Secret dice rolls

When I remember correctly I’ve always rolled behind the GM screen when I was running a game. My first GM did the same, as did most GMs I met in my life. Recently I had a talk on Skype with Philippe-Antoine Ménard and he mentioned that his rolls as a GM are always in the open.

That got me thinking. Why do we roll in secret? Probably because we want to fudge the rolls. I guess that most GMs will fudge rolls in the players’ favor when things go rough. That’s at least what I do. But I also understand that this can cause some strange situations. Imagine a fight that’s turning bad for the characters. And suddenly the attacker start to miss, horribly fumble their rolls or suddenly fail their morale test and run. This may very well break immersion. For some players the sense of disbelief goes out of the window then. And that’s something any GM should avoid, at least in my opinion.

For Philippe’s group it’s perfectly normal that he rolls openly. There a trust between players and GM and when things go bad, the GM knows that he did mess up the balance of the encounter. In a game where you roll secretly as a GM things often go out of hand, but since nobody notices when you fudge the rolls, you get away with it. There’s no way to improve your GMing skills that way – at least not that aspect of the game.

Another interesting point: we expect players not to fudge rolls, when they lie to the GM about what they rolled, things usually go downhill fast. But lying about what they rolled is accepted or even encouraged when GMs are concerned. And this may lead to a real problem at the game table. When a player fails a roll, he knows it was because of the dice. When the GM tells that one of the NPCs failed (or succeeded) at any task, players tend to think this didn’t happen because of the dice but because of the GM. That makes it harder for the GM to act as some kind of neutral arbitrator.

I think in my next game I will try to do all rolls in the open. I am sure this will be a new experience for me and my players. But I think it actually might improve the game. So, how do you handle rolls as a GM? Do you roll in the open, or do you prefer to have the ability to fudge rolls behind the GM screen?

P.S.: I want to thank Philippe aka ChattyDM for inspiring me to write this post! Thanks!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

22 thoughts on “Secret dice rolls”

  1. Behind GM Screen you may hide not only result of roll but also roll itself: there are situations when just throwing of die may say something to players.

  2. @Misterecho: I agree, but if there's a certain trust between players and GM rolling openly could work even in those cases. After all there should be a difference between player and character knowledge.

  3. Yes, "of course", but for every player whose character makes a passiv perception check (so, not actually searching for something etc.) it will be much more thrilling if he doesn't even know his character missed… …whatever. My spidersenses always ring if the GM tells me to roll and doesn't comment the failed result. Okay, I dunno what's going on – but I know that something is going on 😛

    Or the traps – "Oh, my thief failed his spot trap check, but as a good player I will immediatly open it" may (or not?) be a good difference between player and character knowledge but the whole situation would imo be much more satisfying and fun if rolled hidden.

    For combat these open rolls are okay – more deadly in most cases

  4. It’s perfectly normal to roll openly. Maybe unusual, but normal. But, bottom line is, master must have some control over game and hidden/fudged rolls may be part of that.

    Actually, we have so many game systems, genres, styles and players, there cant’t be one right answer, it’s always case-by-case decision.

  5. With us the GM does a combination of both, when it's a really critical moment he adds to the tension by rolling in front of us. As far as I know the only time the roll gets fudged slightly is when dealing damage, especially if things haven't been going well or the same person's character is about to die…again.
    .-= pb´s last blog ..Who you gonna call? =-.

  6. One of the first DMs I ever played with not only rolled all of his rolls in secret, he rolled all of our rolls in secret, too. He was the only one with dice. He claimed that this would help with immersion. I hated it, but it was a good game with good people otherwise.

    The other argument this DM made, though, has stuck in my head. He claimed that if we saw his rolls, we could pretty quickly reverse-engineer our opponents' stats and start meta-gaming a solution. Is it so critical that the players do not know their opponents' stats? I … don't know. For most players, I don't think it's a problem. But, I have been with players who killed my immersion by quoting and then exploiting monster stats.

    Of course, I've also recently become enamored of a concept in which the players roll nearly everything. Specifically, in combat, the players make a defense roll when attacked, rather than the DM making an attack roll. The NPC's are effectively "taking 10" on any opposed checks 99% of the time.
    .-= Lugh´s last blog ..How fragile we are =-.

  7. I will roll information gathering checks hidden if I play D&D in 'classic mode'.

    Lately, I tend to play even those openly and instead of treating a missed perception check as 'you didn't see it' I will say "If you really want to spot this hidden thing I have, you have to accept a negative consequence I'm about to inflict on you"

    That gives the player a choice. And they almost always chose the "dare" 🙂

  8. Hi Stargazer,

    this is my forst comment at your blog.

    I role the dice behind the screen, but don't fudge the players. In fights, they players can see the dice if they wish.

    The important reason to roll in secret ar rollf for spot hidden thins, hide, stalk etc. pp. All rolls, where the players should not know if there is something to find or if they are succesfull or not. This makes a los of fun ans suspence for me as a player and no player has a problem with it.

    Of course some would say, it is a matter of roleplaing to play that they are successfull or not, but I am used to do it this way.



  9. Welcome to the blog, Xemides!

    As I wrote in the post, I am used to rolling behind the screen, too. But I think ChattyDMs approach is very interesting and something I will definitely try out.

  10. When the DM rolls the umpteenth critical (in a game featuring that concept) it *does* reduce player frustration, if she can simply ignore it.

  11. I have always felt that, if fudging rolls actually makes a major difference in gameplay, then that is a sign of a poorly designed game system. Variances should not be so wide that regular occurrences of "bad luck" are the difference between life or death. Most activity should be tactical/strategic with die rolls to add a little bit of variability and the occasional long shot. High variability is bad.

    The problem is that we have all these systems that are built on uniform probabilities. You roll one die, and so the odds of any number are equally likely. Additive dice rolls, like 3d6, produce a more normal-like distribution and so reduce variability. In that case, success depends more on what the player does than what the dice do.

  12. This is an interesting subject… When I began playing, I rarely rolled in secret. Then I began to get into telling a story and started using a screen for that exact same reason, to fudge the occasional roll and save a player from certain death. But they knew when I was giving them an extra help. However as time passed I’ve realized that rolling openly means players know the results are simply the outcome of random luck and these days I roll all combat roll openly. For things like traps, notice, or perception, whatever you may call it, I usually ask them for a roll and ask for their result. My players are usually pretty good at separating player knowledge from character knowledge. There is the occasional secret roll, but I just roll it by the laptop away form the players. I haven’t used a screen in ages!

  13. First I think this whole "trust" issue with players and DM's is a bit absurd, especially for a home game with regular players. I think it has more to do with rules lawyers or playing online with strangers or quick meet ups to play a single session. Players don't want to get rail roaded by a TPK'er DM and waste their time, thats for sure. Maybe that would be what we would call in video games "griefing" which really doesn't translate well or work well in "pick up games of dnd" and if you're doing that in a home game you'll find yourself searching for players on the net fast as no one else will play with you! The DM, as well as the players, have a responsibility to "play" to make the game fun. Now with that said…

    The "secret roll" originates with old skewl 1st Ed DnD. I think rolling behind the DM screen is more tradition now that necessity, especially with rule changes and various system tweaks (like pathfinder and dnd 4.0).

    In 1st Ed the roll you were making as a DM could give away a clue to the players to what could be possibly going on behind the scenes. Finding secret doors typically required a 1d6, hide in shadows, move silently, pick pockets, a % roll. Does the thief actually think he is hiding in shadows or moving silently or is he blundering around in full view and making fart noises? Not to mention just rolling dice to make some noise behind the screen and keep the players guessing is always fun.

    With that said I think overall even in the newer system "secret rolls" are still the way to go, as it keeps players "honest" and allows them to play their characters with out having to flip flop back to what a player knows and what a character knows. The best games I've ever played in and have DM'd have been where the progression of the game rolls along with players not breaking character and are allowed to just "act". Players don't always have to see the secret door, or explore every nook and cranny of the dungeon. It could very well be that they will find that secret door if they've mapped things correctly and see a void in the map that is just screaming "secret door to treasure room"! An example of this style of play is the play session in 1st ed DM's guide (pg 94 A Sample Dungeon) where the party is exploring the ruins of a monastery.

    Of course this is all just conjecture, as it is your game, do with it as you will. Remember that Gary said, "the secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."

  14. @Walker – This is an excellent point. And leads into other excellent points.

    Using 3d6 rather than 1d20 produces a number of beneficial effects. Skill ranks and other bonuses tend to mean much more, because they aren't washed out by the randomness. Critical results really *feel* like critical results, because they are much more rare. "Taking 10" really is like a typical result, not just a mathematically averaged result.

    As a follow-up to "the difference between life and death" point, I really think that more systems need to introduce levels of failure that make the story more interesting, rather than stopping the story. If a critical hit by the bad guy takes an eye or gives you a permanent limp, that's something to be avoided. And, yet, it's also fodder for a revenge plot, and for a possible plot of how to heal the un-heal-able injury.

    Finally, I am now a solid devotee of action dice/fate points/bennies/etc. Currency that the player and GM can spend to add a little spin to the dice in the interest of the story. Inigo gets to spend an action die to shake off the dagger in his gut. Luke gets to spend a Force point to drop the missile in the exhaust port. Basically, making sure that the PCs win when it counts the most, but not giving them an unlimited amount of win, so threats remain threats.
    .-= Lugh´s last blog ..How fragile we are =-.

  15. I don't fudge the rolls. I might roll just for the noise when I already made a decision, but that's it. But I do roll in secret. Various reasons:

    – Gameplay mechanic, most of the time I don't want the players to know how many dices or what I'm rolling. Like, ok I got a 5 on a tohit, ohh he's hit you anyway. PC: retreeeeeat.
    – Secret rolls, like an unspotted NPC doing something both players and PC are unaware of.
    – etc.

    On the other hand, on some game (D&D is one of them), I do roll openly when it increase tension and drama. Like, if this roll could kill a PC. That way, the player knows he did something bad, he put himself in a situation where his character has a x% chance of dying. Not my fault as a DM, I let the dices stands where they roll.

    If a PC try to jump a 2 meter wide shaft, somehow slip and fall to his death… yup, it's unheroic. So what? Apart from very specific heroic games (not D&D, but Star Wars for example) it's not an issue. If you can't fail, there's no heroism to begin with. Without the risks, the rewards have no taste.

    I did play once with a friend who is also a great DM. But he did fudge the rolls our way. I spotted this, and to make a point I fudge my rolls (as a player) not to win, but to lose. Not by much, but still somewhat dangerous. It quickly got to the point where the heroic campaign turned into a bad Toon one: ridiculous, but without the fun.

    Fudging isn't the answer to anything. Ok your players pressure you to play before you're fully ready, you make a mistake, you correct it secretly behind the screen.. once in a while (read, not every month) it's ok. More than that, there's mostly an issue with your GM skills.

    If you don't need the dices, don't roll them.

  16. Depends. I roll almost everything in the open, except I'm usually VERY lucky with the dice… and I get 3 20's in a roll like crazy (doesn't matter the dice, if only casinos used d20s lol). Usually I need to fudge a lot in order for the story to progress… since it's not nice going on having critical damage on players all the time and killing off characters, all the time…

  17. At the beginning of the campaign I usually do secret throws, but mostly for the sound. On every combat I do adjust difficulty in my head. My fun resides in explaining a story, so if the characters don't act stupid, they are not going to die. (unexpectedly I mean)

    When the characters have grown up, I start to do some open throws, That let's the players notice that things are a little more serious. I won't probably kill the player, but I won't save them from loosing parts of the characters ^^U

    At the end of the campaign, all the throws should be open. The destiny of the characters is now up to them.

  18. Back from the Kellerkinder Limburg" I took a look at your blog, and this is an interesting topic. I never reflect this, but I roll in the open. Okay, sometimes I roll in secret, but that is more to "answer" a question for a npc, not a critical situation for a players character.

    And yes, I fudge rolls in sense of not sticking to the result. That's because I'm not running a simulation, but a game, and dices are used to get some kind of chance in the game, in the context of the rules and skills.

    But I'm more a storyteller GM anyway 😉

  19. In Disaspora, they suggest going so far as to have all of the enemy "stats" in the open too.

    Pushing the idea that far makes me wonder what is gained by keeping information hidden. Is this a puzzle game you are playing, where the goal is to figure something out? Obviously you don't want that revealed until you succeed.

    But look at the new D&D4E method of having a fully printed map for your minis. That's a long way from the days of taking cartography dictation from the DM and hoping your map is correct.

    Sure, it is fun to be surprised by a new and unusual attack from a monster you are unfamiliar with. And tactical games actually increase pace when you don't suffer analysis paralysis while calculating the best foe to attack based on current HP totals. There are reasons to limit info.

    But it's a question that you should ask yourself, rather than just choosing the default behavior of sitting behind a wall, only giving information when interrogated.

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