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5E Balancing Investigation checks and player descriptions

This topic, to me, is one of the hardest to do enjoyably for DMs. Sometimes I do it well and sometimes I don't.

With the chest secret compartment example, I would use perception, passive would be fine or allow an roll as well. And as someone else said, if they made the perception check I would say something like "The lid seems unusually heavy." or "The lid is thicker than normal." Then I would let them do an investigation check.

Similar to searching rooms. I use perception to give hints that something is off and needs to be investigated, "You feel a draft of air on the back of your neck." "You notice that the wall here seems to be a different shade of color."

Then, if the players response is something like, "We search/investigate the room." I will then make the investigation check with disadvantage. If they give it a nominal description but don't name the object or otherwise make detailed accurate description it's a normal roll. If they nail the descriptive act, like "ok, I check the lid testing to see if their is a hidden compartment. I measure the inside and outside, tap around and look for seams or gaps as well as feel for any buttons or parts that I can push, twist or slide." Then I give them advantage on the investigation check.
 

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Harzel

Adventurer
If they nail the descriptive act, like "ok, I check the lid testing to see if their is a hidden compartment. I measure the inside and outside, tap around and look for seams or gaps as well as feel for any buttons or parts that I can push, twist or slide." Then I give them advantage on the investigation check.
If they were that specific, I think I would just let them succeed without a roll at all.
 

I give a description, and the players tell me what they want to check out (but not for what). I give them more details, possibly requiring an Investigation roll, and tell them how long it took to do so (in case time is a factor). The important factor to this, is that the players know and agree to this method. If they don't check out the desk, they miss out on the map inside (even if it's not hidden), but if they spend a lot of time checking out everything, it increases the chance of wandering monsters (or active monsters if they've already kicked the hornets' nest).
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
Being descriptive gets you more specific information. That's really about it. Saying what you search in the room is important when there are a lot of things in a room. Each "thing" however is a specific search roll. It would be unfair to you, and to the room, to only have you make one check for the whole room. Saying something general like "I search the room." will give you a general idea of whats worth looking at but won't get you specific info about hidden doors in the desk.
 

If the player's choices have consequences, then get them to choose, and accept the consequences. If there are no consequences, then just tell them what they find.

For example:

Player: I'm searching the room.
GM: Are you leaving the room tidy, putting everything back where it was, or are you trashing the place?
Player: Leaving it nice.
GM: OK, a quick search is going to take 10 minutes, a full search about an hour, you know the guards come past here twice an hour. What do you do?

In this case, I might rule that a quick search has zero chance to find the false-bottomed drawer and a full-search requires a DC 15 INT/Investigation check and two wandering-monster rolls for the guard patrols.

• If the player chooses "quick" then I tell them "You don't find anything.".
• If they player chooses "full" then I get them to roll for the search and I roll for wandering monsters.

I figure that a quick search involves opening drawers, looking behind paintings, checking under desks, and so on. It's not going to find well-hidden things. E.g. a quick search is going to find a key attached under the edge of a desk but not a key rolled in a sock in a drawer.

Making the players specifically state "I pull out the drawers and look underneath" and "I unroll all the socks in the drawer" seems a bit mean to me, despite what the PHB says.

There might be further details.

GM: Are you moving furniture? If you do, you have a better chance of finding stuff, but the guards might hear (in game terms, an additional wandering-monster roll)? [DC 10 INT/Investigation and three wandering-monster rolls.]
Player: We'll leave the furniture alone.

Player: How about if we just search the desk and wardrobe, and leave the rest?
GM: 30 minutes, and one chance for the guards to hear. What do you do? [No chance to find the hidden item in the bed, one wandering-monster roll.]

In short: Give the players choices and visible consequences, let them choose and accept the consequences.
 
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ad_hoc

Hero
In short: Give the players choices and visible consequences, let them choose and accept the consequences.
Yeah, I'm with you.

I think I am feeling good about my decision not to have them find or roll to find the hidden compartment in the chest.

In this particular example they were concerned about trashing the place and wanted to leave things neat and tidy. In short, they didn't want to leave evidence of what they were doing.

If instead they said that they trash the place hacking and slashing, then yeah, there is a pretty good chance that they will reveal the compartment.
 

pming

Adventurer
Hiya!

I am having some trouble defining exactly where I want the line to be.
[[SNIP]]
The downside of needing the player to specify everything is that it grounds play to a halt and is tedious.
Um, so you mean, like, playing a role-playing game that's not on a computer? ;)

That 'slow down' isn't "grinding to a halt". That's, LITERALLY, 1/3rd of the game focus for 5e in particular. This is part of the fun! "Hmmm...I'll double check that bookshelf again. I'm looking for rare books, things that look out of place, or switches to open secret doors and such by pushing, pulling, or moving books" <-- this is the "Exploration" part of table-top RPG's.

If you are seeing this as "grinding to a halt", then that simply means that you don't really enjoy all the "immersion and exploration" of TTRPG's. This isn't bad, btw, just a preference.

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.
It shouldn't feel close. To me, that 'situation' is the same as if the player says "I shoot my crossbow at him!", and then me thinking that I should just let him automatically drop his crossbow, pull out his sword, and attack the thief that he didn't see leap out of the shadows at him.

If the player doesn't indicate any interest in the chest other than the coins...then so be it. It's the same as if the player is described a room as "Long and dark, with wide pillars every 10' or so; the inner area lit every other pillar by a dull torch, casting many dark shadows throughout the room. A cultist, with his back to you, seems engrossed in a book he is reading at the end of the room, 40' away". If a player just says "I shoot him!", ok. If he says "I rush down the room and stab him with my sword!", ok. If he says "I start to cast a spell", ok. He starts, and then the thief leaps out of the shadows. BUT, if he says "I look around the room a bit, without moving. I shield my eyes from the direct torch flame to see if I can see anything behind the pillars...in the dark"...Ahhhhh!....now the player gets to make an active Perception roll.

So yeah...if you want to have something more "game'y" to go on, use Passive skill rolls. If the PC's passive Perception beats the DC of the hidden compartment, he notices it. Then it's up to the player to figure out how to open it or whatever (Investigation check...or he could just start hacking into it with a hand axe, but that might damage the valuables hidden [cut the scroll, smash the bottle, dent/marr the gold whiskey flask, etc]). I use Perception to have PC's notice things...but they use Investigation to figure out how to deal with them (open, close, overcome, or otherwise 'use' whatever they found; e.g., Perception = you find a secret door // Investigation = you figure out how to open the secret door you found).

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

The players are basically fumbling around in a sensory deprivation tank without the DM telling them what they see, hear and feel. Playing a game of 20 questions isn't much fun and making the players investigate every little thing is tedious for everyone.

The question is - is there anything unusual about the lid that would be apparent without investigation? If there isn't then you're really hoping your players investigate every inch of every object they encounter, even after they found somethiing in that object - so basically search everything twice (but what about the secret compartment in the bottom - OK three times... - you see where this leads :) ) - that seems too much to ask IMHO.
^ This. You shouldn't rely too much on the players finding everything, plus they only have your descriptions to go by. Unless you tell them there is something odd about the chest, they won't find the secret compartment... and that should be fine.

This also applies to secret doors. If you want them to find a secret door, give them a reason to suspect one. But even if you provide a clue, just don't make their progression hinge on finding that obscure secret.
 

I make DC depend on their approach. If they just search the room, the DC might be 20 to notice something. If they state they search something were there is nothing to be found, they fail, but on a high roll I might give them a hint that searching somewhere else or using a different approach might be a good idea. If they state exactly where the "secret" is to be found, then the DC might only be 10.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
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.
One possible idea is to consider the time required by the investigation, and set the DC appropriately.

So if someone chooses the nondescript way (meaning that they are trying a little bit of everything randomly, but nothing specific), ask them "how long would you like to work on this task?" and then maybe do something like this:

- 24 hours (with reasonable breaks) > DC - 10
- 8 hours > DC -5
- 1 hour > normal DC
- 10 minutes > DC + 5
- 1 minute > DC + 10

Instead, if they choose the narrative way, it takes just as long as you think those narrated actions should take. Looking under the carpet may take anything from an action (if the carpet is a doormat) to a few minutes, if it's a large carpet and you're looking for something small. Searching all drawers in the room takes minutes at least (if they are mostly empty or you're looking for something big), but possibly even hours (if they're full of stuff and you look for something small), but IMO the best idea is that it should take significantly less time if you guess correctly where to look for, and equal or even more time if you guess wrong. You can also decide for an autosuccess on a correct guess, but it's up to you, if you want to include the chance to overlook what they are searching.
 

BoldItalic

First Post
@OP

Don't expect the players to second-guess. If they open the chest, tell them immediately that there is a secret compartment in the lid and ask the player who opens the chest to make a perception roll to see if his PC finds it. If he rolls low, the secret compartment retrospectively never existed and its contents will never be found; if he rolls high, his PC notices the secret compartment and he has the option to try to open it, check for traps, and so on. Either way, the players are involved in the development of the narrative.
 

I would never tell my players something that their PCs don't know (except for at the end of the chapter where I'm doing a "What could have been"). If they fail the roll, they won't find it. If they search again or search for a longer time, they don't get to roll again, passive value applies instead. If they come up with a better approach, I do allow a second roll, however.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
@OP

Don't expect the players to second-guess. If they open the chest, tell them immediately that there is a secret compartment in the lid and ask the player who opens the chest to make a perception roll to see if his PC finds it. If he rolls low, the secret compartment retrospectively never existed and its contents will never be found; if he rolls high, his PC notices the secret compartment and he has the option to try to open it, check for traps, and so on. Either way, the players are involved in the development of the narrative.
Did I read that correctly? The DM tells the player there's a secret compartment and then requires a roll to see if the character finds it? That seems a bit cheeky? :)

I'd prefer that detecting that the lid is off is a passive Perception check - and pretty easy DC 10 so most everyone will notice it if they fiddle with it (and probably, as I said earlier, I'd just tell them - though perhaps if they're in a hurry it would be harder to notice). If they're not in a hurry they'll find the secret compartment if they've been put on notice that the lid is funky. If they're in a hurry then an investigation check would be needed as noted by others.

I particularly like the sliding scale of difficulty depending on how fast the PCs are acting (I'm going to nab that).
 

ad_hoc

Hero
@OP

Don't expect the players to second-guess. If they open the chest, tell them immediately that there is a secret compartment in the lid and ask the player who opens the chest to make a perception roll to see if his PC finds it. If he rolls low, the secret compartment retrospectively never existed and its contents will never be found; if he rolls high, his PC notices the secret compartment and he has the option to try to open it, check for traps, and so on. Either way, the players are involved in the development of the narrative.
As has been said before, this just reduces the game to a series of dice rolls. This doesn't involve the players in the development of the narrative. They are just being told the story.

Here is your game as I see it:

You have entered a 10 by 10 room. There is a monster. Everyone roll a combat check. You have defeated the monster.

Now everyone roll an exploration check. You have found the treasure.

Now you are back at town. Everyone roll a Social Interaction check. You have found another quest to defeat the next monster.

And so on.

There is a balance I aim to achieve and your way is on the extreme end.
 

BoldItalic

First Post
If you are an adversarial DM who seeks to trick the players, then keeping knowledge from them so that they operate blindly is one way to do it. But then you have the problem that they won't do what you hope they will do. And that's your dilemma. You want them to fail to find something they have no reason to look for.

Here is a narrative:

"Wohnan wondered if there might be a secret compartment in the lid of the chest, but if there was, he couldn't find it."

Translate that into what you want to happen at the table between the DM and the player. Do you want the DM to decide secretly, or the player to decide openly, or someone to roll a dice and if so who? You choose.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
If you are an adversarial DM who seeks to trick the players, then keeping knowledge from them so that they operate blindly is one way to do it. But then you have the problem that they won't do what you hope they will do. And that's your dilemma. You want them to fail to find something they have no reason to look for.

Here is a narrative:

"Wohnan wondered if there might be a secret compartment in the lid of the chest, but if there was, he couldn't find it."

Translate that into what you want to happen at the table between the DM and the player. Do you want the DM to decide secretly, or the player to decide openly, or someone to roll a dice and if so who? You choose.
I have no idea who/what you are responding to and what you are trying to say.
 

If you are an adversarial DM who seeks to trick the players, then keeping knowledge from them so that they operate blindly is one way to do it. But then you have the problem that they won't do what you hope they will do. And that's your dilemma. You want them to fail to find something they have no reason to look for.
Has nothing to do with adversarial. Playing is just the more fun the more equal player and PC knowledge are. Players are still free to do whatever they want. If there's a secret magic item and they don't look for it, they won't find it, end of story. If they search and find it, they are happy to have had the idea to search.
 

BoldItalic

First Post
I have no idea who/what you are responding to and what you are trying to say.
I'm responding to the situation you described in your first post:

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.
And I'm asking you to tell us your motivation: why did you put the secret compartment there? Because the answer to that will lead you to the answer to your original question.

I appreciate that you don't understand my line of thought, at least not yet. But don't fight it. The answer to your original question lies in something outside the game procedures you have considered.

You just have to search in the right way, in a place you didn't know there was anything hidden ...
 
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Did I read that correctly? The DM tells the player there's a secret compartment and then requires a roll to see if the character finds it? That seems a bit cheeky? :)
It's just an 'above board' style. It's a tad on the "gamist" side of the spectrum, players with a fragile sense of immersion may get homicidal over it, but aside from that it works fine. ;P

(JMHO, but I don't think 5e lends itself that well to that more 'above board' style. DM rulings are frequent and important, and revealing too much to the players can lead to them questioning those rulings too readily, and even undermines the basic 5e flow of DM-description > player-declares-action > DM-rules-on-results.
Besides, classic D&D has traditionally shied away from it, to the extent it 'is D&D' at all, it's a modernism.)
 

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