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Situation

One issue that I have experienced very often in the past, both as a player and a DM, with beginners and experienced people, is this phenomenon:

  • The party enters a dungeon or building, and starts exploring the rooms.
  • Each time they enter a room, a more or less standard ritual plays out:
    • P: "Do we see anything?"
    • DM: "The floor is such and such, the walls are such and such, you see a big altar in the center. ..."
    • P: "I check out the altar."
    • DM: "It is so and so, but you can't find anything special."
    • P: "Can we test the walls for hidden doors?"
    • DM: "Sure, roll a check... " ... rolls ... "nope, nothing special."

And so on and forth. The players go through all the features of the room, and basically nothing happens. They move to the next room, rinse and repeat. If they don't do it, they might miss all but the most obvious stuff (in in-game terms: "secrets" revealed to Passive Perception).

(Obviously there are exceptions, i.e. special rooms with actual "content" where something significant happens; with denizens or obviously very special objects. This question is mainly about the not-so-important, and especially the actually empty rooms which make up a larger layout.)

As a player, I find I'm easily turned off by this kind of exploration. As a DM, I notice the same with my players.

A similar question is closely related. It and its answers focus more on how to describe the rooms to make them seem more interesting. This is not the same as my question; I have no issue describing the rooms or coming up with fluff, but how to avoid a rote "checklist-based" exploration.

This is for DnD5e, if you can think of helpful tools specific to this game system.

Question

As a DM, how do you make this more interesting, or avoid getting into this ritual? Specifically, how do you make the dynamic interaction between DM and players more interesting, rather than like a boring court cross-examination?

I am up for any kind of answer, whether it targets the preparation of the place as a DM, subtle hints to the players, the meaning of "exploration", or a reframing of my issue.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've tagged this as dungeons-and-dragons, since it sounds like you're describing that game. Knowing the game means we know the actual experience of the gameplay and the relevant tools available. If you're experiencing this issue in a particular edition, I'd invite you to further specify that edition. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 20, 2023 at 11:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good idea @doppelgreener - I was hesitant to limit this to a specific system, but as you said, it could be helpful. It's DnD5e, I have added this to the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – AnoE
    Mar 20, 2023 at 11:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ See this meta here: Should I use a narrow system tag, or use a broader tag? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 20, 2023 at 12:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this a prewritten adventure that you're running or are you designing the dungeon yourself? \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Mar 20, 2023 at 13:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is a prewritten adventure (the Icespire Peak starter box), but I feel the question really shouldn't depend on that so much - it's more about the interaction than any particular pre-written descriptions. I have no trouble fleshing out the terse location descriptions in the adventure; it's more about the concrete interaction with the players. @AnnaAG \$\endgroup\$
    – AnoE
    Mar 20, 2023 at 14:35

4 Answers 4

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Searching must cost something

The optimal strategy in D&D is often to go though a dungeon and in each room search until you are pretty sure that you have found everything interesting. This is a strategy that is typically valid in the game but not in real life because real people get bored but if the characters in the game would get bored, the players don't feel that because a half-hour search is easily handled in one sentence. There a multiple steps you can take to change this:

  1. Build trust. If there is something to find, in most cases you should flat out tell the players. If anything is obvious when entering the room, tell the players so. Don't make them ask for anything that they would easily perceive if they were their characters. If some info requires specific stats or skills you should still do this. Just set a DC (e.g. DC 15 Intelligence religion) or even a flat threshold (e.g. 15 in religion, calculated as 8 + INT + proficiency if applicable). Upon entering a room where this info is findable, check the threshold or roll a check and if they have the score or the result, give them the info. If they don't, they don't know the info. Doing this, and telling your players that you do this makes many questions unnecessary. Also give clear clues, if there is a trap, so players don't feel obligated to search very long to avoid being randomly hit by traps.

  2. If players want to search something more specifically, ask for a specific approach. E.g. "I want to check if I can lift the top of the altar to see if there's something under." No approach, no searching.

  3. Now, players can still take long actions like tapping on all the floor tiles to see if there's space underneath. Wasting time has to cost something. You can start by being wordy. Instead of using one sentence to say: "You search but there's nothing." you should take multiple sentences and describe it in detail: "You get on your knees in the corner of the room and knock on the first tile. The sound is very faint, it doesn't seem hollow underneath. You get to the second tile..." You can also simply add a time limit to the quest. Make sure your players know that the child kidnapped from the village will get sacrificed in the temple on the full moon tomorrow. Then you can say: If you check every floor tile, this will cost you an hour, are you sure. If you do this for some time, players will start concentrating on useful things to analyze. The Angry GM wrote some stuff on how to make time valuable, you can find it here (obligatory warning: the article is long and contains profanity). The short summary is this: You take a glass and 6d6. Whenever players do something that takes significant time, such as searching, you put 1d6 in the glass. If there are 6d6 you roll them and if there is a 1 on any die, there is some setback. This can be a random monster or something else, as long as it has a distinct feeling of being a setback. This means, wasting time carries relevant consequences.

TL;DR: Make sure, players don't have to ask unnecessary question. Make time-wasting costly but reward useful search inquiries.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The classic way to ensure they know there is a time limit is wandering monsters. This has the advantage that the cost is immediate and there's no chance of thinking they will make it up after. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mary
    Mar 21, 2023 at 0:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes this! Its an extrapolation of "If there's no penalty for failure, then don't have them roll." -> "You enter the room. It looks like ........... You do a quick search, but are convinced there's nothing more to find. The exits look like ..... Which exit do you pursue?" If there's nothing to find, tell the players that up front. But the area still exists, which deepens immersion, and opens tactical options later. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 21, 2023 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ You nailed it ! I have been doing this for years and my players actually learned when they need and how they need to search , became better players and actually RP during search sessions ! \$\endgroup\$ Mar 21, 2023 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ The rest is good, but I don't particularly like the idea of "being wordy" here--it seems like the GM is in this case just being annoying to punish the players for taking what they think is an annoying course of action \$\endgroup\$
    – Kaia
    Mar 22, 2023 at 17:13
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Keep a room description short

My players, which I think are fairly average, tend to tune out after the second or third line of a room description, so it's critical to get right to the point with the most important information. If I go on at any length, they're going to stop listening. And once they tune out, it takes extra effort to pull them back into the game.

The strategy I use is basically three sentences: First give a broad overview of the room (or area) for general scene-setting; then give it flavor with a sensory experience; and finally describe one or two points of interest in the room. The important information should come in part 1 and part 3 -- the middle is the most likely bit to get ignored, so it's a good place for some mood-setting description that doesn't actually do anything critical.

In a lot of older modules, I see a particular style of describing rooms that kind of drives me nuts. It'll say something like: "This chamber is twenty feet square and ten feet high. The floor of the chamber is dressed stone. The walls are white marble with blue inlaid tiles. Against the back wall there is a large bed draped in velvet with a trunk at its foot. Tapestries and bookcases full of ancient, dusty tomes line the walls. A simple, sturdy oak table in the center of the room holds an ornately carved ivory statuette of a dolphin."

Okay, that is marginally serviceable description of the room, but how much of that did the players actually care about? Were we particularly invested in the exact room size or the flooring that got top billing? By the time we've mentioned the tapestries and the statuette, most of my players have gotten distracted, or have focused on the velvet bed and didn't even notice me mention the bookcases. Worse, I feel like this kind of mechanical description doesn't paint a mental image of the room in any meaningful way.

I'd say something like: "You find a bed-chamber that is surprisingly plush compared to the tunnels outside, walls lined with bookshelves and tapestries. It smells of sweet herbs and beeswax candles. A velvet-draped four-poster bed dominates one wall, and in the center of the room is a heavy table holding a statuette."

But don't make it a guessing game

Notice how much I didn't say about the room. I didn't discuss what the statuette looks like or is made of. I didn't mention what's on the shelves. Those are details I'll fill in as the players start moving into the room and looking around.

There can be a fine line between making your room description brief and turning the room into a guessing game. But there is, I think, a good reason to do this.

People tend to only be able to hold a few pieces of new information in their head at once. Mentioning too many things at once very quickly drives out the first pieces of information without getting really processed, or the player fixates on early information and misses the later parts. This often manifests as catching the general gist of the description but apparently missing important specifics. By saying "there's a statuette" and moving on, for example, the players don't get the extra information until they're ready for it -- which is shown by them asking about it. (And I mean asking in the sense of "Okay, tell me about that statuette" or similar, it doesn't need to be specific.)

This also helps keep your players engaged by making them active participants in describing the room. Have you ever run your players through an exploration section and started to feel like it's just you reading to the players while they occasionally go "I open the next door" or "We go down the hallway" without really involving themselves in the game? I sometimes feel like I'm doing Storytime when I'm describing a series of rooms or environments. It's a lot more interesting when they're asking me questions than for me to just blurt out line after line of room description with minimal interaction.

The animated rock

Did you ever watch an animated show and notice a wall or rock that's animated in a slightly different style or color than the surroundings, which lets you immediately identify that something is about to move or destroy that one piece of the scenery? I try to avoid the D&D equivalent of that, which is describing one object in much greater detail than everything around it, which makes it immediately obvious that this item is important. (Which may be true, or it might be you just accidentally made a big deal out of it, and now the players are fixated on something irrelevant!) Having a pattern to your descriptions can help avoid that, both by limiting your initial introductory description until the players ask about that item, and by giving you the opportunity to describe anything with extra details if the players are asking about it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for that "older module room description" part for it perfectly illustrated its point: I skipped the middle two sentences reading it the first time! \$\endgroup\$
    – minnmass
    Mar 21, 2023 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ in older d&d players (or more often one player nominated as the mapper) were directly responsible for drawing a map from the DM’s description so size of the room was important \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Mar 21, 2023 at 22:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AnnaAG Oh, sure, but timing is everything. First thing into the room you describe the room's size and orientation? So now the mapper is distracted with doing that map thing, and the rest of the players just had their eyes glaze over because you started with information not immediately relevant to them, and now nobody's really listening when you get to the point of "here's what's in the room". It would be much better to start with your brief flavorful overview, then after that give the mapper the room's dimensions and orientation as an aside. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 21, 2023 at 23:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym except that is was immediately relevant to everyone, in 5e everyone is used to having a map for dungeon crawls and being able to see everything on it, in older editions the only map you had was the one the players drew so the DM's description was the only source of info, it's important to know whether all the things in your flavourful overview are squeezed in a 5x5 closet or spread out in a 100x300 hallway \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    May 3, 2023 at 12:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I can easily describe the room as "a tiny closet" or "a massive mead-hall" without actually throwing out numbers that are irrelevant to most of my listeners. Again, I'm splitting up "things that you need to know to visualize the room" and "distracting details". The precise dimensions and construction of the room are details. The general description of the room ("a spacious bedroom" or "cramped quarters") requires only a single adjective. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 16:15
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As a DM: skip to the fun stuff.

There are loads of exciting things to interact with in an adventure so when the players are somewhere dull I let them know so that we can get to the parts that are fun.

If the room has nothing particularly interesting in it I'll pretty much say so, e.g.:

  • DM: "The room is some kind of temple with a big altar in the center, but it looks like there's not much going on."
  • P: "I check out the altar."
  • DM: "You can't see anything special about it. You suspect that this isn't where they make their evil plans."
  • P: "Can we test the walls for hidden doors?"
  • DM: "You check around a bit but you're pretty sure there aren't any."

I've given them enough clues that this is a boring room with nothing useful in it and I haven't asked them to roll any dice. If they really want to waste time here I'll let them, but the quicker I get them to move along the more fun everybody ultimately has.

If the room does have interesting things to find then I'll leave out the subtle 'nothing to see here' hints and give the description a little more colour.

It's the same philosophy as not narrating/playing out every uneventuful day of a long journey. Yes they might have to hunt for food, could fall down a ravine etc. but none of that is as cool as the written-up stuff that they're travelling to.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When GMing, I try very hard to avoid phrases like "you suspect" or "you think" or "you feel (in an emotional setting; "you feel cold" is fine, "you feel sad" is tricky) absent specific effects (eg., confusion effects). I describe the sensory input, but not the reaction to it. So: I'd suggest changing that second DM line to "You don't see any indication that this is where they make their evil plans". I know it can seem like a very small thing, but I've seen crossing that line cause problems when the player felt that their agency was being removed. \$\endgroup\$
    – minnmass
    Mar 21, 2023 at 14:30
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As a player, I find I'm easily turned off by this kind of exploration. As a DM, I notice the same with my players.

Frame challenge

I don't think the issue is that your loop isn't interesting, it's that it's inefficient.

The loop

In your loop example, the DM is not delivering much in the way of information until it is explicitly requested, which is difficult for the players, given that they don't have information to go on, so are left guessing at what might be there or might be interacted with. Essentially, my loop looks like this

  1. Narrate the description
  2. Players react
  3. Narrate (and possibly adjudicate) the outcome

In part one, I give the entire description, meaning, everything the characters can see - usually when they open a door, turn a corner, top a rise, or anytime their field of view changes, like walking around behind the altar.

I have the passive checks handy so during step #1, I also deliver anything hidden that is located on a successful passive check. Sometimes players still want to search, in case they can beat their passive checks, but they know they've already received everything they could have detected passively.

Boxed text

Most commercial adventures have boxed or grayed or highlighted text, intended to be read aloud to the players. However, it's also very important to actually read all of the text, preferably before running the adventure, so you understand the difference between the boxed text and what may be determined with passive checks and what the encounter has in store when reacted with. Very often, there's additional information that should have been included in the initial boxed text and occasionally the other way around. You can fix this with a highlighter.

I do the exact same for homebrew adventures, as this forces me to write complete sentences that can be proofread, to ensure I've not left anything out and can fix any inconsistencies. I usually have secondary boxed text for successful active or passive checks. You likely won't see this in commercial adventures, but as above, a highlighter is handy for this.

Conditioning

Unfortunately, you've conditioned your players to have to wring the information out of you, so you'll need to work on your step #1 delivery to undo this conditioning.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Darth has mentioned that his players tune out with longer room descriptions, or remember only the first and last sentence, basically. Did you make a different experience? Or is this "simply" a matter of how well the DM is able to do those descriptions? \$\endgroup\$
    – AnoE
    Mar 21, 2023 at 8:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure I understand the first question, but No, to the second. A lengthy room description where players tune out is a different problem. There is no description in the example given, thus forcing the players to bleed the information painfully from the DM in an unnecessarily lengthy loop. It's not a matter of degree of eloquence. Flowery rhetoric, while maybe entertaining to read, is not helpful in a game and risks harming agency (like describing emotional reactions). Concise and complete information is what you want. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Mar 22, 2023 at 16:39

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