I want to DM the Mad Mage's Mansion from the DM's Guild, and for some adventure hooks, the characters are supposed to retrieve special items from the mansion.

Now, the more items they find, the more money they will get at the end of the adventure.

And here is my concern: in this adventure (and in many like this one), there isn't really a time constraint. Nothing bad happens if the characters complete the quest in a week instead of two days, meaning they could spend whole days looking for these items (maybe some random encounters could pop, but it won't change anything).

So, in such situations, does it even make sense to roll investigation checks ? And how can I make this still interesting ?

Note: the PC's don't know how many items they are supposed to find.

Note: for quests for which the PC's must find a single important item, they just should find it eventually and the investigation checks should not be required (imho).

  • \$\begingroup\$ How much do you, or your players, use the "help" feature of 5e to deal with ability checks? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 13:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ They are new players, they won't use this feature a lot, I guess \$\endgroup\$
    – Yotus
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 14:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, reviewing that feature of this version of the game may allow a lot of the Investigation checks to be made at advantage. Does that help or harm your intentions for running this module for them? (Or make no difference?) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 14:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think it would make a substantial difference, because of the "there is no time constraint" problem. If a PC fails an investigation check, he could reroll anyway, helped or not. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yotus
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 14:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ In this situation, wouldn't not rolling investigation check just mean that your group will find every item, and following from that, will get the maximum money at the end of the adventure - no matter what? \$\endgroup\$
    – brhans
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 18:28

4 Answers 4


The Gumshoe RPG was designed to address this issue. The way it does this is by shifting the focus from finding clues to interpreting clues. In a nutshell it assumes when it comes to finding a clue, if the players have the skill they will find the clue. What to do with the clue is a different matter altogether.

Fortunately this concept can translate over easily to D&D 5e. The way I handle situations like yours is that absent an adverse consequence for failure, time constraints or some other circumstance that make the result uncertain, assume the PC succeed given enough time.

Now how does this help you with the Mad Mansion? Looking over the module, the author has a lot of interesting things going on, however, he has a lot of unnecessary checks as well. If the players are unlucky outside of combat even if they are doing the right things then they will be unhappy with the module.

For example in room F3 Study there is this

There is one of Gerardus’ journals in a drawer. It could be found with a successful DC 10 Intelligence (Investigation) check.

My view is that unless the character rolls a 1 for sheer bad luck, that journal should be found provided that the player thinks of searching the drawer in the first place. And that is the key to the Gumshoe method.

In Gumshoe a character with Forensics has to say that he is sweeping the room for fingerprints before he obtain any clues about fingerprints. However the problem with this is that the session can easily turn into a game of twenty question which can be unsatisfying in its own way. The way Gumshoe avoids this is by giving a lot of advice about how to construct a train of clues that offer alternative paths to solving the main mystery.

So to make the Mad Mansion more interesting, I would go through the module and make a list of everything that is important to find, and seed the rest of the module with at least two different clues to where a individual item could be found. As the players continue their search build them a picture of how Gerardus lived and where he kept stuff. The good news is that the skeleton for doing this is already in the module. Your focus should be seeding the other rooms with clues. Remember, you want to avoid having an item that can only be found by saying the one right thing in the right room.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I have not played Gumshoe, but does it generally use the 'rule of three' regarding clues, or is it more complex than that? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast no it focuses advice on how to set the mystery up as a bread crumb trail. Remember there is little to no chance of failing to find a clue. You would have to go out of your way to fail to create a party of character that won't have every skill needed for one of the genres used by Gumshow. Anyway the SRD is up and linked in the post and is pretty complete. For what it worth, I concur with the idea behind the rule of three. Even with Gumshoe, people still can easily go down the wrong path if they don't "get" what the clue means. \$\endgroup\$
    – RS Conley
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 1:05
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The distinction between clue and item is what's important here. The players want the items, but the scenario works best if the only thing that the players definitely find are clues, and finding an item is only possible by successfully piecing together/reasoning out/solving the clues. Or in other words, the players can tear the mansion down brick by brick if they want and they won't get any special items by doing that, just a pile of clues that they still need to solve to find any of the items. \$\endgroup\$
    – aroth
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 7:47


One of the best pieces of advice I've ever read on this site is: "Skill checks are only necessary if there are consequences for failure."

It seems like you have no restrictions on them (like time), so there should be no skill check. Thematically, this makes sense: if they have infinite time to search this location, they will find what they are looking for.

As a GM, you should consider this in your planning - if the idea that they can look-until-they-can-succeed bothers you, then change it: add a time restriction (other treasure seekers competing for the goods) or consequences for failure (each item is booby-trapped, and improperly trying to recover it results in its destruction).

In summary, few people enjoy blindly rolling dice until they succeed; make the quest for it interactive!

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ Just for completeness, that advice doesn't only come from this site: it's verbatim from DMG p.237 "only call for a[n ability check] ... if there is a meaningful consequence for failure" and from AngryGM's second simple rule for dating a skill system and Angry's article on adjudication. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I prefer "only if failure is interesting". \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 22:03

Depends largely on whether you want variable outcomes based on how well the players do, and luck, or whether you have one outcome in mind.

Some gamers like to actually have different outcomes based on what they do and what happens, including random chance. They like that it's possible that what they do or don't do matters, and makes the difference between falling to their death or not, or finding the best loot or not. These gamers would in general want you to roll, and let them miss even important things, and play it out to see what happens or doesn't happen.

Other gamers like to be led through a pre-planned plot, for some or all levels of play. This removes some aspects of uncertainty from the outcome, even if the narration may describe it otherwise. These players might think it's bad if you let them forget to look where the best treasure they're intended to find, is.

Often there is a mix of such expectations, and often players and GMs are not really clear-minded on which they prefer on each topic. So, as KorvinStarmast pointed out, "how well do you know your players?" also determines the actual best fit in each case.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Well, yes. Ok, added. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dronz
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 23:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer is now nicer. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 0:42

Yes, usually.

Rolling dice is for figuring out if some action succeeded or failed. If the failure of that action prevents the story from moving on, then that bad roll of the dice has stopped your story and the fun.

If the item is not required and time is limited, have them roll to see if they find it and move on, one way or another. You and the players now get to see how the story turns out with or without the item, and the latter could be pretty interesting, but the story continues.

If the item is required or time is unlimited, have them roll to find out when they find it, and possibly more importantly, who (of the players) finds it. The story becomes about how a delay (or lack thereof) impacts the plot, and how an individual reacts to finding the item: Do they share immediately? Do they replace it with a counterfeit, or try to sell it to a third party?


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