Why You Should Use Sense Motive More
In my years playing Pathfinder, I have had numerous occasions to receive daggers, rapiers, death effects, and ambushes from scumbag, lying NPCs. What typically angers me more than the betrayal and deception themselves is that I never once rolled Sense Motive on anything they had said. Neither had anyone else. The humble pig farmer gave us a good-natured smile, introduced us to his wife and daughter, and gave us directions to the Old Ruins We’re Looking For. A simple DC 13 check would noticed his hungry eyes, the way he kept asking about our gear. Well, too late now.
As a GM, I am astonished at how many parties will play right into the hands of any +6 Bluff huckster simply because they never thought to roll a Wisdom skill. I’ve seen six seasoned players, Clerics and Monks among them, just blithely follow the ‘local priestess’ into a freaking CATACOMB without a die rolled to discern just why exactly she wants us down there.
So, here’s a guide to when you should use Sense Motive.
You should always use Sense Motive.
Summary of the Guide:
You don’t walk through the ornate gates without rolling Perception for traps, but you might occasionally get caught by a crossbow rigged to the unassuming cellar door. Likewise, Sense Motive is virtually always rolled when speaking to a spymaster, a shady guy in an alley, or with Dragons and Fey. The ones that get you are the people who seem like they’re supposed to be there. I’ve been betrayed by Venture Captains. I’ve seen starving “gnomes” handed biscuits, who then ate the hand. I’ve had Knights in Shining Armor deliver touch death effects, because guess what its a hag.
The point is, always ALWAYS roll Sense Motive.
If you have a Wisdom of 7 and no ranks in Sense Motive, of course, you should STILL ROLL SENSE MOTIVE. You probably won’t detect anything amiss, but the Cleric and Monk will hear you and realize maybe they should toss a d20 at the conversation as well.
In addition to opposing the Bluff skill, Sense Motive has a few additional usages.
From the PRD:
Hunch (DC 20): This use of the skill involves making a gut assessment of the social situation. You can get the feeling from another’s behavior that something is wrong, such as when you’re talking to an impostor. Alternatively, you can get the feeling that someone is trustworthy.
Sense Enchantment (DC 25 or 15): You can tell that someone’s behavior is being influenced by an enchantment effect even if that person isn’t aware of it. The usual DC is 25, but if the target is dominated (see dominate person), the DC is only 15 because of the limited range of the target’s activities.
Discern Secret Message: You may use Sense Motive to detect that a hidden message is being transmitted via the Bluff skill. In this case, your Sense Motive check is opposed by the Bluff check of the character transmitting the message. For each piece of information relating to the message that you are missing, you take a –2 penalty on your Sense Motive check. If you succeed by 4 or less, you know that something hidden is being communicated, but you can’t learn anything specific about its content. If you beat the DC by 5 or more, you intercept and understand the message. If you fail by 4 or less, you don’t detect any hidden communication. If you fail by 5 or more, you might infer false information.
Hunch: A little used, but quite useful feature of the skill. Say I roll a 23 Sense Motive against a gardener who I think might be a murderer. I’m totally wrong. He’s just a gardener. The GM can flat-out tell me the guy is honest as the day is long, and definitively not lying through the hunch portion of Sense Motive. Now I’m not wasting time badgering a liveried servant while the BBEG rides away in his horse and carriage.
Sense Enchantment: Sometimes the guy leading you into a trap just can’t help themselves. That’s because they’re under a compulsion, and if the party were aware of that, they could cure, question, and recruit the unwitting accomplice before things get out of hand. A flat DC means that no matter how powerful the spellcaster, a mid-level party will most often pick up what’s going on if they invested wisely in Wis.
Discern Secret Message: Okay, this one I’ve legitimately never used as a player. Usually the party is trying to communicate ‘over an NPC’s head’, and as GM I roll to see if they know what’s going on.
To sum, you never know when you’re being lied to. Roll Sense Motive during every single social interaction. 95% of the time you’ll find nothing amiss. The other 5% saves lives.
Sense Motive can be a tricky mistress when GMing Pathfinder. It’s obvious when you should use it, but its less obvious what information to give under what circumstances when PCs are rolling SM against you. Sense Motive challenges you to disseminate appropriate information, without encouraging meta-gaming or giving more information than you should. I’ll give an example to demonstrate how I treat PC rolls for this all important social skill.
Let’s say I am running a bandit pretending to be a local hunstman who will guide them past a few trolls, when he really wants to lead the party towards his buddies at their encampment. He rolls a 21 Bluff, and the Cleric rolls a 19 Sense Motive against him. I’ll say something either misleading or generic. “He seems eager to help you,” or, “Seems legit.”
The fighter now rolls, and gets a Natural 20. However, he only has 14 Wisdom and no ranks, so he barely makes the DC with a 22. I would describe the bandit keeping his hand on the pommel of his sword, defensive posture, and that he paused before saying ‘trolls’ the way people do when they’re trying to think of a reasonable sounding excuse. This gives all the lines the party needs to read between to see the guy is bluffing, but doesn’t really tell them his whole story.
The Monk rolls to see if he can get anything more. He rolls a 33, utterly blowing our DC out of the water. “He has the mannerisms of a former soldier. He’s eyeing all of your valuables a bit too intently, and seems to appraise all of you as potential threats with his gaze. From his expressions, he seems cowed by all of you, but is probably thinking that he could take you with some help from friends. The troll story is an outright fabrication, an excuse to get you to follow him.”
There are some generic phrases that I stay away from. The biggest is, “You think he’s hiding something.” That doesn’t really give the players much to go on, RP-wise. What can they really say to that? “What are you hiding from us?” Yeah, like they’re going to answer that question honestly. I think it’s better to describe things one might notice about their facial expressions or body language to hint at where PCs should take the conversation, rather than just a binary, “You know they lied,” or “You don’t believe they are lying.” That said, sometimes being blunt can save precious table time.
It is also a bit vague how often a PC can roll Sense Motive in a conversation. If Bluff vs. Sense Motive is rolled after every sentence in a conversation, the PCs figuring out they’re being lied to is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Eventually, you’ll see a party member roll an 18+ when your NPC rolls a 3 or so, and then the jig is up. So, one should limit how many times the PCs can roll. My personal preference is to allow them to roll whenever the subject changes. If they don’t detect a lie on a given topic, they can’t just keep talking about it until the NPC slips up. Their failed roll indicates that they trust the NPC on that matter. However, if an NPC is telling a number of different lies, they might get some of them and decide its best not to take anything that NPC says as actionable intelligence. I wouldn’t consider that meta-gaming, its really meta-cognition. If I’ve caught someone telling me three lies, I wouldn’t believe the lies I didn’t catch. I’d just distrust that person entirely.
I’m gonna keep this article short, as my next one will be one of my useful, but ultimately dry mathematical analyses. This pretty much covers my thoughts on the most under-utilized skill in the game. Don’t be fooled, roll Sense Motive!