Usually, the way I handle players exploring a location is pretty standard: I describe the location, point out the interesting bits, and let the players inform me how their characters are checking things out. If there are secret things in the location, I’ll hint at them (either in the main description, or in further descriptions as they search). Basically, nothing revolutionary—I’m using Justin Alexander’s Matryoshka Search Technique.
This works really well in ruins, dungeons, haunted forests, and the other milieu you typically find in an OSR-ish game. I, however, am merely a POSR, and my games don’t contain all that many ruined dungeons for the players to explore. Instead, they often find themselves dealing with dangerous locations in populated areas—and that involves a lot of B&E into the lairs of the bad guys.
Naturally, this type of gameplay slots neatly into Stealth Turns, but it does create a bit of a unique problem. I’m really lazy, and don’t want to prepare a detailed list of what’s inside every room, warehouse, office, and bathroom for the players to meticulously comb through. Instead, I’ve opted for a choice between three options.
The Two Searches and the Third, Secret Search
When the players enter a location and want to rifle through it for stuff, ask them how they’re doing it:
Inspect: the characters are careful, meticulous, and make sure nothing is out of place at the end of their search. This takes time and skill, though skill can be substituted for more time if necessary.
Search: the characters look through a location. Anyone intimately familiar with the location will recognize that things have been moved and someone has been here. This takes time.
Ransack: the characters rifle through things. They leave the area in shambles. This draws attention.
When it comes to skill, I enjoy the idea that it’s more about a characters occupation or specialty over any sort of spycraft training. This may not be realistic1, but it’s something better: fun. A lawyer can inspect a law office, a tattoo artist can inspect a tattoo shop, a warehouse worker can inspect a foreman’s office.
Allowing three methods for this framework means that there’s always a choice to be made and the consequences of that choice are clear. There is no right option to take, and as characters begin to run out of time, they might begin ransacking a place out of desperation. That’s the good stuff.
Typically in movies, the heroes come back to the hotel room to find the bad guys have torn it apart looking for the mcguffin. In RPGs, that’s usually reversed.2
A Framework Expanded
Naeolin mentioned that you could use this method for gathering information, and I couldn’t agree more! That got me thinking on how I’d handle it, and here’s what I came up with:
Pull Strings: the characters reach out to people they trust, take their time, and make sure not to alert their target or others. This takes time and contacts, though contacts can be substituted for cold hard cash.
Investigate: the characters ask around, probing as many sources as they can to get information. Someone catches word of what they’re doing, but it won’t always be the target of their query. This takes time.
Shakedown: the characters find anyone connected to their query and push hard for information. This draws attention.
Another idea that popped into the old brainpan is applying it to characters looking for information from a source that isn’t people. Dust off that library card and hit the stacks:
Research: the characters hunker down and delve through as many sources as they can, ending up with as much viable information as possible. This takes time and high quality sources of information.
Analysis: the characters get a surface-level read on the topic, but the information might be cryptic or lacking in some way. This takes time.
Skim: the characters blitz through the information, picking up some truths and some falsehoods about the topic. This provides information and misinformation.
I think it’s pretty versatile! It provides a way to frame situations quickly if you’re stuck and there’s some kind of pressure pressing up against the group. If they have all the time in the world, there’s probably not much point worrying about what kind of research they do. But when there is something pressing back against them, these sorts of things can provide an engaging way for players to make hard choices.
If you want to take a spin at using this framework to prop up a typical situation, I’d love to see it. Leave it below in the comments!
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