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How Much Do You Tell Your Players? Part Three: Motivations of NPCs and PCs

Over the past two weeks, I've discussed some approaches to sharing information with your players. Today, we're going to finish this series with one final example:

Scenario 3: The Motivations of Another Character (Especially a Player Character)

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Insight skill serves one major function: Sense Motive. If you think a character is lying, a simple Insight check can confirm or dispel those suspicions. (I know there's been some rumblings that this isn't how the skill is supposed to work, but since this is how it is used most often, this is the definition we're going to use for our purposes today.)

Most games have a similar skill ("vigilance" in Edge of the Empire)... but there's also a limit to what they can tell you. It doesn't happen often in my groups, but occasionally a party member might ask "What's the deal with this NPC?" Maybe they go so far as to ask the NPC's alignment or motivations. In those cases, I always just say, "You don't know," throw on my coyest smile, and then I drop the subject.

However, sometimes your party members might suspect each other of lying. (Hopefully this is happening in-game, otherwise your group is working through larger issues.) In my Tyranny of Dragons game especially, my party was thrown together by circumstance, and there is still a lot of mistrust between the players; which I love. But, occasionally, that does mean party members keep secrets from each other. So how do you handle two player characters who mistrust each other?

My solution: Roll dice sparingly against other party members; when necessary, roll for the players.

I talked about this last week, but in my opinion the dice serve one purpose in the game: to resolve your interactions with the world around you. Early in my first Tyranny of Dragons game, when we were still getting used to 5th Edition, party members would use Persuasion checks to resolve conflicts between group members, and we all hated it; it's extremely unsatisfying to have an argument in character, and then be told, "Okay, the ranger rolled higher than you, so you agree with her now."

So, I have a flat rule: no persuasion checks against other players. (Exceptions could be made in special circumstances, like the use of the spell "friends" or "charm person" - but that actually leads to my next point.)

As for Deception checks and Insight checks inside the group, I prefer they not be too frequent, so because when they do happen, they are treated as meaningful. A party rolling Deception checks within itself should be a big deal, because it means the characters don't trust each other. And that can be really interesting, as long as it's not happening all the time. Sure, I love the moment in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol where all the heroes start pointing guns at each other because they clearly can't trust each other anymore... but that only works because it's been building through the movie, but only just now coming to a head.

As for Insight checks, here's a neat trick: roll for your players. Like so many aspects of my DM toolbox, I picked this one up from Critical Role, specifically a scene where an argument between two characters escalated dramatically. One of the other party members tried to interfere, and rolled an Insight check to see who might be lying. So the DM, Matthew Mercer, rolled for the other players.

I immediately deployed that technique in that Tyranny of Dragons game, when it became clear our assassin was not who she said she was. I asked the player what the assassin's bonuses were to Deception and Persuasion, and then rolled behind my DM screen.

Again, it's not something I would like to make a habit of, but I like this approach when necessary because:

A) The players are still using their dice to resolve interactions with the world - in this case, the DM is taking on that burden, and acting as the challenge rating for their check.

B) It helps keep the players from metagaming. If the assassin rolled a 7, then clearly added +4, any other player can lean over and see if she added her Deception check or her Persuasion check. Further, if the assassin rolled a very high number (higher than the Insight check), then the other players could just say, "Okay, well, the ranger didn't make the check, clearly, because we know the assassin rolled higher. Can I roll now?" Because they know whether or not the roll succeeded. If the DM rolls, then they don't know what skill I'm using or what I rolled, which means they have to trust the information I give them... whether or not they know if they have successfully discerned the truth.

C) I think I might hate players rolling vs. players. Stealth vs. perception is fine, or athletics vs. athletics if they are in some sort of brawl; that's all fine. But insight vs. deception (or persuasion) has started to become a pet peeve of mine (unless, like so many things, there is a good reason to make an exception).

These are just my tricks to a few questions that come up from time to time; what techniques do you use? And what are some other situations where you struggle with giving the players enough information vs. too much information? Let me know in the comments below!

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