Friday, May 10, 2019

Thoughts on searching

One of the rules which almost always tempted me to fudge dice rolls was the roll for finding secret doors.

Moldvay states: The DM should only check for finding a secret door if a player says that the character is searching for one and is searching for one in the correct area. (emphasis in original)

What's wrong with that? Choosing when and where to search for secret doors is something of a skill and an art. Searching every ten-foot section of wall in the dungeon is wildly impractical at best; players must be discerning in deciding where and when to search. I don't know about you, but it's always a huge disappointment to me when my players, through some turn of cleverness or deductive reasoning, suspect a secret door, and search the very spot, and the dice dictate they remain oblivious. And if you roll only when there's a secret door there in the first place, you immediately provide the player with that knowledge, while the character is forbidden to act upon it. Although each character is explicitly stated to have only one chance to find a given secret door, the dice roll is practically an invitation for everyone in the party to try until someone succeeds or everyone has failed, which could become a rather tedious exercise.

This is an instance in which I think player skill should absolutely trump random chance, and if player skill is to be rewarded, then there is no point at all to rolling. Instead, if you pick the right spot and spend a turn scrutinizing it, and you'll find whatever's there to be found. That doesn't necessarily mean that you must announce, "You find a secret door!" There just has to be something for the players and characters to interact with, whether it's some feature of the door itself or the hidden trigger that opens it. "You find a seam in the wall," or "One block is of a slightly different shade than the rest of the wall" will do nicely to prompt further investigation or action.

The same principle serves well for most dungeon searches, not just secret doors. (Searching for something in the wilderness or other large area is a whole other can of worms.) Though perception checks and the like aren't a formal part of classic D&D, I know many DMs use them for all manner of searches and observations, and I think that's also a mistake, and an unnecessary complication to boot.

According to Moldvay Basic, searching a 10'x10' area takes one character one turn (under TIME, page B19,) a rule of thumb that works equally well whether the area in question is vertical or horizontal. (For a secret door search, the wall should NOT be considered part of the adjacent 10'x10' section of floor, and vice versa!) Presumably, since no dice mechanics are given, under most circumstances the task should succeed automatically, and the character finds whatever is there to be found. No silly perception checks or search rolls needed; you just automatically reward the player's action with information. As above, it's often more interesting to name interesting features the character may further interact with rather than immediately drill down to the bedrock. A small wooden box may be found without immediately disclosing its contents, for instance, or a rack of many stoppered glass bottles may be noted without listing what's in each one. The further investigation implied may or may not take another turn beyond the initial search (if the player chooses to pursue it, of course.)

Of course, it is just a rule of thumb, and may be tweaked when necessary, though this should be the exception and not the rule. For instance, if the party discovers a very cluttered 20'x20' storeroom, you might decide it takes a character two turns to complete a reasonably thorough search of each 10'x10' area. The party might decide to assign two characters to a particular 10'-square area, and thus complete the search in a single turn. (I personally wouldn't allow extra manpower to ever reduce search time below one turn, for ease of timekeeping, and because of the "too many cooks in the kitchen" principle.)

Is a dice roll ever appropriate? In fact, I'd argue that sometimes it is. Sometimes the players may wish to conduct a very hasty search, and the chance of success could be reduced proportionately with the time spent. If they want to spend only a turn rifling through a 200-square foot room, perhaps they'll have a 50% chance to find an important feature or item. Again, for the sake of timekeeping, I wouldn't allow even a hasty search to take less than one turn; the party could just search a larger area in the same amount of time. It would be simple enough to add a modest bonus for high Intelligence or Wisdom (logical or intuitive sense for where items might be hidden) or for characters like thieves, making them a little more effective at hurried ransacking.

No comments :

Post a Comment