On Reader Mail, The Comprehensive Search Bypassing Play

'J' writes in again with another question.

"One of my players wants to bypass the game-play by saying 'I search everything'. I've responded in the past by asking them to be more specific, but this isn't working well."

This sounds like a source of irritation to both the Dungeon Master, who doesn't want his work bypassed, and to the player who doesn't want to jump through hoops. This interaction can end up being very confrontational.

The solution is non-obvious. I never approach an interaction in a game by asking a player to do more. I maintain agency with this the same way I would with any action the player takes. I would describe the consequences of their choice and ask what they wish to do.

"I search everything."
"Ok, it will take you nine turns individually, or three turns as a group to thoroughly search "everything else". This will result in either three wandering monster checks if you search alone or one wandering monster check with a higher chance of a monster appearing due to the activity and noise if you search as a group. You may instead choose to specify what areas you are searching specifically to avoid having to do such an exhaustive search. What do you wish to do?
The consequences of actions are known, and the players can make an informed choice maintaining agency and receiving the expected result from their actions. As a byproduct, consequences for bypassing the Dungeon Master's carefully crafted rooms are maintained as well as the player not feeling as if they are having to jump through hoops.

'J' Replies:
"Using your example with the random encounters, if the player does say yes to the random encounters, do you just roll and then they discover the loose flagstone behind the throne even though they did not mention the throne at all, let alone behind the throne? 
"That bugs me for some reason. I feel your method would speed play, but at the cost of actual discovery. I feel it would be more rewarding for a player to discover the loose flagstone if they thought to look behind the throne."
The rules of the game indicate that there are two levels of hidden. "Concealed" and "Secret," so the answer to the question depends on what the hidden area is.

If it's concealed, then any verbal description of saying they are going to look at the area will discover it, as will any 'through search of the room' trading time for risk. If it's secret, then searching the area gives the 1 in 6 (or 2 in 6 for elves, or 3 in 6 for Dwarves (sliding stone) given in your example) chance to discover.

It is more rewarding for them to search for it themselves. The risk of having an encounter should be a fairly severe threat, so if they want to search every room they will not make it far.

I think also, that this particular mechanic is vastly improved if you note that the detection of a room trap or a secret door does not in any way grant information on how to disarm the trap or open the door.

Originally published 3/19/13


  1. Factoring in time appropriately solves most of the issues with exploration play. Almost all the commonly cited pathologies of old school D&D are, in my opinion, a result of insufficient attention paid to the cost of time passing (probing everything with a ten foot pole, the five minute workday, searching for traps continually, etc).

    1. I would concur with this. Even games as modern as Pathfinder refer to the amount of time a task takes, and until recently I didn't really give any weight to that.

      Time tracking is one of the most important elements of tabletop game play, and thus far I've not found a sourcebook which adequately explains how it ought to be handled.

  2. Embrace this players philosophy by finding other ways to streamline play like having all the scenario's monsters attack at one time to avoid tedious waiting, or even better just have the treasure all nicely packed and set out at entrance of the dungeon. perhaps you can just email his experience points to him to save travel time.

  3. If there is anything that Tolkien taught us RPGers, it is that secret doors can be a bitch.

    Yes, time does solve or at least most of these problems manageable. Throw an eldritch horror from the lake at them if they can't figure out a clue this simple! "Speak friend and enter" in Dwarvish indeed!

    As for the Concealed door, the room has to have furnishings for one to be possible. However, searching for those runs the risks of triggering trap or disturbing that pet snake kept around for such purposes. Additionally, as with traps, finding it may not necessarily allow one to open it.

    As for the intricately hidden Secret door, the danger involved should not only be the random encounter clock (which should be sped up due to the noise of shuffling and thumping searching entails), but the aforementioned traps, and finally not having the key to open it. Not all Secret doors should have these three levels of interaction (finding, traps, opening), but a mix based on the environment. The ettin door will be crawling with spiders and hard to find under webs blended into rock, but opens with a push, while the location of the ancient gnome spring door on the map is known, what defenses it has and keys it requires are not...

    As a final note, these three layers of secrecy will also dictate what you tell the players. You can let them search wherever they want regardless if doors are present or not, and just because they searched and found one doesn't oblige you to tell them about traps or how to open it.

  4. It's interesting to see people work through the same issues over and over. This particular exchange happened before I joined the OSR, so this precedes my exploration of the same issue.


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