Oct 16, 2018

Searching: Describing Actions and Rolling

When I run old school D&D, I use a group-based perception system. You can find an old version of it on this blog, and versions in both the Necrocarcerus house rules document and Into the Depths, but here's a summary that doesn't require you to click somewhere else:

Every object has a concealment score (obvious objects have a concealment score of 0), ranging from 1 to infinity, with most hidden objects being between 3 and 10. The party as a whole has a base or passive perception score equal to the number of PCs in it.

This is their base capability to notice things as they move along in an orderly fashion. It represents them looking around for potential points of interest or danger, but not interacting with or examining things in detail. It requires no time or actions spent to observe the world around them at this level.

If the PCs stop moving and start examining the area around them, they roll a d6 and add it to the base perception score. Typically this kind of search requires a turn.

If the party's perception score equals or exceeds the concealment score of the objects, they discover the object once they come in sight of it (which is usually limited by the availability of light).

If the PCs are broken up into small groups, then each sub-group has a passive perception score equal to the number of PCs in it. If only a few PCs stop to examine things, then that's a sub-group as well, but they still add a d6 roll onto the sub-group's score as they actively search.

Hirelings, retainers, pets, etc. don't contribute to this score unless the specific specialty skill that they were hired for is spotting things, like a tracker dog or something.

These are the mechanics that slot into a larger process. That process is actually split down the middle. The initial phase is that of passive observation as PCs move. This passive observation is interrupted when they encounter various obvious objects in the space around them (furniture, architectural features, creatures, etc.).

Then, instead of immediately allowing PCs to roll for actively searching an area, I stage the "roleplaying" element where they can interact with and examine the objects. That involves them making specific statements that clearly indicate what and how they are examining something. "I check under the bed", "I cast detect magic and examine the room for auras", "I bang on the walls and listen for echoes", "I cut open the monster's stomach".

If a PC describes something that should reveal the hidden item or object, then it simply does, no roll required. This is their reward for clever ideas. It doesn't matter if it has a concealment score they could never reach numerically, if they luck into or deduce how to find it, they do.

Eventually, I bring this phase to a conclusion when the PCs run out of obvious ideas (it can be very quick sometimes if they're stumped). At that point, they can invoke the active search rule and spend the turn. But that's it. Once they get whatever they're getting out of active searching, they're done and can't find anymore stuff until the situation changes somehow.

The combination of benefits and restrictions here is surprisingly effective at pushing players to at least come up with a few ideas about how they're searching, and it prevents them from just spending a turn and actively searching an area instead of doing any sort of description of how they do it. I recommend attempting it in one's own games if one does not already.