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D&D Burgoo (4.0): Room Search Free-for-all

Posted By Troy E. Taylor On September 2, 2008 @ 5:05 am In GMing Advice,Specific RPGs | 9 Comments

Aegon is playing D&D 4E and he stirred the Suggestion Pot with this question:

“There is something about investigation, I am having difficulty putting my finger on it., part of it is that investigation seems to break up the group, one person wants to run up, pull the funny bookm off the shelf while another wants the rogue to take a look at it for traps. This ends up with the first person frustrated that they have to wait to do what they want … also investigation has led everyone talking at once …”

A D&D Paradox

Aegon’s dealing with another D&D paradox: It’s a roleplaying game whose combat is orderly but character interaction is chaotic, to say the least. And he’s hit upon a classic problem, namely, once the battle is done, it’s a free-for-all to search the room.  In fact, some DMs would rather run epic combat involving 20 blue dragons and a party of munchkinized PCs that deal with the post-combat mayhem of searching a room. 

And it’s a tricky thing, because everyone wants their share of the spoils. I’m sure there are horror stories out there about actual fights starting or groups that have broken up because of disagreements over how to search a room, and subsequently, how to divvy up the treasure.

Before I offer my advice, though, let me  say this. The post-combat free-for-all is probably a tradition in many groups. I mean, during the course of a dungeon crawl, it’s the one moment when PCs get to enchage in a little character roleplay and have a chance to blow off steam after a heated battle. It’s a game, and it’s all simulated, of course, but sometimes there needs to be that moment where adrenelin and excitement carry over. And without the restraint of initiative order, most folk feel free to let loose. So here’s a cautionary note, don’t be hasty about trying to “fix” this “problem.” You might be content to let the post-combat free-for-all be “part of the game.”

Taking the game to another level

The full text of Aegon’s suggestions indicated, however, that some players were disengaging during these free-for-alls.  And he’s right to be concerned. His suggestion to use skill challenges as a means of resolving these issues also means he’s ready to take his game to another level. Good for him. 

Here are some options:

  • Continue encounter initiative order until the room search is resolved. It conveys a sense of urgency, continuing with the 6-second-turns, and limits disputes to what a person can say in 6 seconds. (Plus no one can “Take 20” or “Take 10” in those situations.) And if you uncover something that would require order resolution, the mechanism to do so is already in place.
  • Non-combat initiative. This is a bit draconian, but if your players have trouble taking turns or speaking over others, it might be the only way to restore order. Rogues will hate this part. Don’t modify non-combat initiative rolls with Dex.  If you’re searching a room or its an arcane situation, use Int.  If it’s a wilderness or religious setting, use Wis. And if it’s a social setting, use Cha.

The good part of non-combat initiative is that it avoids the problem of the “fast-talker” being the “fast actor.” (for example: “What do you mean the guy across the room gets to grab the book before me, just because he said he’s doing it? I’m standing right next to the book.”) Like tactical combat, if you’re in a position to do something, and it’s your turn, you do it. 

Thie downside is the loss of sponteneity. People have free actions to talk out of turn, of course, but you have to decide: Is it really fun to have all actions in a D&D session dictated by initiative?

  • Using the Skill Challenge subsystem as a mechanism in this case could really be an inspired way to go. The payoff is that the players would have to prove they are good at something, and that negates the “fast-talker/fast actor” problem. It would encourage roleplay, and by definition, force the PCs to interact with one another in a civil fashion. Plus, it’s another opportunity to bring postive-reinforcement into the game. The PC accomplished something. That makes the player feel good.

That said, there are downsides to this approach.  First, it increases the DM’s prep time. At the least,. you have to formulate the standards of success for the most interesting items to be found in the room. Secondly, it might be introducing a time-consuming mechanic where none is needed. Thirdly, skill challenges can  be layered into a combat encounter. Are you ready to put that into play, adding to the complexity of the encounter?

  • So far, we’ve tried to deal with this problem within the context of the rules of the game. It may be, however, that this one will require action outside the paramaters of the rules. Get the group together, explain your concern, and see if the players themselves can offer a solution. Because this is a “buy-in” moment, you might have more success if this is your approach to the situation.

Perhaps our Gnome Stew community has some suggestions to offer, as well.

About  Troy E. Taylor

Troy's happiest when up to his elbows in plaster molds and craft paint, creating terrain and detailing minis for his home game. A career journalist and Werecabbages freelancer, he also claims mastery of his kettle grill, from which he serves up pizza to his wife and three children.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (4.0): Room Search Free-for-all"

#1 Comment By Rafe On September 2, 2008 @ 5:46 am

Skill challenge is an interesting idea, but it brings feelings back to a combat level. As said, searching is usually a bit of a break and a time to reap the rewards of waiting for 3 minutes to have 20 seconds of “my turn!”. I wouldn’t continue that dynamic through into short rests and scouring.

What I would do, personally, is to have everyone roll a d20. They’ll assume it’s a Perception check, and it is. … for the person to their right (or left). Tell them that after the dice have been cast. Most players will laugh and that itself will diffuse any post-combat tensions.

Also, reward roleplaying post-encounter actions. If the Fighter is searching the wizard’s desk, no XP. If he or she is sealing the door, using part of a table that broke during combat, XP. Let the Rogue or Ranger search the room for valuables, secret doors, while the Wizard or Cleric checks the desk or bookshelves.

The only issue I can see is if the Rogue is a “one for the group and three for me” sort. That’s easily fixed. They roll Thievery (sleight of hand) vs Perception from everyone else.

Or involve various people: The Fighter has to hold open the hinged block of stone flooring that hides the chest while the Cleric holds the Rogue’s feet so he/she can dangle down and pick the lock on the chest.

#2 Comment By Swordgleam On September 2, 2008 @ 9:14 am

It seems like the new passive perception checks in 4e are at least a partial solution to this problem. As soon as the combat is over, check to see if anyone is noticing anything interesting, and then tell them. Hopefully, at least one person will notice a trap/hidden treasure/etc, and that will give the group a starting point.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 2, 2008 @ 11:09 am

Good advice on passive checks. It doesn’t completely change the fact multiple party members will spot something at the same time, but it’s a start.

#4 Comment By LesInk On September 2, 2008 @ 11:38 am

I love the idea of the non-combat initiative (I must be draconian), but I admit it will feel like everything is slowing down. Even said, it can be useful for keeping up a tense situation especially if there is a trap in the room and you want to keep the players on their toes — or if they now have to deal with a less than willing prisoner or conversation with an unknown entity.

But back to free for all, I will say that the fast talker still can be beat out by the “but I’m standing next to the bookshelf” character in my games because I will allow ‘interrupts’ to occur to other people’s actions. It can get a bit frustrating sometimes, but they just learn not to blurt out their immediate intentions by breaking it down into smaller pieces, replacing said example with, “I walk over to the east wall” which is where the book case is.

However, unlike Aegon, I have well mannered players who not only take turns on looting, they actually share the loot “for the good of the party” and “fairly” (Player A got the good item last time, its Player B’s turn). That solves alot of problems.

But, yeah, Aegon, got to some type of initiative based system — even if just a random d20 luck of the dice roll (no modifiers).

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On September 2, 2008 @ 11:58 am

We’ve had a problem with this in the past– usually because one player was excited and wants to participate in everything. After a battle, it’s hard to remind them that they can’t simultaneously loot the bodies, search for a shovel, bury the bandits, heal their wounded comrades, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for our victory, etc. I suspect part of the problem comes because out of combat time is looser– the GM responds to most events with “OK, you do that, it takes five minutes.” If they don’t keep track of their five minutes expended versus everyone else’s actions, they cue up long stretches while others sit idle, hoping to get a word in edgewise.

To break the habit, continuing around the table in initiative order works… I don’t like it as a long term solution, but it’s very clear.

#6 Comment By Bob On September 2, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

We’ve always dealt with it in two ways. If someone comes across treasure they have the option of taking it there and then. If someones about theres a chance it will be noticed dependent on skill and stat. Its up to the players to self-police themselves in this manner.

The other way we deal with it is a basic D10 roll for first pick from the treasure list of all that is left after opportunistic pickups. Tied results are then worked out with paper, scissors, stone. I know its not really very in character but it was actually worked out that way in game one day and its just stuck. If anyone takes issue with it we play the discussion out in game and go from there.

#7 Comment By maestrod On September 2, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

Smoke and mirrors is the way to go. Give your players the *illusion* of free will but quietly and secretly railroad everybody into exactly what you want. Or that’s what I do anyway. Does that make me evil?

I keep track of my player’s treasure rewards and secretly assign some of it to the player’s that are due, so when an encounter’s done and everybody is looting bodies and searching for treasure, I’ll ask what everybody’s doing, make a few secret rolls behind a screen and the end result will be the PC who’s been assigned the treasure will succeed at finding it. It doesn’t matter that the ranger has the best search skill or that the rogue is putting the most effort into treasure finding. It’s *going* to be the wizard that finds the wand of magic missles + 1. I haven’t had to drop anything from the sky on non-cooperative players yet, and I don’t think they’ve noticed that found treasure always seems to be appropriate to the finder, but if they have noticed they haven’t complained.

General purpose magic items and splittable item rewards I don’t put as much thought into, and my players are co-operative enough that it gets split up fairly equitably regardless of who finds it.

And, most importantly this always works out faster than any sort of real skill challenge would.

#8 Comment By Sarlax On September 2, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

I’m a bit confused about the problem. Is it that players treat loot as a free for all, or that they do different things which can’t be resolved simultaneously?

If it’s the latter, is this only a post-combat thing, or an all-around out-of-combat thing? IE, the party gets back in town and they all have different leads to follow up. If it’s something like a lot of different unrelated individual actions (interrogate the mayor, haggle for a better price on loot, and research the demon god), I would try to give first dibs to the player who saw the least glory in the last fight / roleplaying scene / etc.

If, for instance, the wizard and ranger wiped out all the bad guys with fireballs and arrow strikes, leaving the cleric bored, the cleric is the one who gets to take his investigative action first.

If the issue is just “who gets loot,” the party might be best off having their rewards handed over in a list, and they then divide it however they like, whether through consensus, bidding, or rolling.

#9 Comment By icarus1863 On September 26, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

(3.5) I have all my players roll a search check, in place of Initiative, for post combat spoils.


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