The Alexandrian

Ninja Matryoshka Dolls

One of the things I talked about in The Art of the Key is the conceptual organization of material from the general to the specific: What the PCs immediately see. What they might see. What they can investigate. What they see when they investigate X. This organization, in turn, naturally mimics the way in which the game space is explored during actual play. (Which means that the basic conceptual structure is useful whether you’re keying a location or improvising on the fly.)

I’ve recently realized that there is a specific elaboration upon this general structure that (a) I’ve been using in play for several years without really consciously thinking about it, and which (b) has proven to be very effective. I’m now referring to it as a Matryoshka Search.

Let’s say that PCs are exploring the bedroom of a serial killer. There’s a hidden trap door in the floor leading down to the killer’s mystic butchering chamber. The basic way of handling this scenario looks like this:

Player: There’s gotta be more here. I search the room.
GM: Give me a Search check.
Player: (rolls dice) 25
GM: You find a secret trap door in the floor.

That obviously works just fine. But what I’ll frequently end up doing instead is something like this:

Player: There’s gotta be more here. I search the room.
GM: Give me a Search check.
Player: (rolls dice) 25
GM: There are scuff marks on the floor around the legs of the bed.
Player: As if the bed had been moved back and forth a lot?
GM: Yeah.
Player: I shove the bed to one side and take a look.
GM: You find a secret trap door in the floor.

Instead of immediately discovering the item of interest, the character instead discovers an indicator pointing in the direction of the item of interest. The advantage is that it allows (and even requires) the player to receive information and then draw a conclusion. It’s a subtle distinction, but the result increases the player’s engagement and reduces the feeling that the GM is just handing them whatever information he feels like. I call it the Matryoshka search technique because it turns the interaction into a nested doll: One investigation “opens” new information, which can then be opened by another investigation in turn.

We could also look at this through the lens of the Art of Rulings: The GM is setting an initial threshold for player expertise activating character expertise which is fairly low. (All the player needs to do is say that they want to make a Search check.) But once the character’s expertise has given some sort of result, the GM hits the pause button, turns the interaction back to the player, and basically raises the required threshold. (“Your original declaration has taken you this far, but now I need more information.”) This can make the technique a good way of compromising between players who prefer a very low threshold of player expertise and GMs who want their players to engage more directly with the game world. It’s a naturalistic way of asking, “How are you doing that?” while still moving the action forward.

The Matryoshka technique works even when the indicator really only points at one possible conclusion, as it does in the example above. (Although even in the case of the bed being frequently moved there’s still the question of WHY the bed is moving.) But it can be even more effective if there are multiple explanations possible, requiring additional inquiry and thought before firm conclusions can be reached. As a very simple example, the GM might say, “Taking a closer look at the floor, you can see through the dust and grime clear indications of square-shaped seams.” Is it a pit trap? Is it a pedestal that rises up? Do the seams release poison gas or a force cage projected from below? The player is going to have to figure it out.

This technique is particularly valuable if you’re running the GUMSHOE system: Because every skill use in GUMSHOE is guaranteed to succeed, it can be very easy for investigation actions in the system to feel like “laundry lists” with the player simply naming the skills they want to use and then the GM handing them dollops of information. Matryoshka nesting of information can prevent the automatic successes from becoming lifeless.

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8 Responses to “Random GM Tip – Matryoshka Search Technique”

  1. Warclam says:

    Ooh, I really like this. It seems like the ideal solution to the question of specificity. Ask a non-specific question, you get the start of an answer.

  2. Xercies says:

    I quite like this idea, of course you may run in the problem of players getting something else from your clue then the obvious thing you intended which could cause problems/hold points.

  3. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    Yes, but at that point I think it’s the GM’s responsibility to determine whether the misinterpretation is something that the PC might reasonably make, or whether it’s a product of communication problems between GM and PC. It’s like the example of the PC on the roof who says “I jump off the roof to escape” — if the fall is likely to be fatal, the GM should ask whether the PC understands that, or whether he thought that 200′ fall was really only 20′.

  4. Aaron Griffin says:

    I read an article about this same concept recently, but I can’t find what it was. It was discussing searching for traps, with responses varying from: “You find a pressure plate trap” to “you find a tile with no mortar around it, it’s a pressure plate” to “you notice a tile with no mortar around it”, etc.

  5. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    In my post #3, I meant to say “communication problems between GM and _player_” in case that’s not apparent. Rereading that now, I really should have gone the extra quarter-mile and actually come up with an example that was relevant to the original post; maybe:

    GM: “There are scuff marks on the floor around the legs of the bed”
    Player: “Okay. Sounds like a dog or something like that must have stolen the murder weapon. Is there a dog in the household?”
    GM: “Um…. I mean scuff marks that might have been made by sliding the bed back and forth a lot.”
    Player: “OH! Never mind about the dog, then. We look under the bed.”

    @Aaron: that sounds like it might be from Courtney Campbell’s Hack & Slash blog ( — he’s got a lot of stuff on traps and player agency and how they can interact.

  6. Illusoriske tricks til at finde ting med i rollespil – og at finde det skjulte – del 4 | Stemmen fra ådalen says:

    […] bloggen The Alexandrian kommer meget belejligt denne teknik for […]

  7. d47 says:

    Great insight.
    This also opens up the possibility of providing some hint even if the player misses a roll or allowing the player to become more specific, especially if failure is going to block progress.
    In the above example, if the player rolled a 10, the GM could say, “A quick search of the room doesn’t turn anything up, but something doesn’t feel right. Do you want to take a closer look at anything?”
    Player: “I want to examine the bed and under the bed carefully.”
    GM: “Roll again…” OR “There are scuff marks on the floor around the legs of the bed.”

  8. Inspiration: The Witcher 3 – The Narrative Wilderness says:

    […] Alexander of The Alexandrian talks about a Matryoshka Search Technique, wherein PCs pass the DC of a Search check and are given a rough clue. In his main example, a DC 25 […]

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