search for traps as an encounter power

If PCs treat an old-school dungeon with any rational amount of caution, they will search every ten feet of floor for traps, listen at every door, and search every wall for secret doors. In other words, they’ll spam their at-will search abilities.

It’s a problem that Gary Gygax railed against in 1e:

Continual listening becomes a great bother to the
DM. While ear seekers will tend to discourage some, most players will
insist on having their characters listen at doors at every pretense.

4e has a general solution for spammed actions: make them encounter powers.

You could just make searching a regular encounter power, so it can only be done every five minutes, but I think it would be more interesting to make searches into a daily resource to be managed, like Fate points from Spirit of the Century-type games. During the day, you can search carefully for traps. Every time you search, and find nothing, you expend one of your searches. If you search and find something, you don’t expend a search. Furthermore, every time you blunder into a trap, you gain a use of your search power.

It makes sense narratively. If you’ve searched 100 consecutive doors for traps and found nothing, no matter how hard you try, you’re going to relax your vigilance. On the other hand, if you’ve been finding tons of traps, or if you see something about this door that makes you suspicious, you’re going to be far more alert.

We’ll leave all the search rules the way they are: we’ll just add to them. At the beginning of every day, every character gets a number of Search tokens equal to their Perception bonus. Rogues get, say, three extra tokens.

Whenever a PC wants, they can risk a Search token to get a +5 bonus to a Perception check. If the check doesn’t turn up anything interesting, they lose the token. If they find a trap, treasure, a secret door, or anything else hidden, they get to keep their token. Every time a PC falls victim to a trap, they get a Search token BACK. This represents their suddenly-increased attention level.

This system would reward players for searching judiciously, based on clues and intuition, not as part of a mindless sweep.

To compensate the PCs for their extra search power, every Perception DC in the game is 5 points harder.

I think this would encourage people to play the way that Gary wanted them to play: to search for traps and listen for monsters judiciously, when they have a reason to be suspicious – and to blunder blindly into the occasional ambush for the DM’s amusement.


13 Responses to “search for traps as an encounter power”

  1. LS says:

    While on the one hand I agree that a character can’t remain hyper vigilant, I don’t think I could ever use a rule like this. It seems like there is a dangerous line being crossed when you go from restricting extraordinary abilities and spellcasting, to restricting mundane actions.

    I just never give my players cause to fear traps unless there is some hint that there may be traps. Doors, short hallways with doors on either end, treasure rooms, etc. Never had a problem.

  2. Jeff Rients says:

    Personally, I really like the solution in Maxes & Minotaurs.

  3. Jeff Rients says:

    Dammit, can’t spell this morning!

  4. paul paul says:

    What is the Mazes and Minotaurs solution?

    (I also like the Mazes and Monsters solution where the Maze Controller must announce, “This COULD be a trap.”

  5. Jeff Rients says:

    That one is good too! I just reread everything you’ve shared on that project over the weekend. As I recall, the original Mazes & Minotaurs had no real trap rules. You adjudicated it as a normal non-combat activity.

  6. Alex J. says:

    Save player/dm-time at the expense of character-time: just announce the level of vigilance the party is taking and so they give up light sources, food, time-until-they-need-to-sleep, exposure to random encounters etc. in order to get a base, continuous level of search.

  7. Macrochelys says:

    I think the Mazes & Minotaurs solution is that a perception check is made as a saving throw against a trap just before it springs.

    I like the idea of Search Tokens, though I haven’t ran / played in a game with regular traps (ie. traps that show up in more than 25% of sessions) for years. My instinct is to generalize the rule and have Focus Tokens which would apply to all non-combat skills, but after looking at the 4e skill list again, I don’t think it would be broadly applicable or useful.

    The Search Token gain/loss mechanism is very elegant. I may give it a try next time I run a game, though I’ll have to be sure to plan a number of traps and hidden objects to make it all worth while.

  8. Jeff Rients says:

    Man, the more I think about it the more I want to try “This COULD be a trap” in my D&D campaign.

  9. paul paul says:

    It actually worked surprisingly well when I was playtesting M&M.

  10. Wendy McLaren says:

    I like to tell my players that they “are certain the room the door(chest/wall/etc) is not trapped.” I especially like saying it when they rolled low. One thief with a false sense of security makes for a particularly good time. I can see the players squirm but their characters have no reason to doubt and so they blithely go on about their business. It only heightens things when no trap is sprung.

    I have not tried the “x number of searches per day” yet, but so far, searching has not slowed down my games any. It’s a good idea to keep handy, though.

  11. Sam says:

    Usually I like your suggestions and homerules to D&D, but this one I found puzzling. I fail to see what the search tokens would add to the game besides adding more clutter. What´s wrong with the current rules? “you see a statue” “ok we search it for hidden stuff” -“ok roll your search-skill”. All set and it takes 5 seconds…

  12. […] trap and the old-school spanking for not tapping every flagstone with a ten-foot pole. I've made attempts to solve the problem, but I haven't been happy with any of them. (My favorite so far is the Mazes and Monsters rule: the […]

  13. DM_Wannabe says:

    If Gary Gygax didn’t like PCs searching for traps so much then he shouldn’t have written “Tomb of Horrors”. LOL

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