The Alexandrian

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Key in Lock

GM: It’s a pretty cheap lock, so it only takes you about fifteen seconds to pick it. You hear the satisfying click.

Rachael: Great. I’ll slide my picks back into the hidden lining on my belt before opening the door and slipping through.

GM: You find yourself in the office of Sir Sebastian. An imposing, mahogany desk with a flared plinth dominates the center of the room. Heavy, velvet curtains with gold appliqué seem to swallow the light from the windows. Vivid, arsenic-green wallpaper render kaleidoscopic patterns on the walls. Give me a Search check.

Rachael: 25.

GM: Okay, you find a hidden compartment on the wall, which you open by tracing the patterns in the wallpaper. Inside you find a small, metal ball with black, acid-etched symbols covering its surface. Give me a Spot check.

Rachael: 18.

GM: You notice that there’s a thin seam running around the center of the ball. Give me an Idea roll.

Rachael: 16.

GM: Okay, that just good enough. You realize that the ball can be rotated to form different patterns with the symbols. You experiment for a minute, and find a sequence that causes the ball to pop open. Inside you find Marie Artaud’s ring.

Rachael: Great. I’ll take the ring, close the ball, and get back to the party before I’m missed, making sure to lock the door behind me.

Hopefully the problem here is immediately apparent to you: The GM is cutting off the player’s investigation of the scene by preemptively calling for skill checks. The PC effectively ends up in a kind of “autopilot mode” during which the game ceases to be truly interactive and the player is rendered into a passive audience that can only watch the character’s actions playing out.

It’s rare (although, unfortunately, not unheard of) for this error to be carried out in quite so egregious a fashion, but I’ve found that its less pronounced variants are shockingly common.


Probably the most common version of this problem that I’ve seen is when the GM preemptively calls for a Search check or similar mechanic. At a minimum, however, a good GM needs to be able to distinguish between three different levels of character perception:

  1. Automatic Perception
  2. Spot-type Perception
  3. Search-type Perception

Pathfinder - PaizoI’m using skill names from 3rd Edition D&D, but this remains true even in games which don’t mechanically distinguish between these categories. (Pathfinder, for example, is 3rd Edition’s kissing cousin, but lumps both Spot-type and Search-type perception into a single skill.)

If you’re familiar with the Art of Rulings, you may notice how these fall into its three core principles:

  1. Passive Observation is automatically triggered
  2. Player Expertise activates Character Expertise
  3. Player Expertise can trump Character Expertise

Automatic Perception and Spot-type Perception both fall into the category of Passive Observation: Automatic Perception is the stuff that literally anyone standing there will observe. (If you want to think about it in purely mechanical terms, it’s the stuff that requires a DC 0 Spot check to notice. [LINK:]) Spot-type Perception is the stuff that people can notice while just standing there, but might not. (Spot checks are an example of this, but so are Knowledge checks: Anyone can see the large flag hanging on the wall, but only some people will recognize what nation the flag belongs to.)

Search-type Perception falls into the second category, being an example of Player Expertise activating Character Expertise: This is the stuff you can’t see by just standing there. You need to go do something in order to see it / learn it.

Beyond this basic core, there are a few advanced techniques to consider.

Matryoshka Search Technique: This is something I’ve discussed in a dedicated post as a Random GM Tip, but beyond the threshold of the basic Search-type Perception, you can begin to see the game space as nested layers of interaction.

You can actually see this in the example above: Rachael needs to search the room to find the hidden panel. She needs to figure out how to open it. Then she needs to examine the ball inside and figure out how to open that. There’s not one threshold of interactivity; there are many, each nested inside the other.

Superman’s X-Ray Vision: Special abilities (particularly always-on special abilities) can cause some items to swap between the different perception type categories for specific characters. This can result in Rachael and Teresa having different perceptual relationships with a given game space.

Golden Age Superman

I’m Just That Good: What if you’re really, really, really good at spotting stuff? So good, for example, that you might be able to notice the hidden panel in the wall from across the room whereas other characters would need to physically interact with the wall to notice it.

In some ways, you can actually think of this as a variant of the character possessing a particular special ability (it’s just that their “special ability” in this case is being really, really good at noticing hidden things).

I actually mechanically instantiated this into 3rd Edition: In my house rules, if you beat the Search DC by +20 while making a Spot check, you’ll notice the hidden feature as if you had actively searched for it (either directly, if possible, or through some form of tertiary indication if not; you may note that the latter is effectively introducing a Matryoshka technique). You can do similar stuff with, for example, exceptional successes in Eclipse Phase or point spends in Trail of Cthulhu.

You might be wondering why this is “okay”. Why is this any better than the example of the GM preempting them? Aren’t you still skipping interactive steps?

You are, in fact, still “skipping” steps. But you’re doing so as a reward for character ability. It’s similar to a wizard “skipping” sections of the dungeon by using a passwall spell: You, you’re bypassing the “intended” or “natural” path of progress, and there are things you’re losing or missing out on as a result. But you’re gaining a different (and important!) benefit.

That’s why this is an advanced technique: You need to understand the rule in order to know when you can (and should!) break it.


The preemptive Search check, however, is just one specific example of the GM making an anticipatory ruling; a ruling in which they assume that the player will make a particular choice and, therefore, skip past the step where the player actually makes that choice.

In this context, you can actually interpret the problem as a scene-framing issue. As described in the Art of Pacing, the GM needs to identify empty time – i.e., time in which the player is neither making interesting choices nor experiencing the consequences of those choices – and frame past that empty time to the next meaningful choice. What’s happening here is that the GM is incorrectly skipping past meaningful choices.

The problems with this are manifold:

  • It hurts immersion as the player loses control of their character.
  • It prevents the player from actually playing the game as the loss of control results in a loss of interactivity. In this it’s similar to alpha-quarterbacking in co-op board games.
  • It prevents the player from making a different and unanticipated choice. The GM is not omniscient, so even when they assume that there’s only one “good” choice to be made, it doesn’t follow that this is the choice which will be made.
  • On the other hand, the GM is a little too omniscient. They are biased by their design of the encounter and the wider knowledge of the scenario, which may blind them to the actual thought process the player/character is experiencing.

In this, you can see a pattern of problems similar to run-time choose your own adventure (as seen in GM Don’t List #6).

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that so many errors in GMing technique share common roots. And, conversely, that the solution to those errors are all rooted in a similar ideology.

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One Response to “GM Don’t List #7: Preempting Investigation”

  1. Wyvern says:

    Once again, I’m reminded of a similar point made by Seth Skorkowsky in one of his videos:

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