A little bit of backstory. Me and a few friends from my job decided to play D&D 5e while we're kinda stuck in one place and were quite bored. So we got everything we needed and they chose me to DM. None of us ever really played but we got the hang of the rules rather quickly after a few sessions.

Now my problem is that my group focuses too much on like, extreme details and search every little corner of every room I present them. For example they arrive at a ruined village that was destroyed several hundreds of years ago and got plundered and emptied over the years. The ruin itself had no connection to the Quest they were given, it was just a ruins I put in front of them while they traveled to another location, nature took over so they had to deal with giant spiders etc.
Anyway, they searched every little corner of every single building. They wanted an entire layout of the village so they could look through every single house. But then they got pissed when I had to tell them 90% of the time that there was nothing left since the village was raided, so useful and precious things were all long gone. They kept going though and as I mentioned, got really pissed about it (plus they had some really bad luck when it came to dice rolls during combat).

That's just one example, there are many more where they are just too focused on small details I'd never think would even matter. Like the eye colour of a farmer who was around at the market, search every single pocket of a slain enemy or wanting to know the name of EVERY book in a bookshelf to know if it might be useful or whatnot.

I'm afraid that if I tell them to stop doing that, they might end up ignoring details or hints I throw at them, blindly running through the world. Don't get me wrong, I like that they are invested in everything I present them but it is just extremely tiring for me as DM and things like "Searching a ruined building" take an unnecessary long amount of time.

Since I don't have experience as a DM , I don't know if it's just me being dumb and furthermore I don't know what to do so I'd really appreciate some advice.

How do I keep my players from focusing too deeply on unimportant details, without causing them to miss important ones?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ You mention you’re afraid they might be treating everything as a possible hint for what’s coming up. Have you talked with them about this at all? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 16:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well them treating everything as crucial part of the plot or a place where they'd discover something of importance, is the current problem. I'm afraid that they'll just ignore hints later on or stop looking through stuff when it actually is important if I keep nagging them about it. I talked with them but nothing changed in the next session. I just think they have a problem differentiating between situations where it matters, and situations where it doesn't. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nep
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 16:22
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Related non-system-specific question: How do I get the PCs to stop focusing on a red herring? \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:11
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Also probably related. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 4:20

6 Answers 6


Set their expectations on what you can and cannot do straight.

I remember the same thing from my first D&D session. We were walking along, chatting amongst ourselves, when we came across a cow. Since that was one of the first things we, as players, encountered in that world, we bombarded the cow with skill checks and wasted like 15 minutes. In the end, it was just a regular goddamn cow (who would have guessed ^^).
Ultimately, we learned from this encounter (and various others in the first few sessions) that not everything is mysterious just because the DM mentioned it.

Where is your players' behavior coming from?

Concerning your players: The first thing we need to figure out is why they focus so much on details. Is it like in the example above, that they simply think that because you mentioned it, it has to be important? Or is it something else?

The way I see it, however, is two-fold. On one hand, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that your players came to pen & paper from video games (or behave like someone who does), and as a consequence, they have unrealistic expectations on what you can and cannot do.

Your players are behaving like they are used to behave in video games.

First of all, your players seem to be highly focused on looting, indicated by the fact that they're pissed when they want to loot the ruin but there's nothing there. This is directly related to their (supposed) video gaming background I mentioned above.
More precisely, video games run on high-performing computers, which have no issues whatsoever in tracking every little piece of trash that the player picks up.
Coming up with (as DM) and tracking (as players) this kind of loot is, however, not viable in RPGs. Additionally, making each of your players roll 15 separate investigation checks for every single ruined house, giving them a broken broom (metaphorically or literally) on a "success" is not fun for anyone. Instead, if they want to loot the ruins, summarize it as

You search the ruins, noticing in the process that they were abandoned centuries ago. Suspecting that you're probably not the first raiders, you attempt to find anything worthwhile left behind. Make an investigation check.

Depending on how roll-loving your group is, you can make everyone roll, or let one person roll with advantage. The latter would mechanically be the Help action, meaning that your most investigative player checks out the place and gets help from the others.

I suggest using the latter version since the first version means that regardless of the DC (unless it's higher than 20, ruling out players with low modifiers), there will likely always be at least one player succeeding on the check. This is less problematic during looting since you can simply scale the loot based on the number of successes, but it will get problematic during boolean checks - i.e., how can I activate this extendable bridge? In that case, only one person has to succeed.

Insisting on the first version would be rather cheesy from your players, but which one you agree on (or which one you choose, since it's ultimately your decision) depends on you and your group.

As a consequence of treating D&D like a video game, your players have unrealistic expectations of you. Make it clear to them that you're not a computer.

The second problem that your group seems to have, which in my experience is not uncommon either, is that they have unrealistic expectations of what the DM can and cannot do.

For example, when your party ventures into a new town, you as the DM can prepare a few NPCs, such as a major, a vendor on the marketplace, and a cleric in a local temple.
Furthermore, when your players suddenly decide to search for a rather exotic kind of NPC, such as an herbalist or a cobbler that you didn't prepare, you should be able to come up with one on the spot, using things like name lists that allow you quickly improve the NPC. (This can be rather hard to do in the beginning, don't get discouraged - it gets easier.)

What you cannot do is to prepare a list of 200 books that a bookstore you potentially just improvised sells. Your players, being accustomed to video games which require years of development (unlike your session), want to look through all of the books to make sure whether or not there's a book that they might like or could use.

You need to make it clear to your players that this kind of preparation would require an enormous amount of preparation that simply exceeds all realistic expectations. This is a key argument, if you can't get your players to accept that there are limits to what you can do and prepare for, it won't work out.
It might help to let other people be the DM in a One-shot, so they realize what they're asking for, but I feel like that would just create other problems down the road (e.g. players trying to tell you that you're doing your job wrong, since they know a little bit about it as well). Hence, I would only choose this means as a last resort.

As a side note, due to the fact that you can't mention every little detail, your players try to jump on every little detail that you do mention. Make it clear to them that, just because you mention something, does not mean it is necessarily relevant to the story or has some hidden meaning. Thanks to @LinearZoetrope for reminding me to clarify this potential issue (which is, btw, the same one I mention in my cow-story at the beginning).

To handle a situation where players want to look through a bunch of books, make it clear that what they want to do is what their characters are doing, but you only present them with the conclusion that their characters came to. Similarly, your players probably don't roleplay going to the toilet (or even mention it), even though your characters most certainly do use the toilet.

You can describe it as following:

Your characters casually walk through the bookstore, letting their eyes wander over the rows of books. Occasionally, one of the books catches one of your characters eyes, but mostly, it turns out irrelevant after all. They ultimately discover 3 promising books: A treatise on the anatomy of Beholders, A complete history of the town of Thunderhall and Dissecting a wyvern: cooking recipes and a guide to poison extraction.

Obviously, you can switch out these books for something more suitable for your campaign. It might also help to have a number of book titles prepared (I'm sure you'll find a bunch on google), so you don't have to come up with them on the spot.
I also recommend you to check out How can I handle players who want to browse shops at random? (disclaimer: I originally asked & answered that question).

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the quick answer! You could be right, one of my players is addicted to The Witcher, so I guess that's the source of his need for useful loot. Letting them do a oneshot is an amazing idea and I'll definitely try that out! \$\endgroup\$
    – Nep
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:03
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Nep yeah, The Witcher does have loot all over the place (which you also need to collect to craft stuff). Be sure to make them understand that D&D /= videogames! :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:05
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I'll try to get that across :) I am really impressed on how fast I got really helpful responses, I think I'll ask way more questions over time on here :P \$\endgroup\$
    – Nep
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding how many rolls to have them make, there's a fantastic discussion on the Angry GM blog called 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System. I don't 100% agree with everything he says here, but rules #1 and #2 are more right than wrong, in terms of when the players should be rolling. Your players don't get to tell you when they're rolling, and you shouldn't have them roll unless there's a real cost for failure (and I don't mean "you miss the thing"). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 2:55
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I'd argue this behavior does somewhat stem from a little understanding that the DM can't prepare everything, actually. I.E. "The DM can't prepare everything in detail so therefore every detail they mention must be super important." I'd say clarifying that, yes, a lot of stuff is functional, improvised, or just for flavor with no depth can help a lot. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linear
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 7:35

First, no, you're not being dumb. I'm not sure exactly how common this sort of problem is, but it's definitely not uncommon. I've seen it before. Especially as video games get more and more detailed by procedural generation (or just massive amounts of back-stage effort from a paid team), players sometimes expect unreasonable levels of detail. And honestly, sometimes before the rise of video games.

Second, sometimes, for some of these things (eye color is a specific example because you mentioned it) it's actually not hard to just wing it and come up with meaningless details on the fly... precisely because they are meaningless. It's a good skill to have, within reason. But yes, it can and does get tedious, especially if they're expecting you to remember all this stuff many sessions later, or are reading deep significance into it.

Third, the easiest solution to this is probably to tell your players (politely, kindly) something like, "Hey, guys. This is putting a heavy burden on me that isn't fun and isn't really meaningful for the game. I'm not running a game where your failure to search every stick of furniture in every ruined dwelling place is going to make or break the success of your quest. It's really hard to be coming up with bookshelves full of book names when none of them are actually important. Can we maybe... ease off a little and find a happy medium?" Not those words, but that sentiment. Be willing to express an idea of where that happy medium should be, by the way.

Fourth, and very specific to the 'search every stick' mentality: As the GM, you are not merely allowed to set the scope of a single search roll, it is a vital tool in your toolbox to control the pacing. What I mean is this:

Sometimes, it is appropriate to bring out a grid mat and track character motions very carefully, turn by turn, and 5' resolution. Almost always, this will be in combat, when it is important. But most of the time, especially when just getting from here to there across town or across country, it would be foolish and infuriating to do that.

By the same token, sometimes it is appropriate to search something room by room, or even at a finer resolution-- in some kinds of dungeon crawls. In many other circumstances, you can and should say, "Okay, I will make a search roll for you for the entire ruined village. Or (or in addition to that) you can also turn things back on them a little bit: "What specifically are you looking for? I will tell you if you find any in that ruined village."

These are tools that let you control the pacing of the game, and that is definitely something within your sphere as a GM.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Great minds think alike and answer at the same time! ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Sava
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 16:38
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ First of all, thank you so much for the quick help. Making the entire process of "Searching the village" into a single dice roll is a great idea that I haven't thought about and will definitely do in the future. The thing with the eye colour was just a short mention, and making it up wasn't the problem :D I will use those hints in the next session! Thank you :3 \$\endgroup\$
    – Nep
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 16:46

Some advice that might help:

  • Have a chat with your group, and explain to them, politely, that details like the name of every book on a bookshelf are inconsequential and slows down the game.

Tell them that if they want to try and find an interesting book on a bookshelf, they should tell you what kind of book they're looking for ('Is there a book about old legends?'), then you as a GM decide if it's logical to find it on this bookshelf, they're unlikely to find anything about old legends on the bookshelf of the city's treasury for example. Then you can either have them make a roll to see if they notice anything interesting, or just tell them if there's something of interest or not.

  • About wanting to search the ruined village or every pocket of an enemy, that is natural player reaction: the GM put something in front of us, there might be something interesting in there. Plus looting an enemy is normal for D&D and many other games. That's easily solved with one roll of dice, and some RP, as well.

If they want to search the entire ruined village, tell them it will take them hours and they may be late for whatever they have to do, if your current adventure has a time sensitive element, for example.

If it does not, or they want to do it anyway, have them make one roll and describe to them that, after a long day of trudging through the ruins, in the dirt and such, almost falling through rotten wooden floors into cellars or narrowly avoiding getting crushed by falling stones from the walls and such, they find nothing. And now the night is almost upon them, they are exhausted and dirty, time to set up camp.

Same with looking through an enemy's pocket: have them make one roll and describe what they find depending on their success and keep going.

On both cases, the roll and description took two minutes, and the adventure can continue.

If a player complain, you can just point at their roll and say: 'That's what you find with this result.'

Thanks to @Angew for reminding me about the 'Take 10' and 'Take 20' rules: - Take 10: If you're not in danger, you don't roll the dice and consider that your result is a 10. - Take 20: If you're not in danger, you have time and failure is not a problem, you can take 20 time the usually time needed for the task and consider your roll to be 20.

Note about the layouts and maps: The only time I do a layout or a map is for combat. It is especially important in D&D, but even in other games, I usually do not have maps of cities and such ready, except for combat to help visualize. Or, if my players are really lost my description, I whip up something quickly based on how I envisioned the place in my mind.

I've run sci-fi games where the players go to different planets, and just gave them a quick verbal description of the planet. There is an agreement with my players that making layouts takes a lot of time to make, and that, while they're nice, it's often time wasted if the layout will be used only once in a scene in passing. You can explain this to your players as well, they should understand. If they don't, you may have a bigger problem than you realized.

  • For NPCs, have a gallery of them ready and make your description from the start, giving them the details like eye color.

I find that that kind of details adds to the NPCs, give them a better presence than just saying 'you meet a farmer that looks like a farmer'. I'm exaggerating with that description, but you see my point. Even if you reuse them, having a premade gallery of NPCs help you to give a credible description of someone they meet, and this participate to give the world more depth and realism.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the quick help! :3 I said most of the stuff already in a comment above, but I'll use your help in the next session :) I use detailed maps for combat only, too. Drawing stuff is part of the entire thing for me. I do digital Art as a hobby, so I draw the Player Characters, important NPC's and certain areas in my free time, for example the city that they are building themselves. So I guess they got used to that :D \$\endgroup\$
    – Nep
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 16:48
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ 'One picture to rule them all, One picture to find them, One picture to bring them all and in the roleplay bind them.' ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Sava
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:19
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ On my groups, such argument would be met with one reaction: 'Why? Give me a good in-universe reason as to why your character would decide, after having spent 5 mins searching the corpse of your enemy, to go back and keep on searching?' And 'because my character feels like he might have missed something' is not good reason. Besides, that's something that must be discouraged from the start, else the same argument could apply to any roll out of combat and then rolling dices becomes useless if one can reroll until one gets the desired number. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sava
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 19:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Sava There's both. Take 10 means "if you're not in danger, you can consider your roll a 10." Take 20 means "if you have the time and failure is not a problem, you can spend 20x the time it normally takes and consider your roll a 20 (this assumes you fail many times during this)." So you can spend 1 round on a search check and roll, or spend 2 minutes searching as if you had rolled a 20 (or do both). The rules even gave an example of doing both: first a "casual" search roll, and then take 20 to "leave no stone unturned." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 10:23
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I like the Take 20 rule, as it adds the time specification for guaranteed success (given the indicated conditions). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 14:19

Depending on how immersive you want the games to be, you can potentially provide your players some subtle "meta" information to give them some guidance on what they should focus on. A simple way to do this is to just not roll dice for unimportant stuff.

In your ruined town example, if they wanted to search the ruins you just respond with "you search every building but don't find anything", without rolling any dice. It makes it clear to your players that there's nothing to find, without the need to talk to them out of character (which is much more immersion-breaking).

For things like the farmer's eye colour and the book names, ask them what they are trying to find out/do/achieve. You want them to say "we look at all the books to see if any are important", rather than "tell us the name of every book". Which again allows you to just answer with "you don't find anything important" without rolling, to indicate there is nothing to see here, move along.

Not all DMs will like to do this but certainly for newer DMs and players I think it is a an effective way to keep things on track without resorting to completely out of character discussions. You don't want to make it too black and white to the point that you are essentially giving players clear signals ("ooh he rolled a dice so there is definitely something here!") but for things that are genuinely inconsequential it can be a simple way to signal that they shouldn't waste time with it. You can even do a single initial roll for it so that the signal isn't too obvious, but then no further rolls and reply with simple "you don't find anything" (or even "there is nothing there" if you really want to make it obvious) if they continue wasting time on it.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already. This is a good answer! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 2:02

Aw, this isn't a problem at all, it's an opportunity!

I think you're considering your planned adventures as set-in-stone realities, when in fact they should just be a framework you can rely upon if nothing else is happening for the players.

If the players want to know crazy details you haven't considered, make them up on the spot. And keep making them up. The players will derive conclusions from those details that will make a richer and more interesting adventure than the one you came up with.

It's collaborative, improvisational storytelling. Make it up as you go along and don't be wedded to your adventure notes.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ It's not a problem for me to come up with things, the main problem for me is that they get lost in details and waste ridiculous amounts of time on things that shouldn't take longer than 1-2 minutes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nep
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:05
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Make it up as you go can also lead to incoherencies that are hard to resolve afterwards. While eye color of an NPC is inconsequential, making stuff up in the ruined village could derail the planned adventure, which would be bad when the GM has spent hours crafting it. It's a balance to be found. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sava
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:21

Have you tried following up on their hunches? Make the mysteries a bit more loosely defined and when they pick up on something, run with it. If they decide to explore the ruin, tail the farmer or search through the bookshelf, let them discover a clue.

When I play and the DM tosses something in front of us, I reason it was put in front of us for a reason. Sure, in real life this would not be the case, but in real life days and weeks are spent sifting through dead ends and false clues, which is both tedious and boring. Also, if the dungeon is empty, tell them "You search the dungeon thuroghly but it seems to be looted a long time ago, you deem it a dead end"

Another technique is to ask them what they find in the bookshelf, what color the pesant eyes have and so on. That way you tell them that you haven't tought of that piece of information and thus it is not particularly important.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Heh, I had a game get completely derailed because my players visited a restaurant, and when they asked me what food was there and how good it was, I told them to RP it however they wanted. There after, every time they visited town, they would spend an hour or 2 RPing discovering a new eating place and discovering what new foods were there. My players were having a blast, and it gave me breaks to touch up my upcoming encounters, so I always felt it was a win/win. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 20:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Simply brilliant \$\endgroup\$
    – Obak
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 9:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .