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D&D General Perception, Search Rolls, and Game Style (thinking about expectation for how rules play out at the table).

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Sorry for the lengthy post - this is just me thinking through my own assumptions about playing D&D and working through my surprise for how other people do it - not a judgement of those other ways, though I would probably feel less satisfied with some of those other ways.

So, I was reading the "Old School Primer" linked in that article about "The Six Cultures of Play" article I posted in the TTRPG forum and there was a lot about it I liked and seemed really familiar. Something that stood out to me was the inclusion of examples of play (something I have recently mentioned in a couple of other threads as really loving and wish 5E had more of) in an attempt to compare "old school" vs. "modern" play and what stood out to me was that the way I and my friends play made use of both styles in combination.

For example, when discussing searching rooms the PDF gives these two examples:

The Mysterious Moose Head (Modern Style)
John the Rogue: “We open the door. Anything in the room?”
GM: “No monsters. There’s a table, a chair, and a moose head hanging on the wall.”
John the Rogue: “I search the room. My search skill is +5. I roll a 19, so that’s a 24.”
GM: “Nice roll. You discover that the moose head slides to the side, and there’s a secret panel behind it.”

The Mysterious Moose Head (Old Style)
John the Roguish: “We open the door. Anything in the room?”
GM: “No monsters. There’s a table, a chair, and a moose head hanging on the wall.”
John the Roguish: “We check the ceiling and the floor – we don’t step in yet. If there’s nothing on the ceiling and the floor, we push down on the floor with the ten foot pole, and then I step inside, cautiously.”
GM: “Nothing. You’re in the room.”
John the Roguish: “I search the room.”
GM: “What are you checking?”
John the Roguish: “I eyeball the table and chairs to see if there’s anything unusual, then I run my hands over them to see if there’s anything weird.”
GM: “Nope.”
John the Roguish: “Are the moose’s eyes following me or anything?”
GM: “No.”
John the Roguish: “I check the moose head.”
GM: “How?”
John the Roguish: “I twist the horns, look in the mouth, see if it tips sideways …”
GM: “When you check to see if it tips sideways, it slides a little to the side.”
John the Roguish: “I slide it more.”
GM: “There’s a secret compartment behind it.”

Even in running 3E or 5E which have skills for seemingly everything, I and the other DMs in my circle, ask players for descriptions of what they are attempting and how. A roll may provide a sense of ultimate success or failure, but the description of action contextualizes it and places the PCs in various positions for adjudicating the results.

In the 5E game I run, an encounter like the above might go like this:

The Mysterious Moose Head (el-remmen Style)
Juan the Roguish: “We open the door. Anything in the room?”
GM: “No monsters. There’s a table, a chair, and a moose head hanging on the wall.”
Juan the Roguish: “We check the ceiling and the floor – we don’t step in yet. ”
GM: Who's looking?
Juan the Roguish: “I am.”
Manuela the Magixtrix : "I am, too."
Joaquin the Warrior: "I stand guard in the hall, looking back and forth up and down the hall occasionally, but I am also turning down the lantern so it harder to see from adjacent hallways."
GM: "Ok." (either calls for perception checks or rolls for the PCs behind the screen depending on table preference but either way the players do not necessarily know if they succeed or fail, the GM gives a description based on the roll). "You see nothing unusual on the ceiling or floor."
Juan the Roguish: “I push down on the floor with the ten foot pole, and if nothing happens then I step inside, cautiously. I eyeball the table and chairs to see if there’s anything unusual, then I run my hands over them to see if there’s anything weird.”
Manuela: I stay in the hall and just keep an eye on his surroundings from the doorway while he searches in case something pops out and tries to surprise us.
GM: (more rolls) “Nothing weird about the furniture.”
Juan the Roguish: “Are the moose’s eyes following me or anything?”
GM: “Not that you can see.”
Juan the Roguish: “I check the moose head.”
GM: “How?”
Juan the Roguish: “I twist the horns, look in the mouth, see if it tips sideways …”
GM: (calls for an investigation check, which succeeds) "When you check to see if it tips sideways, it slides a little to the side.”
Juan the Roguish: “I slide it more.”
GM: “There’s a secret compartment behind it.”

As you can see from above, the descriptions of actions help to determine not only what kind of success or failure the character meets with but where everyone is and how they can potentially react if there is surprise or a call to roll initiative, etc. . I guess it is my old school roots are showing, but it never struck me that describing character action in some detail would not be the a default part of the game.

If a player says to me as GM, "I search the room," I ask "how?" or "where do you start?" I might ask, "Are you just looking with your eyes or feeling with your hands?" I am not sure how I would adjudicate if a trap goes off and who gets effected (for example) without that. Maybe the moose antlers are electrified but if said, "I grab it by the snout" I would know it does not go off. Similarly, I would not know how to decide about the possibility for surprise if bugbears pop out through a secret door while the PCs have their back to it searching the opposite wall, etc. . . This also helps me keep track of (approximately) how much time is passing, who has a chance of hearing or seeing what etc. . .

So I guess, I am asking if the approach I am describing is that unusual in other people's experience. Are the examples from that primer just being hyperbolic as a way to dismiss modern skill system games as opposed to "player skill" games? For me, while I like a sense of separating player and character knowledge to some degree, I also know that is it not only impossible to do completely, it is not really advantageous to the flow of the game to stick to the "no out of character knowledge" or "I am just gonna rely on what my character would know, even if I don't" approach too strongly. I did like the primer's description of player knowledge as the spirit of good fortune helping the heroes. And honestly, I'd rather play with people using a modicum of player knowledge over the games I've played in where one or two players would rather pretend to be totally stupid than to allow their character to make an intuitive leap because no matter how immersed you are in the game, you aren't really there and some things just need to be assumed.

I guess there are certain base strategies of play in my D&D campaigns that not all players necessarily have (esp. when first starting) but that are developed through play itself.

For example, recently a player in my newbie group who plays a ranger said she was searching for tracks outside a rural village inn from which a companion had been abducted, but when I asked her "what do you do to begin the search and where do you begin?" at first she was a little at a loss. So, I explained, you might check for muddy prints on the porch by the front door, you might go round back and search for scrapes on the door jamb, you might take a good look at the earth and plant life around the inn and look for dirt or scrub that does not fit. . ." Suddenly it clicked for her, and soon she was making lots of rolls, leading the party around, and figuring out the best direction to start their inquiries. Now she felt both narratively and mechanically contributing to the action.
 
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Yeah, I guess I would do it rather similarly than you. Though I might just call for investigation check at the point the character pokes the moose, unless they declare some action that would logically automatically reveal the hidden compartment. At certain level of detail I don't feel the player needs to describe 'how' any longer. The player is not an expert investigator, but the character might be. But where exactly you draw the line is pretty subjective and a matter of taste.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Both styles are pretty common. I much prefer something closer to the old-school approach. In session 0 I ask players when they declare an action to do so in terms of both what they hope to accomplish and what their character does to try and accomplish it. So “I search the room” doesn’t give me enough information. “I try to find any hidden doors or traps by tapping around the room with a 10-foot pole” would. Then I resolve the action based on my own best judgement of if what the character is doing could reasonably lead to the desired outcome or not, if there is a possibility of it failing to do so, and if there is an associated risk or cost if it does fail, then call for a check if all of those criteria are met.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
It strikes me that if your players are going to give you detail like the pixel-bitchy old school days, you might as well forego the investigation rolls and tell them they succeed if they try to move the moose. Why encumber the search with the chance of failure if they're already describing everything you've visualized to find the hidden space behind the moose?
I prefer to use the investigation/perception check to refine a more general action and just adjudicate an action that's right on the money as a success. For example, if I have a situation where there's a valuable piece of jewelry that's fallen between a mattress and the wall and a PC specifically moves the bed, they'll find it automatically. But if the player says "I'll search the bed" then the die roll (and their skill modifier) will ultimately determine how thorough they were.
You might be able to infer that I'm not that fan of the pixel-bitching that old school play, nor am I fan of too many dice rolls. There are too many situations in which a player will have absolutely NO personal expertise in something their PC knows how to do.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Taken as a whole, D&D 5e sets forth the expectation that the players describe what they are doing and that they include reasonable specificity in their description so the DM can decide whether the result of the task is success, failure, or contains enough uncertainty (and a meaningful consequence for failure) that an ability check is appropriate.

So that's what I do.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
It strikes me that if your players are going to give you detail like the pixel-bitchy old school days, you might as well forego the investigation rolls and tell them they succeed if they try to move the moose. Why encumber the search with the chance of failure if they're already describing everything you've visualized to find the hidden space behind the moose?

Because knowing what to search and not to search are not always the same thing in every situation and even knowing what and how does not automatically mean you are good at it? Because to me skill rolls just replace (with more granularity) the old 2-in-6 chance of finding secret doors of the old days or whatever it was?

Also I'd consider refraining using terms like "pixel-bitchy" in otherwise reasonable conversations, since it is an unnecessarily pejorative description of playstyle.

You might be able to infer that I'm not that fan of the pixel-bitching that old school play, nor am I fan of too many dice rolls. There are too many situations in which a player will have absolutely NO personal expertise in something their PC knows how to do.
This is why I included the anecdote of the newish player who was not sure how to proceed.

In my experience people like to roll dice.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
As a base level, a character can cast a spell, swing a polearm or exercise a skill with proficiency even if the player is absolutely unfamiliar or even misinformed about such things. Even if you only know how to fight is from Hollywood movies, your monk still knows effective martial arts. Same for skills the character is proficient in.

That's an unchangable and irrevocable base foundation to build on. The character is mechanically proficient in doing X, they must be actually at the table to be proficient in X without the player being able to add anything.

Now, that does not prevent the player from interacting with the world more directly. If they decide to open the wardrobe they will find the hiding man without a skill check. If the character just opens the trapped coffer without checking, the poison gas trap will go off.

It also does not protect the character from the player's directives. "I search the desk, looking especially that the dimensions line up to see if there are secret compartments" will not find the trapdoor under the chair - the character has not searched that.

I call for rolls, and that does need to know how you are doing things. Some approaches may be more or less successful, have different consequences, or use different ability scores or skill proficiency. But it must always be appropriate to answer "I'm searching for tracks the way someone who knows how to find tracks searches for them". That's a bought-and-paid-for ability on your character sheet, in a fantasy world where you can say that to cast a spell.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
If someone is doing a medicine check to see how someone died, I wouldn't expect them to be trained as a coroner. So I don't expect the person playing a rogue with high investigation skills how they're investigating the room.

The other issue I see is that I often have very broad descriptions because honestly creating detailed locations is overkill for me 90% of the time. So let's talk about a scenario, a furnished bedroom of a moderately wealthy merchant. There could be pictures on the wall, a wardrobe, a dresser, a chest, maybe a fireplace, jewelry box, nightstand, bed of course, some rugs on the floor and a candelabra. If I want them to describe in detail where they're searching and how, I have to start going into detail on everything. But what if there's nothing to find? Or what if there's a false bottom on the second-to-the-bottom shelf? Or maybe the stolen necklace is hung on the candelabra? Wait, I forgot to mention that the candelabra has sparkly cut glass for decoration? Oops!

So instead I ask how thoroughly they're searching the room. If there is no time constraint and they want to take as much time as they want I'll have a fairly low DC to either find what they're looking for or a clue that something needs further investigation (depends on group and real world time constraints).

If they find a clue I may start asking for rolls (especially if trapped) as I describe that something seems off about the dresser but they're not sure what. So I narrow down the focus to something interesting to avoid "pixel bitching". Even then, it's up to the player to decide if they're describing what they do or not. I encourage descriptive, but I never require it.

TLDR: Sometimes I just use passive checks with DC based on time spent, sometimes I do a hybrid where the passive checks will lead to a more detailed set of checks/rolls.
 
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Dragongrief

Explorer
My process generally goes along the lines of:

*Describe what their passive perception would notice. Ask what the characters would like to do.

*They can focus in on an area, which may call for a perception check (if just looking/listening) or an investigation check (if getting up-close and hands-on).

*The type of check may have different DCs and possible outcomes. You won't find a buried object by looking at the top of a pile.

*If the player describes something that has been designed to have an effect (twisting a moose horn), no roll is made.

That keeps things running pretty smoothly, while still allowing specificity to be rewarded.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Play is a conversation. If someone says they want to search or track, we talk about it. Where do you want to do that? How? What do you hope to find? That helps us establish fictional positioning, so players can then make their checks. Players aren’t experts at being adventurers, but the right questions can help get the creative juices flowing.
 

I try to strike a balance between player skill and character skill. I'll give a description, then if the players want to search, they tell me what they're looking for or what they're looking at. In the case of the room from the OP, to find the secret panel one would have to investigate the moose head with an Int/Investigation check. The player decided the moose head was important enough to check, but the character knows what to look for about it.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
If someone is doing a medicine check to see how someone died, I wouldn't expect them to be trained as a coroner. So I don't expect the person playing a rogue with high investigation skills how they're investigating the room.
This doesn’t quite scan. Being a coroner is rather more specialized knowledge than how to look around the room. A closer match might be that you don’t expect them to be a detective, and with that I would agree. Fortunately it does take a detective to be able to describe searching a room with reasonable specificity.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
This doesn’t quite scan. Being a coroner is rather more specialized knowledge than how to look around the room. A closer match might be that you don’t expect them to be a detective, and with that I would agree. Fortunately it does take a detective to be able to describe searching a room with reasonable specificity.
The flip side of that is pixel bitching. There's absolutely no way I'd ever want to deal with that style of gaming again. There's got to be a middle ground between describing everything in perfect detail (aka "mother may I") or skipping the description and just rolling dice.

I think the key in your post is "reasonable". Different people define what's reasonable specificity.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If someone is doing a medicine check to see how someone died, I wouldn't expect them to be trained as a coroner. So I don't expect the person playing a rogue with high investigation skills how they're investigating the room.

Pretty much this - my players come to the table in part to be something they aren't in real life. I'm not going to make success depend on how well the player knows things...

Especially because, well, are any of us ourselves forensic experts, or something? No? Well, then we don't really know what's most plausible either, now do we?

Thus, if they give me a description that's narratively fitting, that's cool.
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The flip side of that is pixel bitching. There's absolutely no way I'd ever want to deal with that style of gaming again. There's got to be a middle ground between describing everything in perfect detail (aka "mother may I") or skipping the description and just rolling dice.

I think the key in your post is "reasonable". Different people define what's reasonable specificity.
The predictable thing about these sorts of discussions is that "reasonable specificity" is usually interpreted by a lot of posters as "players must be subject matter experts in the given skill proficiency and spell everything out to an exacting degree." It's really weird what some folks consider "reasonable."
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
The flip side of that is pixel bitching. There's absolutely no way I'd ever want to deal with that style of gaming again. There's got to be a middle ground between describing everything in perfect detail (aka "mother may I") or skipping the description and just rolling dice.

I think the key in your post is "reasonable". Different people define what's reasonable specificity.
Reasonable is the key, yeah. I’d wager most of us would have a definition of reasonable that’s within the same ballpark.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Asking people about their experiences using skill check vs. "player skill" approaches and to what degree they are hybridized is not the same as asking people to argue about what they'd hate and never do or why it is better or worse than some other way.

Thanks.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
And yes of course, "reasonable" detail and reasonable description of how the character interacts with the world. Heck, sometimes I will describe this room and it does not say "there are fireplace tools" but it says there is a fireplace. A player asks if there are any and I either decide the best I can based on what I know of where they are or give it a 50/50.
 

My stance is to let the player's decisions matter, because while I'm the arbiter of the world, we're doing collaborative storytelling. When a writer tells you a character does something, that action should matter - to mood, to characterization, to plot, or something.

Likewise when a player says they search a room, I'll maybe ask for clarification to add some texture to the scene, but if they just say they make a search check, I'll use my power as the narrator to guide them to the in-narrative actions that will achieve their implied goal. They want to find hidden things, so if there's a hidden compartment behind a moose head, and they've said their searching the room, I'll highlight things to draw their attention to it. Then they'll narrate specific actions to investigate the head, which then makes any discovery they have feel like their choices produced it.

The dice are . . . not that important. Honestly, out of combat, I weight dice maybe 10%, and weight player intention like 70%. The final 20% is the surrounding context - did they make a character to be good at this, is it going to affect the fun of the rest of the players, etc.

Like, in speech act theory, there is locution (what is said), illocution (the intent of the words), and perlocution (the result of the words). The classic example is "Is there any salt?" The locution is a question about the presence of salt. The illocution is a request for someone who has salt to hand it over. The perlocution is that the speaker gets salt.

I feel like a major part of my role as narrator is to understand the illocution, and ensure that the locution leads to the desired perlocution.
 

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