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I am currently running a D&D 4e campaign. Every time my players defeat/subdue the monsters in a room, they decide to search the room. However, I never have anything interesting for them to find. I realize that sometimes the answer is just, "You find nothing," but I don't think that that should always be the answer.

How can I avoid disappointing my players when they search a room and there is nothing to find?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you could make your question system-agnostic, or at least tag it with dungeons-and-dragons tag and not just dnd-4e tag, because that question could be ask for all dnd edition, and almost all system. \$\endgroup\$ – Rorp Jul 1 at 13:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please don't make questions "more general" that are system specific by tagging them with a less specific tag. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jul 1 at 19:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rorp We don't make questions more general here just because we can, because we are more concerned about solving this person's problem and thus it should reference the game system this person is playing. Also, there's no way you could ask this question about every system. There are hundreds of RPG systems out there and very few, if any are close enough to D&D to make this question applicable. Even other editions of D&D are likely to be too different to work here. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 1 at 19:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for this post, the answers you got are really inspiring. \$\endgroup\$ – John Stoneman Jul 2 at 20:53
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You owe your players 10* treasure parcels a level, but the payment terms are very flexible.

After each of the baseline 10 fights to level? Sure. All gathered up in the end boss's treasure room so they can open the door and act like a rich duck? That might leave them a little short on consumables for a bit, but that works too.

Some of them pooled together in notable caches, and others broken up into tinier pieces and spread out to be found or looted after combat since your party's looking to find and loot things after combat? Especially if your party is aggressively interested in looting the room, you can even "break up" single magic items into components they can find and put together. There are a couple other little considerations:

If you described something notable about the room, make it notable for treasure purposes, too.

There are notable things about "the room", right? Or complex of tinier rooms, or wherever it is you fought? Big central altar? Secret compartment or a pattern in the runes. Weird cutoff corner? Hidden wall. Overlooking balcony? Sounds like a nice place for a stash. Abundant plantlife? What could be in the roots?

You can and should also flavor the smidgen of treasure they find in keeping with the larger dungeon aesthetic. 4E is extremely friendly to reskins, and there's no reason "a vial of alchemist's fire" can't be a weird flower bud or a sealed heart fragment of a fire archon or a fragile portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire.

If you want to give them a challenge to overcome to get the treasure, give them a danger to avoid or a benefit to risk.

Nothing on the level of a skill challenge, really; just a single roll to find something or disarm or manipulate something small and notable. The treasure's there because it's a fair amount of treasure to have, so don't "hide it behind" a skill roll they have to pass or lose it.

Either they avoid a small amount of additional on-tier damage, or you can give them a little something extra to find. Nothing huge, just an on-tier consumable or rough cash equivalent.

Don't pull a roll out all the time; only when you feel like you can make some tension out of it. There's nothing wrong with just letting people find the treasure that's there to find, even if it's not in plain view but might be uncovered by the normal process of searching.

* Depending on your player count and other optional features like inherent bonuses, this number may change, but it will always be greater than 0.

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Michael Shea describes a technique that works very well for this in his book Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master (he also occasionally talks about it on his blog).

When prepping for your session, take the time to write down ten secrets or clues relevant to the world or the current adventure. These secrets can be critical to the plot, be hints at future plots, or simply be interesting bits of world building.

When they get a success on a search check, pick a secret or clue from your list and theme it to whatever they were searching.

At the end of the night, any secret that the players have found is true for your campaign. Anything that never came to light gets thrown out and ceases to exist. This is so you don't write yourself into a corner with clues that the players aren't even aware of yet.

Naturally if you liked one of the clues you threw out, you can include it again in a later session. The point is that your old, undiscovered secrets aren't canon until they're discovered.

For example, if your secret is: "The Mayor of Havorford meets with a foreign agent every night" this can be revealed in a variety of ways:

  • A note tucked in among paperwork for basically anyone in town.

  • Observing the mayor sneaking out of town while tailing him.

  • Signs of a meeting if searching a wilderness location.

  • Gossip and rumors about the mayor leaving.

The same works for more fantastic secrets. The secret "Pelor's Hammer is hidden in the Tomb of Darkness" could show up in several different ways:

  • A fragmentary account or inscription in a dungeon.

  • A prophetic vision or dream.

  • A rumor in a tavern.

  • Signs of a rival adventuring group or evil organization going after the hammer.

  • An account in a book in a library.

  • Etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice; searching generates secrets. Of course the "pick" should be with a die (with rerolls if you cannot find a way to make it fit) \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Jul 2 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk To each their own. Picking via a die roll gets you that neat "play to find out" feeling that PbtA was built on. Picking directly lets you prioritize your best secrets first. They're both good. \$\endgroup\$ – AceCalhoon Jul 2 at 21:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AceCalhoon - of course you could get the best of both worlds from the player's PoV. They need not know if you ignored the throw and picked a different item from the list... \$\endgroup\$ – David Spillett Jul 3 at 17:06
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Knickknacks and trinkets

Knickknacks and trinkets are often overlooked and underused, while giving a cue to your players that:

  1. There is no other loot here, or
  2. They botched their search.

Examples would include:

  • A gold (or other rare metal) piece of a time long forgotten.
  • A handheld watch that would have been worth a small fortune, were it not for its condition. (Too many parts missing to cast mending)
  • The remnants of a rat's meal.
  • The remnants of a rat.
  • A rat.
  • A rat without a tail.
  • Scratchings on a wall in an unknown dialect.
  • Two left shoes.
  • A tiny wooden carving of a deity, animal or famous leader.
  • The rusted blade of a dagger. You think you see old, caked blood on there.
  • A well-sketched, framed picture of a family, probably one that lived here once.
  • A wooden/bone/ivory die that's cracked and worn.
  • Questionable stains.
  • Mold in the shape of a deity's face. It's a miracle!
  • Old toys like dolls or a spinning top.
  • A nest of regular-sized spiders, the female is waiting for her brood to hatch.
  • A stray tooth, probably knocked from one of the creatures during the encounter. It's bloody and you think you see a cavity.

Come up with a few of these dead ends to add flavor and signal that their search has been completed, there is nothing else to find here.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this overall recommendation in your own games? How has it worked, in your experience? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 2 at 3:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah but the 4th level spell Fabricate will suffice to get the watch working again, assuming you know how it should work. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Jul 2 at 3:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have't hosted a game in quite some time but am planning to soon. Perhaps if the effect is significant enough I will return with a comment. \$\endgroup\$ – phLOx Jul 2 at 11:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ As is normal for fantasy games, there's usually always (although sometimes never) a way around it. In this case, the players just unlocked another plot hook as the freshly repaired device clicks to life, projecting a magical light depicting events many years ago. A soft musical tone can be heard while the light flickers out. What does it mean?! \$\endgroup\$ – phLOx Jul 2 at 11:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joshua I don't see the problem. I see a motivation for players to take a sidequest with a possible reward :) They will have to research how it worked (maybe find a clockworker specialized on those trinkets?), the necessary materials (steel is easy, but the clockwork uses "fabricated" rubies to avoid friction -like the real high end watches- plus other exotic material), and finally someone who can pay for it and wants it if they want a good price! \$\endgroup\$ – Stormbolter Jul 2 at 15:21
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I have players like this. If I feel there should be stuff in said location, I either use it to give hints or I roll for random detritus.

I keep a few random mundane object lists around. One is reserved for the most useful mundane objects for exceptional rolls, another is personal effects (aka pocket/bedroll contents), and another is just random mundane stuff. My players may forget a lesser villain, but they have never forgotten the dead minion that had erotic elven playing cards and a stuffed mouse in his pockets.

I have had several side adventures created by random stuff. Once, my players found a dented dwarven helm in a dead ooze, and they spent much of a session locating the next of kin. The dwarf was so thankful to finally know what happened to his brother that they ended up with a master blacksmith (another random roll) as a associate who literally would not let them pay for anything.

The players do like finding uses for things; often mundane objects are just as important as magical ones. A half-used jar of itch cream, some sticks of charcoal, a pile of wine corks, a leather bucket; each of these has been instrumental in something the players did, and they got them from random rolls for rooms or dead minions.

But even better, this is a great way to give hints. For instance, I once told my players: "You find a badly damaged sword. (Roll Insight.) It looks like it has been partially eaten away, as if badly etched by a powerful acid." The players started watching the ceiling and avoiding puddles based on a belief that there was an ooze around. Or: "You find soot next to a torch bracket; when you touch it, the wall is ever so slightly warm. It looks like these tunnels are not as abandoned as you were told." Animal hair, shed scales, food scraps, excrement; these are all small hints that nevertheless reward inquisitiveness.

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The solution depends on your goal as a group.

When I'm running a campaign, I keep in mind what moves the story forward and try to cut out things that do not. With this mindset, I would not want my players searching every room thoroughly. It's a lot of boring rolls with no narrative payoff. So, in this example, searching every room is a behavior I'd like to discourage. One way is to have them be surprised by a roaming hostile creature whilst they search. Another would be to put them in a situation that is time sensitive. Do they really have time to check every drawer if some wizard is on the verge of casting a nasty curse?

If your game is more of a dungeon crawl, searching every room could be a fun part of the game. In this case you want to reward the behavior, but probably want to make the rolls more exciting. You can secretly set a DC for the rooms and, if they pass that, roll on a minor loot table to give them something. You should probably also include a counterbalance so your group doesn't just sit around rolling over and over on every room, so maybe something negative can happen when they fail a roll:

  • get bit by a rat when sticking their hand in a dark hole
  • end up trying to heave a heavy stone and tweak their back [+1 level of exhaustion]
  • get a bunch of dust in their eyes when checking an old lamp [-2 on perception checks]
  • Break an arrow/dagger trying to pry something open
  • Find an old, valuable item, but accidentally destroy it

In my games, I try to make sure every roll has a purpose or, at the very least, some heft behind it. If it's unimportant, I don't think it's worth rolling for. If the players want to roll anyway, you can try to make it have a consequence (though not always in a way they'd like!!)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Major +1 here for both a) acknowledging that this is a playstyle decision, not a matter of the "right" or "wrong" way to do it, and b) giving examples of how to handle it in each of the playstyles you mentioned. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Jul 3 at 12:12
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Declaring to search every room, is slowing down the game and isn't realistic behaviour either: Unless you are a homeless person looking for empty bottles or food leftovers, you probably don't spend time randomly searching every place you are in. Especially not if you are in a dungeon full a hostile creatures.

Don't reward this behaviour by giving in and let them find things you didn't plan on giving the players. Instead try to understand what causes them to search every room, which might be a mixture of the following two:

  1. The fear of missing an essential clue, that will be lost if they forget to search the right room.
  2. The misconception that searching random places is generating treasures out of nothing.
  3. Familiarity with RPG inspired games, where searching every room is a normal part of the game (e.g. in Hero Quest searching every room for traps and treasures is just part of what the game is about)

Reason #1 can be addressed by letting the players now, by promising them that you wouldn't just randomly hide an essential item without dropping a hint, or making it clear from the situation that a search would be useful. Make sure to keep that promise. Never stall the game because the players didn't search the right room.

For #2 and #3, make sure not to just automatically grant a roll every time someone says she is searching the room. Instead ask how she is searching and how much time she is going to spend.

You can play with this: Lead your players in a big hall that contains 99 crates. Every crate is full of sand. 21 of the crates have red markings on them, but none of the players can read them.

P: "I am going to search the room."

GM: "How?"

P: "I am looking in the boxes."

GM: "All the boxes?"

P: "Yes."

GM: "The first box is full of sand. Do you want to dig into the sand?"

P: "Yes."

GM: "For how long do you want to dig?"

P: "As long as takes."

GM: "It takes about 20 minutes to move all of the sand."

P: "Ok."

GM: "Roll."

Player rolls a 7.

GM: "You find nothing. Do you want to search again, or open the second crate?"

...

GM: "After crate number 17 you get thirsty, but you ran out of water already..."

...

GM: "You resupplied and worked your way through 20 more crates, you still didn't find anything. Do you want to continue with crate 38?"

P: "Yes."

GM: "Another party of adventures enters the cave you are in and tells you that they are on their way out. They killed the lich lord while you were counting sand."

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    \$\begingroup\$ The example seems like kinda a dick move, I would be curious as to why there are crates of sand, there is just no reason to put sand in crates so I would assume it has to be hiding something. \$\endgroup\$ – John Jul 2 at 22:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree. I think insisting on searching everything on the assumption that there will be no consequences is the true dick move. My only complaint about this answer is that it gives too much information. My preference would be "the room is full of piles of low quality items". If the players want to search then tell them they can quickly scan in case there is something obviously valuable just behind a pile of old magazines, if they want to search thoroughly it will take hours (how may depends on how big the area is). If they choose to search they will find "nothing interesting". \$\endgroup\$ – Eric Nolan Jul 3 at 11:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, the example is kind of exaggerated, but it hopefully helps to show how unrealistic that behaviour is. I didn't explain why there are crates of sand, just assumed it makes sense in the context. It could be a huge storage room full of worthless trinkets collected by a dragon, or an ancient tomb with terracotta warriors instead. \$\endgroup\$ – Helena Jul 3 at 17:38

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