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I have a NPC that hangs around with the PCs for a while. The players suspect that this NPC is hiding something. They are correct and I have no problem revealing it to them, if they properly manage to reveal it.

But how should I respond when the players attempt to simply brute-force the NPC?

For example, they repeatedly roll their Empathy (or Provoke or Notice, etc) in the hopes that the NPC's Deceive roll will eventually be low enough for them to succeed.

According to the text for Failure in Create an Advantage on an existing aspect (I'm assuming a hidden aspect is considered existing, as long as it's on the NPC's sheet and I don't ever intend to change it - it's an integral part of who that NPC is):

When you fail, you either don’t create the aspect, or you create it but someone else gets the free invoke—whatever you end up doing works to someone else’s advantage instead. That could be your opponent in a conflict, or any character who could tangibly benefit to your detriment. You may have to reword the aspect to show that the other character benefits instead—work it out with the recipient in whichever way makes the most sense.

As far as I can see, I have two options:

  1. Don't reveal the aspect and no other consequences arise.
  2. Reveal the aspect "at a cost" (the cost here being that someone else gets the free invoke).

Since the opposition is active and using Deceive to Defend, I can read from that page that only option #1 is on the table for this case (and it happens to be what I would prefer, anyway):

When you succeed at a defense, you successfully avoid the attack or the attempt to gain an advantage on you.

But then, how do I handle brute-forcing?

  1. Do I suck it up and just let the players do it? This doesn't sound right - we might as well "optimize out" the failed rolls and go straight to the success scenario.
  2. Do I simply say "no" and ask the players to role-play their characters' failure? After all, the previous roll says that the corresponding PC is convinced.
  3. Do I mechanically force the players to role-play their character's failure, by giving the PC a "negative" aspect (and possibly give the defending NPC a free invoke on that aspect)? Something like Almost Convinced by X ("you are inclined to believe him/her now, he/she can invoke this for +2 Deceive against you")? It almost works, but it seems implicitly against the rules of the four outcomes.
  4. Do I do something else entirely?
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    \$\begingroup\$ In this answer to a D&D 5E question about insight checks, I point out that you can get more interesting consequences than simply "not getting information" when trying to see past deception (eg. the NPC notices and becomes less helpful). Might be applicable to your situation. \$\endgroup\$ – detly Nov 15 '15 at 10:38
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Brute forcing is going to be solved by application of two principles.

Neither of them are totally rules-oriented. The rules aren't interested in stopping brute-forcing, because sometimes it's fun: you're in a contest, you need to get through that door before someone finds you, and it might be fun to just kick it in several times until it smashes into splinters.

Both are going to involve the narrative instead. I'm going to assume you get that Fate's a narrative game, that when they roll, it's because they're doing something in-game that initiates a roll.

1. Failure should produce interesting results.

You might know most or all of this, but I'll go into this anyway in case you don't or for the readers that don't. This one principle alone won't fix it but sometimes it'll help a lot.

Fate suggests dice should only be rolled when failure would be interesting, or alternately might be achievable at an interesting cost:

You roll the dice when there’s some kind of interesting opposition keeping you from achieving your goals. If there’s no interesting opposition, you just accomplish whatever you say you’re trying to do.

That's often going to force a change of circumstances which prohibit just brute-forcing things; the status quo should change. You can ram through the door and break your shoulder in the process, or fail and jam up the mechanism enough that it probably can't be lockpicked either now, or they broke it or didn't and now the guards heard them do it. You try to provoke the dude, but now he's sure you're just a bunch of hooligans and isn't going to stick around to listen to you more.

Sometimes that's not going to work on its own. Sometimes the player will say "ok, I ram into it again", or "I try to guess at the guy's motives again."

2. The same thing will fail again if done under the same circumstances.

Ok, they've shouldered those doors, they tried to guess at the guy's motives, and failed. You're right, they could justify just rolling that over and over, but you're also right it's not going to be fun. You're also sure this is a case where failure's fun to explore (if it isn't, they should've already succeeded automatically).

This is the time when the group decides "okay, this isn't going to be fun to just repeat. You tried that, you failed. Your dude can do it for an hour as far as the narrative's concerned, but you should try something different." You'll probably need to suggest it yourself. If they think that sucks and aren't sure what to do, maybe you could prompt them, or maybe failure wasn't going to be fun to explore and y'all should talk about just auto-succeeding on this one.

This is the point where they need to explore other options in the narrative. They need to head out, do research on the guy, and come back. They need to find some leverage for that door, or maybe they'll find an alternate route while they're doing that. Force the story to change as a result of their initial failure.

They can try the same thing again, but they can't try it in the same circumstances: they need new advantages, ones that actually make a significant difference. If someone just says "okay, I psyche myself up for this one", and you think it's weaksauce, call it out as weaksauce: Fate's here for dramatic games, not the easy way out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In my case, I didn't go for auto-succeed because the opposition is definitely interesting and failure is also definitely interesting (just not in a way that's immediately obvious to the players). In fact, I think failure is significantly more interesting than success, but I wouldn't want to deny the players the chance to go for success anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – T. C. Nov 14 '15 at 10:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ As far as I understand, you're suggesting saying "no" and if they aren't convinced, change the narrative to reflect that they can't possibly repeat that action now (e.g. the NPC walks away). I guess it is the most reasonable thing to do without ruining the players' sense of agency. \$\endgroup\$ – T. C. Nov 14 '15 at 10:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheodorosChatzigiannakis Not necessarily “the NPC walks away”, but more like “you've tried your best and it didn't work, now you're going to have to change the situation before you can try it differently.” \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 14 '15 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Saying "failure is more interesting but the players don't know it yet" is, basically, saying "failure is more interesting for me". If they don't see any interesting backlash, it effectively doesn't exist for them, does it? \$\endgroup\$ – lisardggY Nov 15 '15 at 11:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @lisardggY Not necessarily. It could also be saying "The failure will be more interesting for the players down the road." Revealing secrets is like giving away punchlines: Timing is everything. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Nov 15 '15 at 23:12
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This looks like a case where the success at a cost option fits perfectly. They are determined enough to find out eventually, so just make one roll. If they succeed, all so well. If they fail, then they still find out, but not until it's too late.

Make it so that they not only find out about the aspect, but additional undesirable effects or complications that already took place while they were working on it.

If the aspect was vicious murderer, make sure that it takes a few more victims, including another key NPC by the time they find out.

You may even modify the said aspect and reveal it as an unwelcome truth.

If the aspect was mafia connections, and they fail while looking for it, change it to mafia boss with eyes everywhere and tell them that he already knows they were snooping around.

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Your first mistake is making a hidden aspect. The Fate Core SRD has this to say on such things:

Finally, sometimes you’re going to want to keep an NPC’s aspects secret or not reveal certain situation aspects right away because you’re trying to build tension in the story. If the PCs are investigating a series of murders, you don’t exactly want the culprit to have Sociopathic Serial Murderer sitting on an index card for the PCs to see at the beginning of the adventure.

In those cases, it is recommended that you don’t make an aspect directly out of whatever fact you’re trying to keep secret. Instead, make the aspect a detail that makes sense in context after the secret is revealed.

What does this mean? It means that since your Big Reveal isn't an aspect, there's nothing for the players to brute-force in the first place.

However, that doesn't solve the problem of PCs trying to batter down any obstacle in front of them with repeated die rolling regardless of what they're trying to batter down, and this is where the narrative comes into play.

For a door? Big deal. Let them repeatedly kick it until it falls over (multiple rolls or Succeed With Cost), and note that it made a ton of noise, potentially attracting guards.

For a social-type roll, however, draw on your own experiences. Have you ever had a friend who was absolutely convinced you were hiding something when you weren't? "Are you okay, Joe?" "I'm fine." "No you're not, tell me what's wrong." "No really, I'm fine." "You don't look fine." "Well, I am getting annoyed at you." "See? Your hostility means that you're hiding something."

At the very least this means that your players can't just sit there and try to brute-force social rolls because they'll eventually annoy the NPC so much he'll stop interacting with them. Therefore, you can stop the forcing of the rolls by simply not allowing them to be made very often, say once a scene or more; or let them be made such that they drop hints (or aspects) that will eventually allow them to piece together The Big Reveal:

Amanda is making an NPC who’s secretly a vampire, the main bad guy in the scenario she’s planning. He’s also a constable in the town the PCs are going to, so she doesn’t want to give things away too easily.

Instead of making a Secretly a Vampire aspect, she decides to make a few personal details instead: Inveterate Night Owl, Tougher Than He Looks, and Wheels Within Wheels. If the PCs discover a couple of these, or see them on the table, they might start to suspect the NPC, but it’s not going to ruin the mystery of the scenario right away.

...or, of course, just do Succeed With Cost and get it over with. I mean, if you don't mind your players learning the thing and it's just a matter of making the roll, that's what it's for.

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In those exchanges there are two sided involved. You can have the NPC try to reciprocate and make a check on his own ( create a false lead, reveal one of the PCs aspects, gets his anger on, etc) Or since they failed they had tipped the NPC off what they are up to so next attempt the NPC may invoke the PC failure against them to raise his own roll.

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