Here’s how I do it: only roll when you’re testing the character’s skill, not the player’s; roll when the player says they’re searching; only roll once per character; give the players the benefits of their own skill at coming up with ideas without rolling; and no pixel-bitching.
- The Judge describes the scene to the player, including anything the character would automatically notice, whether it’s because it’s completely obvious or because it falls within the range of the character’s “Passive Perception” threshold (for games that use it, e.g. an Elf’s 2 in 6 ability to spot any hidden door they pass in OD&D was the very first passive perception check).“It’s an empty 20 by 20 room, with a chest in the middle of the floor. There are no obvious exits (because either there are none or the Judge secretly checked the passive perception and the character failed)”.
- The player announces the character is searching, and optionally specific things to look for or methods of searching being tried.“I search the chest for traps, paying particular attention to whether there’s any kind of tripwire or pressure plate.”
- If the player has said she’s looking for something that’s there, just give it to her, no roll. In addition roll as appropriate to see if the character’s knowledge and skill is enough to reveal any secrets.“There’s no tripwire or pressure plate, but you do notice there are some tiny holes in the floor right in front of the chest (rolled a success on the character’s ability to spot traps; if the trap was triggered by a tripwire or pressure plate the roll would have been irrelevant, but is included in case there were other things to notice that weren’t specifically mentioned).”
Why make the players announce it?
Searching beyond what’s apparent during a passive perception check involves actively moving about, touching things, looking closely at them, etc. The search roll covers everything generic the character has learned to do: the standard operating procedure as it were. But searching is likely to set off traps, depending on how they’re triggered, so it’s up to the player to announce whether they’re going to take that chance or they want to limit their activities to certain specific things until they decide it’s safe for a general search. As long as they’re not yet turning things over to the character’s training and experience to carry out, they don’t get the character’s skill roll to discover things.
Note that if they want to use the character’s skill to detect whether there are traps, they can go ahead and do that, but that itself requires an announcement, for the same reason: the activities necessary to look for traps might have consequences such as getting surprised by the spiders on the ceiling (assuming they failed their passive perception/surprise roll), and it’s not fair to spring that on the players unless they’ve made a choice.
What if the player wants to search again?
Originally this was handled by allowing re-rolls as long as the players were willing to spend the extra time, one ten-minute turn for every 10′ searched. While that’s legitimately old-school, it has the drawback that if there’s no time-pressure (e.g. there are no wandering monsters in the area or they’re not racing against a deadline) then the players are guaranteed to be able to find every secret they come across eventually, but it’s boring as all get-out to play it out. In actual play much of the time the resource being tested is the player’s patience. If you hand-wave it and just let them spend as long as it takes (maybe rolling to see how long that is), while you don’t waste as much table time you get this big and to my mind boring disconnect with the game world: “seven hours later you’ve finished searching the first room and found ten copper pieces that had fallen in the back of the garderobe”. Plus as anybody who has looked for something they’ve lost knows, even searching ’til you’re exhausted won’t necessarily uncover all the secrets.
On the other hand, if you only allow character skill to have one bite at the apple, the players are free to keep searching, but only if they can come up with specific, concrete plans. This allows for interesting brain-storming at the table, and if the players get bored they stop: they know there’s no further chance of uncovering anything if they’re out of ideas, so no temptation to try a few more rolls just in case. If they get a sudden idea later, they can come back to it (circumstances permitting) and try it out.
Why are player ideas a gimme?
If they announce they’re looking for something specific that’s really there, maybe they should still have to roll, perhaps with a bonus? No, if you do that and they fail they can’t know whether it’s a bad idea or a bad roll… which means they’d have to repeatedly search and that is tedious. When the rule is that if they are looking for the correct thing they automatically find it, they never have to repeat an idea just in case they got unlucky on the roll. If the thing is supposed to be really well hidden you can make them be more specific about exactly what they’re looking for or how they’re searching. Maybe an ordinary secret door can be found just by banging on the wall until you find where it sounds hollow (assuming that your spot hidden roll failed), while a well-hidden door that’s been padded to muffle the sound requires something more clever like you dust it with fine powder to see if you can find hand-prints where somebody has pressed a hidden catch. But you shouldn’t put the players in the position of having to guess whether they just need to repeat an action until it works.
Note that you should require they be specific: “I search the wall really carefully for a secret door” is covered by the roll their character gets for ten minutes of searching a 10 foot stretch of wall (using OD&D as an example). It needs to be something more concrete than that, something such that if somebody really was trying what they suggest it would be strange if they didn’t find it. If there’s a book that when lifted opens the secret door behind the bookcase and they say they take out and examine all the books, that ought to open the bookcase. This puts the onus on the Judge to make sure that for every secret door and hidden thing, there really is a specific way that it works and the Judge either knows it in advance or makes it up when the player starts searching. No fair having a door that’s generically secret, and opens when you “figure out its secret”. Make up whether it’s opened by sliding, or pushing a particular stone on the wall, or lifting a torch out of a sconce, or whatever, but know what it is so you can rule whether what the player is doing will work.
Ok, let them find the specific thing they’re looking for as a gimme, but what about applying a penalty to the roll for finding anything else?
No, that’s even worse. Conceptually it might make some sense that focusing on one thing makes it less likely to spot other things, but that means a priori the player is making an uninformed choice between having a flat roll for everything or a roll with a penalty for everything but one thing. It just doesn’t make sense to take that bargain, so it discourages players from getting specific about what they’re looking for. The goal is to encourage players to go beyond “I roll my Search skill” and put some real thought into it: the way to do that is make sure they’re never worse off for having tried.
What do you mean by no pixel-bitching?
Pixel-bitching is when in a video game it’s not just enough to click on a wall, you have to click on the exact right pixel out of hundreds on the wall, so you just have to keep moving the pointer tiny increments and trying again. In tabletop RPGs that means making the players guess the exact right thing instead of just anything that would work if it were a physical problem. For instance, if the chest is guarded by a trap that’s set off by a trip-wire right in front of the chest and the player says “I look for a pressure plate in front of the chest” it’s pixel-bitching to tell them “You don’t see a pressure plate” without mentioning the trip-wire that’s right there. Obviously if the character’s getting right down there and looking at the floor trying to spot a pressure plate or switch then they’re going to see the trip-wire in front of their face.
When they say they’re looking in a particular place or via a particular method, and the Judge should reveal to them whatever they would discover in that place by that method. It’s legitimate to ask for some more details if you’re not completely sure what they’re doing and what it would reveal (“Are you getting down with your face close to the flagstone to take a look? Or are you poking at it with your pole? Or something else?”) If there’s some ambiguity, give them the benefit of the doubt. If they’re pushing on the flagstone with their ten-foot pole to try to set off any pressure-plate traps, and it’s not clear whether the pole would necessarily touch the trip-wire that the Judge knows is there… just rule the pole does touch the trip-wire. They were looking in the right place for something that was there with a method that could plausibly reveal it, so reward their skill. Otherwise you risk teaching them that adding specificity in how they’re searching is an often fruitless game of “what number am I thinking of?” when it should be an opportunity to interact with the world to gain success where the straight dice-roll failed them.