I’ve always struggled a little bit with how to handle the game when players decide to “thoroughly” search rooms (such as “taking 20” in d20 systems), or take extra extended rests, etc. While there’s times and places for these decisions, often a hostile dungeon isn’t one of them. There are some competing forces here, and I want to try and enumerate and understand them so that I can have a better idea of what the system itself can control, and what the GM must control with conflict timelines.
Risk vs Reward
You’ve entered a room in the crypt of an ancient culture. You’ve looked around and there is some seriously weird stuff going on here. There’s a metal plate in the floor. There is a statue of an ancient king, standing on his head. There’s a fountain in the corner of a woman, whose tears are the flow of water to the basin. You make a cursory examination of the room, and despite these things, you’ve found nothing. In old school D&D, you would have to risk a “random encounter” to stay and search this room, risking another combat in a dungeon where you only have limited resources before you have to leave. The conceit of unlimited “wandering monsters” always struck me as a ridiculous mechanic, but it did its job very well. It made the players keep moving. In more recent editions of the game, that tend to place tactical encounters around the map, the risk of a wandering monster – or at least the risk of an extra encounter above and beyond the combats you would have had to face otherwise, is mostly gone.
So in old D&D, you look at that room and you might say, “ok, that’s neat – maybe something later will explain this,” and keep going. OR you might say, “this is clearly important, we need to risk an additional encounter to interact with this room some more.” In new D&D, without wandering monsters codified into the rules, the players have no reason to expect additional encounters than they would have had anyway (since the unlimited wandering monster conceit is based on a game mechanic, not a believable game world), so there upside of interacting with the room easily outweighs the risk of encountering something while you do it.
Another reason players take their time is because of dwindling resources. Whether the players squandered limited resources in combats that could have been won otherwise, or whether they had a string of bad luck, or whether the game design by the GM called for a string of tough encounters – the players finally decide that they can go no further. They realize that most difficult encounters are at the end of a dungeon, and they are likely going to perish – even in an average combat.
So resources must be regained. The game system says the way you regain them is sleeping for 6-8 hours, then spending some hours studying spells and praying to the gods. It doesn’t matter if the Lich King of the Necropolis is in the midst of completing his ritual to become a god in the next room, because the players have decided that the risk of wiping to the Liche King is greater (~100%) than the risk of the Lich King completing the ritual before sometime tomorrow morning (unknown %, ~99%). They’ve decided to rest, and place their lives in the GM’s hands, as there is no mechanic for wandering monsters, the GM must DECIDE whether the Lich King is able to finish his ritual, or whether the Lich King’s minions walk into a room with sleeping adventurers. And what kind of cold-hearted GM is going to arbitrarily decide that the adventurers lose because they chose what they saw as their only option!??
Another reason players take their time, is because tracking elapsed time is painful. There’s really not a good method for it, since there is so little correlation between how long something takes in the fiction of the game to how long it takes in the real world. Combats that take 2-3 minutes can take hours to adjudicate. An exhaustive search of a crypt might take 2-3 minutes in the real world, but hours to complete in the fiction. There’s no game clock sitting at the table reminding everyone how precious that 20 minutes really is.
In the end, each playing group is going to have their own thresholds for how they value their time. Some are going to get cautious and want to rest before proceeding further when they are still at 75% strength. Some groups are going to want to conduct a thorough search of every cleared room, no matter how mundane. The further you get from pressing on, generally, the more boring the game becomes, and the less “real” the world begins to feel. What’s interesting about a secret door if you have the luxury of doing a thorough search in every single room? What’s interesting about combat if you’re full strength for every one of them? Old school D&D codified a wandering monster rule, which was an elegant little mechanic to encourage action. New RPGs need some other incentives:
1. Plot Timelines – the GM can just let the players know that there’s a timer ticking. “That Lich King ritual will be completed in 12 minutes, do you want to take 20 minutes searching the kitchen?”
2. Realistic Responses – This one is tricky, and can lead to some boring encounters, but maybe that would resolve the players to take action. If the denizens of an area fortify themselves as time progresses, or you take the next 3 encounters that would have been quite winnable individually, and have them all group together into one fight, the game becomes much more difficult the more time everyone takes.
3. Don’t Pull Punches – You’re trying to sleep in a hostile area, in your armor, on the stone floor with rats crawling all over the place? Maybe only a % chance of succeeding in actually resting in such an area, or a reduced benefit codified into the rules from resting in a hostile area as opposed to resting in town. You can also raise the risk on resting, making the rules for fighting while waking from sleep stacked in the attackers favor. You could even simulate wandering monster % rolls to put some of the disruption of the player’s plans up to fate, instead of GM fiat.
4. Resource Recovery Rules – Daily powers are really only meant to be used once in a condensed play session, not every combat after you’ve rested. By basing power recharge on a daily cycle, you’re encouraging the counter-intuitive behavior of sleeping in the dungeon. Fully healing because of a night sleep and suddenly being able to ask for divine miracles once again (what a fickle god, so reliant on that sunrise!) because you’ve rested is an abstraction of the game that could use some change.
5. Visible game clock. Keep a clock, or something with you at the table to clearly show the players that time in the game matters. If there’s a clock present, the players are going to focus more on the time things are taking them to do, and I think that would encourage some more action.