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I struggle with the following :

You enter the room and a dark, old man dressed with a humble and threadbare mantle is prattling in a corner. When he sees you, he stands up and comes forward, smiling sincerely. His face has sharp contours and his eyes express the resolution and vision of a true leader

The NPC has successfully made a positive impression on my group. I described the NPC as their characters saw him.

On the opposite :

You enter the room and a old skanky man, with a ragged robe, is talking under his breath from a corner. When he sets his piercing eyes on you, he stands up and comes forward, smiling too widely. His sharp face looks almost cruel and his eyes seems to look at everything as his to claim

Well, if they don't all pull their swords after this and raise a shield, they deserve their incoming death, right ? jk, I hope you understand what I tried.

I tried to describe the same person from 2 different perspectives (I am not an English native speaker, very sorry if I failed to explain my issue).

  1. First description: poor nice old man, maybe a previous village leader or a current wise from a poor community, babbling memories or old folks song.

  2. Second description : austere old man, might have set up a spell, focused only on power and driven by ambition. (I am a bit better in French, I promise).

My group has a paladin that detects evil aura (automatically, all day long right ?). Some of the group have terribly low wisdom. Others have great stats and can detect bluff and stuff. Thus, they should not see people and things the same way. I struggle to deliver consistently interesting interactions with my universe NPC (and places).

If I describe what each one sees, the group can just rely on the paladin or the druid to see the world. Descriptions become useless and I am condemned to use a neutral align NPC (which works from time to time but it is less sexy than an evil eminence grise, proxy of their archennemy) if I want to add elements of surprise or doubt.

How to deliver interesting descriptions opposed to 'it's an evil mage at least level 7, usual evil mage stuff'

  1. I describe what every one sees, player's job is to roleplay their character. But it feels constrained and a bit false when they know their character is deceived. And the group ends up taking the good decision.

  2. I describe what the most perspicacious one sees because, anyway, the group follows his recommendations on these points. After all, it is why you create a balance group, to get all the skill on the table.

  3. I create an average perception for the group, factoring the characters' abilities and external factor (shared races, known background...) and roll a dice. The group shares the perception. But the streetwise characters's players might get frustrated.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your English is excellent. I made a few small corrections in the edit, rely instead of relay, ending s on a few words, slipped in a few missing words. It's an interesting question. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 9 '15 at 12:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note: A Paladin's detect evil is not "automatic, all day long". It requires an active effort on behalf of the paladin to activate or maintain, even though he can do it as long and as often as he wants. \$\endgroup\$ – MrLemon Sep 9 '15 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Somewhat related: this Rashomon question and this other Rashomon question \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Sep 9 '15 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Glad the site helped; but the way to give thanks here is to upvote and (if there is one) to "accept" the answer that most solved your problem. As questions are never "finished" and are intended to help future visitors with the same issue, I have restored the question post. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 10 '15 at 14:48
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This was too long for a comment so I'm making an answer...

Other answers have suggested using secret information (whispering or passing notes). Secret information is good sometimes, but it also slows down the game and can make players overly paranoid. In my opinion its not worth handing out 5 different descriptions for every NPC. Instead, I recommend that most of the time, you give all of the information out publicly:

You enter the room and a old skanky man, with a ragged robe, is talking under his breath from a corner. When he sets his piercing eyes on you, he stands up and comes forward, smiling too widely. His sharp face looks almost cruel and his eyes seems to look at everything as his to claim. Bob, your fighter has a different impression and sees this man as humble but proud, with an insightful gaze and the bearing of a true leader.

In addition to being faster, there's usually not REALLY a good reason for Bob's Fighter's reaction to be secret... other characters in-game/in-world could tell from the way Bob's fighter acts and speaks that he is not suspicious of the old man.

This also creates more deliberate roleplaying moments. Bob's fighter knows that he likes the old man, but he also knows that he should trust the more suspicious instincts of his friends, the Rogue and the Paladin. It's up to Bob how his character resolves these conflicting motivations, and it says a lot about his character whether he sticks to his own flawed judgement or ignores his own feelings and lets his friends call the shots.

Finally, neither perception has to be 100% correct. You can give each of the party members a true observation about the NPC (he is greedy, he is friendly, he is a good leader) and let them weigh these relative characteristics based on their own values and judgements.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. "Neither perception has to be 100% correct" is fantastic. It solves the expected problem of "always defer to Paladin/Druid" but still allows the characters to follow the trust in that that they'd naturally build up. Combines well with 'grey and grey morality', which is personally something I would love to throw into a plot with a Paladin PC. Moral choices! One man's villain is another man's hero! Love it. \$\endgroup\$ – mike32 Sep 10 '15 at 8:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this, but mix it up sometimes. Sometimes you give a general explination that is accurate, and then tell one or two charcters what they perceive because they failed their wis check. Othertimes you give an inaccurate description and tell those that pass their wis check what they see. This makes it harder for the players to know which is 'right' just by how you describe it, and forces them to focus more on playing the characters impressions and debating between themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – dsollen Sep 10 '15 at 19:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would also make a few situations where the high wis guy is wrong. Everyone makes mistakes, even smart and wise folks, sometimes. Is he overly optimistic or pessimistic, have him view a character in the wrong light based off of that bias. Maybe he has a bias for people of a given profession or trait or even race that skewes his perceptions. This would mess with player expectations by telling them that they can't just trust the druid's response. \$\endgroup\$ – dsollen Sep 10 '15 at 19:47
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Four points:

(1) Detect Evil is not constant. It requires concentration.

(2) In general I believe that players have more fun if I let them use their abilities explicitly. Getting a good result on a die roll is fun, and making the roll that lets you notice something lets you feel like you've done something useful for the party.

(3) Unless there's a really good reason to keep something secret, I assume that what one party member knows they all know. Knowing things is more fun than not knowing things, and in particular it's not a good feeling when people are passing notes around to make sure you don't find something out. It's also much faster to just say things than to pass notes around.

(4) For encounters with NPCs, I try to make sure there's always something at stake: something the party wants from the NPC, or something the NPC wants from the party. Otherwise the group kind of stands around staring at each other, wondering why I've just narrated this scene where they're supposed to be talking but there's nothing to talk about.

Here's what I usually do:

Me: "You enter the room and there's an old man in the corner, talking to 
   himself.  He looks up and smiles at you.  He says: 'Guys, I need your help.  
   There's a monster in the next room and I need you to kill it...'"
Fighter: "Does this guy seem trustworthy?"
Me: "Roll Sense Motive."
Fighter: "Um, 7."
Me: "He's not obviously lying as far as you can tell."
Paladin: "I use detect evil!"
Me: "You're catching some evil.  This guy isn't as evil as, like, an evil
   cleric or a cultist or anything like that.  But it feels like he might be
   kind of a jerk.  Maybe he spends a lot of time thinking about ways to hurt
   other people?"
Bard: "I roll Sense Motive.  I got a 28.  Does this guy still seem trustworthy?"
Me: "No, he's totally lying.  There's someone in the next room and he's hoping
   to convince you it's a monster so you attack without talking to it first."
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    \$\begingroup\$ The only problem I have with your example is that the rolls aren't secret. In this case, the presence of a low result is leaking meta-information about the subsequent description. For that reason, I prefer to roll for the players (behind the screen) and ask them for their relative bonus. This prevents "Um, 7" from having a chance to turn into "Maybe we should have someone else sense motive, too" and spoiling any chance of surprise. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrew Coonce Sep 10 '15 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that the low result leaks meta-information. But I don't care. If an NPC has useful information about the plot, I want the party to learn that information. In order to learn the information they have to succeed at the skill check. So, from one perspective, I'm deliberately leaking the meta-information "you have failed at this skill check" to encourage them to try again. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Sep 10 '15 at 17:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Doesn't that devalue the agency of your players? By taking away the element of uncertainty re: missing skill checks, you're making those skill checks less valuable investments on the parts of the players. Over time, this ends up punishing players who invest their limited resources into advancing those skills. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrew Coonce Sep 10 '15 at 17:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ From a different perspective, I've been the player who watches the DM roll dice secretly behind the screen. I find I don't like the experience. It makes me feel like the DM is cheating to make me lose. (I know the DM isn't actually cheating to make me lose, but the feeling is still there.) \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Sep 10 '15 at 17:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Having been on both sides of the screen, I admit I sometimes cheat if it will make the play experience better for my players...and as a player, I trust my DM's to only cheat for the same. We have different tacks on this, but at least both sides are represented now. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Andrew Coonce Sep 10 '15 at 17:37
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There are several ways you can deal with this. I recommend you don't say it to everyone and just write down descriptions of the NPCs in several different perspectives in different cards and give them privately to the players depending on their rolls. I play my games online so I can simply use private chat, but this is the best way if you want to tell the players how to perceive the NPC. I also recommend trying to use neutral facts. Say "He gives a wide smile as you approach" rather than "He smiles sincerely" or "He smiles too widely".

Also, (warning, this is mostly my personal opinion) I think it's bad practice to let detect evil be what defines an NPC. An evil man who chops off heads of other evil people for a collection is still evil due to his intentions, but if he proves not to harm innocent people, a neutral or even chaotic good player can still agree with it. Sometimes, there can be an evil person helping poor people simply to get attention and reason to spit on others and be a jerk, but that doesn't mean their interaction should be immediate hostility. And this isn't even considering short term alliances for a greater good.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for neutral descriptions. From my experience this encourages the players to ask questions in accordance with their characters' motives; the rogue or paladin might ask if he seems sincere or if he's just some old beggar, for instance, and once they've posed that question you can answer it with something that reflects their characters' bias. \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Sep 9 '15 at 19:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ In D&D 3.5, which the OP is tagged as, there is an important and strong binary distinction between "good" and "evil". Evil with what you think is a "good" end is still evil, and it perpetuates and increases the influence of evil as a result, and good characters will still see it as evil and respond accordingly. Most incarnations of D&D do not have the kind of moral ambiguity we are accustomed to in real life. There are no grey areas between good and evil, and it literally cannot be both at once. There are no Machiavellian justifications for evil that make it not-evil. \$\endgroup\$ – zibadawa timmy Sep 10 '15 at 0:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @zibadawatimmy There's a neutral alignment, and moral ambiguity only doesn't exist if the DM decides not to put it in, the world won't self destruct and reduce the party to -10 HP the moment the DM adds a morally ambiguous situation. Regardless, evil with an end that benefits a good player is still good and will not increase some system of influence, and good characters will respond not 'accordingly' but how the player or DM decides is best. \$\endgroup\$ – Teco Sep 12 '15 at 12:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Teco That would be a house rule, and while imminently reasonable (and likely very common), it is not the rules of the system. The player's guide is very emphatic about this binary, and specifically mentions how evil can't be "justified" into being good or even not evil. Highly good characters, like good clerics of good gods and paladins, simply cannot accept the use of evil. Neutral or non-divine good characters might have a more Machiavellian approach, but the fundamental nature of the setting is clear: evil is evil, period, and the concept of evil exists in a tangible way. \$\endgroup\$ – zibadawa timmy Sep 12 '15 at 12:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @zibadawatimmy Can I get some citations please? I do understand the fact good and evil are spoken in the rules as if it were objective, but "Paladins must not allow evil actions" does not necessarily mean the evil alignment, is there anywhere that connects the alignment with actions, rather than just being a guideline for how a character is roleplayed and for the sake of spell effects? \$\endgroup\$ – Teco Sep 12 '15 at 12:21
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Personally, I try to keep subjective conclusions out of my narrative and descriptions. While this is excellent in fiction, in a cooperative story, you risk telling the players what they should perceive. Sure, people don't "see" the same things; but I recommend you keep it as factually descriptive as possible and leave out intents and motives until someone specifically tries to draw those conclusions. This has three major benefits; one, you only deliver one presentation, two, you solicit engagement from the players to draw out subjective details and three, (the most important one), the players get to decide what conclusions to draw from the information. Player agency is critical to a good rpg, and while I find your descriptions eloquent and engaging, they read more like fiction, where you are describing the way the viewer feels about the subject. An RPG is different; the players govern how they react to the narrator.

Just my opinion, not a mandate :)

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There's already a few great answers, so I won't be copy-pasting their information. However, there is still one thing I'd like to add:

Evil does not mean antagonistic, Good does not mean protagonistic

Let's assume that the party is mostly good alligned (as your party seems to be, with a paladin and whatnot). Some people have already mentioned that Evil characters don't necessarily have to be enemies of your party from the get-go. They can simply be assholes. But the inverse goes for Good alligned characters. For example: In World of Warcraft, you have the Titans. They are basically the Gods of the world and have created everything. They are Lawful Good. But they are NOT on our side. The world has changed beyond their plans, and if they ever found out exactly what state the world is in now, they'd destroy it. As a result, there are several Dungeons and Raids in WoW in which you work directly against these ultimately good creatures.

This can be done in other games as well. If you want to surprise the party with an NPC that suddenly backstabs them, you can have a Good alligned NPC who simply believes that there are some 'evil' things he must do for the greater good.

Other ways to let Good characters fight Good characters

Just a short list of things I'm thinking of, from the top of my head:

Demonic posession: The character is good alligned, but further down the story he becomes posessed by an evil spirit or something similar.

Obscure Allignment: Okay, this might be cheating, but you can have evil characters use spells that obscure their allignment. (To clarify, it's cheating on my side because I said I'd be talking about Good characters. Using this is not cheating.)

Blackmail: The good alligned character is a coward, or simply naïve, and is being bullied/manipulated into being the Big Bad of the adventure.

King of Ba sing se: Taking the last point to the extreme: Everyone remember Avatar the Last Airbender? The King of Ba sing se was (according to me) quite obviously good alligned, but still posed a major obstacle for Team Avatar because of his advisor keeping him in the dark and basically doing all the ruling himself. An overused trope, perhaps, but when done well it can be remarkable.

For the sake of Good: Speaking of Avatar tla, remember General Fong? Probably not by name, but he was the General of the Earth Kingdom Garrison in episode 1, book two. He was the major antagonist of that episode, but was ultimately good guy. He was not being manipulated, though. He just wanted to push Aang to his limits to unleash the Avatar State. He didn't do anything evil to do so, either. He pretended to kill Katara, but never did anyone actual harm. Still, he was a good alligned antagonist to a good alligned party.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I can't believe I forgot to talk about good characters being evil! Misunderstanding is also another way that wasn't listed. A person might be good but antagonistic by trying to kill the heroes, thinking they're bad. \$\endgroup\$ – Teco Sep 12 '15 at 12:14
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Customized Information for Each Player During Encounters

This challenge is an old one for GM's because the information provided by the GM establishes the choices and options, and settings, that make for enjoyable role playing.

Each of your three options is good for different encounters. Mix and match techniques as a basic approach. For a fourth option, take your option number three and add information for each player, either

  1. by note
  2. by a whisper (each player comes forward, or leans forward, and you whisper something in their ear)

Each player learns something from you that only they perceive, beyond the average you have provided.

It won't be perfect for every encounter, nor suitable for every encounter. Note that this technique requires you to bluff sometimes: add whispers/notes when only mundane things are noticed and the counter isn't significant.

For the more savvy characters who make their perception or bluff check, you provide something of interest that is worth noting for that encounter, information which will give them better information for playing out the encounter. To those who don't, you point out an additional descriptive that isn't actually significant.

Example with the old man from above: two players make their Perception check, two don't.

  1. Make 1: you note that his gaze is focused on the druid
  2. Make 2: you note that the fingers on his hand have begun to move and twitch
  3. Miss 1: you notice a wart with hair growing out of it on his left ear
  4. Miss 2: you see holes on the left side of his cloak, but not the right side.

Caveat: I have found (as both player and GM) that there are potential drawbacks to this approach.

  1. The act of using the whisper or note tool can slow down or somewhat break immersion.

  2. The act of using the whisper/note can be a clue that the whole thing is significant.

  3. Point 2 requires the occasional bluff as DM, which is sort of meta gaming, applying the note/whisper as a head fake.
  4. You may still get table talk/meta game information sharing anyway, no matter how hard you try.

Your best tool for handling all of this has to do with table habits and table culture.

If you establish early, in your group, a limitation or minimization of meta-gaming as a basic habit (don't act on stuff you char most likely doesn't know), then your difficulty in general is minimized, and the minor obstacles to passing private information is accepted by your players with good grace.

It can add some flavor and suspense to an encounter-- which appears to be what you are after.

Last point: depending on the personalities of your players, this may not work at every table. It works best when the players buy into the need for separate information flow and avoiding the "hive mind" model of group perception.

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Sort your descriptions for realistic outcome:

  1. State a short, general and neutral description: When you enter the room, you spot an old man in dark robes mumbling to himself in the far corner.

  2. Ask for perception checks, not inciting (too many) prejudices: You may be able to understand what he's saying: Perception DC 18.

  3. Ask for results and address in groups: Who failed? You don't get what he said. However he noticed all of you and turns towards you. Now you notice he's ...

    dressed with a humble and threadbare mantle is prattling in a corner. When he sees you, he stands up and comes forward, smiling sincerely. His face has sharp contours and his eyes express the resolution and vision of a true leader

  4. Ask for action plans from the player's who failed their perception checks: The others seem inconclusive at the moment. What do you intend to do?

  5. Address the successful group: You're taken aback by a stream of insults and curses coming from the man directed at no one in particular. Looking him over twice you judge him to be an...

    old skanky man, with a ragged robe, is [cursing the world for his indistinct misery] from a corner. When he sets his piercing eyes on you, he stands up and comes forward, smiling too widely. His sharp face looks almost cruel and his eyes seems to look at everything as his to claim

  6. Collect results: Those who failed at perception are about to start their declared actions. Does anyone want to interfere? If so, how?

The key element is to have the failed perception take less time than successful perception. The characters who failed are acting on their instincts, that have been successfully tempered by the old man. The others are having second thoughts, which take a short moment, just enough for them to also see/guess what their comrades are about to do.

To not take away player agency separate declaring and executing actions. This way you get original reactions with low meta-gaming (as low as a failed perception check on a minor detail - the mumbling - may get you). To lower the meta-gaming in situations like this, you can get used to add details to your world only noticed by perception checks:

You spot:

  • travelers on a parallel road far at the horizon.
  • a beautiful flower in the middle of the wheat field you're passing.
  • a fat rabbit, nibbling some grass.

It will also make your world feel more inhabited.

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