Scrounging and Searching

by mshrm

“Three silencers stashed in a mini-fridge. Rule #1 of scavenging: there’s nothing left in this world that isn’t hidden.” 

— Glen, “The Walking Dead: Stranger (Season 5, Episode 2)”


Part of the attraction of the whole post-apocalyptic genre is the idea of picking over the remains of civilization. Part of the challenge of the genre is being forced to do so. We’ve already seen this come up, in the first session of TEOTWAWKI, even before the PCs have figured out that it really is The End, when the party dug up food and blankets from the self-storage facility where they were taking shelter. The task of scavenging requires more than one skill. Since it’s going to come up, it’s worthwhile to review which Skill does what.

First, because it’s easy to dispose of, is Urban Survival. It has a certain “find stuff in the ruins” component, because it can be used to find the necessities of life. The skill description on B228 mentions finding drinking water. Last session, Cyprys used it to go through trash to find food. However, the “finding” part is incidental to its main territory, which is keeping one’s self alive in an urban environment. No matter how badly you need a screwdriver, Urban Survival isn’t going to locate one for you.

Next up is Search, which is used to find hidden things. In fact, I would say it’s less about finding things, and more about finding hiding places. Check all the hiding places, you’ll find the things that some person has thought to hide. At this point, early on in the apocalypse, Search isn’t going to be useful in finding food, because nobody’s hoarding any, aside from maybe a cookie jar on a high shelf.

Search is rolled in secret, by the GM. You never know if you’ve found all the hidden things. It’s not a matter of seeking something specific, so much as finding out what turns up. A policeman patting down a suspect might be expecting to find drugs, but would still find a concealed weapon.

Finally, there’s Scrounging. This is the skill of finding what you need, even if you have to think outside the box and work outside of channels. It’s MacGyver’s characteristic skill:  “I don’t have a wrench, but maybe if I knock this pistol apart…” Unlike Search, you have to know what you’re looking for before you can Scrounge for it. Depending on your purpose, any given item might be trash or treasure.

An attempt at Scrounging is rolled by the player, not the GM. Once the attempt is made, either you’ve got eyes on something that’ll work for the need at hand, or you don’t.

Other skills can come in handy, at one time or another, for the broad task of “finding stuff”. What does Sherlock Holmes use to find clues? Criminology, Forensics, probably Observation. How does Aragorn find a hobbit?  Tracking. How does a movie hacker find the email with the evidence? Computer Operation. And so forth.

(Speaking of Observation, here’s my rule of thumb:  If the scene in the movie of the game shows a closeup of a person’s eyes flicking from place to place, interspersed with shots of whatever thing it is that they’re taking notice of, they’re probably using Observation.)

But… if Scrounging is for problem-solving, and Search is for hiding places… what skill would you use to, say, search a storeroom full of cardboard boxes for useful equipment? No reason, just a hypothetical scenario. 😉

Well, let’s take a look at B383, which talks about the time it takes to find an object in one’s own pocket (1d seconds) or something rattling around loose in one’s pack (2d seconds). There’s no Skill roll involved, because there’s no particular skill to it. It’s just rummaging around. Sometimes you get lucky, it’s right there on top, and you roll a 1. Other times, not so much. There’s an option mentioned, to try and improve things with a roll (at the risk of making them worse if you fail), but the roll is against DX or IQ.

I would argue that the situation is much the same, when facing a room full of unmarked boxes. That’s not a job for Scrounging, nor Searching. It’s taking inventory. It’s a question of putting in the time and burning the Fatigue, not being clever. Lack of organization, as from Laziness or Absent-Mindedness, might complicate the job. Luck or Serendipity might speed it up. Otherwise, it’s just grunt work.

Finally getting down to brass tacks: what’s the procedure for searching a room full of boxes?

The attempt will cost time and Fatigue. The base time will vary according to the size of the space and the density of the contents. I’ll allow a roll against IQ (to work smarter) or DX (to work faster) to cut down that base time, at the risk of troubles. That gets a list of obvious contents, at least to the level of “Family pictures and baby clothes; nothing useful.”  I will likely roll Search simultaneously, which might add that which is less obvious. Dumping out the box will show you the socks, but Search will find the Rolex stuffed inside one of those socks.