Monday, January 7, 2013

Pathfinder: I Perceive an Empty Room

Who's influencing me right now: Courtney Campbell, Skip Williams, Paizo Pathfinder

At one point in Pathfinder's Carrion Crown II: The Trial of the Beast, the module has the PCs encountering a mostly-empty castle.  Each room in this castle is lovingly detailed for the DM's benefit, even though most of the rooms are devoid of monsters, traps or tricks. In each room, the only "threat" is that players will overlook some of the treasure hidden there.

Of course, the players have no way of knowing that.  They have every reason to expect untold horrors leaping out at them from the flickering shadows.

So how do I, as the DM, choose to run this?

Option 1: Tell it to 'em straight

One choice--the choice I wish I had made--is to just tell the players.  "You encounter a mostly empty castle.  Each room is devoid of inhabitants, and judging by the piles of dust in many of the rooms they have been abandoned for some time.  On searching the castle you discover the following treasures..."

This bypasses most of the loving detail in the module, and shoots down any chance to build tension for the characters as they carefully tiptoe from room to room, cringing as they open each door in the expectation that they will get jumped by another gothic horror.

But this option does have the virtue of sidestepping Paizo's god-fucking-awful perception and detect magic rules.

Option 2: Play it as it lies

But in my infinite wisdom, I didn't decide to go with option 1. Instead, I actually let the players search the place room by room, just like if they were exploring a "live" dungeon. Our play went something like this:

Me:  You enter the room.  You see lots of smoking pipes and clay jars on shelves that line the walls.  Two leather chairs sit in the middle of the room.  The air reeks of tobacco.

Player: We search the room for traps.  We search the walls, shelves, jars, pipes, and chairs.  Do you want separate rolls for each?

Me: No.  You search the room and find no traps.

Player: We search the room for treasure.  We search the walls, shelves, jars, pipes, and chairs.  Do you want separate rolls for each?

Me:  No. But I need an appraise check.  [Players make the check.]  You find some tobacco and some pipes that look pretty valuable.

Player:  We search the room for secret doors.  We search the walls, shelves-

Me: Okay, shut up already, I get it.  Just roll the damn dice.

Player: Ok.  I also detect magic.

Me: Of course you do.  You find no magic and no secret doors.

Player: Right, then. Next room.

Me: Sigh. Yippie...

Courtney's blog (linked above) does a pretty good job of hammering down what's wrong with this style of play.
Lastly and most damming, the process of 'we search the x', 'roll search', 'you don't find anything' is one of the most mind-numbingly boring things one can attempt to do with friends!
Well said, Courtney.

Final Thought: The Death of the Empty Room

The above scenario wouldn't be so problematic if the exploration had been broken up by combat. It's the series empty of rooms that are the Pathfinder-breaker.

And that's too bad. Interacting with the environment used to be interesting. Whether or not the end result was an increase in character power, empty rooms used to be fun.  If you took Gygax's random dungeon generation chart to heart, then 60% of your rooms would be empty, and another 5% would contain only treasure.

But them days are over.  Perception(Wis), Search(Int), and Spot(Wis) shot that playstyle all to hell.

UPDATE: An example of how the tobacco room discussed above should be run in my opinion can be found here.


  1. You should check out what the angry DM has to say about that kind of stuff. Do a start page search for angrydm and read his articles. He basically says if there is no chance of failure and there is no time pressure, just let the players find the stuff. If there is a time pressure such as wandering monsters or patrols, then have them find the stuff, but it took too long and they were too loud so they encounter the monster/patrol. Very good advice.

    1. I'm familiar with the angry dm. Thanks for the comment!

  2. If your players continue to play in dull, boring, repetitive manners, I'd have no problem suggesting tactics to speed up play (think of them like hints - no guarantees they'll work).

    For this case, use SOPs "Standard Operating Procedures". How do the players clear out a dungeon? Enter a room? Engage in their searches? Open doors? Open chests? Search for Traps? Search of tricks, shifting walls, hidden pitfalls, invisible doors?

    After a couple-three rooms you might want to suggest going to a procedure for the dungeon. This should speed up lay right away moving to your descriptions based on predetermined actions and rolls by the players. Right where the action is.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      We have all sorts of ongoing actions, of course. But I think SOPs as you call em are orthogonal to the question: how do I run an entirely empty dungeon using the 3E rules?

      Or--if we take SOPs and use em to skip all the boring parts of the above scenario, then we've just skipped the dungeon. And so we're taking Option 1 in my post. Right?