Aegon is playing D&D 4E and he stirred the Suggestion Pot with this question:

“There is something about investigation, I am having difficulty putting my finger on it., part of it is that investigation seems to break up the group, one person wants to run up, pull the funny bookm off the shelf while another wants the rogue to take a look at it for traps. This ends up with the first person frustrated that they have to wait to do what they want … also investigation has led everyone talking at once …”

A D&D Paradox

Aegon’s dealing with another D&D paradox: It’s a roleplaying game whose combat is orderly but character interaction is chaotic, to say the least. And he’s hit upon a classic problem, namely, once the battle is done, it’s a free-for-all to search the room.  In fact, some DMs would rather run epic combat involving 20 blue dragons and a party of munchkinized PCs that deal with the post-combat mayhem of searching a room. 

And it’s a tricky thing, because everyone wants their share of the spoils. I’m sure there are horror stories out there about actual fights starting or groups that have broken up because of disagreements over how to search a room, and subsequently, how to divvy up the treasure.

Before I offer my advice, though, let me  say this. The post-combat free-for-all is probably a tradition in many groups. I mean, during the course of a dungeon crawl, it’s the one moment when PCs get to enchage in a little character roleplay and have a chance to blow off steam after a heated battle. It’s a game, and it’s all simulated, of course, but sometimes there needs to be that moment where adrenelin and excitement carry over. And without the restraint of initiative order, most folk feel free to let loose. So here’s a cautionary note, don’t be hasty about trying to “fix” this “problem.” You might be content to let the post-combat free-for-all be “part of the game.”

Taking the game to another level

The full text of Aegon’s suggestions indicated, however, that some players were disengaging during these free-for-alls.  And he’s right to be concerned. His suggestion to use skill challenges as a means of resolving these issues also means he’s ready to take his game to another level. Good for him. 

Here are some options:

  • Continue encounter initiative order until the room search is resolved. It conveys a sense of urgency, continuing with the 6-second-turns, and limits disputes to what a person can say in 6 seconds. (Plus no one can “Take 20” or “Take 10” in those situations.) And if you uncover something that would require order resolution, the mechanism to do so is already in place.
  • Non-combat initiative. This is a bit draconian, but if your players have trouble taking turns or speaking over others, it might be the only way to restore order. Rogues will hate this part. Don’t modify non-combat initiative rolls with Dex.  If you’re searching a room or its an arcane situation, use Int.  If it’s a wilderness or religious setting, use Wis. And if it’s a social setting, use Cha.

The good part of non-combat initiative is that it avoids the problem of the “fast-talker” being the “fast actor.” (for example: “What do you mean the guy across the room gets to grab the book before me, just because he said he’s doing it? I’m standing right next to the book.”) Like tactical combat, if you’re in a position to do something, and it’s your turn, you do it. 

Thie downside is the loss of sponteneity. People have free actions to talk out of turn, of course, but you have to decide: Is it really fun to have all actions in a D&D session dictated by initiative?

  • Using the Skill Challenge subsystem as a mechanism in this case could really be an inspired way to go. The payoff is that the players would have to prove they are good at something, and that negates the “fast-talker/fast actor” problem. It would encourage roleplay, and by definition, force the PCs to interact with one another in a civil fashion. Plus, it’s another opportunity to bring postive-reinforcement into the game. The PC accomplished something. That makes the player feel good.

That said, there are downsides to this approach.  First, it increases the DM’s prep time. At the least,. you have to formulate the standards of success for the most interesting items to be found in the room. Secondly, it might be introducing a time-consuming mechanic where none is needed. Thirdly, skill challenges can  be layered into a combat encounter. Are you ready to put that into play, adding to the complexity of the encounter?

  • So far, we’ve tried to deal with this problem within the context of the rules of the game. It may be, however, that this one will require action outside the paramaters of the rules. Get the group together, explain your concern, and see if the players themselves can offer a solution. Because this is a “buy-in” moment, you might have more success if this is your approach to the situation.

Perhaps our Gnome Stew community has some suggestions to offer, as well.