Visible Versus Hidden Dice Rolls

When it comes time to make a skill check, every DM faces an eternal conundrum: do you let the players roll it or do you roll it? Is it better to allow the players to make every roll for every check, save, or attack or is it better to keep some of them to yourself so they don’t influence the way your players choose to act in the moment? Sure, there are roleplayers out there who won’t flinch at a botched stealth roll or who can resist summoning dreadful images in their head if they roll single-digits on a saving throw, but most people aren’t that good at separating what they know from what their character knows or can infer.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’m finally a player again (four sessions down, which means five more until this is the third-longest campaign I’ve ever been a player in). My DM has decided that, in certain situations, we are to tell him our stealth bonus and he will narrate the results without letting us know the specific number that he rolls. This has the added benefit of building suspense, but I find it a little frustrating at times. I’m here to roll dice, after all. I’d love to make my own stealth checks and then come up with how or why I did poorly.

I don’t really mind. It’s not a big deal to me because I’m here to have fun and the added suspense makes the game more fun, so I continue to roleplay and let him do the extra rolling. As far as immersion goes, this could easily be argued either way. Technically, most people who sneak around know how much noise they’re making, but it is also true that they might not be aware of how far the noise carries. Throw in the consideration that sometimes stealth is moving slowly and quietly enough that someone looking in your direction doesn’t actually notice you and you can easily justify keeping the results hidden from the person making the check.

Additionally, I’d be a hypocrite if I complained too much about this (I maintain that it is my right as a Human Being to complain about everything at least a little bit if the mood strikes me) since I have my own form of this I do in my games. Instead of doing the rolls myself and narrating the results (though I’m starting to consider it with a couple of my groups that are having issues with meta-gaming), I tend to keep the results to myself if it is something that wouldn’t immediately be apparent.

For instance, if you get attacked by a mummy and it punches you in the face, you definitely know that you’ve been punched in the face. If you roll a saving throw to resist mummy fist disease, you might not know the result for a while. If it doesn’t do something supernatural or immediately painful like most D&D poisons, then you might not know if you successfully resisted the disease until you have a healer check you out or start showing the first symptoms. This is also true of other things like curses without immediate affects. Like, say, werewolf bites.

Since I keep the DC to myself and avoid telling anyone if they succeeded or failed their saving throw against things like diseases or curse, no one knows for sure if they’re safe or not. Sure, rolling a total of eighteen when you’re fourth level probably means you’re going to be fine, but there’s always the chance that you won’t be. That mummy was difficult to kill, after all. Maybe the save was a bit higher because this was a stronger version of the standard monster. Best get yourself checked out by a professional, just to be safe.

Like hiding the entire roll from the players in certain situation, letting them see the roll but not know the results can raise tension. There’s nothing quite like letting the party deal with a player who got bit by a werewolf and rolled a twelve to resist the curse. Who knows if that’s a pass or failure? The players and their characters are in the same boat, uncertain and unsure how to discover the truth. It means that the entire party will be thinking about that character and their bite wound that seems to have healed over completely while keeping one eye on the phase of the moon. It also means that everyone will be looking for a way to tell if there are symptoms or signs of the curse, which makes a lot of room for fun on the DM’s part.

It can also be a lot of extra work. If you’re hiding the rolls entirely from the players by doing them yourself, then there is a lot of extra rolling you need to do when the party makes a related check. Plus, you have to track their related stats and any temporary bonuses they might have. If you’re hiding the results by refusing to say whether people passed or failed, you need to keep track of those results yourself and what symptoms or signs might be showing up as time passes. It takes a lot of extra work, but if you were afraid of that, then you probably should reconsider being a DM. Extra work comes with the territory.

Having said that, this is entirely a moot debate. I’ve run games for years without either of these things and a decent story, good characters, and plot twists are enough to carry any group even if they know the results as they happen. There are lots of other good ways to build and maintain tension if you don’t want this extra bit of optional work. This can just be a fun one if you want to go that extra step to keep your players on a similar level of knowledge as their characters. Depending on your group, that might have more value than it would for others. It’s a great way to counter light to moderate meta-gaming if you don’t want to confront the offending party.

Regardless, I’m enjoying the effects of hidden rolls in the game I’m playing in and the effects of unknown results in one of the games I’m running. If you’re looking to add an extra pinch of tension here or there, start making a list of skills with hidden results and saving throws with delayed results. It’ll pay off pretty quickly.

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