I am currently running a D&D 4e campaign. Every time my players defeat/subdue the monsters in a room, they decide to search the room. However, I never have anything interesting for them to find. I realize that sometimes the answer is just, "You find nothing," but I don't think that that should always be the answer.
How can I avoid disappointing my players when they search a room and there is nothing to find?
Derek: Rather than loot, consider adding in items or evidence of what else might be inhabiting the dungeon. Unless your monsters just plunk down in one room and wait for PCs to blunder in, it’s likely that your giant rats are going to leave tracks or droppings in different rooms, or the black puddings leave stains along the path they mindlessly wander. Don’t have to limit what they find to physical things either: “while searching, you don’t find anything interesting, but you do hear a shuffling from the next room over.” Smell oil in the trap one hallway over, feel a breeze from a secret passage in the next room, or stimulate some magical senses if the PCs have them. As a double bonus, this sort of set piece dressing also encourages forward movement.
Ryn: Generally, I advocate for letting them find some rewards. Of course, if their rolls are low enough, they might not find anything. And sometimes, you’re right, a room isn’t going to have anything interesting (aka worth pocketing to sell later). In general, though, if you don’t want a particular monster or room to have a reward (monetary, items, gems, spell components, or anything else), I like to keep a small list of objects that can enhance the flavor of the room but are functionally useless to the PCs that I can just pick from at a moment’s notice.
For example, let’s say the party has just defeated a mimic in a small side-chamber of a dungeon. They search the room. You don’t intend to have anything promising here. If they roll poorly, perhaps they only find the pile of bone fragments and other bits-and-bobs that constitute the mimic’s previous meals. If they roll well, perhaps they also find among the pile a smooth, polished river stone-- likely a symbolic object to its previous owner, but appears to have no meaning or value to anyone else-- or else they find some other object a previous adventurer carried on them, some token. Examining a haunted house, they defeat a ghost and find some shattered ceramic jugs, a tin goblet, some pieces of silverware, some torn and moth-eaten clothing.
Simple objects that your PCs wouldn’t pick up, but prevent you from saying “you find nothing,” can enhance the story and lend some variety. It also doesn’t hurt sometimes, on an extraordinary roll, to allow them to find something minor. In the dungeon, perhaps they find an adventurer’s purse containing a few gold. In the house, they could find a small silver figure of a god, likely worshiped by the previous inhabitants. Not worth much, but perhaps a small monetary reward if returned to a temple or shrine when nearby.
Another option is to build your dungeons in a linear manner. It will feel more video-game-esque, but if your players know that the best loot is going to be at the boss, then they might not waste time searching for little things on their way.
Derek Burge is an old ginger man who can fit eleven d20's in his mouth and likes talking about games too much. He's been playing TTRPGs since THAC0 was a thing, is happily married, and lives in Finland. If you enjoy his inane ramblings on the hobby or like post-apocalyptic content, check out AftertheEnd-gamedev on Tumblr to see the game he's endlessly tinkering with.
Ryn Winter (they/them/theirs) is an evolutionary biologist and currently lives in Boston. They fell in love with fantasy stories at a young age, and was introduced to AD&D by their father at the age of 10. Their favorite part of running games is the worldbuilding that goes into it. In their spare time they play jazz and bake bread.