, but it could solve the root problem in the long term.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 5 '15 at 8:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've just suggested that AngryGM be included in Role-playing Games Chat's feed and link this post as an example of the site's appreciation of his writing. I hope you don't mind, and would gladly edit out the reference if you do. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 18 '16 at 14:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I don't mind the reference. I only included large amounts of text (mostly not verbose) from that site because in case of link rot, the information would be lost. Now it can stay preserved in this answer. I did find AngryGM to be very useful, but it could do less with the expletives (though, I guess that's part of his spiel). \$\endgroup\$ – Marc Dingena Jul 18 '16 at 14:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm told that it's not so much a spiel, even--that he's actually like that in real life. I agree, though. It's not so much that I'm bothered by anything he says, just that it dilutes his excellent analysis and commentary. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 18 '16 at 14:45
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There is ALWAYS something to be found!* What the players find, of course, may not be at all relevant or useful to the story or to the characters' progress.

But in fact, a high roll when searching or observing an area is a great chance to use some creativity to both enhance the overall experience, and also to make the players think more carefully about their use of pointless random checks.

A five-minute discourse on the detailed state of the area should do the trick! Consider this possible response:

There's clearly nothing of significant interest here to be seen -- the room is completely empty. But, feeling keenly observant and abnormally curious, you inspect the area with intense scrutiny anyway. You notice the roughness of each stony brick, and the slight decay of the grout between them.

Then you observe that your shoes make a satisfying clop, clop, clop sound as you walk, and you find yourself considering the subtle unevenness of the floor -- the sandy but firm texture of the sandstone, the slim gap between each tile. You doubt you could force a sheet of good paper between them. Indeed, despite the slight lip where some tiles have sunken a millimeter or two on one edge or another, the mason did their job well -- there's no way you could ever work a tile out of place without inflicting tremendous damage. What effort it must have taken him or her to cut the tiles from some hillside afar off, to apply the mortar and then painstakingly lay the tiles out perfectly adjacent to one another and in their proper order. You ponder the craftsman's trade a moment longer, and then turn your attention to the ceiling... and so on.

If you know your world, this isn't as hard as it may sound. Just be creative with it!


* Unless you have a PC who happens to be floating isolated and disembodied in an absolute void. But then I'd think it's unlikely to matter.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Naturally, this all depends on the players and the GM. Some enjoy the creativity and the friendly rivalry between the players and GM; others prefer to just keep things moving. See @Rubberduck's post for a solid rebuttal & alternative to my approach. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Lacy Feb 23 '16 at 19:28
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When I GM, there are generally four ways a perception check plays out.

1) There is something to be discovered. If I know that there is a trap or an ambush in the room, then the player's might spot that thing. Depending on the amount of success on the perception roll, the player's may get different levels of information. Maybe they realise that there is a pit trap in the middle of the corridor. Or maybe they can just see that the floor looks weird, like it doesn't fit in with the flagstones around that spot.

2) If you have nothing interesting prepared, there might be something to be discovered. If I haven't prepared anything in the room, I'll quickly consider if there still might be something the players can discover. Are there monsters in other rooms nearby that might be heard? Tracks or other signs of activity? Murals or furniture that have hints about the history or nature of the place? Like with 1, the level of success determines amount of detail. Could be vague like a sound from the next room over that might just be the ruins crumbling, or could be something alive moving around. Or explicit, like a mural showing the ritual used to open the magically sealed door elsewhere. Or inconsequential, such as destroyed machinery that reveals this to have been a torture room.

3/4) The perception check might fail, or there might be nothing that the players can discover. In both cases my answer is something along the lines of "Well.. there doesn't seem to be anything in the room." My players quickly learn that my suggestive tone means nothing in this case. I generally find it easier to always make it sound like the group missed something interesting, instead of trying to always make it sound like there was nothing interesting. The important thing is that your reaction is the same in both cases, so the players get no clue from you.

The way I play it, perception checks are used for finding interesting stuff. I don't go into minute detail about the architecture or furniture or how the air smells, unless that detail is either useful or interesting for what it reveals. My players won't care about those minute details, and I see no reason for punishing them for looking around. I want them to look around. So they can find all the interesting stuff. And when there is no interesting stuff to find, I get it over with quickly with the simply words "Well.. there doesn't seem to be anything in the room." So we can quickly move onwards with the action.

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We assume that players are by default going around being perceptive at an ordinary level. If there's an interesting detail that might escape the players' notice, the DM will call for the relevant characters (maybe everyone, maybe the guy in front, maybe the characters with darkvision, etc...) to make a perception check. If everyone who was given the opportunity fails it, there's no opportunity for anyone else to metagame and make the check. The downside is, if everyone rolls a low number and the DM says "ok, you don't notice anything interesting" then the players know that they have missed something. Sometimes there are immediate consequences (the orcs jump out from behind the bushes and surprise you, you fall into the pit trap you failed to notice, etc...) but other times not, and you're left wondering if you missed something important.

A partial antidote to that is to sometimes tell them they found something, but it's not the thing that you were offering the perception check for. If they were close, maybe they get a hint as to what they failed to perceive. Otherwise they "perceive" something totally different, and unimportant. You can also sometimes offer a perception check to find some small detail that isn't plot relevant, like "You notice some initials carved in that tree over there." This has the advantage of not "giving away" that something is significant, just because the players rolled a high perception check and found something. (If you're going to play this way, you should warn your players that not everything they perceive is going to be important to the plot, or they may waste too much time on red herrings.)

To answer the question of what to do when players want to examine something, and roll high, but there's nothing to find, you can occasionally also insert irrelevant details. You notice that the second drawer of the dresser sticks when you try to open it. You notice scuff marks on the floor near the window. And so on. So yes, I would sometimes "make stuff up". I think it's fine to also say, "nothing appears exceptional or unusual in this room" a fair amount of the time.

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So, what's the downside of saying, "nope, you find nothing"?

You're committed to letting players make their own rolls (which is perfectly fine, though not everyone plays that way), so they already know that they hit a DC of 23 or less (or whatever). There is no need to punish yourself or them by pretending otherwise.

It's not even particularly bad in terms of meta-gaming, if you are willing to decide that characters have some sense of how effective their perception rolls have been. If you don't like that, then by letting the players roll they are taking responsibility for not using knowledge of the die roll to meta-game. (This is often why people advocate having the GM do perception rolls in secret).

I've had some success as a GM by using the "PCs search an empty room" situation to advantage to add some realism and depth of involvement, by having things that aren't really important but which fit the location, or that I think are cool. So things like utensils that fell behind something, a damaged straw doll, a broken weapon, dice, pottery. (Yes, you do run the risk of a player spending an hour on "the mystery of the rusty spoon").

That also helps a bit with the "the GM mentioned it so it must be part of the plot" meta-gaming.

Ultimately, if you have something that contributes to your game when there is a perception check, use it. If you don't, move on fast to get to things that do.

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have the players roll a bunch of perception rolls at the beginning, list them all and cross them off as you go, they know the rolled them, but have no idea if they see nothing because of a bad roll, or if there is truely nothing to see.

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I would say, allow a character an opportunity to roll a perception check... And treat it as a "Gut feeling" type of thing about a room. If, they want to go in more depth into a room, treat it as a Search attempt (X amount of time at a DC of Y) and do the whole DM trick of secretly rolling for random encounters or dual perception checks (do your characters notice the guards patrolling and do the guards notice the characters searching where they shouldn't be)

However, I would distinguish between, "You don't see anything obvious..." and "There is nothing here..." -- by that, I mean, EXPLICITLY, make it obvious that additional checks are not going to find anything so don't waste time rolling.

Maybe in the first case, they failed the roll or there wasn't anything to find...but, I would definitely try to make it obvious when additional checking is not going to be productive.

Though, I agree, you should wean the players off Suggesting checks and more into describing actions/intentions...

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Perception rolls, like Stealth rolls, should be rolled by the GM out of sight of the players. The players should not know if they rolled high or low, just what they find.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Perception Checks can always be rolled by players as long as they don't know the context which they are rolling against. If there is a creature sneaking up on them, make them roll, but if they fail, just keep your mouth shut and ambush them a little while later. \$\endgroup\$ – Marc Dingena May 4 '15 at 9:10
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The situation should be handled exactly as if there were something interesting to find but they did not meet the DC for finding it. That is effectively what happened, just in this case the DC is infinite as there is nothing to be found.

Explicitly telling the players that there is nothing to be found should be avoided - if you get in the habit of telling them that there is nothing to be found, they will know when they have merely failed the roll.

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If they fail, make them perceive something wrong. A misperception can happen anytime, specially if they're really looking for something. Characters can misinterpret, misunderstand and become very obsessed with something so they can be completely wrong about something. This will get them in trouble and give you plenty of ideas.

Example: If someone's in a room which there's nothing to see but fail a perception test, tell them they have a gut feeling this room is important. If they succeed tell them it's not important. And in this time they could be discovered, attacked or lose a good opportunity. This would give you time to move NPCs, create situations and everything. It depends on your history.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When I would tell my group that they got a gut feeling about a room being important even though there is nothing interesting about it, the next hour of the session would be wasted on them dismantling the room. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp May 4 '15 at 11:30

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