D&D 5E How do you handle secret doors?

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
In 5e, there is no default procedure for secret doors afaik.

I ask my players to describe exactly what they are doing, and if they are doing a thing that might reasonably find the secret door, I'll let them find it and describe how the opening mechanism is hidden (so they could use again if they want). If they are doing something sort of close, then I'll let them roll perception or investigation.

How do you handle?
 

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DND_Reborn

Legend
If they are "searching" the area where the door is, a Wisdom (Perception) check to find it, an Intelligence (Investigation) to figure out how open it. If they aren't in the right area, they still roll (for the sake of appearances), but automatically fail.
 

When I run published adventures that use traditional secret doors I sigh and run it the old school way, where if they happen to search for secret doors in the right area, and happen to roll well enough, they find it. But I hate that.

When I'm designing my own stuff, I tend to use them pretty sparsely, and when I do I'll leave clues or otherwise signal their presence, and if they look in the right place, and ask the right questions, they find it. The subtlety of the clues will be inversely proportional to how "important" it is to discover the secret.

In general I try to ask myself, "why am I putting in a secret door?" and the only really good answer (I think) is for its narrative impact. So maybe I'll have a secret short-cut for the way back out of a dungeon, which they find because they follow a tunnel to the back side of it, and when it emerges into a chamber/passage they passed through on the way in, there is that great moment when they realize they could have avoided all those dangers, if only they had known! And that's why I put it in: for that moment. Secret doors are all about that moment of discovery.

But if the answer is, "To make it harder to get to the treasure" then I probably won't bother.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
For me it depends on whether the PCs are traveling the dungeon and looking for secret doors or if they stop in an area to explore more thoroughly.

When the characters enter an adventure location, I ask the players to establish their marching order, any light sources that are in effect, and what tasks they engage in while traveling. That might be keeping watch for hidden dangers (traps, monsters), mapping, foraging, tracking, navigating, or searching for secret doors. For anyone who has chosen to do anything other than keep watch for hidden dangers, they will not be able to notice traps or lurking monsters, running afoul of the traps or being automatically surprised by monsters. The trade-off is they get the benefit of the other task they are doing. If the PCs pass by a secret door, I check to see if the PC's passive Wisdom (Perception) is sufficient to notice the secret door. If it is, they notice it. If it is not, they don't.

When the players decide to explore a given area more thoroughly, I ask them to choose an area about of about 1000 square feet that they can explore over the course of 10 minutes and establish their tasks. Each task takes about 10 minutes, including searching for secret doors. If the approach to the goal of searching for secret doors in that area has an uncertain outcome and a meaningful consequence for failure, then I ask for a Wisdom (Perception) check. At the end of the 10 minutes, I may roll for wandering monsters or just count the time spent against some countdown or both.

In either case, once a secret door is located, they will usually need to spend 10 minutes figuring out how it works. This may call for an Intelligence (Investigation) check. If they succeed, they figure out how it works and can open it. As above, I then roll for wandering monsters or mark off the time spent against a countdown or both. Thus, any given interaction with a secret door takes something like 10 to 20 minutes (or more) of in-game time.

I always do two additional things: I establish ahead of time that there may be secret doors in the adventure location. This will be done through legends or rumors and then later through telegraphing clues when describing the environment. As well, I always make secret doors very valuable: They're shortcuts around dangerous traps or monsters, contain treasure, or offer a safe place to rest. This gives the players a good reason to look for them at the risk of running afoul of traps and/or being automatically surprised by monsters.
 

In either case, once a secret door is located, they will usually need to spend 10 minutes figuring out how it works. This may call for an Intelligence (Investigation) check. If they succeed, they figure out how it works and can open it.

Is that an abstract "how it works" or is that referring to something they could solve without dice?

In other words, do you decide something before hand like "push on both eyes of the mermaid in the mosaic", and if they roll well enough you tell them that's how it works, and mark off 10 minutes. BUT....if somebody just happens to announce, "I push on both eyes of the mermaid", do they save the 10 minutes?

And if they pushed on just one eye would you give them a hint? Such as, "Oddly enough it depresses to your touch, but otherwise no, nothing happens."

Or is it entirely abstract, so that the only way to open it is by spending the time and rolling the dice, and if they succeed it's just "Ok, you figured it out and it opens."

edit: but otherwise your post has me thinking I might try running something with more intentional time-keeping, with the players knowing there's a 'wandering monster' check every X minutes (where 'wandering monster' is shorthand for 'problem you wouldn't have had if only you weren't so slow'). That kind of gives you an automatic "consequence of failure" of almost any task, doesn't it?
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Is that an abstract "how it works" or is that referring to something they could solve without dice?

In other words, do you decide something before hand like "push on both eyes of the mermaid in the mosaic", and if they roll well enough you tell them that's how it works, and mark off 10 minutes. BUT....if somebody just happens to announce, "I push on both eyes of the mermaid", do they save the 10 minutes?

And if they pushed on just one eye would you give them a hint? Such as, "Oddly enough it depresses to your touch, but otherwise no, nothing happens."

Or is it entirely abstract, so that the only way to open it is by spending the time and rolling the dice, and if they succeed it's just "Ok, you figured it out and it opens."

edit: but otherwise your post has me thinking I might try running something with more intentional time-keeping, with the players knowing there's a 'wandering monster' check every X minutes (where 'wandering monster' is shorthand for 'problem you wouldn't have had if only you weren't so slow'). That kind of gives you an automatic "consequence of failure" of almost any task, doesn't it?
In my notes, I write down how the door opens. If they just do that thing, it's an automatic success and I'll assess how long it takes in the moment. It could be negligible for tracking purposes. Because in any given area there's probably other exploration tasks going on that take time (someone searching for traps or picking a lock), players may not be as specific because they're going to have to wait anyway so they just make a general sort of action declaration. If they are pressed for time, on the other hand or low on resources with a wandering monster check hanging over their heads, they might be more specific. So it depends.

The wandering monster check is built in time pressure giving an automatic meaningful consequence for failure, because you're now in a worse position (because monsters might be coming or you're closer to the doomsday device exploding or both).
 

The wandering monster check is built in time pressure giving an automatic meaningful consequence for failure, because you're now in a worse position (because monsters might be coming or you're closer to the doomsday device exploding or both).

It's too bad Darkvision and magical light sources are so commonplace, because torch consumption would be an awesome time constraint.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
It's too bad Darkvision and magical light sources are so commonplace, because torch consumption would be an awesome time constraint.
I find if you're enforcing the rule for dim light disadvantage on Perception (which is very bad for finding secret doors, avoiding surprise, or noticing traps), you're going to see more light sources in play. If someone takes light, it'll be one fewer combat or utility cantrip, so I comfort myself with the thought that it's at least some kind of trade-off. Dancing lights is actually very good in a dungeon, but it's concentration.

Light sources are a major liability in large dungeon rooms or in long corridors if monsters have ranged attacks, so I make sure to put in a few of those, too! Plus who doesn't love a good ranged battle in a hallway?
 


pogre

Legend
I do something similar to iserith. However, I do not make the players tell me where they are searching - I just let all of the searchers roll a perception check and I roll a die to determine which PC is searching the area with the secret door. Then I tell them - you searched for twenty minutes and did not or did find a secret door (depending on whether the PC, determined by my die roll, passed the check).
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
In 5e, there is no default procedure for secret doors afaik.

I ask my players to describe exactly what they are doing, and if they are doing a thing that might reasonably find the secret door, I'll let them find it and describe how the opening mechanism is hidden (so they could use again if they want). If they are doing something sort of close, then I'll let them roll perception or investigation.

How do you handle?
Same as you, basically. I want them to interact with the world as much as possible and their character sheet as little as possible.

Have the players describe as much as possible.

If they'd find the secret door with their described action, they find it. No roll required.

If their description is close but not quite right, perception or investigation depending on the description. Best guess the DC from their description and how far removed it is from the "facts" of the secret door.

If their description wildly off, wrong side of the room, looking in the wrong direction, etc, they don't find it. No roll required.
 

As a player, I don't find it satisfying or fun when I roll Int (Investigation) or Wis (Perception) and the DM tells me I found a secret door. It's way more satisfying when I actually find it.

In one case the DM described some irregularities in the stonework that I was convinced was part of a large-scale trap, and while fiddling with it I accidentally opened a secret door. That was genuinely exciting, and felt like the classic scene in movies where the visitors in the castle stumble across a secret door.
 

Shadowdweller00

Adventurer
There kinda is an established procedure? Secret doors are precisely what passive perception is for. On rare occasion if I feel it's more fun to let the PCs have a chance to find or not find a secret door, I'll roll randomly behind the screen using the highest perception bonus for passive detection. Usually once (Probability being what it is, using 3+ individual rolls is almost certain to find the door regardless of difficulty - well.... regardless of difficulties needing a natural roll in the extreme upper end). Active searching is always performed individually at the players' discretion, of course.

Sometimes I merely provide clues and let the PCs play around actively until they find out what's going on. "You feel an odd draught of air as you pass the corner here". "There are some scratches on the floor along this hall." "The stonework looks a little different in this area." "You notice a trail of faint smudges that extend partway along the east wall." "It looks like there's a piece of hair stuck between the wall planks over there." "The thumping of your footsteps sounds off for a second." "You notice a place where it look like the cobwebs have been torn away."
 
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Shadowdweller00

Adventurer
It's too bad Darkvision and magical light sources are so commonplace, because torch consumption would be an awesome time constraint.
Not really, IMX; if you get rid of those it tends to result in PCs carrying chests or even wagons full of torches and oil. Kinda like the whole crates full of arrows thing. That said, I think it's fun to play up / dramatize the dimness of "dim light". "There's a grunt from the shadows and a glint of metal. Roll initiative" You don't really need to give the full suite of information that you would for something in bright light. "You see an orc". As long you don't overload the PCs with so much detail that it slows down play. Like in real life while walking with a flashlight or driving with headlights at night there's a range at which you can only really detect movement or flickers of shape.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In general I try to ask myself, "why am I putting in a secret door?" and the only really good answer (I think) is for its narrative impact.
I instead ask myself "why would the builders/inhabitants of this place put in a secret door?", to which there are three common answers:

--- to hide something, up to and including the whole complex. Think of a typical spy movie setting where there's a huge room full of tech behind a secret door in the back of an ordinary-looking shop.
--- as a defense mechanism. A secret door bypassed by invaders can allow defenders to take them en flanc, or from behind. Or, as you suggest, a hidden passage could bypass all the nasty traps and other defenses.
--- as an escape route and-or to delay pursuers.

But if the answer is, "To make it harder to get to the treasure" then I probably won't bother.
Yet that would in fact be a good reason for the builder to put one in: to hide the vault.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Technically, exactly as 5e does it, passive perception and active investigation when they are really looking for it, and I place them where they would be logical to hide secrets, so in turn the players have a chance to guess that there would be one (or can find clues to that effect).
 

Azzy

KMF DM
In 5e, there is no default procedure for secret doors afaik.
There is, actually, in the DMG, pp. 103-104.

Secret Doors
A secret door is crafted to blend into the wall that surrounds it. Sometimes faint cracks in the wall or scuff marks on the floor betray the secret door’s presence.

Detecting a Secret Door. Use the characters’ passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to determine whether anyone in the party notices a secret door without actively searching for it. Characters can also find a secret door by actively searching the location where the door is hidden and succeeding on a Wisdom (Perception) check. To set an appropriate DC for the check, see chapter 8.

Opening a Secret Door. Once a secret door is detected, a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check might be required to determine how to open it if the opening mechanism isn’t obvious. Set the DC according to the difficulty guidelines in chapter 8.

If adventurers can’t determine how to open a secret door, breaking it down is always an option. Treat it as a locked door made of the same material as the surrounding wall, and use the guidelines in the Running the Game section to determine appropriate DCs or statistics.
 

Aldarc

Legend
In 5e, there is no default procedure for secret doors afaik.

I ask my players to describe exactly what they are doing, and if they are doing a thing that might reasonably find the secret door, I'll let them find it and describe how the opening mechanism is hidden (so they could use again if they want). If they are doing something sort of close, then I'll let them roll perception or investigation.

How do you handle?
If secret doors had handles, they likely wouldn't be very secret.
 



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