[RPG] How to let the players fail their rolls intentionally, but covertly


I'm experimenting with some pen-and-paper role-playing involving characters with hidden agendas. To foster a proper sense of paranoia, I want these hidden agendas to be unknown to not only the other PCs, but the other players, too. A PC's hidden agenda is known only to the GM and their player.

One of ways the secret agenda can manifest in the game is through the PCs intentionally failing tasks that would contradict their hidden agenda. For example, an undercover agent in a terrorist organization could try to aim their shots wide of the intended target, pretending to just have a bad day with their aim. Mistakes happen!

I want a rolling system that allows my players to intentionally make "unfortunate" mistakes without automatically implicating them of such treachery to the others. Here's a list of criteria I'd like the system to fulfill:

  • As little overhead over normal rolling as possible: no pen and paper public key crypto!
  • The system must keep intentional failures indistinguishable from unintentional ones, at least between the non-GM players. Relying on suspicious gestures like note-passing or secret signals should preferably be avoided.
  • In particular, there mustn't be a way for a player to prove that their roll was honest, lest the players decide to require such proof from everyone after each roll.
  • Preferably, the system makes it possible for a player to cheat downwards only – failure can be arranged, but success still requires luck with the dice!
  • Preferably the players roll their own dice – it's not a huge deal, but getting to roll has a certain feel to it!

Does anyone have a system they have used or seen used that works given these criteria?

Note: Methods using cards and other randomization devices are also acceptable in lieu of dice, as long as the method proposed meets the standards outlined above.

Best Answer

Secret Rolls

You could simply ask that the players roll all of their checks in secret, then tell the other players the result. The success of a lie depends on the player's bluffing skills. You can choose between announcing the difficulty of any roll (if your system has such a concept), allowing players to be sure that such-and-such a result will fail, and by how much. Alternatively, you could ask the player to announce their result without revealing the difficulty, forcing them to make an educated guess if they want to fail.

To make the rolls secret, players might:

  • Roll behind their hand, a piece of paper, or a 'player screen';
  • Roll in an opaque box, or rolling cup (such as those that come with perudo, and other dice games);
  • Use a dice-rolling app on their phone without showing other players the screen.

I did this for death saving throws in my last D&D 5e campaign. This allowed players who wanted to save their characters to lie when they failed. This could easily work the other way round. You would just need to have your players' word of honour that they wouldn't try to pass failures off as successes.

Policing Rolls

If players are rolling into a pot, you could ask that a player who has just rolled in the pot should pass the pot to you to check, before shaking the pot to obscure the result from the other players. The success of this depends on:

  • The number of players (more players makes passing the cup to you in secret more difficult for those further away);
  • The number of rolls (more rolls makes this a more tedious, and time consuming exercise);
  • Number of dice used per roll (more five in the cup are more likely to knock against each other);
  • Number of faces on dice used (more faces makes the die more likely to roll around during 'transit').

Essentially, in a game with frequent rolls (particularly d20 rolls, as in D&D, or rolls of many dice, as in Edge of the Empire), or many players, the system is likely to be tedious, and difficult. In a game with infrequent rolls of dice with fewer faces, and fewer players, the system could work effectively.

If players are using a dice-rolling app, the success of the system depends on the number of players, the number of rolls, and the players' willingness to hand their phone to you frequently.

If players are rolling behind something, you have to be willing to get up and come round to them for every roll. That would be very tedious in a game with frequent rolls.

Regardless, I still do not recommend the checking system, as I have found that it is always better to trust one's players. For example, as far as I can tell, no-one has yet cheated my death saving throw system, despite the possibility being there, probably because of the guilt involved in doing so.

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