How do you handle “failure” in Dungeons and Dragons? What about when a player doesn’t succeed on knowledge checks of various sorts? I wrote before about avoiding boring failures by using techniques like “success at a cost” and “degrees”. But let’s talk a bit about what happens specifically when players roll to find out information. This includes Perception, History, or Insight checks in D&D 5e, as well as things like Spout Lore in Dungeon World.
The first level (naive) response is something like “you don’t know,” or “it’s hard to tell.” They can’t determine whether the door is trapped, or they have no idea of the significance of a statue, or they are unable to get a read on the NPC’s intentions. The check just yields no information and thus nothing in the state of the game changes, except perhaps (depending on circumstances) they lose a few seconds of in-game time. This is not incorrect, at least in 5e, but it’s boring.
The second level response is an explicitly negative but false response. “You find no traps” or “you believe the thief is telling the truth”. This is better, at least in 5e, because it gives the player something solid to work from. The character has information! But the player knows – or believes they know – that the information is incorrect, and so they proceed forward. In most cases, this happens without metagaming, but even the most dedicated roleplayer will have that idea tickling in the back of their brain.
If you really want to throw your players for a loop, tell them the correct information. The player now has a serious conundrum if they do any amount whatsoever of metagaming here at all. They rolled a 2 on their Insight check against a mendacious mage? Great. “You can tell that the wizard is definitely lying about it!” “Wait, since I failed, does that mean they’re actually telling the truth?” Enigmatic smile. Stopped clocks and all that.
Optionally, because of the failure, just make the situation worse. “Yes, you remember the queen who is immortalized in this statue… and you remember that she had issued a curse against anyone who entered her tomb!” At this point, the “extra” information could potentially be false, although I think it’s more interesting if it’s true. (In Dungeon World, it should be, actually, because the point of missing on a roll is a complication.)
I wouldn’t use this extra technique every single time, of course. At that point, you’re becoming predictable. Instead, think of this as a tool you have available when you feel it will make the situation more interesting. Going back to the cliche again, the stopped clock is only right twice a day, after all.