Because my players' suspension of disbelief began to suffer when exploring more "normal" dungeons, I have created some big dungeons which are based on bigger, realistic structures: castles, towns, military structures, bunkers, etc.

However, another problem has come up. A structure which is able to hold a regiment contains many repetitions: kitchen, bathroom, sleeping room, again and again, because a place where people live is more utilitarian than most fantasy dungeon designs.

Now my group isn't suffering a lack of suspension of disbelief, but I suspect they are a bit overwhelmed: their normal routine of sifting through every room is not possible anymore, and they get restless. I suspect they fear losing out on interesting information now that the dungeon isn't linear.

I am not sure how to keep the players busy and focused in a dungeon that has many equal rooms. How can I GM these larger structures without the players becoming frustrated in this way?

Some information about the current background. The group explores the structure with a map which is under a glass plate covered by rice (sand is leaking too much for my taste). The advantage is that I do not need to describe every room and they can make maps (naturally I have the master map with undiscovered features like traps, hidden rooms etc.), the disadvantage is that they realize how vast the structure is and that I gave them the freedom to explore. The structure itself has a very specific and very important purpose which is the reason why it is so vast, the constructors had no choice. The reason was temporary, so the inhabitants left bit by bit. The inhabitants and their reason to live there changed rooms and build hidden ones without never finding all rooms of their predecessors. So the current explorers (my group) find plundered and vandalized old rooms and sometimes an older trap which is not working anymore. But the last sessions they found out that someone left fresh traps and a message that their presence is not welcome >:)


9 Answers 9


The main trick is to not have the players feel like they have to obsessively search every part of every room.

Over time, this is dictated by your actions as the GM. (Obviously there's some switchover time if you're shifting styles.) If you hide a critical clue or tasty treasure requiring a DC 20 Perception check under the bunk of barracks room #57/100, or put a deadly trap on door #23/50, they're either going to have to search everything or just throw up their hands and say "screw it, we'll bull forward and maybe we're missing something."

You don't mention a game system, though you should because different games approach this problem differently.

GUMSHOE would say "Don't require search checks to find important things. PCs find them automatically. Require checks after that to interpret what was found or whatever, but if your game would be blocked by a roll, don't make the roll in the first place." This obviates the problem.

A D&D 3e answer might be "pre-roll a bunch of player perception checks ahead of time, don't make them say it and roll it but just apply those checks whenever they go into a new area, if their stated SOP is to search around everywhere." This doesn't remove the problem, but it speeds it up significantly. Similar is just when they say "we search barracks #57" - if they have the time to take 20, you don't have to roll, just spend some in-game time (not table time) and tell them what they find (take 10 and take 20 reduce resolution time). Or you can just cut to the chase and come right out and say "there's nothing new here."

A drama-game (or even D&D 4e I think) type answer would be to say out loud to them "Hey guys, important stuff will never be in some generic room, I'm only going to put important information into clearly 'named' rooms, just like only 'named' NPCs are important." This removes the issue at a metagaming level, though at great cost to simulation.

4e and 5e have "passive perception" in an attempt to speed up the game, but your issue is that they want to actively search and not just take the passive chance, so that doesn't help much.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a slight extension to this, in many D20 games (in particular D&D, at least the way I play it) it's common to say that there's no point rolling if there's no real consequence to failure. If the players have time to keep searching, then when they say "we search everywhere", just tell them "it takes an hour, but you find...". If they're trying to sneak around while searching, get them to roll once for how well they search, and use that to decide how long it'll take them and therefore how many stealth rolls they need (longer time, more rolls, more chance to be found). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 9:48

Even if the dungeon is huge I feel you do not need to talk about all parts of the dungeon. Zoom in to map only for the interesting rooms.

So guys you're about to enter the abandoned castle left behind after Baron von Badass died 350 years ago. How do you approach it? Do you spread out or go in a group? Are you taking your time to search all the rooms, or ar you heading strait for the private chambers of the Baron?

[Players decide what to do]

Ok you you're going in a group with the rogue entering first, the warrior keeping guard outside, and you intend to search every crack of the castle, right?

Then move on to the first section, and for every new type of room take the time to describe what they see and how the room feels. If you have a drawing for the room show it to them as you describe, but don't let anyone place down any miniatures — just describe it. Then just let them know that they are tediously moving from room to room, maybe taking an occasional rest.

Once they get to the room in which there is something to find: You describe the rogue going in first, followed by the party, and the warrior hanging back to watch the door. You place the miniatures out for the starting position, and let the rogue roll to notice the trap, and then depending on the result play out the exciting encounter of the trap in room #53. Once it's done keep fast forwarding to the next exciting moment, or maybe let them RP around the cook fire.

This is the way every movie does it. They skip all the things that happen between the exciting moments. Frodo literally walked for days getting to Mordor, but we as the audience only saw a few choice moments. Why should RPG be any different?


Craft the visible parts of the dungeon to lead them in the direction of the places they need to search, and give them some level of comfort in missing information.

Consider what they think they need to do here. Its like the police have arrived after a murder scene, they put up the tape, and they're carefully cataloging every bit of evidence they find. That's not a dungeon crawl, that's a 9-5 job!

You need to work with them to get them comfortable with not having all the pieces. There's a few common tricks to help with this:

  • Make it so they can achieve partial victories. If it's all or nothing, they'll make sure it's not nothing. Maybe they can eek by if, instead of knowing exactly the right words to unlock the spell on the book, they just mumble something about neckties. It might not go perfectly according to plan, but if they feel like they got away with a shortcut they'll feel more inclined to leave clues behind, even if they have to fight a little harder to get it.
  • Always leave more than one way to solve every puzzle, preferably using different mechanics for each one. Instead of requiring them to find the key hidden in the secret drawer, allow them to find the key, pick the lock, or hear from the local barmaid that a previous adventurer had found a way around the door entirely. If they know there's always 3x more clues than they need, they'll be a little more fluid.
  • Point them at it! Use easily spotted clues to suggest there is more than meets the eye. If there's 15 footlockers in a row, they don't want to pick each lock and search them. But if the big evil captain of the guard they're after happened to be a private stationed in this dungeon when he was younger, and his footlocker shows up, maybe its worth a peak.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think puzzles with multiple solutions are harder to craft, but I think the players would definitely appreciate it \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 17:43

Give your players a reason to do something else other than carefully picking over every room. Apply some time pressure, so that meticulously searching the dungeon isn't the most important thing to do. A couple examples:

  • The party is being pursued by enemy soldiers who are only minutes behind them
  • An important (non player) character is in imminent danger and needs to be saved by the players

Adventuring "against the clock" should remove the temptation to search every table, bed and cabinet. Naturally, there needs to be enough time so that your players do have a chance to explore a little.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While principally possible, I decided beforehand that the players have the freedom to conduct their search without time constraints. They have been warned that they should not stay the night inside the structure because...well, you know the trope. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 21:00

The temptation to do what books and movies do like drop items of huge importance, like The One Ring, in some mundane environment must be resisted otherwise they'll start trying to replicate that luck. You've created a gambler's fallacy and you've got to crack it.

It takes great discipline but you've got to have magic items appear in logical places that reward thinking about and understanding the world, not random places that can only be found by rolling the die to search everywhere. Because if you are searching everywhere, you aren't actually understanding anywhere.

An example of a logical appearance is an Iuon Stone (Cracked Purple) you obviously see it circle around a villain and it's use is demonstrated against the player where the foe uses it to cast a first level spell (though chooses a useless First Level spell) and when that foe is defeated you logically get that treasured item. If you want to drop a Buckler of Blinding, have the players be struck by it, hence demonstrating its power.

There is no need to search through animal droppings or the pockets of a slain Peace Officer or every single 1gp per day mercenary. You know who's got the magic items as they used them - or tried to use them - in your combat encounter.

Some items may simply be coveted but unused, such as searching the knapsack of a bandit you find a Metamagic Rod of Reach that he has taken in another attack on a spellcaster but he cannot use the item himself. You'd search a bandit to see what he's stolen and hasn't been able to fence yet. Yet still the players might be tempted to hoover tactics.

One thing you can do is introduce characters who have already done what the players are trying to do. Introduce an extremely fast and stealthy character or creature who compulsively searches through pretty much EVERY inch of the world that isn't extremely well guarded to scoop up almost all valuable trinkets that may have been lost and take them away.

They have a perception of +15 and take a 20 searching every room so if there's anything they missed, you won't find it. That makes the game be about these creature's mini treasure hoards, they can have any possible motive for revealing where their cache is and it'll be in some place you'll never find without their sincere gratitude. Try to force them and they will lead you to cursed items, traps, and doom.

So other than those imps hoovering up magic items the only place you'd find magic items are in the places they wouldn't go. So that would be armed encampments, areas guarded by curses that summon monsters to protect it, the places only adventurers like you would tread, but these would be few areas. It would be telegraphed "this is the place the imps were too afraid to search".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer. Suppose you were DM'ing a modern-day campaign to search for missile codes in the Pentagon. Where would you be likely to find them? The War Room maybe? Perhaps the General's office? The computer server room might be a possibility too. The codes are probably not going to be in a bathroom, the kitchen, or at Ground Zero Cafe. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 7, 2017 at 22:06

Why are you bogging them down with so much mundane repeatable work?

It is your job as the DM to streamline and take care of in the background all the mundane repeatable boring stuff that makes up 99.9% of life even in fantasy adventures. You don't have them dictate every step of a journey, or constantly roll to see if they twist their ankle in a rabbit hole if they did not explicitly state that they were searching the ground for obstructions. The problem seems to lie not in the virtual world time that searching the dungeon is taking, but in the real world time. Don't make them explicitly and individually state that they search under every rug they find, and tear appear every bed.

"The party meticulously searches the entire barracks complex [or wing of the castle or all rooms off of this corridor]"

Most of these rooms are going to be identical. There is nothing to gain from describing each one individually (at least the identical ones) and having them walk you thorough identical searches of a hundred individual bedrooms.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer. I myself would possibly add something like "the party... searches the bartacks complex and notes certain peculiarities in the kitchen and in the captain's room", which would be a prompt for the party to closely examine those two areas. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 22:06

I think that the answer you are looking for is actually a lot simpler then most of the ones already posted here. My personal method when dealing with a large variety of rooms/etc where there is no value in the majority of the rooms is to simply skip the hide and seek game-play quickly. Here is a scenario...

DM: You enter the 3rd kitchen on the 5th floor. brief description of room
DM: Any searching of this room yields nothing useful.
Players: Alright, we will move to the next room.


Player: I search the room for treasure.
DM: You find nothing of value.

This handles the situation quickly and efficiently. If there is something worthwhile in the room, the first thing most groups will do is search for it. By putting the information in front of them like this, you stop them having to wonder about what could be hidden. Obviously I don't mention this in rooms with any sort of crucial information and let players search via rolls/etc.

Also, specifically to D&D 5th edition, you have passive perception. I inherently use this for most rooms unless the party specifically asks to search it. Generally most things are not elaborately hidden so they are easy to stumble across.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this works better if there is some statement of how much time was taken - half a day, ten minutes, etc. This allows for the GM to have information that affects the actions of the off-screen NPC's. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 16:54

There is random encounters. These put time pressure on players.

Wandering monster tables have generally gotten a bad rap in many modern gaming circles. They’re generally considered to be “wasted time”. But when properly employed, wandering monster tables are improv tools and low-tech procedural content generators. Wandering monsters also play an important part in maintaining proper pacing throughout the dungeon complex and help to make the complex “come alive”. In all of these functions, wandering monster tables are playing a vital role in preventing the megadungeon from becoming a place that can be “cleared out”.


And searching is managed by understanding pacing


Although the art of pacing in a roleplaying game is unique compared to other mediums, in practice it can be remarkably simple. The GM must identify and then eliminate, conflate, or (in advanced techniques) manipulate what I’m going to refer to as empty time: The gap between one set of meaningful decisions and the next meaningful choice.

Or, to put it another way, you want to skip over the “boring bits” where nothing is happening. And the trick to doing that is moving the players efficiently to the next moment in which they can make an interesting and meaningful choice without taking away such choices by skipping over them.


Experience base for this answer

I've been doing this since sometime after 1974.

My players often wander into dungeons and the underdark. In "dense" areas we do random encounter roll per x time, most often drawing people or creatures from nearby locations.

I do also have wanderers by section, such as carrion crawlers. When they come to a room I mention general feel of the room, and then important items. They state intent. I tell them how long it takes and roll random encounters if necessary.

My dungeons are "clue rich" so they often search where they think something will be and move on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE Danny. (Fellow Old Timer! Since 1974! ( I started in 1975, 3 litle brown books ... )) I have edited into your answer your comment response to Akixxkisu. Due to how this stack works, the "back it up" requirement or experience base for technique style answers is what differentiates a good subjective from a bad subjective answer. We have a meta discussion on that here if you are interested. Please take the tour and visit the help center to get a feel for how an SE styled Q&A site is different from a discussion forum. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Side note, I find the Alexandrian's tips to be useful as well. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 15:24

Dangle a Carrot

  • When walking down the corridor a glimmer of light catches their eye... in a room.
  • Inside that room, they hear a peculiar noise in the room right next to it.
  • The passageway forward is locked; they remembered seeing a door in a room they didn't search with a sign that said, "Key Control."

You are telling and narrating a story. If you were writing a novel, do you want your reader to read every page? Keep them engaged. Have an event or a series of events lead to or require a room or a series of rooms.

Think about the old video game Resident Evil. You couldn't simply walk around the old mansion because there were deadly creatures chasing you. You couldn't bypass most of the rooms because key components to traps, puzzles, and locks were scattered throughout.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 14:03

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