Recently, I DM'd the "Death House" one-shot from Curse of Strahd where the players explore a haunted mansion. A lot of the rooms have great descriptions about their contents (e.g. a dining room with elegant wood-paneling and a carved mahogany table) but ultimately serve no function for the players. Unfortunately, this caused a lot of wasted time spent in rooms that ultimately didn't advance the adventure forward.

How do I give the players nudges that they're wasting time without railroading them? Additionally, they didn't seem to enjoy finding yet another "empty" room, is there a way I can keep it fast-paced and interesting as well?

  • \$\begingroup\$ have you seen this question? rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/74355/… \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 7:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ What's wrong with wasting time? Time is just another resource, like HP, spell slots, food, etc. Or do you mean players' (real) time, not the game time? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 11:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ This question (and several others like it) may well lead you on a tangent of "my players' expectations of the game are different to what I'm trying to run". Basically, the players think that you'd only describe things if they're plot-relevant, but that's not the case. It might be worth looking at some questions around the site on how to align your expectations of game style, or to communicate to them that sometimes, description is there to set a scene, or build an atmosphere, and not just because it's needed for plot. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 15:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor we can only play for two hours a session, so we're bounded by real-time :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 16:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PatrickArthurBrown so you mean the real time, not the game time. So, did you players complained about this time to be "wasted"? Or did they actually enjoyed exploration, great room descriptions and all other things? And if they did not, why did they spent so many time in these rooms? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 16:53

4 Answers 4


I noticed that giving the players a single reason not to loose time usually make them skip more easily through the rooms. For example they could need to finish the exploration before night to avoid the really nasty haunts, or whatever other reason. With this method they are making a choice each time they choose to search a room.

Then when the PCs enter a room end your description by "you can spend one hour to carefully search every detail of that room, or more quickly inspect a specific item". In the important rooms tell them the same thing but be sure to mention something specific about the room.

They probably will examine the first mahogany table, but if you tell them after an estimation check "it's a high quality table, probably worth 50gp" they probably won't examine the next ones unless they have new details : "In this room there is another table, but this one is decorated with a weird symbol."

When they search the useless rooms you still can reward them for a good roll, with material stuff or clues: maybe they find a few gp lost under an armchair, maybe they find a black feather, which can help them to guess that the evil wizard can shapeshift into a raven, or a note from the journal of a previous adventurer... As it costed them a precious resource (time) they still won't want to search every room.


You can introduce story telling elements into the game to move it along that don't require the players to role play it out. If I want to move the story along in my game I tell the players a story about what happens rather than play though every moment and they trust me to not screw them over as a result. Or if I do, I tell them how it happens (either then and there or later), something reasonable and based on what they would normally do, but made to lead into something fun so actually they don't mind.

For instance if they come to a number of empty rooms in the "dungeon" they are in (empty to make the "ecology" of your game work) then I might let them look in the first one, or just include it, and say something like: "You do the same thing you normally do in each of 5 more rooms, making sure there is nothing of interest there: you find nothing but a bunch of old empty barrels and boxes etc. Maybe they used to be used for storage? It takes you about ten minutes for each room and as long as there is nothing different you want to do, like take a rest, you move on. So after about half an hour and you move 60 feet down the corridor before you begin to see...". Instead of having to convince them there is nothing there or actually take half an hour doing nothing it takes 30 seconds.

You can hide things and trick them, but only if what you tell them they do is reasonable and based on what they normally do. However as a rule it is really best not to, particularly in the situation you describe. They will lose trust and make you play through everything or argue "But I would have done something different!" even if they really wouldn't have in your opinion. If you make the trick fun and something that makes sense and does not make any of the characters look individually like fools, they should not mind. Make it normal procedure and they won't mind, on the contrary they will find they get more done and have more fun. It does take a little time if they are not used to it, but persevere.

In my last game my group took a long rest locked in the housekeeper's office of a haunted house during which they were attacked by a bunch of zombies and a ghoul (which made sense given what else was happening in the house at the time). They had proved many times, to me and to themselves, that such a challenge was almost trivial and so we didn't bother playing through it. Instead I told them they were attacked and that they destroyed them all without it taking too long to disrupt their rest. It made sense in the situation which in turn meant they "trusted" what was going on and their decision to rest, it meant that we could move on to the more interesting conflicts and only took seconds rather than twenty minutes.

They key thing here is to not focus on the un-interesting stuff. Get to the meat of the story, much as many authors do in good books. They gloss over the boring bits and detail the interesting bits. Gain the player's trust that you are trying to make it fun for you all, make sure when you gloss over things it has purpose and prove that they can trust you not to screw them over without good reason.

It's a balance but it reaps many rewards in pace and fun.


Ultimately, telling players that somehing is super unimportant is technically Railroading. Not that is is a bad type of railroading (as it keeps the adventure in line), but the mere presence of the room allows the player to branch of your planned plot and investigate. Let me illustrate:

I ran a game of exploration. I did roll on a custom made table of stuff they might find anywhere, that there was an old well shaft in the area of the flats they did check out. Just the shaft, not the wall mind you. So, I presented them the next morning, just after breaking up the camp, with this: "As you march on, you pass a hole in the ground. You can't see the bottom of it and the walls seem quite smooth." Now, what I thought as being a tiny detail to color the area as once inhabited, made the players stop in their tracks, investigating the hole for about two hours. They found out it is really deep and has water at the base. They almost sunk their bard into the hole by almost forgetting to tie him to a rope before throwing him in. They were worried about sandworms, dragons and my manical laughter as I tried to cope with the sheer lunacy of the situation. They did have a fun time guessing and questioning themselves all the time about this simple hole in the ground.

In an other example, I did run a House of Horrors type adventure, using living objects and object pretenders as enemies. To mark one room as clearly off limits, I did describe it as follows: "As you enter the silent mansion everything is cleanted thoroughly. [...] The door at the left end of the hallway is a clear exception to the mansions cleanlyness: a yard from the door the floor hasn't been wiped in year, cobwebs fill the corners and dust collects in front of the door - it seems not to have been opened in a long time." I ran this adventure about 3 times by now (I use it at conventions), and up to now, no group did dare to open the door. It is a door that clearly screams "The inhabitant we look for is not behind it." After the game I did twice revral, that this is the classic room of death (Trapper, Lurker, Stunjelly walls), and the players had a good laugh: it explained their eerie feeling about the closed door.

So, Railroading rule number one is as follows:

Everything has to serve the purpose of directing the players to the plot

This one is neither good nor bad railroading, but it is clear: a room that has no purpose, just like a hole in the ground that does not aim to make the players go to the quest goal, should just not be there. A room that utterly serves no function could as well be not on the map. Or you have to make clear that the room is insignificant.

Look at the two examples above: The well example did turn the player curiosity into an unwanted pitfall, and instead of cutting into their good fun of exploring the well I did allow them to stray off the plot. All good fun, no plot advancement.

Then the Room of Death: The door alone was clearly a place where nobody has been in years. The players wanted to complete their job to find the owner of the mansion, and deducted "he's not there". They had earlier met an iron golem and an executioner's hood and were starting to become wary about the objects in the house (as intended) and took that as a cue not to explore that room.

Ask yourself: did the room of death serve a function despite not being explored? No? Actually, it did: it gave the players an eerie feeling in a house that was supposed to do so, filled the map with a room that they would deduce to be there but the door alone was deterring them. So in the end it was railroading them to the other rooms by being appearing inhospitable and dangerous. In contrast the well did just spark the curiosity about it. "what is this, where does it come from, why is it here" - All the curiosity of the players is sparked by unexplainable things.

How to deal with seemingly empty rooms?

Now, how to deal with a room that is really absolutely boring? How to avoid the "well shaft" dilemma whithout resorting to the "room of death's" Sword of Damocles-feeling? I see several ways:

  • Minor loot. Present them some pretty minor loot if they search the room. Something that ammounts to mayke a few beer in the tavern to "reward" the effort and they will feel that they checked the room. It won't change the balance too much and you can rearrange some wealth to the empty rooms if you like. Somethign like "You search the room up and down, and in the corner you find a few coins covered by a thin layer of dust."
  • Make it clearly boring. In this case, present the room as what it is for your adventure: an empty room. "As soon as you open the door, stale air furrounds you. Inside you see the dirty floor, the pale walls and the ceiling, nothing else. A quick search reveals, that indeed, the room is empty but for you and the air you breathe.

The response to the players actions and/or questions can help in these situations, let the players play the game and if they ask to search the room that has nothing of interest you can bypass a roll and say something along the lines of: "The x of you search the room but ultimately find nothing that you feel would be helpful in your endeavor". If you have players that like to jump the gun on the rolls (they just roll whilst telling you their plan) handle the results either way: High roll - Explain they do a super thorough search and again find nothing. Low roll - explain that even though they do a bad job of searching they get the sense that they probably won't find anything in a room like this.

Hopefully this way the players will still feel that they are choosing what to do but not everything yields fancy rewards/treasure.

Alternatively you can go off script and if the plays give decent detail on how they search and/or roll high you can throw them a little something. Let them find a a statuette or something, throwing in that they think it could probably fetch a pretty penny. Or if the character knows about that kind of thing they know for a fact its probably worth x Gold.


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