How can a DM tell players that a room’s unimportant?

DMs often create monasteries, mansions and mines that are realistic, but this often lead players into thinking every room is equally as important and must be searched floor to ceiling. This leads to time wasted and much longer gaming sessions. How can the DM tell players that a room’s unimportant and that they shouldn’t linger here checking under every cushion, or behind every crate.

In this article I’ve put together a bunch of different ways to deal with players who feel they must toss each room. You may find different methods for different audiences.

There’s no one right method.

 

TL>DR

  1. Give the players an incentive not to search, such as a time pressure
  2. Make unimportant rooms dull and their descriptions lack-luster. Glamorous rooms inspire players to search for glorious treasure. The reverse is also true.
  3. Use Passive Perception / Passive Searching. No need to roll for trivial items being found.
  4. Never hide key items in unimportant rooms. Crucial items, powerful items, information or NPCs draw players to them – if you put them in unimportant rooms you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
  5. Go out of character before the session. As the DM you’re there to make things run smoothly. If needed, have a chat before the session and explain characters dont need to trash each room.

 

Why would a DM even add unimportant rooms?

Mines descend into the darkness and could have miles of tracks, pulleys and air-vents. Monasteries would have prayer rooms, vaults and ceremonial chambers. Mansions would have grand bedrooms, large dining rooms and glorious ballrooms.

These are key rooms, or features, of the overriding structure. If the bedrooms were removed from the mansion (or the miles of tracks from the mine) the players might feel disconnected, or worse, feel that they’ve missed something. This could cause them to check for passages or loop back to previous rooms.

If the DM just created maps of the key important rooms, the whole encounter would feel very railroaded.

DM Tip: Dyson's beautiful map - lots of unimportant rooms too
Lots of unimportant rooms bring this dungeon to life
(The Hall of Bronze by Dyson Logos)

If the deranged mayor lived a life of luxury in his mansion, wouldn’t he have servants? Wouldn’t they need their own quarters. What about the kitchens and pantries needed to fill the dining room with sumptuous food. What about the secret passageways used by the servants to move around the house, unseen by their master.

Areas and buildings, just like players, need fleshing out.

They need their own backstory and need to feel like they serve their intended purpose.

That is why DMs add unimportant rooms.

 

The DMs unimportant room quandary

The DM wants the world to feel realistic, they want the players to believe their characters are in that building. They want their players to feel immersed in the world they’re creating, so create detailed ‘realistic’ blueprints.

The problem is the players never want to miss a clue, a hidden room or a secret piece of treasure. They often over-check locations for fear of missing out (FOMOs)

DM: Would you miss out on all this treasure?
Fear of Missing Out all this treasure
WarframeZeeker’s gorgeous render of a gold laden room

The DM could remove the unimportant rooms, which would help the players stay focused and not lose focus. The downside to this is the players may feel railroaded, knowing full well that a mansion should contain dozens of other rooms.

 

What not to put in unimportant rooms

One key thing I would say is never put key items or NPCs in unimportant rooms.

If players can’t proceed because they’ve missed a vital clue hidden in a tiny inconsequential store room – the next dungeon dive those players will check every room.

The caveat to this could be a mystery adventure where exploration of a mansion would be key – maybe the villain was tipped off and is now hiding somewhere in the grounds – or the necromancers orb of resurrection was stolen and stashed away by a servant. Maybe the whole plot hangs on characters being duped into thinking the sorcerer in the tower is the villian when in reality its his servant boy, a cunning spy, who is really the protagonist.

If you’ve accidentally given the PCs a powerful item and need it gone, see our tips on DM’s getting rid of an overpowered item.

Method: Pressure the PCs into not searching

One way you can stop your players from flipping every table is to instill some kind of negative consequence for their delays.

Maybe the players are there to free captives, but every long delay the players hear the faint screams of another victim.

How about if one of the characters is poisoned, every hour they continue on their adventure they must make progressively harder constitution saving throws.

 

 

Method: Make the rooms unimportant by description

We all know the throne rooms important, or the main crypt, or the temples alter room. Players are drawn to these places like magnets, and for good reason. On top of the assumption they’re important, the DM will add extra effort to the description of these rooms so that they really stand out.

By reverse, they could signify a room’s unimportant by simple describing it as follows:

DM: The door opens onto the mansions kitchen. It has all the usual kitchen units and items, but lacks anything of interest to the party

You’ve nailed it, you’ve already told the players there’s nothing of interest.

With a bleak description, which room's unimportant here
Rooms unimportant = Bleak Description
(Empty Old Room by ladee-stock)

If the characters decide to search the room regardless, without rolling a D20 you could simply say “a quick search doesn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary”

I would say the key here is NOT to roll for perception.

If you roll a dice, regardless of most results, the players won’t know if they’ve missed something or if there wasn’t something to find in the first place.

If you don’t roll, the players know that there’s nothing to find because they can’t fail. They know your statement is true and that there’s not something they’ve missed.

 

…but unimportant rooms should be beautiful too

Yes that room’s unimportant, but as the DM I feel you still have to convey how the room looks, smells and feels. That probably couldn’t be easier than a kitchen.

Cosy medieval kitchen
(Pic from dubemichael.info)

DM: The door swings open to a wall of warmth and smells.

The smell of sweet pastries and cooked meats greets you in the doorway, while the crackle of the fireplace comes from the roaring fire in the opposite corner.

Flanking the window two tall wooden units bow under the weight of fine crockery, vases and pots.

Yet despite the freshly chopped vegetables on the old wooden table in the middle of the room and the bubbling pop of water by the fire, the room is empty of life.

I would much prefer to describe the unimportant room like this, the room still has life.

 

Method: Passive searching those unimportant Rooms

One mechanic that Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition added, which could be easily added to any RPG, is that of passive perception. This is there perception score as if they rolled a 10 and added their bonuses

This passive perception is what the user would notice under normal unpressured situations. They’re not distracted but equally not spending a prolonged period of time looking.

Dark stairs. What room's unimportant down here?
Stairs down into dark
(Pic from The13thFloor Website)/

If you use passive perception in unimportant rooms, you as the DM will know before they’ve even entered the room what they’ll find.

You descend the stone staircase and enter a dank, humid dark room, barely 10 foot across and the same deep. The rough stone floor is partially flooded under a few inches of thick, foul smelling stagnant water.

(With the characters passive perception being above the DC to find mundane items)

You scan the room using the flickering light of your torch. Rotten discarded sacks lay in the water, their swollen content rotting in these putrid conditions.

A small sword stand, moss and algae covered, fills one of the walls. Several swords still slotted into their place, but their blades now dulled by rust, the passing of time and the constant submergence in water.

It should be fairly obviously theres not much to this room, yet it still has a nice description that portrays the conditions and layout of the room.

If the players are paranoid they’ve missed something and want to search the room further, such as ‘Taking 20’ in Pathfinder or D&D 3, they can still do so.

 

Explain before the next session

If necessary, sit down with the players before the next session and explain to them they don’t need to turn over every room.

Tell the players that the maps you’ve created follow some logical rules:

  • the expensive items will be far from the servant quarters
  • the treasure won’t be hidden in a drawer in a common room
  • the evil queen won’t be found in a dusty store room in a basement

If the players are actually trying to locate every coin in the house, you could come to some agreement that given time, the characters would find an additional X amount of gold.

 

Thanks for reading guys. I’ve put together a bunch of tips for new DMs if you want to read that too.

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