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5E How do you roll, DM?

When you DM, do you roll dice in front of the screen or behind it?


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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
"Succeeding with penalties" (or "progress combined with a setback") is a fail state for a check that did not succeed.
This, to me, is a part of how the game has become "easier" over time.

How?

Because 'succeeding with penalties' is still, in the end, succeeding; even though the roll says failure.

Succeeding, with or without penalties, is something that should only happen if the roll in fact says success. Failure means failure, end of story; though if that failure also happens to have penalties attached (e.g. you failed so badly on finding the trap that you in fact set it off, roll a save) that's fine too.

In broader terms, sometimes we all just have to accept and deal with the fact that there's going to be occasions when the dice just refuse to allow the story to advance; and in so doing also accept the frustration this causes in the players (and in the PCs).

But really this comes down to whether failure has meaningful consequences. If there are no meaningful consequences, there is no ability check in the first place. The character just succeeds or fails, no roll, depending on the approach to the goal in the given situation.
There's a flaw in that logic.

You say a check should only happen if failure has meaningful consequences. What about times when the meaningful consequences* are tied to success? For example, searching for a secret door behind which you-as-DM know there's a big pile of loot while the players/PCs have no idea what's there or even if there's a hidden door there to find.

From the players' position, failure almost always simply maintains the status quo without any consequences at all (in the PCs' eyes this is the case with most failed search checks) In other words, Nothing Happens. But you-as-DM know that success has meaningful consequences in that the PCs are going to gain a pile of wealth.

* - consequences that may or may not be known by the players/PCs at the time the roll is made.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
This, to me, is a part of how the game has become "easier" over time.

How?

Because 'succeeding with penalties' is still, in the end, succeeding; even though the roll says failure.

Succeeding, with or without penalties, is something that should only happen if the roll in fact says success. Failure means failure, end of story; though if that failure also happens to have penalties attached (e.g. you failed so badly on finding the trap that you in fact set it off, roll a save) that's fine too.

In broader terms, sometimes we all just have to accept and deal with the fact that there's going to be occasions when the dice just refuse to allow the story to advance; and in so doing also accept the frustration this causes in the players (and in the PCs).

First, the rules of D&D 5e disagree with the notion that "succeeding, with or without penalties, is something that should only happen if the roll in fact says success..." So your argument is with the rules here. But I assume you're not actually playing this game anyway.

I would also find it strange to hear someone essentially argue that "you find no traps..." is necessarily worse than "you found the trap and your actions have set it in motion..." Or that "you find no secret doors..." is necessarily worse than "you find the secret door, but in the doing plaster falls from the wall and crashes to the floor, drawing the attention of a nearby monster..."

There's a flaw in that logic.

You say a check should only happen if failure has meaningful consequences. What about times when the meaningful consequences* are tied to success? For example, searching for a secret door behind which you-as-DM know there's a big pile of loot while the players/PCs have no idea what's there or even if there's a hidden door there to find.

From the players' position, failure almost always simply maintains the status quo without any consequences at all (in the PCs' eyes this is the case with most failed search checks) In other words, Nothing Happens. But you-as-DM know that success has meaningful consequences in that the PCs are going to gain a pile of wealth.

* - consequences that may or may not be known by the players/PCs at the time the roll is made.

There is no flaw in this logic. That's what the rules say to do. Moreover, context will tell whether there is or isn't a meaningful consequence for failure. If an offscreen consequence is determined to be the meaningful result of failure, then the DM narrating a failed check as progress combined with a setback is even more called for since not doing so means the players may have "meta-information" introduced into the game. Which I'm pretty sure some of you guys really don't like and mess with the dice a lot to avoid. I don't need to do that and all I have to do is what the rules say, rather than create table rules about fudging dice or phantom rolls.
 

Hriston

Hero
You say a check should only happen if failure has meaningful consequences. What about times when the meaningful consequences* are tied to success? For example, searching for a secret door behind which you-as-DM know there's a big pile of loot while the players/PCs have no idea what's there or even if there's a hidden door there to find.

From the players' position, failure almost always simply maintains the status quo without any consequences at all (in the PCs' eyes this is the case with most failed search checks) In other words, Nothing Happens. But you-as-DM know that success has meaningful consequences in that the PCs are going to gain a pile of wealth.

* - consequences that may or may not be known by the players/PCs at the time the roll is made.
See to me, this, what you've described here, is undesirable. The players don't know if there's a secret door. They look for one (hoping to find one?) which results in a roll. On a failure result, they don't know if there's a secret door. For me, this clunks, hard.

I never ever want to call for a roll one of the possible results of which is no change to the game state, which makes secret doors a little bit tricky. What's the meaningful consequence of not finding something you already didn't have? Things have to get worse on a failure, so I'll usually use time as a setback in exchange for finding/opening the door, resulting in a wandering monster check. How it works is I already telegraphed the existence of the door, and the players have described some action to further locate or investigate how to open it. The check decides if they succeed right away or if they succeed after ten minutes and a wandering monster check. It's clumsy in that it doesn't have much in the way of teeth. (There's only a 1 in 20 chance of an encounter.) But the risk is there.

This (your post) also reminded me of the Trick/Trap table (Table VII) of Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation from the 1E DMG, something I've been using lately. The result of 1-5 (on a d20) is "Secret Door unless unlocated... Unlocated secret doors go to die 6, 7 below." The results of 6-7 is "Pit, 10' deep, 3 in 6 fall in."
 

I have to lean more towards Lanefan here. If you fail your search for a secret door, I don't think the outcome should be that you find it, most of the time. I get that success with consequences can be interesting (especially if it means setting off a trap), but with secret doors the most logical outcome of a failed search, would be that you are unable to find it. After all, you are searching for a hidden object and failing that search.


Of course there can be exceptions. I'm thinking of the scene from Indiana Jones and the last crusade, where his father accidentally opens a secret door, causing Indy to tumble down a flight of stairs that is revealed. To me it is all a matter of, "What is at stake?".

When a player tries to jump across a pit, then they are trying to reach the other side without falling in. Those are the stakes, and failure means those are things that could go wrong.

When a player tries to find a trap, they are trying to locate it without setting it off. But if you don't know where it is, setting it off is very much within the scope of things that can go wrong.

When you are looking for a secret door, you are trying to find out how to trigger it, preferably without taking all day, and without making too much noise. So those three things are the stakes. A failed check means you either don't find it, or you take very long, or you draw unwanted attention, or some other setback that seems appropriate given the way the door is hidden. If all it takes is leaning in a chair to open the secret door, then it seems reasonable that it might be triggered even though you failed to find it. Most of the time though, not finding it at all seems like the most logical outcome to me.

But to sit in Iserith's chair for a moment (and not leaning back), that may not be the most fun way to move the narrative forward. Sometimes finding a thing by accident can make for a more enjoyable story progression. I try to make none of my secret doors too important, so that missing one does not halt the plot or the fun. I prefer that my secret doors retain some of their sense of mystery by not always being so easy to find.
 
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Iry

Hero
Most of my rolls are behind the screen. However, sometimes I reveal a roll. And during dramatic moments when the roll really matters, I roll out in front of everyone.
This. Rolling in the open for dramatic moments has a massive emotional payoff for my players, since I normally hide my rolls. I often reveal it when a monster rolls a Natural 1 as well. Mostly so they can see the monster is having a bad day. :p
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I have to lean more towards Lanefan here. If you fail your search for a secret door, I don't think the outcome should be that you find it, most of the time. I get that success with consequences can be interesting (especially if it means setting off a trap), but with secret doors the most logical outcome of a failed search, would be that you are unable to find it. After all, you are searching for a hidden object and failing that search.

Okay, the player now thinks that because he or she had to roll at all, there is definitely a secret door there and wants to keep searching. Are you okay with that? Some people are very much against this "metagame thinking" hence why they institute table rules regarding hidden rolls and phantom rolls. I personally don't care how and why players make decisions for their own characters, so I can adjudicate as failed or progress combined with a setback. If I were someone who cared about "metagame thinking," I'd always resolve with progress combined with a setback.

Of course there can be exceptions. I'm thinking of the scene from Indiana Jones and the last crusade, where his father accidentally opens a secret door, causing Indy to tumble down a flight of stairs that is revealed. To me it is all a matter of, "What is at stake?".

When a player tries to jump across a pit, then they are trying to reach the other side without falling in. Those are the stakes, and failure means those are things that could go wrong.

When a player tries to find a trap, they are trying to locate it without setting it off. But if you don't know where it is, setting it off is very much within the scope of things that can go wrong.

When you are looking for a secret door, you are trying to find out how to trigger it, preferably without taking all day, and without making too much noise. So those three things are the stakes. A failed check means you either don't find it, or you take very long, or you draw unwanted attention, or some other setback that seems appropriate given the way the door is hidden. If all it takes is leaning in a chair to open the secret door, then it seems reasonable that it might be triggered even though you failed to find it. Most of the time though, not finding it at all seems like the most logical outcome to me.

As a side note, finding a secret door and figuring out how it opens are two separate tasks, both of which may require an ability check (DMG, pg. 104). The relevant checks are Wisdom (Perception) and Intelligence (Investigation).
 

Okay, the player now thinks that because he or she had to roll at all, there is definitely a secret door there and wants to keep searching. Are you okay with that? Some people are very much against this "metagame thinking" hence why they institute table rules regarding hidden rolls and phantom rolls.

I tend to foreshadow the presence of a hidden door, so meta thinking is no issue. The players will suspect something is there regardless of the outcome of the roll. They can keep on looking if they want, but it will cost them a lot of time if they keep failing the check
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I tend to foreshadow the presence of a hidden door, so meta thinking is no issue. The players will suspect something is there regardless of the outcome of the roll. They can keep on looking if they want, but it will cost them a lot of time if they keep failing the check

If time actually matters because it's tied to wandering monster checks or a countdown to doom, it's therefore a meaningful consequence (just like not hitting a monster in combat is a meaningful consequence because it means they get to hit back next turn), so I think this is fine. After all, I don't care about "metagame thinking" in this way. Others, however, go to lengths to combat this with hidden or phantom rolls plus table rules about "metagaming." None of that is necessary in my view.
 

EscherEnigma

Explorer
Back in college, most of my rolls were "hidden", but that wasn't so much because I wanted to hide them, but because I used a DM screen to reference tables, hang notes on, and so-on, and it's a hassle to roll dice outside the DM screen.

In my one in-person game these days, dice rolls are mostly "out in the open", but that's largely because I don't use a DM screen anymore, I use a laptop, and I'm not going to roll dice on my keyboard, I'm going to use my fancy super-cool-looking dice tower. That said, there are some rolls I would hide: mostly rolls where the player(s) shouldn't know what I'm rolling for at all.

So mostly things where the "outcome" of the roll wouldn't be something the PC would be able to observe. That is to say... the PC can observe someone making a save in most cases. They can observe the orc's swing at them. They can observe most combat actions. They shouldn't be able to "observe" a random enocunter or treasure roll, only the outcome which may happen some random time later.

But I don't do it much because --for the most part-- I'll plan those kinds of things ahead of time and roll before the game starts.

Overall though, I don't find the "mystery" adds much in most cases. Counterpoint: I also don't find rolling "in public" adds much in most cases either.
 

Counterpoint: I also don't find rolling "in public" adds much in most cases either.

My experience in this is the opposite. I've had situations where a dice roll could determine whether a character lives or dies. Rolling the dice out in the open during those moments makes the moment so much more exciting for me and my players. Plus it is a constant reminder to them that I don't fudge and that my monsters really are out to kill them.

To me, rolling in the open is more exciting than rolling behind a screen, because the DM has no way to alter the outcome. The outcome of the dice could be devastating to the players, or glorious. However the dice may fall, the outcome stands and will not be altered.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This. Rolling in the open for dramatic moments has a massive emotional payoff for my players, since I normally hide my rolls. I often reveal it when a monster rolls a Natural 1 as well. Mostly so they can see the monster is having a bad day. :p
In a way I kinda have to reveal when a foe rolls a natural 1 (or natural 20) by rolling an extra confirm die to see if it fumbled (or critted). I'll almost always narrate it as a pathetic attempt anyway, as in "The tentacle attacks Gretta <rolls 1, no fumble> er...maybe. It might also have been swatting at a fly nearby; hard to say what that was supposed to be..."
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
In a way I kinda have to reveal when a foe rolls a natural 1 (or natural 20) by rolling an extra confirm die to see if it fumbled (or critted). I'll almost always narrate it as a pathetic attempt anyway, as in "The tentacle attacks Gretta <rolls 1, no fumble> er...maybe. It might also have been swatting at a fly nearby; hard to say what that was supposed to be..."

What are your confirm rolls like in 5e?
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
To me, rolling in the open is more exciting than rolling behind a screen, because the DM has no way to alter the outcome. The outcome of the dice could be devastating to the players, or glorious. However the dice may fall, the outcome stands and will not be altered.

Well... until you realize that virtually every die roll (except many variations on spell damage) includes modifiers that only the DM will know and can choose to add, omit, or modify on the fly.
 

Well... until you realize that virtually every die roll (except many variations on spell damage) includes modifiers that only the DM will know and can choose to add, omit, or modify on the fly.

In life or death situations, I tell my players what they need to roll to succeed. Plus there's no changing a 1 or a 20. If that powerful foe confirms his crit on one of the players with his smite attack, you know the players are in for a world of hurt (and it might spell the end of one of the pc's). And if that BBEG rolls miserably on his save, no bonus in the world is going to save him from a miserable defeat.

I remember a session where a druid-pc had to stop a ghost ship from ramming his ship with his love interest tied to the bow. He summoned a water elemental, but the ghost ship opened fire on the elemental, quickly reducing its hitpoints. I straight up told him that he had 1 more round before the ghost ship would collide with their ship. The water elemental was able to reach his love interest, but the cannons managed to reduce the water elemental's hp to exactly 1, which was just enough to save his love interest before the ghost ship smashed into them. Ever since that event, I let the dice fall where they may, because you never know what might happen. It is great when these things are out of the DM's hands.

Letting go of the outcome of dice may sound scary to some DM's. What if a campaign that has lasted for years, suddenly ends with a crit from a monster that outright kills a player-character? Not during some climactic boss battle, but during a simple encounter? It happens. And yes, that is always a shocking and sad moment, to lose a player character that has been around for so long. But it is also what makes playing D&D so exciting. I've seen this exact scenario happen, but you know what? The player in question was okay with it. He even appreciated the fact that the rest of the group was so upset about it; that they liked his character so much. They asked if they could redcon the session, but the player refused. My character is dead, he said, and to undo that would ruin the journey and the point of the game.
 
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Unwise

Adventurer
A trick that I use to keep things interesting and high-stakes for the players. I roll everything in the open, but I don't always say what I am rolling for. So if the enemy attack a PC who is not about to die, I roll in the open and will generally make it clear what I am rolling for. E.g. the werewolf lunges at you!

If the PC was about to die though, I might say "The werewolves howls at the moon, and stalks forward threateningly" then roll. If I roll low, the werewolf misses. If I roll a critical, that could be for the friendly hunter putting an arrow between its eyes. Or the intimidation roll of the werewolf, causing the entire party to make fear checks. Either way, it is fun because the players see the roll and assume it is all above board. If the friendly huntsman were to kill it with a crit, the PCs think they got super lucky on that roll, rather than it being a full blown deus ex machina.

As a little tip, I tend to say "the vampire reaches for you, or lunges for you, etc" rather than saying "he swings his sword at your head" that way, if I roll a crit, I can say "dammit, he should have stabbed you, that was just a grapple" of course now the PC is grappled, but at least I did not kill them on a random crit.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
In life or death situations, I tell my players what they need to roll to succeed.

Oddly enough, I don't fudge my players' dice either. I don't know exactly why it would be a relevant example.

Plus there's no changing a 1 or a 20. If that powerful foe confirms his crit on one of the players with his smite attack, you know the players are in for a world of hurt (and it might spell the end of one of the pc's). And if that BBEG rolls miserably on his save, no bonus in the world is going to save him from a miserable defeat.

Whereas if the dice have been giving my players a bad run or seem excessive to the pacing of the game, I'm quite content to knock a crit I land on them down to a regular hit. Or I've dropped a die off the finally tally, or the strength modifier. In a PF1 game, the halfling rogue tried to tumble past a triceratops skeleton. Seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do - but (in one of the biggest mistakes of the PF revision of 3.5 rules) tumbling past big things is really (pointlessly) effing hard in PF1 and she took an AoO - I rolled a threat, confirmed. The 4d10+30 was, quite frankly, a bit excessive so I chose not to double the strength bonus from the crit which shaved 15 points off the total. It had the appropriate effect of putting the fear of death into the character (as played by the player since she was now in single hit points) but didn't kill her.
I don't have to let the dice be their full arbitrary selves to have varied and interesting results.

I remember a session where a druid-pc had to stop a ghost ship from ramming his ship with his love interest tied to the bow. He summoned a water elemental, but the ghost ship opened fire on the elemental, quickly reducing its hitpoints. I straight up told him that he had 1 more round before the ghost ship would collide with their ship. The water elemental was able to reach his love interest, but the cannons managed to reduce the water elemental's hp to exactly 1, which was just enough to save his love interest before the ghost ship smashed into them. Ever since that event, I let the dice fall where they may, because you never know what might happen. It is great when these things are out of the DM's hands.

And if the dice had dictated that the water elemental die rather than eke through with 1 hit point and save the love interest? I doubt the outcome would have felt as great - maybe even a little bitter since the player's desperate (but actually pretty good) plan failed because of the fickle dice.
In a later session of the same campaign as the example above, the PCs had a chance to scry on one of their opponents. It failed - he made his save. So they hatched a plan to get some more personal info and items to undermine his ability to resist the spell. When the saving throw came up again, I ignored the roll and decided he failed. I didn't want the dice to ruin the really good plan the players put together. Rebuffing them so they try another approach is worthwhile - doing it again when they're being clever and careful just because a roll is involved? Not doing it.

Letting go of the outcome of dice may sound scary to some DM's. What if a campaign that has lasted for years, suddenly ends with a crit from a monster that outright kills a player-character? Not during some climactic boss battle, but during a simple encounter? It happens. And yes, that is always a shocking and sad moment, to lose a player character that has been around for so long. But it is also what makes playing D&D so exciting. I've seen this exact scenario happen, but you know what? The player in question was okay with it. He even appreciated the fact that the rest of the group was so upset about it; that they liked his character so much. They asked if they could redcon the session, but the player refused. My character is dead, he said, and to undo that would ruin the journey and the point of the game.

That player isn't everybody who plays. Not everybody is interested in that kind of game - hence save game on computers, magic capable of raising the dead, Hero/Force/Destiny points used to save a PC's bacon, etc. I actually suspect they're in the minority these days given the number of ways people have of ameliorating deadly outcomes even strictly rolling the dice.

But boy do the debates on the topic seem to devolve into claims that those of us who do edit the roll results are missing out on some level of fun or purity of the game or just playing on "easy mode".
 


But boy do the debates on the topic seem to devolve into claims that those of us who do edit the roll results are missing out on some level of fun or purity of the game or just playing on "easy mode".

I think you ARE missing out. Players eventually catch on to the DM's editing of the outcome of rolls, and steadily it can suck the suspense out of the game. By saving your players from miserable defeat, you are robbing them of a chance to save themselves.

Yes, if the dice had come up higher, that water elemental would have been dead. This makes the victory so much more earned. I as a DM did not know what the outcome would be and tried my best to kill that thing. There is so much more suspense when the threat is real.

In a later session of the same campaign as the example above, the PCs had a chance to scry on one of their opponents. It failed - he made his save. So they hatched a plan to get some more personal info and items to undermine his ability to resist the spell. When the saving throw came up again, I ignored the roll and decided he failed.

Am I understanding correctly that you did roll for his save, but ignored the outcome? Correct me if I'm wrong, and if so, ignore what I say below, but...

Then why bother rolling at all? You already decided that you wanted them to succeed, right? You could just call it a success without a roll.

When you decide that the outcome is in doubt, that is when you roll the dice. But the DM is the arbiter of whether the outcome IS in doubt. You can call a success or failure whenever you like.
 
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