Is it found? How to handle a search

Speed through the obvious by summarizing simple search efforts

Game masters often speed past the uninteresting parts of the game—the parts with few decisions or obvious decisions—with a simple summary of activity. Most game masters will use a summary to skip past a search of a place containing nothing of interest, but the technique also works during the players’ first examination of a cluttered laboratory or dusty crypt.

When you conduct the routine parts of a search, summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This summary from the game master brings two advantages:

  • You, as the game master, and the characters in the game world have a clearer picture of the location than the players.
  • You can summarize the results of the most simple, obvious search efforts without slowing play with back-and-forth discussion as the players describe their actions.

In your summary, mention the obvious items in the location and any simple steps required to search around and inside them. You might also mention things the characters don’t do, either because the actions could be risky or time consuming. For example, “As you look, you leave the books on the shelves and the furniture in place.”

Parable of the Hidden Treasure by Rembrandt

Hidden Treasure

Avoid giving the results of this summary, in case the players wish to change some the actions that you outline. For example, “No, none of us go near the dark altar.”

This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.

Once you finish a summary of an initial search, the players can agree to proceed, you can share the outcome, and then the players can describe anything they want to do to take a closer look.

This method only works if you limit your description of the party’s search to obvious efforts. Do not make the players feel usurped by the game master. If the players enter the Garden of a Thousand Stings, where any misstep brings painful death, have them spell out every action. If the players enter Acererak’s throne room, and they prefer to describe every nuance of their search, they can—they should.

Search procedure

When the players ask to search a location, and they have limited time to search, use the following method:

  1. Ask if the characters will touch, move or open things as they search. If traps seem plausible, ask how the characters divide the responsibilities of opening and moving. If the room appears on a battlemap, you can ask the players to place their figures in the region they intend to search. During this step, you establish which characters could possibly trigger any traps or hazards that may exist.
  2. Summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.
  3. If the players have no objections, then tell the result of their initial search. The characters might find the keys on the bodies, coins in the sofa, and the monsters under the bed. They will find anything in plain view. If they open and move objects, they will also find anything not carefully hidden.If you feel uncertain whether something hidden would be noticed in this first, quick search, call for a search check from the entire group, but only consider the result from the character searching the area with the hidden object. Many things in the location may still need a closer look or more actions to find.
  4. If the players think some features deserve more thorough investigation, let them describe closer checks. For example, “I want to check that empty chest for hidden catches or compartments.”“I wonder what’s behind the bookcase. Is it built into the wall?”
“In most cases, you need to tell the DM where you are looking in order for him or her to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Intelligence (Search) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” – Dungeons &Dragons Next playtest

In step 4, the characters’ specific search actions may call for search checks, or they may yield discoveries without a roll. As the characters’ search actions grow more specific, they may make some or all search rolls irrelevant. If the ceiling contains a hidden trap door and someone starts rapping the ceiling with a 10′ pole, just tell about the hollow-sounding spot that reveals the door.

Searching and tedium

This search procedure typically applies when the characters face some time constraints, when they must decide whether to keep searching, or whether to press on before, say, a patrol comes or the dark ritual begins.

When characters can search without time pressure or risk, but you, as the game master, make the players either roll or narrate their search process, you can introduce frustration. The players know if they waste enough real-world time rolling checks or describing how their characters probe, sift, and break down every object, they will eventually find everything that can be found. The search’s success hinges on the players’ patience for drudgery.

In the classic dungeon expedition, the threat of wandering monsters discouraged this sort of grind. In original Dungeons & Dragons, searching a 10 foot section of wall for a secret door required a 10-minute turn. Each turn, the referee checked for wandering monsters, and the players faced a 1 in 6 chance of attack. Players focused their searches on the most promising features, and then moved ahead. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play” for more.

Third edition acknowledged the tension between tedious play and exhaustive searches by introducing the option to take 20. Taking 20 allows players to find everything the characters could possibly find, without testing anyone’s patience.

Searching without game-world time limits

Fourth edition and D&D Next both dropped the rule for taking 20, while old-school games include no rules for checks at all. However, the players don’t need to say, “We take 20,” for you to cut past tedium.

Anytime players can search without time pressure, they will find everything that can be found.

If players search without time constraints, and they’re determined to finding whatever can be found, let them find it. Skip the rolls and skip the rote recitals of how and where they look. Just tell the players everything they’re capable of finding.

Although this guideline lets you provide a search’s outcome in seconds, the guideline applies when the players wish to invest what could be hours of game-world time in an exhaustive search. If the players show no particular interest in a thorough investigation, then just summarize the outcome of a simple search and let them follow up as they choose.

In unusual cases, the characters may not be capable of finding everything. For example, a perfectly concealed door may require a search DC higher than 20 plus the search skill of the party’s best searcher.

Time and search

Most versions of Dungeons & Dragons tend to leave the time demanded by a search to the discretion of the dungeon master. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons offers the best guidelines: “mapping, and casually examining a 20’×20’ area” requires a 10-minute turn, and then thoroughly searching the 20’×20’ area after the initial examination requires another 10 minutes. Actual time varies depending on the amount of stuff in the area. Characters must spend much more time to finish an exhaustive search that finds everything that can be found, and rules out any possibility of missing something.

Newer versions of the game calculate search times with an interest in making searching feasible during combat. Third edition lets you search a 5’×5’ area as a full-round action. Pathfinder lets you search it as a move action. I can’t even find my keys in a 5×5 inch basket that fast. These times only seem applicable to a relatively empty battlefield square, and not a wizard’s junk drawer.

“Time spent searching for anything (secret passages, hidden treasure, etc.), loading treasure, listening, ESPing, hiding, will be adjudged by the referee as to what portion of a turn will be used by the activity.” –Dungeons & Dragons Underworld and Wilderness Adventures p.8

In play, when time matters, keep a rough accounting of the time characters invest in a search, and share the totals with the players. You may need to keep them appraised of the risks of spending more time.

How to run listen.

This one is easy. Everyone forms a line and takes turns putting an ear to the door, and then rolling. Meanwhile, the dungeon master rolls to see who is listening when something awful comes through the door. For instance, Beholders can drift soundlessly and open doors with telekinesis.

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One Response to Is it found? How to handle a search

  1. Groumy says:

    I really like the idea of let’s say a Initial Search resulting in a description of the location, and founding things that are easy to find. Then it can be followed by many rounds of Dedicated Search to find the other things.

    I really think that’s another case for the that D&D Next kind of suggest.

    So concealed items DC could go like that for the Initial Search :

    In your face (Trivial [DC5]) – The Elephant in the room
    Items not Hidden (Easy [DC 10]) – Sometimes, hidden in plain sight is hard to see
    Out of sight (Moderate [DC 15]) – Put in logical place (a key in a pocket or drawer) but out of sight
    Hidden (Hard [DC 20]) – Was meant to be hard to find, hidden chest, concealed door
    Expertly concealed (Very Hard [DC 25]) – Draven Secret Door
    etc

    Then in the Dedicated Search rounds, you drop the difficulty by one, for each round dedicated to the area where the item is hidden (including the first) by the same player.

    That way you can emulate the, when you have all your time you found every thing, player’s still can found thing really quickly with lucky roll. If player are aware of that approach they won’t become impatient, and will be confident that there was nothing there event if they search the same spot 5 time in a row with only a 10 on the dice.

    In addition, it goes well in hand with the impending doom of Random Encounters.

    Additionally, if the player specifically describe an action that would help to finding a specific hidden item, the DC could be lowered again.

    And one last thing, in the Initial Search, a character with a high Wisdom (Perception) could use is Perception, to get hints on “out of place” element, suggesting that more investigation could be useful.

    In my last session, I did something similar without realizing it. The party got to a burned farm and then the high perception guy, felt watched. The started to search the surrounding woods but could spot the culprit first hand. By spending more and more time looking at the woods, I mentally lowered the DC of the hidden bad guy, as they pick up movement, noises and the like that help them narrow the possible location where he would be hidden. The finally make it get out of hiding, when they felt confident enough of it’s location and start throw thing at him.

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