Searching it Old School

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.

  1. 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)”.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.


The Tomb of Horrors and Player Mindset

Stuart Robertson talks about his group’s experience with the infamous Tomb of Horrors back in 1987 over on G+.  Spoilers abound, so don’t read that or this if you care.  The gist of it is that after the players lost a bunch of PCs in the initial false entrances, and the party got down to about half the original PCs they gave it up as a bad job.  Stuart then goes on to complain about The Tomb of Horrors being badly designed by the lights of this (perfectly reasonable) Gamasutra article.  The following is my reaction, which got a little long for a comment.

Honestly, if you lose any PCs to the fake entrances, your group isn’t nearly paranoid or prepared enough to have any chance with the Tomb of Horrors. I mean, in one case the group marches into a corridor with cobwebs thick enough to obscure the ceiling without a care in the world as to what might be lurking above, in the other not only don’t they send anything ahead capable of triggering the trap nor react quickly by retreating during the slow count to 10, but despite being 10th-14th level nobody has Rock to Mud, Disintegrate, or Stone to Flesh prepared or the equivalent in items.

A lot of the traps in the Tomb aren’t particularly lethal for a character of that high level (e.g. 1d4+1 d6 of damage), especially since the party should always be pretty close to full health: the Tomb has no wandering monsters, even in the area around it, or any time pressure from plot events, and characters of that level typically have access to a lot of healing. There are some nasty exceptions, but a 10th level Cleric can Raise Dead twice a day, so it’s not like most of the deaths in the Tomb need be irrevocable.

I have some quibbles about specifics of the Tomb (like I think preventing Passwall from being one of the spells that can get you out of the sealed fake corridor is kinda cheap), but I think if you see it as a series of uninformed choices you’re just not used to the style of play. Players have lots and lots of ways, mundane and magical, of gaining information to turn blind choices into informed choices…which is why some but by no means all of the tricks and traps specify certain divination/magic tricks that won’t work.  That’s not random: I think the clear presumption is that the players are going to be moving carefully through the tomb, casting various detect spells on anything that seems suspicious and poking and prodding everything from a safe distance. I dare say most of the decisions in the Tomb are actually dilemmas: how many resources to expend to turn it into an informed decision. Relatively few are “weighted” (in the Gamasutra sense of being balanced between pros and cons): if you can figure out a safe path, there’s usually no reason not to take it.

Obviously it’s not a style of play suitable for everyone, but that doesn’t make it badly designed. One of my favorite memories of dungeoneering when I was a lad was finally beating my step-brother’s death-trap dungeon (not Tomb of Horrors, but same basic idea, heavily inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark)… The character I had that finally beat it was pretty powerful and equipped with a ring of regeneration, but I was soloing it, so those kind of balanced out.   In role-playing terms there was a reason the forces of good needed the treasure the dungeon guarded, but at this date I can’t recall at all what the treasure was or its significance, while I clearly recall the feeling of getting it and getting out again and even the details of some of the ingenious traps. I’m not ordinarily a challenge-based player, and it’s not something I’d want to do every day, but the satisfaction of completing it and being the first of the various players who’d attempted it to succeed was a thrill like no other


Running Sailors on the Starless Sea

So I’ve run my holiday-themed re-skinning of Sailors on the Starless Sea twice so far… the most recent time, last Friday, ended in a TPK. Everybody had fun, and wanted to play some more DCC, but I think it pointed out a gotcha in the scenario that I’d want to address before I ran it again for some other group.  Spoilers ahead if you haven’t played it.

Specifically, if the players skip the Charnel Ruins… and both my groups wanted to because of how foreboding it was, though the first reconsidered after a bit… then when it comes time to meet the Leviathan, they’re screwed. Unless they’re willing to make a human sacrifice (fat chance, at least with my typical players), even if they chum the waters to distract it, they need to spend at least 2 rounds in the water (if they can even swim) both coming and going from the ship with the Leviathan getting 6 attacks per round… what actually happened Friday is they ended up fighting the Leviathan on the deck of the ship and losing. Which is fine: fighting the Leviathan straight up should be a losing proposition. But that means that there need to be either more ways around it or the single way that’s there needs to be on the main path.

Sailors on the Starless Sea is a very linear adventure: after the choice of the initial approach there are a couple of side areas, but no real branches.  That’s not necessarily bad for something that’s supposed to be a short adventure, but it means sticking the key to completing the adventure in one of the few skippable side areas is a problem.  That’s compounded because once they meet the Leviathan there’s no retreating and regrouping or exploring what they might have missed: it’s deliberately set up so if they don’t have the censer they’re stuck either halfway across or 50′ from the far shore if they come up with the chum-the-waters trick.  IMO, that’s pretty mean, and not really in keeping with the best Old School principles of letting the players pick their fights and routes.  I also think the set up gives perhaps unfortunate psychological pressure on the players to hurry along to rescue the villagers instead of poking their noses into everything the way a more “let’s loot the ruins” party would.

Having said all this, I think there’s a pretty simple fix: since the Leviathan basically acts like a gate that requires a key, make it so you can’t open the gate without the key.  Take away the candle at the top of the menhir, and make it so that lighting the censer (or sacrificing a victim) both summons the ship and placates the Leviathan.  That way if they make it that far without getting the censer, they can figure out they’re missing something… and if they don’t immediately, then if they swim out to the ship the Leviathan can attack the swimmers while they still have a chance of retreating.  It also makes the mosaic a better clue, since the action depicted in the mosaic of using the censer while standing on the menhir now matches how you’re supposed to deal with the Leviathan.

A more radical fix would be to have the Leviathan’s blood-lust be sated as soon as each tentacle seized and dragged somebody off; then even if the party just bulls through they won’t lose more than 7 characters.  It’ll hurt, but at least it might be enough to finish the module, particularly if you have a lot of players.

Brownies of Salmagundi


A new race for D&D 5e Brownies are small humanoids that help with domestic chores in return for gifts.  They pride themselves on living honestly and virtuously, and view theft and fraud with disgust. They bargain hard, but their word is their bond.  In lands above-ground they are generally found as merchants, tinkers, scribes and explorers, their diminutive size compared to many surface-dwellers not making them as well-suited to manual labor or the arts of war.

Stats: +2 Wis Size: Small (approx as Halfling) Speed: 25 Age: Brownies reach maturity at age 20, and may live a century or more. Alignment: lawful

Shrewd: Advantage on Insight vs. chicanery and fraud. Proficiency in double-entry bookkeeping.

Industrious: your training times (but not costs..it still costs 250 GP for one extra proficiency) are halved, as you make efficient use of your spare time to practice new skills.

Thrifty: you may maintain yourself in a lifestyle up to Wealthy for the price of one life-style lower due to your ability to find bargains and make do. Does not apply to the Aristocratic life-style, since that requires conspicuous consumption.

Languages: speak, read, and write Gnome, Dwarf and Common.

Tool Proficiency: Proficiency in a set of craftsman’s tools of your choice.



Once in a while a Brownie is seized by some big idea, and becomes monomaniacal.  Such Brownies are likely to throw aside the usual Brownie interests and pieties in  pursuit of a singular field of knowledge or art, including performing arts.

Ability Score Increase: +1 Int or +1 Cha

Inspiration: Gain Expertise (double proficiency bonus) in a single field of art or knowledge of your choice.

Obsessive: Working in your field invigorates you, and counts as a Short Rest.