A common behavior (at least at every table I’ve ever been part of) is the clean dungeon sweep: making sure that every nook and cranny of a dungeon has been explored, every enemy fought and every goblin slain. Players often do this because they don’t want to miss any treasure or experience. In an idealized world, this turns out to be an inefficient strategy that actually slows players down. In practice there are external considerations that the GM controls.
To see this, we need to simplify things a bit and imagine an entire campaign as a single dungeon that is a long corridor with rooms along it and many side paths of varying length like so:
The players can start from the left and advance towards the right with or without detours down the side passages. As they advance to the right challenges get harder and rewards get better.
The typical adventuring party will then explore lots of side passages and make sure they sweep them clean of all encounters garnering loot and xp along the way like so:
But for the same input of time, the party could instead ignore all the side passages and simply travel to the right, only hitting encounters down the main corridor and only gathering loot and xp found there:
The argument for the first exploration strategy is that it ensures that no experience or treasure is missed and thus results in better geared and higher level characters. This is the heart of the fallacy. In fact, the second exploration strategy leads to better geared and higher level characters. The important shift in thinking is not to compare the two groups at the point when each reaches room X, but rather to compare the two groups when they have each invested X hours in the dungeon. Both groups have been exploring rooms at the same rate, have been encountering challenges at the same rate and acquiring treasure and other rewards at the same rate. This means that both have had about the same number of encounters and received about the same number of rewards. The challenges and rewards received both follow the same type of distribution (some a few levels up, some a few levels down, some common some rare) so both have had about the same number of tough and easy encounters and about the same number of good and bad rolls on loot tables. The big difference however is that the second group’s average encounter level and average treasure level has been climbing much faster so their rewards have been more valuable. Thus they have a greater net xp and better gear. If at any point, either group discovers that the challenges they are facing are too difficult, they can always backtrack a little and grind until they’re able to move forward but the grinding the faster group does is more valuable than a much greater volume of grinding the slower group is doing at lower levels.
Of course this assumes the above setup. In sandbox games, for example, there’s no guarantee that challenges scale with time. Players can diddle around the starter area as long as they want or go crashing headlong into dire places beyond their abilities. It also assumes an infinitely available source of material. If the party speed runs your current adventure, it assumes the next is waiting. If they speed run that one too, the next one is expected to be on tap. Though in theory this could require you to plan many session ahead, in practice it probably only requires one or two. It also assumes an endless run with no endgame. If there is some end destination at the point when both groups arrive, it would seem to be the case that the slower group is better geared and higher level. However, keep in mind that all of the old loot rewards are replaced by later loot rewards or made insignificant in magnitude eventually and that generally XP awards and scales grow at a non-linear rate so the relative impact of earlier to later grinding diminishes rapidly and the payoff required to have a noticeable impact on gameplay grows as time goes on. Net effect: even if we compare both groups when they reach room X versus at time X, the slower group’s additional gear that counts is only from recent grinding, not early grinding and the net impact of their extra experience is unlikely to be significant unless your system has a highly linear experience system.
So of course the question of the hour is: “Who cares?” If you and your group are happy with the pace of your game, then the answer should be “Not you.” If, on the other hand, your game is slogged down with clean sweeps, hunting red herrings and chasing down fleeing minions, then share the above with your players (it also speeds up video game runs significantly). The clean sweep is a hard habit to break. You have to turn off your little OCD voice that says “But the chest we missed probably has the best loot in it!” This is also useful when your game has somewhere you’d like to get to, but you don’t necessarily want to skip a lot of the intermediary parts. There is also a suite of things you, as GM can do to push the clean sweep by the wayside.
Handwave the ends of adventures: Once you’ve found the McGuffin, or unmasked the villain, call it and move on. Yes, there are rooms left to search, treasures to find, enemies to kill, lose ends to tie up, but that’s a waste of time. Skip it.
Level up as soon as possible: If the system isn’t too cumbersome, allow players to level up, spend xp, etc… mid session. This will require a running total of xp, but a spreadsheet on your phone will allow you to keep a tally with minimal fuss.
Tweak challenges on the fly: If your players level up mid session, or if the adventure is turning out too easy, adjust things upwards. GMs often use these on the fly adjustments to reduce the challenge when they’ve accidentally made things harder than desired, but don’t be afraid to shift things the other way. Just don’t forget to increase the rewards when you do so.
Bring more material: Another common reason for the clean sweep is because the evening’s adventure is over and it’s clean sweep or call it a night, Instead handwave the leftovers, take a 10 minute break and while the players level, pull out your notes for next session. This requires a little more prep, though mostly it’s front end. Once you have a session in reserve you can go back to making one adventure per session until you have to burn two at once, then you have to catch up.