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So, it's a fairly common question of how to keep players from metagaming. Typically, these questions are of the sort that a player knows monster x is weak to y despite their character not having access to this knowledge, or a character rolling a low number and thus not trusting the results even though their character should wholeheartedly believe them (because they rolled a 5 and should think an NPC is telling the truth, the player knows/believes he's probably actually lying).

My issue is similar: I have a group of players who enter a room where they believe a trapdoor to be. They roll spot checks to try to find the door and roll low. I tell the players that they see nothing, but they feel that there must surely be something there. We end up wasting the next 10+ minutes with players trying to find another way to find the trapdoor (more specific spot checks, trap checks, lore checks, etc). There really is nothing in the room. It's empty (trapdoor is actually out in the hallway) but they're so intent on believe that the door must be there that they waste a ton of time trying to find it...

How do I go about getting my players to just move on and look elsewhere? In this case the room was important to have (it's the location of a scene from earlier, and will come into play again later) so it's not like I have unimportant rooms for players to explore. I can't just change on the fly to have the trapdoor in the room due to the importance of having only one way in/out of the room. Those would have been my first thoughts but alas...

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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/33730/… Can you address how the answers to the linked question are different than the answers you are expecting? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 12 at 2:23
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17 Answers 17

up vote 49 down vote accepted

Define the Consequeces of Success and Failure Up Front

This answer addresses a very similar question. I think everything I said there applies equally here. In short: if you explicitly define the consequences of success and failure, players are less likely to misunderstand the information and run off doing some nonsense.

Let It Ride

In your case, there's one other trick I would add, shamelessly lifted from the RPG Burning Wheel:

A player shall test once against an obstacle and shall not roll again until conditions legitimately and drastically change. Neither GM nor player can call for a retest unless those conditions change. [The results of] the initial roll count for all applicable situations in play.

In other words, say you roll to search a room for stuff. You get an 8. That's it. That's your result for searching the room for stuff. If you retry the action, you don't reroll. If you try a new action, too bad, you're not gonna gain anything more. Likewise, if I roll 15 to climb a cliff, that applies to the whole climb; the GM can't ask me to reroll every 10 feet or anything stupid like that.

Let It Ride makes sure that rolls actually matter — you can't just turn a round an immediately invalidate something with another roll. Beyond that, it keeps the game moving forward. When we know that each and every result will stand, we can all focus on moving forward incorporating the result.

If you can't abide by a success or failure outcome, then don't put it on the table at all. Manufacturing excuses to reroll until you get the results you want is a sign that you need to rethink how you're scoping consequences. It's possible you shouldn't be asking for a roll at all.

If you want a situation to be a series of rolls, break it up into discrete tasks instead of just rolling amorphously a couple of times and then handwaving that, okay, now this one counts.

Call Them Out

If your players are constantly asking for rerolls, try just calling them out on their weaseling. Like, just straight-up say, "You're trying to weasel out of the outcome we already rolled for. Let's move on."


Why Are Your Rolling for "There is Nothing Here" Anyway?

If there's nothing to find, what's the roll about, anyway?

Occasionally there's some payoff to roll-to-find-out-if-you-know-that-nothing-is-here as a form of information-hiding, but from what I've seen, a lot of GM advice defaults to "Roll for everything just to create fake tension!" way, way too much.

In the example given, I'd only ask for a roll if I could frame it as something like one of these:

  • "If you succeed, you find everything of value in this room — secret passages, treasure, clues, everything." That way the PCs can discover something for their efforts even if it's not what they necessarily intended to find.

  • "Okay, so, time is of the essence, right? If you succeed, you find out right away whether there's a trap door here. If you fail, it'd take a long time to search properly." Now the roll is all about "What is the cost of the information you want?" I do this only when there is already pretty obvious pressure of some sort; otherwise you're just kinda manufacturing complications that don't really matter.

Otherwise I'd just tell 'em. There's very little down side to doing so. What's the point of trying to maintain a feeling of uncertainty here, unless you're trying to waste time on purpose?

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Fast-forward

When it becomes obvious that the players are going to spend a lot of time, and do everything they can think of, before it becomes they finally accept that there’s nothing there, and they’re not under any time-pressure that makes it important to keep track of how much time they spend trying, just skip that step.

You try everything you can think of, you double-triple check, you take-20 on all your skills, and find nothing. It takes hours, but you’re now sure there’s nothing there.

If they object or try to suggest weird things, just flat-out tell them there’s nothing there and they really did try everything already.

In short, don’t ever roll anything if there’s no chance of success or no chance of failure. If they try something that can’t work, just tell them they failed. If they try something that will work, provided they try enough, just tell them it did work (again, unless there’s a specific time-crunch). Otherwise you’re just wasting time.

This has been a paraphrase of Rule #2 of AngryDM’s Five Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System, and I strongly recommend that you read the other four as well as his other excellent articles on getting the most from your skill system.

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The problem with never rolling when there's no chance of success or failure is that not rolling tells information to the players. If I think there's a trap in a room, and you don't have me roll before saying "there's no trap", then I know that every time you have me roll, there is a trap. For hidden information, it's important to roll even when there is no hidden information, or else the players will know that there is something to look for just by the fact that they have to roll. –  DuckTapeAl May 12 at 2:39
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@DuckTapeal Actually, I have a better answer: why is the trap there in the first place if there’s no time pressure? I mean, the characters could spend the time to find it, right, and there’s no pressure stopping them. So why even have it? Does your group like rolling dice for the sake of rolling dice, even when there’s nothing meaningful on the line? –  KRyan May 12 at 2:43
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In addition to the excellent suggestions already given (I'm rather partial to "Let It Ride" myself), here are two more:

  1. Roll the checks yourself in secret. Without the knowledge that they rolled poorly, the potential for players to metagame in this way is essentially eliminated. They may continue searching for longer than seems appropriate to you, but it will be based on in-game rather than metagame reasons.

  2. Although wandering monster checks have fallen out of vogue in recent years, they're good at reducing this sort of behavior, since every additional search of the room means they're spending additional time there and taking additional risk of a wandering monster appearing to interrupt them.

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+1 for "Roll the checks yourself in secret." I've always considered this the standard way to deal with rolls where the players may be tempted to metagame over the distinction between "you roll badly and nothing happens" and "you roll well and nothing happens because there's nothing to happen." Imagine the tension that a good GM can potentially create with "You turn the corner, look down, and realize that you are standing on a square of stone that looks different from the surrounding dungeon floor. [to the player] What's your dexterity? [rolling, shaking head] Hmm..." –  dodgethesteamroller May 14 at 20:44
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To reiterate my answer here, you should conspire with your players against the characters. There are too many ways of passing information through inaction or mechanics use to adequately conceal important aspects of the environment.

Instead, focus on an honest player relationship (assuming that everyone is comfortable with this sort of game, of course), where, for the sake of the role play, are clear about the hazards and the infological status thereof.

For a hallway full of traps, make it clear that you're not going to waste their time if there are no traps, and instead, will roll to determine the reaction of the characters instead of the players: "Alice, Bob, let's see if your characters notice the giant sawblade in the ceiling."

Given that the game's expectations come with a division of player and character knowledge, asking people to agree to that division and then using honesty to make everyones' lives easier better than the endless uncertainty of exploring every step. Starting the game with the "assumption of competence" on the character's parts means that the party can focus on the interesting bits of story and mechanics, unless they want to play logistics and exploration simulator. (If they do, then let the game be about that.)

Note also well that in games which are about player driven exploration (as many old D&D "retro-clones" are) this technique doesn't work, as those exploration driven games don't enforce player v. character knowledge as a tacit rule.

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To be fair, some games are all about the endless uncertainty. In these cases, adding more metagaming is detrimental. There are other kinds of games where this advice is spot-on though. Just not all. –  SevenSidedDie May 12 at 4:40
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I would say that any kind of information gathering roll (perception, traps, weather forecasting, interaction with NPC), any of them, should be rolled behind the Narrator/DM/Master's screen.

You can allow the player to roll theirselves, but they should never see the results.

The rationale behind hidden rolls is that players can not metagame around information that they do not have. If the player has some information that the character doesn't, there is always room for metagaming. On the other hand, when players only know the same as their characters ("You see nothing") they concentrate more on roleplaying, and on acting as their characters would do.

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If you as the DM really get bored you can always generate a distraction or otherwise trigger a time-based event that would have been initially benign. Regardless of if they're paranoid for good reason (low enough rolls even barely) or for red herring soup, if you as the DM need to progress, external forces can intervene. Party says "we'll take twenty to search this room", you say "half way into your search you hear armor clunking from somewhere close" because you had a hobgoblin patrolling the maze or whatever. Not having time constraints on the plot doesn't mean that there can't be things to pop in at untimely moments. It's important not to abuse this idea, but it's been the occasional cranking of the Plot Device for me to sidetrack a later encounter to pull the players into the story.

Additionally, you can pry at their sensibilities. Have them make will saves with a DC based on time to start getting impatient (also useful when you have that camping assassin dragging the game). Pass a note to the player that's always brash saying that they want to get a move on. Give a hint to the greedy member that while they're here, someone could be stealing their chance at treasure. Remind that cleric of Pelor that sunrise is in a few minutes and they need to refresh spells. There's always something to be done when you pay attention to more than "click to know more".

DM Acting (metagaming to fight metagaming) can add or alleviate pressure. When you want to add or remove suspense, you as the DM can act as though a certain result was(n't) achieved. Want them to be afraid? Sure. Act like every roll is important and that failed roll will cost them. Want them at ease? Just calmly and nonchalantly say "nothing of interest here" every now and then. Thus when you know the players are taking their cues from metadata, give them metadata as a steering method.

I've randomly asked my players for spot checks against stealthy characters, and on an occasion where they all fail? I have something mundane ready (the breeze changes, a rat scurries) or I simply tell them I had the wrong room, or even wave it off and tell them everything's okay. Other times I'll make random rolls attached to nothing. Sometimes I just like tossing the dice as a habit, but it adds tension. I want my players to fear when I have cause to pick up my dice.

What makes this approach work, though? I'm fairly direct and straight forward about almost everything. I don't always bluff my players into making their character paranoid, nor smile sweetly when a giant spider is slowly dropping on them from above. But nonetheless, push and pull your players with your own attitude and body language where appropriate.

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My technique here consists of two sentences spoken to players.

When it's a boolean (yes/no) roll situation I roll some dice and say:
"Well, you find nothing... and nothing finds you."

When it's a "we-keep-searching-indefinitely" situation I just ask:
"How long will you continue to search if you find nothing?"
(Sometimes I amend this to "if nothing happens?") ...and then roll some dice.

These questions both tend to resolve the situation pretty quickly in realtime. Because the implication is that the players are not alone in the world: time is passing, and Wandering Badness may be staring them in the face if they delay too long.

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+1 for the second point. If the behavior is common this is a good hedge. –  CatLord May 13 at 12:53
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That's not necessarily metagaming.

If a group of adventurers are walking through a dungeon, they may expect traps. That's a totally reasonable thing for adventurers the expect. If they come to a room that seems like it probably should be trapped, then they're likely going to want to search more thoroughly. If they search as thoroughly as they can (for example, if they take 20 on their Search checks in a D&D 3.5 game) and still don't find any traps, it's totally reasonable for that group of adventurers to think that there might still be a trap, just one that is a bit harder to find.

If there's no real consequence for failure, it's easy to try the check again (for example, a check to find traps that has no chance of actually setting the trap off), and the players have at least some chance of success, it might be easiest to let the players spend extra time in-game on searching, and then just tell them the true result. This way you can tell the players that there's no trap in the room without spending lots of time out of game on the check. D&D implements this through the Take 20 rules, which let you spend 20 times the normal amount of time that a check would take to automatically get a 20 on the roll.

Another possibility is to use a Let It Ride mechanic. Basically, this mechanic means that you can't redo any skill checks. If everyone wants to pool their efforts into finding that trap, then that's totally cool. If they want to roleplay exactly how they're going to find it, they might get bonuses as normal, and that's cool too. However, once they've made their attempt, that's it. They can't make any more rolls to find a trap in that particular place. This isn't a realistic mechanic, since people can retry things all they want in real life, but it helps speed things up and reduces drains on session time.

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If they only do this when they roll low on their first check, then it's absolutely metagaming. –  Tridus May 12 at 10:44
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For your specific issue where they're constantly looking for something where nothing exists you may need to react differently depending on the circumstances, but there are two basic scenarios. Time-dependent and not.

If time is of the essence, keep track of how much time they're wasting per search check. You'll want to let them know this, of course - simply saying "Whelp, you're out of time!" out of the blue could end with unhappy players. On the other hand, if time is not critical - remind them they can "Take 20".

(I realize this is tagged as , but as GM you can probably grant your players something similar even if the rules don't have that built in.)

As a reminder - from d20srd.org:


Checks Without Rolls

A skill check represents an attempt to accomplish some goal, usually while under some sort of time pressure or distraction. Sometimes, though, a character can use a skill under more favorable conditions and eliminate the luck factor.

[...]

Taking 20: When you have plenty of time (generally 2 minutes for a skill that can normally be checked in 1 round, one full-round action, or one standard action), you are faced with no threats or distractions, and the skill being attempted carries no penalties for failure, you can take 20. In other words, eventually you will get a 20 on 1d20 if you roll enough times. Instead of rolling 1d20 for the skill check, just calculate your result as if you had rolled a 20.

Taking 20 means you are trying until you get it right, and it assumes that you fail many times before succeeding. Taking 20 takes twenty times as long as making a single check would take.

Since taking 20 assumes that the character will fail many times before succeeding, if you did attempt to take 20 on a skill that carries penalties for failure, your character would automatically incur those penalties before he or she could complete the task. Common “take 20” skills include Escape Artist, Open Lock, and Search.


I know Pathfinder & D20 modern have similar rules and I would imagine other game systems do as well - but again, if they don't; as GM don't be afraid to add them in if you feel it would fit.

So when you have someone take 20 - plus all their skill/attribute bonuses in search - plus someone assisting them, and they still can't find the thing that doesn't exist in the room you can say "After hours of searching the room with a fine-toothed comb, you find... ~dramatic pause~ ...some lint."


As for broader cases where meta-gaming would lead them to do certain actions - switch things up! They think trolls are vulnerable to fire? Nope - you have to freeze their wounds, instead!

For other things - like "sense motive" - let your players decide when to use it. If they don't trust someone and fail they can continue not trusting him. Failure shouldn't mean that they get the wrong impression, just that they don't get any impression at all.


TLDR: Don't be afraid to remind players about "Taking 20". Switch things up if they require knowledge-checks for the characters to know it even if the players already think they do (get creative! Trolls are vulnerable to ice, not fire!). Also, checks should determine how much information players get - not to give them wrong information (which they will metagame around anyway) - let them come to their own wrong conclusions instead of trying to force wrong conclusions onto them.

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Have a discussion

Stop the game, have a discussion.

A lot of times, before I even start playing a dungeon crawl game, I'll let people know "There's no traps or secret doors in this game. I'm not going to hide awesome magic swords in trashpiles. I don't like digging through the tunnels spending 20 minutes searching each room." or maybe, "If things are going to be hidden, it'll be in a way that lets you know there's something around - maybe a magic moon map that tells you a secret door is nearby, or a James Bond deathtrap, etc."

Now, maybe your game DOES have occasional hidden things, so this wouldn't apply. That said, I'd would have responded when they decide to do further investigation after the first roll - "Ok, you guys spend more time looking but we're not going to roll or keep going at this. There really is no trapdoor here. You spend the time, you're certain there's no trapdoor, there's also no traps, no treasure. You've completely searched this room."

"What if I go do this? What if I do this?"

"No, really, there's nothing here. This is me, telling you this. You know how you might play a videogame and you've got the friend who spends 2 hours bumping against a wall because they're certain there's a secret area and there isn't? That's what this is. I'm saving you the time. Your characters search, no door. Let's move on with the adventure."

Real trust and what game are we actually playing?

The other part is how much your game actually has hidden or false information and how that plays out -as an expectation of the group. If the players expect the GM to be lying to them, or that the area should be constantly full of hidden things, gotcha traps, etc. the players then spend a lot of time trying to find the "right way" to overcome the problems and over-protecting themselves.

That might be fear of a secret door from which monsters might come out, missing the awesome magic sword hidden in the most ridiculous way, or a "oops and now you're all dead trap".

I often prefer to explain to the players when their characters know they have limited information. "You can tell this guy is lying or hiding something, but you're not sure about what." "You can tell this much about this artifact, but the rest of it? You're not sure, you need to go get some help to find out more." "That thing seems magical and maybe dangerous. You probably shouldn't touch it without finding out a bit more."

I assume the characters are competent in their roles and give that kind of information out freely and make sure that it's right nearly all the time. If it's something where misunderstanding is going to detract from the point of play ("We're playing an action-movie, we don't need intrigue"), I just stop the game and give the info freely and honestly.

Now, part of that means you can't go playing the narrative gotcha on the players, or else they will have no option BUT to do this double-guessing and assuming the GM is out to get them.

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They engaged the system's mechanics—rolled a Spot check—and failed to find anything. Just tell them to move on. If they want to spend more time on it, that's their problem, and you should advance what's going on around them while they do. If the system allows them to recheck a skill roll, let them. I'd balk at more exotic skill checks. “How does Lore have anything to do with this?”

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Players using knowledge about monsters they should not have, and players searching a room over and over, are two entirely different problems. It seems to me like you are more interested in the second problem, and this seems, to me, like you are allowing your players to describe rolls instead of actions.

If your player says "I start carefully navigating around the room, checking for traps and secret doors", they're doing it right. If they simply roll a dice and call out their trap detection score, they're doing it wrong and should be slapped with a lettuce.

If there are no traps there, there's no need to even roll to be honest, simply tell them that they didn't find anything. If they fail to find it, set it to go off as a result of them searching for it. They are not going to stop searching until they find something, so just make certain that if there is something to find, they either find it or trigger it by accident.

Once your players understand that you are not trying to screw them over, they will soon accept that "you do not find anything" means there is no point in asking over and over.

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As a DM I always rolled search rolls for the characters. This allowed me to fudge rolls that were important to the plot and covertly roll when an elf passed a hidden door or if they were getting off track. Its amazing how well a random die roll can refocus the party.

If the party becomes convinced that there is something there to find but they believe they just failed the roll, I will occasionally roll the dice while never looking down to see the result, and announce they do not find anything. This generally gets the point across to the group.

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"I always rolled search rolls for the characters. This allowed me to fudge rolls that were important to the plot" or... just don't roll? –  Lohoris May 13 at 14:30
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Finding nothing is not fun: Let Them Find Something Else.

Looking forever and trying lots of things to find a Secret Door and being told that "you find nothing" after a good time of search is no fun at all. If your players are really being creative in the way they search, reward them in a unexpected way.

If there isn't a Secret Door on the room, maybe they find a loose brick with a letter for a bastard son of the king telling him about the holy Heirloom that the king hide in his vault but never had the chance to deliver to his son. Maybe the players find a hidden switch that when pulled, opens a secret door - somewhere else, but they can surely hear the rumble.

In fewer words, if the players are really insisting that there is something there, reward them putting something - worthless or not - on the room, so they can go "Yay, we found it!" and move on. On your specific case, the "Hidden Switch that opens a door that the group didn't found yet" would be a nice idea, I think.

Heck, you could even just put on the room a secret door for a hidden vault - it goes nowhere, but it IS something.

Remember, players tend to stop searching on a room after they find the "Room's Secret Thing". Just give them some secret, and they should move on.

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I would give this a +1 except it kind of feeds the rarely positive "customer is always right" mentality where if they make enough fuss they get something good. No downvote because having a list of mundane items for them to find is in fact useful is making them feel accomplished. –  CatLord May 13 at 12:55
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The problem with this is (I sort of agree with @CatLord ) that reinforces the senseless search behaviour. Players must learn (and this is important in Real Life as well) to cope with unexpected results and frustration. For a well balanced game where sucess is important (and fun) there must be failure. –  Envite May 13 at 13:50
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I agree with @CatLord and his analysis, so giving a =0 too. Whlie I understand and agree with the "here to have fun" argument, I don't think "insisting until I bend reality" counts as "fun". However, putting irrelevant small items to find such as these to be found is fun. Only, not if you create them ex-nihilo "just because players insist". –  Lohoris May 13 at 14:37
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Establish a roll-table (RNG table)

For all the skill check that can lead to such metagame concern, when I think the players will bother me with that kind of behavior, I write down their skills value. Then, I roll (or make them roll) about 10-20 rolls and make an array with these values.

Each time there is a situation where they should roll dice, use a value of the table instead, they won't even hear dice rolling and won't suspect anything.

When it concern an active test (they say they search the room), I don't make them roll a dice if they have all their time, and just consider the dice roll an average value (modified by how they describe their action)

The table method is really useful for 'passive' checks, and even active one when time matters. Also, I find it really good for the players because they (as players, not their character) really don't know how successful was their character, therefore, they won't involuntarily change their behavior depending on how good was the roll. You can't still make them feel that they failed or succeeded in a particular way by describing in a suitable way how they act/perceive their environment (giving more or less details, focusing on a useful/useless point...)

Make the roll first, describe everything after

You can also, when entering a place, ask a roll before all. Then adapt your description depending on the results, telling them that it's all they find in the room. Most of the time, this imply a change in how you use the rules and players should be warned before (explain them you are trying something new to improve the game experience). Still, this does not totally prevent the behavior you are talking about.

Above all

After/before a game session, talk with them about their vision of the game mechanics, talk them into trying to make things more immersive and experiment new rules.

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"In short, don’t ever roll anything if there’s no chance of success or no chance of failure. "

There is a point where you can get excessive. I have numerous times just made rolls secretively that have no meaning whatsoever. I run a much different D&D than most of you all probably run and I don't really umm, I follow 2nd AD&D rules but the entire adventure is an experiment in improvisation. I want my players to see this is not a game of die rolls (as fun as that can be sometimes!) or 'encounters' or 'dungeons'...I want it to be a world where whatever they want it to be, that's what they make it to be. If we spend half the night screwing around in a tavern and everyone is laughing having fun but we're making no progress...so be it. I'm there to facilitate, not dictate what the players want to do. Most of my dungeons are modular--or done on the fly. So now to answer your question from my perspective...

If you spend 10-15 minutes searching in a room for nothing...so what? But this should be a clue to you in the future--think about room detail, think about design--do you want to play into their tendencies to look around so much? Are your rooms detailed, perhaps too detailed so people are just suspecting something must be up in this room? Are you giving off subconscious signals / are your players detecting you as dishonest/meta your facial expressions. Have you ever had a dungeon where you admitted they missed something vital because of something regarding miscommunication? I had a player that would heavily search rooms, once he understood I wasn't screwing with him and the rest of the group wanted to move on--in that group I recall just doing or saying a non-game breaking keyphrase to indicate that without further information, skills, or a special item--that the room has nothing you can actually find.

So it seems like many here say--you have 1 roll to find stuff, win or lose. That's more or less what I did, but this is a really good question for the kinds of games I run because there is nothing to stop my players from wandering aimlessly for hours. The point where I feel DM intervention is before the moment people stop having fun.

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I would like an explanation why this is being downvoted...I gave an honest opinion...this is why I never post on stack exchange, please don't make me leave this subforum on my first post. I gave suggestions from my own experience on how to handle this--I answered the question... –  Iggy May 13 at 5:32
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I'm not among the downvoters, but I'd speculate that it's because you're responding to other answers, rather than to the question itself. An answer which looks like it is simply affirming other answers (rather than providing unique solutions), or which would not make much sense on its own (without reading other answers) is not a strong answer. –  BESW May 13 at 7:16
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Perception checks are not passive- something should have triggered their senses to be active. If they succeed, they should find something but the something could be so trivial that its like nothing at all. An example is a loose wall tile which has nothing behind it- bad construction or a deliberate attempt to deceive. Other possibilities are useless graffiti- "ano wuz here" or an inanimate wooden statue. Then they shouldn't run a perception check again- nothing triggers your perception senses. If they want to waste time pacing the room, then they can be but eventually monsters or scouts will get them.

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protected by Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 13 at 7:37

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