When your character attempts to stick their spear in a yeti (Attack Roll), track a unicorn in a forest (Survival check) or swing across a pit of molten lava on a fraying rope (Athletics / Acrobatics check) they generally know if they have succeeded or failed. However there are some scenarios, particularly those involving the skill Insight (p.178 of the Player’s Handbook), where the character has no way of knowing if they have succeeded or not. A character who has failed to swing across a pit of molten lava knows by the mild burning sensation on their skin that they have fallen short, but a character who has failed an Insight test could easily come away thinking they have succeeded… “undoubtedly this pale man with sharp carnivores and no shadow can be trusted wholeheartedly,” they might conclude, having been hoodwinked by the vampire’s charm. However if the 1 they rolled is staring them in the face, then it’s impossible for the player roleplaying the character not to realise that in fact the NPC is completely untrustworthy and that their PC is (temporarily at least) a gullible fool.
That’s why, for me, Insight checks should always be rolled by the Dungeon Master, not the player, behind the screen. After all a PC’s intuition might tell them that an NPC is completely trustworthy, or a pathological liar, but the PC’s intuition might be completely wrong. In gaming terms it’s important that they don’t know when to trust their character’s intuition or not… otherwise every insight roll reveals the truth every time. If the character rolls well, then they can be pretty certain to trust whether the NPC is lying or not. The character rolls badly, then the player knows not to trust his own character’s judgement. The more PCs rolling visibly on the table, the more certain the party can be of guessing what’s going on.
One of the highlights of any Dungeons & Dragons’ session should be the NPC interactions, and the party making decisions about who to trust and who to keep on the suspect list. Whilst an Insight check can set up a fun contest between two parties (one rolling Deception, the other Insight) it also removes the suspense from a tight situation the moment a PC tosses a high dice onto the table – which is why some DMs don’t allow Insight checks at all, rather the players behind the PCs must use make a call themselves based on the interaction. However there’s no need to go that far. Simply by putting the Insight check behind the screen, where it belongs, the tension returns to the game. Sure, three of the party might trust Count Bitealot, but two don’t – so what is their course of the action?
Try it and see the difference!
If you liked this, and enjoy challenging your players try my new healing rules. No more powering up back to full HP after a sixty minute sit down.
The Megatraveller incarnation of the Traveller sci-fi board game had a great mechanic for ‘uncertain’ tasks (where you might not really know if you were succeeding):
DM rolls a check behind the screen.
Player rolls a check.
If both succeed, total success.
If both fail, critical failure.
If one succeeds, but the other not, partial success.
The player also (except for crit fails and sometimes crit successes) only ever knew half of the dice results. This meant that he/she, if the player roll was low, knew that the results could be critical fail, or partial success, but not which it would be. Also if he/she rolled high, they could guess that the results would be total success or partial success, but they won’t know which.
That sort of uncertainty and ambiguity and the inclusion of partial success made for very nuanced outcomes.
Players like to roll dice and they like to see the results for sure, so this method is great for that. It does bring problems to D&D though… there is no partial success in D&D, just success and failure, so for this method to work you would have to average the PCs own roll and the DM’s roll on their behalf to get the final result, which could work, but is pretty slow and clumsy.
My latest solution to this problem will be to ask PCs to roll a dice down a tube, to where only I, as the DM, can see it. So they have the agency of the dice roll, but they can’t see the result. It’s only a subtle difference between that and a DM rolling on their behalf, yet I feel that players will like this much better than having their fate decided by someone else rolling for them.
I’m currently a player but will be running Dragon Heist as a DM in a few weeks so looking forward to that, and will be wheeling out my Blue-Peter-style cardboard tube of doom!
Cool concept, but how does that work with proficiency and expertise in Insight (speaking as a Rogue here)? Is the DM rolling against a PC’s passive insight?