Searching for Something
I dare say Perception is the most used skill in many D&D games. It’s used to find secret doors, treasures, traps, hidden foes, read lips, smell distant fires, listen through doors… you get the idea. Heck, it’s the skill which inspired the passive ability check, allowing DMs to know the result of a PC’s Perception roll without the player ever knowing it occurred.
For all its uses, Perception checks do slow down game play. How many dungeon crawls have been turned into dungeon complete stops because players wanted to pour over every room and find the secret doors and treasure hidden by a crafty DM, only to find that there really is NOTHING in that one room with the gray ooze. This isn’t the players’ faults! There’s fun in finding something hidden and sort of the point of many a dungeon crawl.
Still, this method of play becomes monotonous after a time, because players will search a room and find nothing. Even in your favorite published adventures there’s usually a room or three per dungeon that’s monsterless, treasureless, secret-doorless with the words “nothing of interest” attached to the description.
I understand this plight. There’s only so much treasure to go around. It’s not like the DM can put objects and areas of interest in every room, right? I mean that’d be a butt ton of work. Right?!?
Say Nay to the Pile
Now let me say that I LOVE big old pile of treasure. I love a sleeping dragon buried beneath a hill of gold that would make even Scrooge McDuck drown. I love a lich hiding her loot in a secret vault, guarded by devious traps and constructs. Who doesn’t want a moment where adventurers run into a glittering cavern of ornate treasures a la Aladdin‘s Cave of Wonders or The Mummy?
But does every freakin’ lair need all its valuables centralized in one place? Wouldn’t the bandits be more likely to split up their booty immediately after a highway robbery rather than hoard it in one room in their cave? Doesn’t the bandit leader have to pay his goons in order to stop a revolt? Why would an evil cult keep all their artifacts under lock and key? Wouldn’t they hire guards and put the pieces on display as a show of power to remind followers their deity is strong?
Think about your own house. Most of us don’t have a wall safe behind a comically large, hinged self-portrait above our office desk. Your most valuable possessions are spread out all over. The functional things are in the place where you need them most, your art is on display, and your money could be in different places (for instance my wallet is on my person, rolls of quarters are kept next to the laundry detergent in the closet, loose change is thrown into a tin next to the TV, gift cards are on the fridge, and my check book is in a filing cabinet). I don’t hide all my valuables and I’m guessing you don’t either, because you believe the security measures you have in place (door locks, a dog, a doorman, an alarm system, etc.) are more than enough to deter thieves and murderers. You wouldn’t then also hide all your valuables because it’d be inconvenient to find them when you need them. Wouldn’t it be the same for most fantasy baddies who have henchmen, locks, alarms, and traps of their own?
Next time you make a treasure hoard, think about spreading it out in every room. Here are the steps I normally take.
- Roll up or decide the grand total of treasure you want to put in the lair. Get a grand total of loot for the adventure, it makes dividing it up a lot easier. I find this works best after you’ve already created and populated the dungeon you want to use.
- Assign any useful magic items in the hoard to NPCs. Magic weapons and armor would be worn by the person running the operation or by his or her most loyal henchmen. Don’t just leave it at items good for bonking adventurers. Monsters aren’t just waiting around for PCs to show up and kill them. They have just much use for a bag of holding or some dust of dryness as the PCs do. Simply make a note next to the NPC’s name to remind yourself it has the item.
- Display art. What good is a gold-framed painting, silver sculpture, or beautiful tapestry if it’s lying in a treasure heap or locked in a chest? Put them on display! Make a note next to the room’s description or read aloud text about any art object that might be on display (and possibly warrant extra guards, security, or traps).
- Hide gems. In my mind gems are the big daddies that baddies keep squirreled away for a big purchase or trade. That said there’s no reason why the dungeon’s big boss should hold every single gem. A lowly henchmen might hide one in his or her boot or under a mattress so their coworkers don’t steal it. The ogre mage might give them to his or her favored bodyguard to assure loyalty. A ruined temple’s former caretaker might have hidden a ruby away in an altar during the structure’s heyday. Again make notes next to the room about the type of gem, its worth, and where it might be hidden next to a room description or NPC.
- Divide coinage. Figure out where all the various copper, silver, gold, and platinum pieces should go in your dungeon. First question – are the dungeon’s henchmen being paid? If so, hand over some gold! Each henchman should have a little something tucked in a belt pouch or in a chest at the foot of a bed. Are their prisoners hiding away money? Did someone long ago hide a cache of coin beneath the floor? Is the ogre paid more than the orcs? Remember that most money a person would have on hand would be in a small amount in an easily reachable place (like a pocket or pouch). Large sums of money are more likely to be hidden, locked away, guarded, and/or trapped. Make your notes and you’re ready to rock.
This method assures that your players constant searching will be worth it. Rather than slowing down gameplay, it’s a major part of it.
But what if you really like the big treasure pile? Or your adventure calls for it. Or what if you don’t have time to parse out all the treasure in the way I listed above? Fear not! I have ideas below that can still make PCs’ constant searching and ransacking worth it and interesting.
Worldbuiling Through Searching
Players can find interesting stuff that isn’t treasure when they make a Wisdom (Perception) or Intelligence (Investigation) check. While moving through a ruin, players might find objects and hints about the former life of the structure. While moving through a dragon’s cave, players might evidence of what the dragon eats or the journal of a former adventurer who failed to storm the lair. While moving through an enemy’s castle they might find letters from their enemy’s allies, written plans for villainous schemes old and new, or games of strategy and chance the guards play in their downtime. All of these things may not be of direct monetary value to the PCs, but they tell the story of your world and that’s the reward for finding them.
You can stock a dungeon with these items or you could roll on a chart whenever a player searches a room and you decide there should be something of interest in it.
If you’re in a pinch, page 299 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has two tables – General Features and General Furnishings and Appointments. These two randomized tables are a great place to roll for randomized objects. Just roll there until you get a result which makes sense when your players search. If you’re a quick improv, attach significance to the object (like a symbol, a note, a special crafting material, etc.) to make it relate to your story and your world. Alternatively you could use the trinkets table in the Player’s Handbook, but those are items are so specific it may be difficult to fit them into your story.
The tables above aren’t really meant for random Wisdom (Perception) checks. They are meant to help DMs create random dungeons. Large furniture is on those lists as well as piles of wood, which are things a player wouldn’t need to search for and in most cases be disappointed to find.
That’s why I’ve created the table below of random story objects players can find in a dungeon!
|1||Prayer book to a resident’s diety|
|2||Vial of herbs used to soothe joint pain|
|3||Map of an inhabitant’s hometown|
|4||Notes on an inhabitant’s current scheme|
|5||Notes on an inhabitant’s old scheme|
|6||Notes on an inhabitant’s future scheme|
|7||Bag of local candy|
|8||Bottle of local alcohol|
|9||Map of an inhabitant’s dream retirement location|
|10||Letter to an inhabitant from a loved one|
|11||Book of the local government’s laws|
|12||Book of fairy tales for children|
|13||Book of scary stories|
|14||Local herbs used in tea|
|15||Pipe-weed from an exotic location far off|
|16||Bag of bones used to predict the future|
|17||Spell component pouch full of sulfur and guano|
|18||Letter opener with an inhabitant’s family crest|
|19||Fancy undergarments from a nearby city shop|
|20||Board game favored by the locals|
|21||Card game favored by the locals|
|22||Dice game favored by the locals|
|23||Drawing of a local legendary monster done by a child|
|24||Poem written to an inhabitant by a lover|
|25||Small musical intrument wrapped in sheet music of a classic song|
|26||Copper coins from a fallen empire|
|27||Blanket knit with the symbol of a local government or organization|
|28||Darkened glasses used by an inhabitant with a light sensitivity|
|29||Ear trumpet used by an inhabitant with hearing impairment|
|30||Invitation to a party thrown by a local noble|
|31||Signet ring of a local authority|
|32||Coffee grounds from an exotic location|
|33||Sack made out of a local monstrosity’s hide|
|34||Mask made in the likeness of a legendary monster|
|35||Pen and stationary set from an institution of learning|
|36||Text book about the specific ecology of a monster by a well-known sage|
|37||Brass holy symbol of an inhabitant’s deity|
|38||Stuffed doll made in the likeness of local dog breed or pack animal|
|39||Stuffed doll made in the likeness of local monster|
|40||Recipe for an inhabitant’s grandmother’s famous pie|
|41||Recipe for an exotic dish|
|42||Recipe for a local dish|
|43||Tankard from a local tavern or inn|
|44||Preserved corpse of an inhabitant’s pet|
|45||Beast’s preserved head as a hunting trophy|
|46||Floor plan of the closest blacksmith’s shop|
|47||Flask emblazoned with a mercenary group’s symbol|
|48||Pen knife with initials carved in Undercommon|
|49||Stone arrowheads from a nearby primitive civilization|
|50||Hidden engraving of an evil god or cult|
|51||Hidden closet or trapdoor meant for hiding runaway slaves|
|52||Petrified pet rat|
|53||Sword sheath with the crest of a noble family on the other side of the world|
|54||Iron manacles with the preserved hands of a humanoid locked in them|
|55||Dagger with the crest of a city guard on the other side of the world|
|56||Wood box displaying the corpse of extinct insects|
|57||Hit list left behind by an international assassin|
|58||Dull straight razor made for a Huge creature|
|59||White gloves made for a Tiny creature|
|60||Monster training manual written by a now dead eccentric explorer|
|61||Journal of an inhabitant|
|62||Music box which plays an off-beat tune|
|63||Waterskin filled with blood for a ritual|
|64||Calendar with every holy day of a religion circled|
|65||Sundial bearing the name of a long-forgotten sun god|
|66||Saddle for a flying beast of burden|
|67||Notches in the wall noting the passage of time|
|68||Small booties meant for a baby|
|69||Broken miner’s pick bearing the sigil of an Underdark king|
|70||Tiny set of antlers, too small for a deer or moose|
|71||Directions to an inhabitant’s best friend’s house|
|72||Cipher for a secret code which is no longer used|
|73||Bowl made from the wood of an extinct plant|
|74||Belt buckle bearing the symbol of a knightly order|
|75||Set of brass knuckles with a criminal’s initials raised on the points of contact|
|76||Magnifying glass carved with the initials of a dead police inspector|
|77||Work gloves covered in the blood of an aberrant creature|
|78||Iron pot full of humanoid bones|
|79||Small flask full of an inhabitant’s favorite condiment|
|80||Voodoo doll of an inhabitant’s employer|
|81||Paper target with a perfect hole through the bullseye|
|82||Stone statuette of a beast found on the other side of the world|
|83||Wax candle carved into the image of a god|
|84||Map of the world|
|85||Map of a mysterious island|
|86||Notes from an inhabitant’s trip to another plane|
|87||I.O.U. written to an inhabitant|
|88||Notice of debt written to an inhabitant|
|89||Collar and tag made to fit a Large animal|
|90||Sock for a Huge creature|
|91||Scarf bearing the crest of a local artisan guild|
|92||Small wooden box with a secret compartment|
|93||Yo-yo bearing a child’s name|
|94||Wooden halfling skeleton|
|95||Common to <insert language of your choice here> dictionary|
|96||Set of finger puppets resembling a legendary band of heroes|
|97||Steel box containing the leaves of plants from an exotic location|
|98||Homemade political cartoon commenting on local affairs|
|99||Copy of the local news publication|
|100||Warrant for the arrest of a person on the other side of the world|
After rolling on the table above, the rest of the object’s story is up to you!
Variant: Ruin Rule
If the PCs are making their way through a ruin that was formerly inhabited by people other than the current occupants, roll a d10 before rolling on the Randomized Story Objects table. A roll of 4 or below indicates the object found is older and pertains to the previous occupants, a roll of 5 or higher indicates the object is related to the current occupants.
When All Else Fails… They Gotta Eat!
Maybe you don’t want to give your players treasure, but you don’t want to overload them with story objects either. Maybe you’re the kind of DM who asks players to track their use of food, water, and ammunition. Well if that’s the case, when your PCs search, roll on the table below to see what they might find. In certain campaigns, food and water are worth more than gold! For that sort of thing roll a d100 and adjust the rarity of these items based on how often you want them to show up.
|1||1 full waterskin|
|2||1d2 days of rations|
|3||1 bag of ball bearings|
|4||1 bag of caltrops|
|5||1d6 pieces of chalk|
|6||10d6 feet of hempen rope|
|7||1d4 flasks of oil|
|10||1d20 crossbow bolts|
|11||1d20 sling bullets|
|12||1d10 iron spikes|
Tables as PDFs
Hey if you like the tables above and want to use them in your game below is a PDF for you. This document will live on the Free Game Resources section of this site!
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