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Daxius: "I'd like to roll an investigate check on Statue 1." Rolls. "Solid... 19."

DM: "You walk around the statue, gliding your fingers along the rough outlines of it's crisp, defined craftsmanship. You pause as your fingers make contact with the mouth. You feel warm air coming out, and instinctively look to the statue's chest. It appears to be breathing, though very faintly."

This is good DMing (in my humble opinion). The player wanted to use an investigate check, and the DM wove how it happened into the context of the story. But then we continue...

Daxius: "Hmm... we'll get back to that in a second. Let's see what's going on with Statue 2." Rolls. "Ugh. 6."

Let's say Statue 2 is a magical trap of sorts — whoever touches the statue must resist turning to stone themselves. A six isn't high enough to notice this. The DM has a few options here on how to proceed...

  1. "How exactly do you investigate the statue?" This definitely alerts the player that something is up with it, and they will be naturally inclined to meta-game here, as the roll was poor so they probably don't want their character especially close to it. Plus, the DM didn't ask this during the investigation Statue 1, so the very question hints that Statue 2 is dangerous.
  2. "You make contact with the statue in the same manner as before, and are instantly overcome with abrasive magic. Roll a Con save." This is consistent with the narrative from before, but now the character is in trouble for something the player never explicitly said they did.
  3. "You don't notice anything special about this statue." This is super vague and a huge departure from the description given from the first investigation. And it leaves open the implication that they touched the statue in the same way they did the first one, which the DM would be assuming they didn't, where the players might be assuming they did.

The underlying problem here is that the DM sees in his mind's eye the way the world is, and no matter how descriptive he gets the players will always paint a slightly different picture for themselves. The small inconsistencies between the two are generally harmlessly bridged with the DM taking over how, specifically, the characters achieve the goal the players announced they were attempting. But, as above, there are certainly cases where what I would call good DMing forces the DM to either punish a player in the name of consistency, or reveal what should be unknown in the name of not subverting character control.

My question, then, is this:

As a DM, how does one resolve the occasional conflict of interest between wanting to employ creative narrative without bestowing undue consequences upon those player characters who become a part of that narrative?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 11 '17 at 20:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey all - while this is a techniques question that doesn't mean it's discussion time. I've moved a lot of comment threads to chat. Suggest an improvement to a question or answer, or post your own answer. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 11 '17 at 20:40

13 Answers 13

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System agnostic answer

Many roleplay games (D&D traditionally not among them) have the concept of "failing forward". This means that every roll has some consequence which is usually narrated by the GM and usually bad for the character or the party as a whole. A roll without possible negative consequences should not be made.

Examples of such rules are:

Every moment of play, roll dice or say “yes.”

If nothing is at stake, say “yes” [to the player’s request], whatever they’re doing. Just go along with them. If they ask for information, give it to them. If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there. If they want it, it’s theirs.

Sooner or later—sooner, because [your game’s] pregnant with crisis— they’ ll have their characters do something that someone else won’ t like. Bang! Something’s at stake. Start the confl ict and roll the dice.

Roll dice, or say “yes.” (Dogs in the Vineyard)

Burning Wheel has "Intent" and "Let it ride" rules. Intent is stated before every roll. When the roll succeeds, the intent happens. When the roll fails, all manners of things may happen (at GMs discretion) but the intent definitively doesn't happen. This can't be changed by any roll until the situation in fiction has significantly changed. An example of this two rules in play would be:

Player: I want to pick the lock before the guards come around.

roll fail

GM: Yeah, you open the lock... just as a guard comes around the corner.

Apocalypse World has "moves" a GM (MC in Apocalypse World) can make when players fail a roll. The moves are of general nature ("take their stuff away", "separate them", "inflict harm") and don't have to be directly caused by the attempted action.

What that means for your situation

With the statue example this would mean that a failed roll would totally allow you to narrate the character springing the trap. He chose to investigate and thus took the risk of touching something, he shouldn't touch. If he insists on doing a "safe, no touch" investigation he most likely won't get much useful information (but also wouldn't have to roll).

Final advice

While some games support, encourage and even demand to be played like this, many games (including D&D) don't. Thus any attempt to start playing in this style has to be agreed upon with the whole group (trivially true when it is part of the official rules of the game being played). I strongly suggest shifting to "failing forward" as the alternative leads to very slow and static play-style where not much happens, nobody trusts one another and where there is constant rules lawyering.

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As DM, I wouldn’t dictate the details of the investigation of statue 1, as you do. Ideally, I would ask them to describe how they are investigating—before rolling. To keep things moving, I have been known to allow a roll and reveal the results before the description, since it’s easier to describe what you were doing when you know how it turns out, but knowing the trap was coming up, I probably wouldn’t have.

But if, for the sake of argument, I did that shortcut on statue 1, on statue 2 I would ask them if they were taking the same approach with statue 2 when the player announced they were moving on. Keeping it casual can avoid giving too much away: “Let’s see what’s going on with statue 2,” “Same approach?” With paranoid players, they might catch that something is up, but oh well: I trust my players. Either they’ll resist the urge to metagame, or they won’t and I’ll just chalk that one up to them deciding they’d have more fun that way. The game is there for having fun, after all; metagaming is bad for the game, but not necessarily always the worst thing for the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 11 '17 at 20:38
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"I'd like to roll an investigate check on Statue 1"

That's not really what a player should say, at least in games with a traditional role split between players (state their characters' actions) and a GM/DM (adjudicates those actions). Since "DM" is used in the question, I'll assume such a traditional-role game.

In such a game, the player shouldn't really "interact with the game using rules." Instead, they should "interact with the world using actions." In other words, the player describes character actions and based on this, the DM chooses which rules, if any, apply to those actions, and then applies them. The DM can determine a certain action without resorting to rules: if something cannot reasonably fail, no rules are necessary and the DM simply states the outcome. If randomness is involved, calling for a certain roll is usually warranted.

So the exchange should actually go more like this:

Daxius: "I'd like to investigate Statue 1."

DM: "How?"

Daxius: "I'll look first, watching out for trap trigger mechanisms or similar. If it looks safe, I'll feel the surface."

DM: "Roll an Investigate check."

Daxius: "Solid 19."

DM: "You walk around the statue, gliding your fingers along the rough outlines of it's crisp, defined craftsmanship. You pause as your fingers make contact with the mouth. You feel warm air coming out, and instinctively look to the statue's chest. It appears to be breathing, though very faintly."

If Daxius did it as above, he made it clear he intends to touch the statue and thus gave the DM explicit permission to narrate results of touching it, for weal or woe.

If the game is always run this way, there is very little potential for meta-gaming on the second statue. It's quite natural for the exchange to follow like this:

Daxius: "Hmm... we'll get back to that in a second. Let's see what's going on with Statue 2."

DM: "Same approach?"

Daxius: Nods. Rolls... "Ugh, Investigate 6."

DM: "Hold your horses. As soon as you touch the statue, you are instantly overcome with abrasive magic, bringing your investigation to an abrupt stop. Roll a Con save."

As an alternative to "Hold your horses," the DM could have taken the Investigate roll (or asked for one, if Daxius hadn't voluteered it) as determining whether the character notices any warning signs as part of the visual inspection part of the statue. If there are such signs to be seen and the roll had been high enough to notice them, the DM would of course have stopped the action mid-progress and asked whether the player wanted the character to proceed to the touching part or not.

To summarise: Have your players state their in-world actions instead of rules usage. Always be clear on what and how is being attempted, and base your DM ruling on that. It's the DM who asks for rules to be used, not the player.


The approach above is my interpretation of how D&D-like games work best. It was largely influenced by the philosophy of Angry DM, mainly his article on Adjudicating actions (warning, strong language at end of link).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree. This is a healthy answer and I'm guilty of everything accused more than most. That said, the root of the question stands, and you could reform the hypothetical to show it. What if only the eyes of the statue turned the subject to stone? Now the DM's questioning is insufficient again and we're back to square one. So the DM is left to either perpetually badger his players for details, or some other rule/understanding needs to be in place. All the same, it's worth reiterating this is a good answer that every DM (and player) should read. \$\endgroup\$ – Euch Jan 10 '17 at 13:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Euch In this particular case you mention (only eyes cursed), I'd leave this up to DM discretion: what's better for the story, how the roll turned out, do a coin flip, etc. That's because in general, the character has no reason to expect touching the eyes or not is special. The player has already given consent to touch; asking "where" is probably too much detail, so just assume they did or didn't touch the problematic part based on what you see best. I can hardly see anyone complain "I would never touch eyes" and have enough arguments to reasonably support that. \$\endgroup\$ – Angew Jan 10 '17 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ To be honest only the eyes being cursed is bad writing for an RPG for this exact reason (unless the players have a reason to interact with the eyes). \$\endgroup\$ – Tim B Jan 12 '17 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TimB What if the eyes were gems? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jan 30 '17 at 10:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe That would indeed be a "reason to interact with the eyes". But note that it will trigger players to say "I use my dagger to pry the eyes out" or similar - specifically causing them to interact with them. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim B Jan 30 '17 at 10:30
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When the roll results can give hints to the player I advise to have the DM make them in secret. In this way the DM prevents metagaming based on the result.

Coming to the answer: the DM knows the second statue has a contact trap so he should already be thinking from the beginning about the problem, and ask the player to describe how exactly he investigates the first statue, and then the second one. If the player doesn't say anything about touching or not touching (can happen) the DM can just ask. The player will be suspicius but he doesn't know which will be good or bad. Also, the DM can start the description assuming the PC doesn't touch, give some information, and then ask if he wants investigate more closely by touching the statue. The DM should do this even when there isn't a trap! Keep them alert!

About the example in the comments:

For things like that, the DM can assume what he wants. He pays, he gives money, mechanically doesn't make difference how he gives the money... the rules don't go so far. If the player wants to do something strange he should say so.

When the player doesn't have any hint the DM also can roll a die for a random solution.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for planning ahead - this, combined with Angew's answer probably is the most conclusive. You know that how they investigate the statue matters, so getting players to describe their actions properly will give you a lot more information for free. If you still don't have enough information, asking for clarification on their actions seems far less suspicious than asking for details when they just said "I investigate it." \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Jan 10 '17 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Even if planning ahead, if you normally don't ask those questions, they will immediatelly become suspicious as to why you are asking how they do it. Cautious players will be extra cautious when they hear the gm ask "how you do it?". But i agree with the approach: If you, as the GM, know that one of the statues is trapped, then you could say "well, they are statues, pretty ones, both are ladies with nice breasts, but what exactly are you looking for?", which would still ask for details but without spoiling your bait. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadowKras Jan 10 '17 at 19:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @eyecosahedron Comments of that sort are not OK on this site. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 11 '17 at 22:42
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I disagree with the other respondents. In this case, I would use your second option - narrate them touching the statue and call for a save.

Your biggest issue is that you've described the set of actions the player can take with respect to the statues differently. That is, I learn about a statue by investigating, but trigger a trap by touching. Therefore, each item has a different set of actions available to it, and what actions they are depends on whether its a statue or a trigger. Ultimately then, listing the actions gives out metagame information.

You have to decide what level of detail you want to communicate with the players: If they want to narrate touching the statue and peering over all the seams, with you calling for an Investigate check and only relating relevent information but leaving out something (e.g. the smell of sulfur, or if they neglect to mention touching the roughness of the seemingly smooth stone) that's fine. Then you can use those details to trigger traps. Alternatively, if they want to narrate "Investigate X", then they are trusting you to bundle together a reasonable set of actions their character would take with regard to that action. And those actions may trigger traps.

I suppose if the character had no hands, they would assume the character would not be touching the statue. Or established earlier that this adventurer did not touch things in a dungeon. But such are nuances to a more general rule.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hello Jesse! Welcome to the site! Since you are a newcomer, I recommend taking the tour to get an idea of how things work around here. You can find more resources in the help center too. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Jan 10 '17 at 18:45
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You could also consider the 'solid 19' being an indication of confidence in the investigation. The PC's investigation produces clear results, both in what is discovered and the process itself, to the point it inspires enough confidence to investigate thoroughly.

After the success of the first statue, 'ugh 6' might mean "you take a cursory look at the second statue, it's not like the first". In this case you might want the player to metagame ("I rolled a 6, did a crap job examining it") and decide he just didn't do a good job. In our group it's not uncommon on a blown Spot check that a player will talk about the odd thing that caught his eye, instead of the important thing that's about to jump on him.

This does run the possibility of the players discounting the importance of the second statue altogether, but hey, their investigator investigated... poorly. If that means someone gets thrown into the statue and turned to stone they should have investigated better.

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To summarize a long response: if there's a statue/trap in the room that goes off when touched, then the GM when improvising details of player actions must not include touching statues.

There's also a little trick to help somewhat with "how does one resolve the occasional conflict of interest between wanting to employ creative narrative without bestowing undue consequences upon those player". Specifically, when narrating something that you're improvising, or in any way paraphrasing what the player said to you, pause a little. This gives the player the opportunity to correct you if you've misunderstood or over-interpreted. So in this case:

"I investigate statue two"

"OK, it's similar in style to the first one. You walk up to within a foot of the statue ... the workmanship is equally good, if anything a little finer. The surface is exceptionally highly polished (or other such improvised little details). It doesn't seem to be breathing like the first one. You look over the whole thing ... and don't see anything otherwise unsual about it. You reach out to touch the mouth like the other one ... roll a save against petrification."

At any of the ..., you pause just for a moment and make sure you're looking at the player whose action you're narrating. A semi-colon's worth of pause is enough for the player to shake their head, or yell "that's not what I meant", or "ummmm... OK, I go ahead", or whatever they want. So if they don't contradict you, they willingly touched the statue, problem solved. Just make sure you pause whether or not there's danger, to avoid making it obvious when the player should bail out.

Ideally, the longer you and your players play, the more of this detail they'll provide themselves, and the above would be a dialogue. But sometimes they just don't have the inspiration to describe in detail an action that you're really excited by, and in certain play styles that's your cue to narrate.

I think you're running into a tension between two gaming styles. But many people do mix those styles in their games anyway, so this isn't uncommon.

In style 1, the GM improvises around player actions as you did, and in particular the GM moves forwards over the boring bits. Maybe the successful roll represents, among other things, the player spending time using their specialist knowledge of traps to determine that statue 1 was safe to touch before touching it. Maybe they didn't do that. Neither the player nor the GM knows or will ever care, because exactly who touches what and when is not material to this scene.

In style 2, there are traps that go off when you take apparently-innocuous actions, and it is the player's job to "own" the risks they take by making every action, and to describe every action in enough detail to satisfy the GM what the consequences will be. It seems to me that this is was common in early dungeons, perhaps as a way of outwitting players who carry 10 foot poles with chickens on the end. So there's a trap that triggers when you take your hat off or whatever, and as long as the GM wrote it down before play started it's entirely "fair" to thereby "punish" PCs for removing their hats, even though that action is typically innocuous. To this day, that sort of exotic trap is present in some games but not others. As you've identified, it's extremely unfair then for the GM to rule that the player has just walked up and touched an object, because deciding what to touch or not is the very essence of player agency in that the game.

Hence my rule. As a rough-and-ready way to combine the two styles, if there's a statue/trap in the room that goes off when touched, then the GM when improvising details of player actions must not include touching statues. Touching things is a significant action in this location, so don't improvise it, just improvise insignificant details for colour. It's easy enough to amend what you said to omit mentions of direct physical contact. Even this will be too much for strong adherents of the second style. But they have it easy because they can just say "no GM improvisation, ever. If they don't explicitly say they touch the statue, they don't touch the statue, they just look at it".

One possible downside of my rule above is that a very alert player who knows you well might notice that you conspiciously didn't describe them touching the first statue, and conclude that somewhere in the room is a trap that triggers on touch. Personally I think this is pretty rare, and when it does occasionally happen, if they're that determined to meta-game then fair enough. They should take their enjoyment of the game where they find it, and they've genuinely outsmarted you.

"This is all very well for general policy", you say, "but how do I recover from my slip in this specific case?". Given that I think it is a slight GM error, I would always aim to recover it in the players' "favour". After all, you knew when you said they touched the first statue, that touching the second statue would be dangerous. So my inclination would be to take your option 1, "how do you investigate the statue?". If the player meta-games at that point, they are (in effect) expressing a preference that GM improvisation shouldn't take their character into harm's way, which is a pretty reasonable preference to have even in a game where the GM improvises freely. If you must, double down on the mistake by adding an unscripted property to the statue: "statue two looks really forboding, it has a sneering expression as if it's silently mocking you. You find yourself pausing for a moment as you go to touch it". They still might touch the statue -- they might think it's some incredibly weak ward and there's treasure in there. But in-game they know something's up with it, so they're entitled to choose to back off without meta-gaming. Nobody's perfect, your players got a free clue, and it's not as if the game would be any worse if that had been scripted. Maybe the sculptor knew the statue was going to be trapped and was unconsciously influenced by that when carving the face. We live and learn.

An alternative would be to rule that unless the player states otherwise, "investigating" a statue necessarily, as an unavoidable part of the action, includes touching it. Unless of course your investigation successfully spots some danger prior to touching it or is otherwise interrupted. This might seem out of line, but if a player says "I open the door" you don't assume that they do so without touching it, so you'd rule that any on-contact trap was triggered. So it's not thoroughly out of line provided you're consistent, although it's not to all tastes. You'd probably combine this with a rule that investigating things by sight alone incurs some penalty on the roll.

Then the GM is not really improvising in the description of touching statue 1 after all, and is not out of line to trigger on-contact effects when the player investigates statue 2. In many games this is too harsh on the players, who might not previously realise that "investigate" implies "touch". But they could (should?) have deduced that fact from your description of statue 1, and if they'd been smart enough to do that and thought it an undue risk they could have chosen not to perform a default, unspecified "investigate" action statue 2 but instead been more cautious. So I think this approach can stand in a "strict player liability" style, even with no advanced notice that to make an investigation check on an object you have to handle it. But it will lead to arguments from time to time and that's why I wouldn't want to get into it myself.

Finally, I would say that I actually don't much like exotic traps that trigger due to precise details that your typical game style doesn't address, precisely because it can lead to ambiguous situations like this. So if your game typically doesn't fuss about who touches what and when, don't put on-contact traps in it. You're just creating a situation that's hard to adjudicate, or the dreaded question at the start of a scene, "before we start this, tell me what colour everyone's hat is please", which warns the players they're about to be punished or rewarded for something completely arbitrary! Use a trigger condition that matches with the kinds of details your players actually give: in this case that could be "the trap triggers if anyone explicitly touches the statue or makes a failed investigation roll on it", although granted that player dialogue was probably a bit of a straw man. But if their standard approach when entering a room is to check it for traps, whatever the language they use to describe that is, your trap descriptions should say whether or not doing it triggers the trap should the test fail (normally yes). Then there's no unfairness because they explictly did the exact thing that triggers the trap.

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An important rule for running RPGs: It is alway better to spoil a surprise than to seem unfair.

"How exactly do you investigate the statue?" This definitely alerts the player that something is up with it, and they will be naturally inclined to meta-game here, as the roll was poor so they probably don't want their character especially close to it. Plus, the DM didn't ask this during the investigation Statue 1, so the very question hints that Statue 2 is dangerous.

For some groups, metagaming isn’t always bad. Assuming the group does consider it bad in this instance...

In my experience, most players will avoid metagaming. They understand that, by asking this question, you are trying to be fair. They will likewise try to be fair and not change their intention due to any information this question implies.

If I was in this situation with a player who would not resist the metagaming and if the group was generally against this sort of metagaming, I would still ask the clarifying question because of the rule above. But I would make a mental note to—in the future—try to be more careful about how I handle searches so as to avoid the issue. e.g. Always asking such a clarifying question even when the details might not be important.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ They should have to narrate how they investigate every time. \$\endgroup\$ – user2617804 Jan 14 '17 at 2:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2617804 <i>shrug</i> For my group, players never call for rolls; only the ref does. But even so, we can end up in a similar situation. How players described their searches before left out a detail that was not important then but is now. The ref didn’t think to ask the clarifying question for those previous searches because it wasn’t an important detail then. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fisher Jan 14 '17 at 14:22
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It's not unreasonable to trigger harmful consequences against the players in absence of some expected verbal description of in-character actions. Sure, good roleplayers will describe removing a single glove to run their fingers over the statue's face. But many meta-gamers, power-gamers, and speed-gamers will describe their actions in terms of dice-roll mechanics. Several of the other Answers discuss this classic "roleplaying vs. rollplaying" conundrum. I tend to side with roleplaying as being superior, but this Question applies to situations wherein rollplaying is being used by players and/or wherein roleplaying is being enacted by the DM on behalf of the players, without their affirmative consent.

I propose that it is not intrinsically unfair to trigger a trap following a failed generic/nondescript roll, so long as there's a nexus between the triggering activity and the dice-roll activity. The statue is trapped. That trap is meant to be activated as a result of some failure by the players. Whether that failure is of roleplaying or rollplaying is honestly not a question that I or anyone else can answer in a system-agnostic setting -- you do you, boi.

As long as your traps are appropriately powered and sparsely placed, you shouldn't feel guilty for springing them! It makes perfect sense that "investigate" would include touching. I bet the players wouldn't complain when they "investigate" a wall section, revealing a secret door after a hidden button is pressed or a false book or sconce is pulled. Don't get yourself in a situation where players are telling you, "I didn't say I was walking there (over that pit trap)," or, "When I rolled for sneaking I meant that I was crouching too (below that projectile trap)," or, "We never said that we dig latrines, we just poop on the dungeon floor (as the Wurm erupts forth from its disturbed lair)."

If the players are roleplaying, then trigger traps based on verbal descriptions (I expect that either many traps will be unknowingly bypassed or you will find yourself attempting to bait the players into taking certain actions). But if they're plainly stating vague dice-rolls as actions, trigger traps relevant to those rolls when they fail. [WARNING: players may become paranoid]

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For the particular example, the description of the first statue makes it absolutely clear that investigation involves touching the statue. When the player asks to "investigate" the second they are well aware that touching is involved and the DM is not reducing their agency by assuming so.

More generally, communication is an iterative process and the onus is on the speaker to make sure the listener understands the message. It also does not occur in a vacuum, both the immediate context and the more general shared assumptions of the group are relevant. For example, it may be established either explicitly or implicitly that Investigation involves touching and Perception doesn't. For your example, the immediate context indicates that this is so: the player saying "I investigate ..." here communicates "I touch ...".

Retcons are only appropriate where the player has reasonably misunderstood the situation the DM has described. That is, the failure of communication is the DM's fault.

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In short: make secret rolls.

As a player, I -personally- prefer the DM to make secret rolls for those kinds of skills (listen, hide, search, spot, sense motive, etc).*

As a DM, we determine the house-rules for secret rolls. Our current house-rule is that the DM makes all skill-rolls secretly (we have a special, slightly sloped cardboard box with a screen in the middle, were the players roll in, but only the DM can see the actual result clearly (for the single purpose of the fun for players of rolling their own dice)).
In some cases (f.e. when players cannot immediately judge the result of their roll in-game), we do secret rolls (other than skills) as well.

My answer depends on what kind of narrative style the players want. If they want to see all their skill-rolls for themselves, that's fine, but they shouldn't expect too much tentative narration from you then, as you'll likely to save that for more suitable situations.

Also: A good DM presents a world, the story is then made by the players. Don't expect them to find every secret room, have interaction with traps, or even assume that they are willing to enter that dark, damp, moldy, smelly dungeon in the first place; because that's the biggest(!) difference between a computer-game and a RPG.

*: Note, my experience outside D&D is limited.

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I honestly think you are already handling this well.

Narrating resolutions for flavour

You do this well. You know what actions are likely to seem reasonable to the player and also give the appropriate information.

Player Agency

You also recognise the inherent problem if a course of action would lead to negative consequences, and the need to subtly put that decision back on the player. Recognising those moments is most of the battle, you can usually find some way through even if it isn't perfect, and if you occasionally err on the side of being a little bit too generous to the players that's probably fine.

This situation

You happened to get one of the times when it's difficult. Ideally you'd have recognised the potential problem before they handled the first statue, and probably been able to avoid it.

But you can't always avoid the problems, GMs will always let the players notice some giveaways, and as long as that's only occasionally, the game will work ok.

In this case, the best I can think of it is either:

P1: I investigate the second statue? GM: OK. Are you looking for the same sort of things as before? P1: Yes. Ugh, 6. GM: As you run your hands along the statue, [proceed to save vs petrification]

Or more explicitly:

P1: I investigate the second statue. Ugh, 6. GM: Hold on, you rolled a little too soon. Are you checking the throat again? And the texture? P1: Sure. GM: As you run your hands along the statue, [proceed to save vs petrification]

That gives the chance that the player may realise something is up. Hopefully most players will play fair and if they recognise they WOULD have gone ahead without noticing the GM's hesitation, not try to make up an excuse their character wouldn't. But if they have something sensible they want to do without touching the statue, it's probably better to just let them. Occasionally players get lucky, if the difficulty is pitched right, "occasionally the players get lucky" will be factored in.

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This problem always arises, when the DM narrates actions of the players. For example - I like to start some of my short adventures like a movie scene, right in a suspenseful situation. But then I will have to narrate how the players got there, and if the situation is bad for the player characters, the players will instinctively go "How did I get here? I think I would not have been so stupid as to touch that statue!"

A great way to solve this, is to let the player characters seem really cool at what they do. When you describe the actions of the player character you can add details that make the character behave even smarter than the player would have played him. For example:

Because you have a lot of experience, you keep a little distance and tough the statue just very slightly, ready for any surprises. Because of this you see the trap activating and have time for a saving throw. - Roll DEX-Save

The result is exactly the same mechanically, but the player will not feel bad, because you played his character even better than he would have done himself. - You make his character seem smart, and so he will most likely not have a problem with doing the DEX-Save probably thinking (maaan good thing the DM didn't just ask me how I would touch the statue, because I didn't really expect a trap!)

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