This is my second attempt at writing this article, since WordPress ate my first draft. I suppose it’s my fault for not writing the article somewhere else first, or copying it before I went to publish it. Anyway: lesson learned.
I recently had a discussion with some folks about search checks, and I learned that people have some pretty strong opinions on the matter. Specifically, the discussion focused on use of the “take 20” rule for search checks. Essentially, the rule for taking 20 on skill checks is just an awkward way of expressing the idea that, if there are no consequences for failure and no time constraints on a given task, you don’t need to roll the dice. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of not rolling dice unless there is a consequence for failure, but I have an issue with just being able to say “I take 20” and that allowing you to find anything and everything that may or may not be hidden in a given room.
First, I feel like this is approach is lazy and uncreative. It takes all the description out of what your character is doing and just substitutes that with the name of a rule that the player is invoking. It’s boring. Second, there may or may not be anything to find, but using this rule guarantees that if there is anything to find then you will find whatever it is whenever you look for it (unless the target number to find whatever is hidden is beyond your player’s ability to find even if they roll a 20, and if they could never find the item anyway then why is it there?). To me the idea of finding everything that is hidden anywhere, anytime you look, is just as silly as never finding anything ever.
Personally, I feel like taking 20 on a search roll represents reasonable people making a reasonable effort to find things that might be hidden in the most likely places for them to be hidden. This would result in finding most things that would be hidden in a room, including most secret doors and in a lot of cases even things like false bottoms in drawers. I just don’t think using this rule should always turn up everything that there is to find, particularly if great care has been taken to hide an object. The example I used for an object that might be missed under these circumstances was from an adventure I ran where a gem had been carefully sewn into a mattress. Another example that came to mind was this: if someone had bothered to carefully hollow out a brick about five feet up a fireplace chimney and had stashed a small object in it, would it be reasonable to assume that anyone saying they searched that room would find that item 100% of the time? I certainly don’t think so.
When I raised these concerns, some proponents of using the “take 20” method argued that the alternative to finding things by taking 20 would involve players laboriously describing in great detail how they were searching and what they were searching, which would needlessly bog the game down. Furthermore, they argued, such an approach would rely on the dungeon master describing the environment in cumbersome detail so they could make these laborious declarations. These are valid arguments, but there is surely a middle ground between just finding everything by saying “I take 20” and being forced to describe in great detail how you are dismantling a chest of drawers, isn’t there? I think there is.
For starters, I don’t think any description of the room, or how you are searching it, has to be laborious or exhaustive. In the example above, if someone would have said “I’m searching the bed, and under the mattress” then I probably would have said they noticed some odd stitching on the mattress and found the gem. You can argue that this is just making the players jump through hoops to achieve the same end result, but what that argument labels as “jumping through hoops” I label as “describing how your character is interacting with the world in an interesting way.” You don’t have to go into great detail about how you’re searching the bed, just acknowledging that there is a bed and that your character is investigating it is enough for me. The goal here isn’t to see if you can cleverly describe how you are trying to find something that I’ve cleverly hidden, it’s to encourage immersion by describing something your character is doing instead of telling me that you as a player are “taking 20.” You can still take 20, of course, but that is what you the player is doing. I’m more interested in hearing about what your character is doing.
Another alternative, that you could even combine with the more descriptive approach if you want, would be to have players roll individual search checks in addition to “taking 20.” Every time a room is searched by taking 20 each character also rolls an individual search check and this number is used to determine if that character has stumbled upon anything that has been hidden with great care. Most of the time this individual search roll will be superfluous, as the act of taking 20 will find most items in a room, but this method allows for characters to occasionally find something that has been hidden exceptionally well just by taking 20 while searching a room.
One other thing: all of the above assumes that the characters are searching for something that may not even be there. The focus is on what constitutes a reasonable search effort when there may in fact be nothing to find. In a situation where characters are searching for something that they know is hidden in the room they are in and they are not pressed for time, they should always find the item even if that means tearing apart the fireplace brick by brick. If you know something is there and you are determined to find it then you will.
One other other thing: If all of the above sounds like a waste of time to you, and you prefer just allowing everything hidden to be found if the players declare that they are taking 20 then do it that way. If you have a completely different way of doing things all together that’s alright too. When I had this discussion with the folks I had it with, I was accused of accusing the proponents of the take 20 method of having “wrong fun.” That was not my intention, although I did say that I felt like this method was “lazy and uncreative” which, admittedly, sounds antagonistic. Well, I’m sorry, but that is my opinion on the matter. I do feel like that approach is lazy and uncreative, which is why it doesn’t work for me. If you don’t feel that way, then we can agree to disagree and you can do things in a way that works for your game. If you’re having fun then you’re doing it right.