5E Balancing Investigation checks and player descriptions
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  1. #1

    Balancing Investigation checks and player descriptions

    I am having some trouble defining exactly where I want the line to be.

    Here are the 2 extremes:

    "I make an Intelligence (Investigation) check on the room."

    "I open each the drawers in the desk and tap them for false bottoms. I look under the rug and remove the pictures on the wall. Etc. etc."


    I know I want actual gameplay to be somewhere in between but I'm not sure where.

    We use the 5e standard of players describing what their characters are doing. Then the DM decides whether they are successful, fail, or if the outcome is in doubt. If it is in doubt, the DM asks for a roll with an associated ability and usually a skill for proficiency bonus.

    So what usually happens is that the player describes their character searching the room or object or whatever, and if there is something secret that they didn't exactly hit on then they roll to see if they found it.

    The downside of needing the player to specify everything is that it grounds play to a halt and is tedious. The downside of just having the player make a roll is that the world is no longer interactable, details don't matter, etc. It just amounts to; did you make the roll in Room A? Okay you get X reward.

    Here is the latest example that has prompted me to make this thread:

    PCs find a treasure chest. They pick the lock. They find a bunch of coins inside. They move on. The chest had a secret compartment in the top where magic/interesting items were hidden.

    This feels close to the line to me. I don't think I want them to automatically find the hidden compartment, because then there is no point. What I am unsure of is whether I want to have them roll for it or not.
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  2. #2
    In the case if testing all the drawers for false bottoms, I'd say that if one of the drawers did in fact have a hidden compartment the PC would find it. After all, they were basically narrating what the Investigation check glosses over.

    For the compartment in the chest, maybe have them roll Perception (the lid is heavier than it seems it should be) to find it.

    I feel your pain, but I think it's cool you have players willing and happy to thinkt things through and describe their methods instead of just lazily depending on die rolls.

  3. #3
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    I make the tell me what they are looking for in order to make an Investigation check. i.e. "I am looking for secret doors", "I am looking for valuables", "I am looking for clues to find the missing woman", etc.

    I then interpret their intent. For example, they won't probably find a secret door while looking for treasure, but they might find a secret compartment in a desk.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
    I make the tell me what they are looking for in order to make an Investigation check. i.e. "I am looking for secret doors", "I am looking for valuables", "I am looking for clues to find the missing woman", etc.

    I then interpret their intent. For example, they won't probably find a secret door while looking for treasure, but they might find a secret compartment in a desk.
    Right, but at what point does that cross into tedium? At a certain point it isn't interesting to say that you search for secret doors or treasure, because you just do it every time in every room.

    Of course time pressure tends to prevent that sort of brute force. In the example of searching the chest, they are clearly taking some time to acquire treasure.

    I think requiring "I search the lid for a secret compartment" is too specific while "I search for secret compartments in everything" is too broad.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by ad_hoc View Post
    Right, but at what point does that cross into tedium? At a certain point it isn't interesting to say that you search for secret doors or treasure, because you just do it every time in every room.
    I would do it by the object. You search the desk, and then the chair, and then the chest, and then the pillar.

    I also wouldn't have them say what they're looking for - compartments, traps, treasure, or clues - because they won't usually know what they're looking for until they've found it. They're just looking for something out of place.
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  6. #6
    I generally allow both approaches, but if someone does a good job describing their action outside just "I use <insert skill here>," I might reduce the DC of the check.

    But something as vague as "I search the room/cavern/entire castle" might also cause me to ask for clarification, if it's something really key or tricky.

    However, in convention play, where it's time is an issue, I can totally see just going with the broader sweeps to keep the game moving.
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  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by ad_hoc View Post
    We use the 5e standard of players describing what their characters are doing. Then the DM decides whether they are successful, fail, or if the outcome is in doubt. If it is in doubt, the DM asks for a roll with an associated ability and usually a skill for proficiency bonus.

    So what usually happens is that the player describes their character searching the room or object or whatever, and if there is something secret that they didn't exactly hit on then they roll to see if they found it.

    The downside of needing the player to specify everything is that it grounds play to a halt and is tedious.
    Sure, I've been there. In the olden days, that was often all we had. No particular rules/rolls for a lot of things, so it came down to describing exactly what you were doing and hoping the DM found it plausible enough to succeed.

    Players will likely lean to more detail the more often you narrate failure, and to less the more often you call for rolls, just in general. Narrating failure 'punishes' them for not coming up with a compelling enough description of why they should succeed.

    Here is the latest example that has prompted me to make this thread: PCs find a treasure chest. They pick the lock. They find a bunch of coins inside. They move on. The chest had a secret compartment in the top where magic/interesting items were hidden.

    This feels close to the line to me. I don't think I want them to automatically find the hidden compartment, because then there is no point. What I am unsure of is whether I want to have them roll for it or not.
    You could make a roll behind the screen for them - for instance, the hypothetical check of the fellow that created the compartment vs the passive perceptions of the party. If it's not hidden well enough, they 'just happen' to notice something odd (you inadvertently bump the lid while taking coins out and it sounded hollow to you) that leads to finding the compartment. Otherwise, oh well.

  8. #8
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    That's a really good example @ad_hoc, the PCs get distracted by the shiny loot and don't look any further. The question then has to be why is the loot there - is it to accomplish precisely this effect? The robber thinks they hit the jackpot and won't look further.

    So without some hint to the PCs that there's more to find they're not going to look. So this seems like something the DM has to illuminate with some narration. For example the lid can seem surprisingly heavy (certainly something they would sense without needing investigation). Or perhaps the lid makes an odd sound as it's lifting like something is sliding around inside.

    Basically you've got to throw the PCs a bone so they know to investigate further.
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  9. #9
    I agree, part of the DM’s job is to give the PCs enough detail to make accurate decisions within the game, as far as their characters are aware. That being said, it’s a tricky balance – too much detail and you’re practically making the check for them (“Gee, why is the DM going into so much detail about the curtains in the room?”), too little and they’re going to never think to check.


    Quote Originally Posted by robus View Post
    So without some hint to the PCs that there's more to find they're not going to look. So this seems like something the DM has to illuminate with some narration. For example the lid can seem surprisingly heavy (certainly something they would sense without needing investigation). Or perhaps the lid makes an odd sound as it's lifting like something is sliding around inside.

    Basically you've got to throw the PCs a bone so they know to investigate further.
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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by robus View Post
    That's a really good example @ad_hoc, the PCs get distracted by the shiny loot and don't look any further. The question then has to be why is the loot there - is it to accomplish precisely this effect? The robber thinks they hit the jackpot and won't look further.

    So without some hint to the PCs that there's more to find they're not going to look. So this seems like something the DM has to illuminate with some narration. For example the lid can seem surprisingly heavy (certainly something they would sense without needing investigation). Or perhaps the lid makes an odd sound as it's lifting like something is sliding around inside.

    Basically you've got to throw the PCs a bone so they know to investigate further.
    I mostly agree, however, at some point when giving clues like that as DM you are essentially just telling them what is there.

    If this is the chest that has a particularly heavy lid, then the response 100% of the time will be, "I check the lid".

    In that case the secret compartment is window dressing rather than something interesting.

    I also don't think you need a specific clue about the chest for the PCs to have reason to search further. They could, for example, figure out that the people they are robbing should have more valuables than just a few coins.

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