Sunday, January 21, 2024

Overloading the search die

The overloaded encounter die is OVER in 2024. A monster will appear at the same time your light source goes out while you need to rest and you will LIKE IT.

But the idea of streamlining procedures by keying each result on a die is a good one, if streamlining procedures is your aim. 

As far as I'm concerned BX D&D and its derivatives are as close as you can get to the platonic ideal of dungeon crawlers, but, and I say this with head bowed in humility, the assumptions baked into the game's design do not necessarily apply to the contemporary elfgamer's table. It's the iPhone era, after all.  

The victim of this post is the BX search procedure, the rules of which are as follows:
  • Characters can listen at a door for passing monsters, or spend a turn examining a 10'x10' area for room traps or a 10' section of wall for secret doors. 
  • Each action has a 1:6 chance of success, modified by certain race/class abilities. If there is nothing to be found in the area the character is searching, no roll is made.
  • Each character can only listen at a door or search a given 10' wall/area once. 

This can be boiled down to "PCs get one chance to search X to find Y, rolling a d6 and succeeding on a 1 or sometimes 2." As an aside, I like how each search action has a specific noun its looking for: monsters, room traps, or secret doors for listening, searching an an area, or inspecting a wall, respectively. This is one of those board-gamey elements of BX that show it was designed in part to be a closed system, but with rules and mechanics robust enough to be applied to all manner of other scenarios.

For instance, if a PC wanted to rifle through a cluttered desk to find a specific document, there's no reason why a search roll wouldn't be appropriate even if that situation wasn't outlined in the rules. It shows a design philosophy distinct from that of most contemporary games—instead of describing mechanics expansively with general terms, old school D&D defines its mechanics through specific instances which invite players to extrapolate how else they may be used. Saving throw names are another good example of this.

Anyway, the old OSR maxim goes that players should mostly be describing their character's actions instead of rolling dice, but the dice system still has its place for searching. In my games, if the actions a player describes would reveal something hidden I give it to them without any rolling, but if they just want to do a general search I roll to see if they find whatever noodly detail is hidden there, if any. This works reasonably well from a game flow perspective, but the problem is that 1- or even 2-in-6 chance is punishingly low for smaller groups, especially when abiding by 10' space increments and the one-chance-per-character rule. Sure, traps and secret doors should be telegraphed, but telegraphing all of them all the time removes those moments of random danger and discovery that contribute so positively to the game.  

My solution is to OVERLOAD the SEARCH DIE.

Here are the rules: When a player wishes to search a room, they can choose to specify which actions their character takes or opt instead to conduct a general search, which takes one turn. During a general search, the character attempts to find secret doors, concealed traps, monster spoor, and other obscured features. When a general search is made, the DM or player rolls a d6 to determine the outcome. A character may spend as many turns as they wish searching until a 6 is rolled or they get the same number over two consecutive turns, indicating they have exhausted their faculties and can no longer comb the room until their next dungeon excursion. Demihumans roll a d8 instead of d6. Big rooms can be broken up into halves or quadrants per the DM. 

Search results
  1. Discover secret (if any)
  2. Discover secret (if any)
  3. Encounter omen
  4. Scavenge goods
  5. Dungeon insight
  6. Setback
  7. [Demihuman only] Discover secret (if any)
  8. [Demihuman only] Encounter omen
Discover secret
Identify the location of one secret door, concealed room trap, or other important but not-obvious feature of the room if there is one to be found. 

Encounter omen
Find evidence of other nearby dungeon inhabitants. 

This result accounts for both hearing noises in adjacent rooms or corridors, like the original listen-at-doors roll, as well as general clues regarding the next encounter. If there are no creatures keyed nearby that the character could hear, the DM rolls for the next encounter and provides a hint or detail as to its nature.

Scavenge goods
Uncover a random item. A character can only find one item in a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

This is where I tell you that if you don’t already have a d100 list of junk lying around your dungeon, get one now, and trust me when I say it’s worth it. I recommend The Dungeon Dozen and d4 caltrops blogs for inspiration. Trick out your list with unique and specialized entries and it becomes another avenue to convey the dungeon’s lore. Anyway, this result implies that the item was not immediately visible upon entering the room—there are situations I foresee where this could be contrived but generally unless your dungeon rooms are empty cubes it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a little hiding spot for that left boot a character just found.

Dungeon insight
While the characters might not find anything in particular, their search may yield some fact or detail about the room, level, or dungeon as a whole. A character can only find glean one insight from a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

Dungeon insights could be something that indicates the room's original purpose, the behavior of the former or current inhabitants, a hint regarding a special set piece somewhere else in the dungeon, or even just a curiosity that contributes to the wonder and strangeness of the mythic underworld.

The character didn't find anything, and an additional complication occurs. 

This can be a direct result of the searching, such as the character springing a trap or dropping something that makes a loud noise, but the setback can also be an anomalous hazard the dungeon throws at unwelcome interlopers: a flagstone launches itself at the character, a ration-rotting miasma billows from a grate in the floor, or a ghoulish hand yanks at a piece of gear from a gap in the wall.


Here's why the overloaded search die works: it does away with the null results of classic search rolls, so even if characters don't find any secrets the find something else worthwhile or get into some trouble. Upping the success rate while introducing an element of danger makes searching more exciting, and the option to burn turns to continue searching introduces a compelling risk/reward challenge. If you love your hazard system/overloaded encounter die/event die/whatever else it's called but you're not overloading your search dice, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. 

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