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D&D 5E Secret Doors

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
I'm running an adventure with a lot of secret doors right now, and I'm struggling with how to keep them from becoming monotonous on the one hand or trivial on the other. I don't want to slow down the game while the players go over every inch of wall, but just allowing the characters with high enough Passive Perception to see them automatically means they're not actually secret at all. (Someone in my group has PP 15 at level 1.)

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to keep them engaging?
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
T E L E G R A P H I N G

When there’s a secret door to be found, hint to its presence in your description of the environment. A draft is a heavy-handed way to telegraph the presence of a secret door, but it cuts the mustard. Likewise a conspicuous lack of dust in an arc in front of where the secret door sings.

For more subtle clues, use context to imply the presence of a room that there’s no apparent door to. There’s the classic “there’s this weird room-shaped empty space in the map” but that only works if your players are mapping the dungeon as they go, and doing so accurately and precisely. Another option that’s less reliant on mapping but more reliant on level design is to have some visual cue that always goes along with secret doors. Maybe there are tapestries throughout the dungeon, and rooms with secret doors (and only rooms with secret doors) feature dragons on the tapestries.

A lot of DMs are hesitant to do this kind of thing because it can feel like giving too much away. But if the goal is to get players to pay attention to and interact with the environment, there is no surer way to achieve that than to indicate with your environmental description that there is something to be interacted with. And, while telegraphs may seem obvious to you, never underestimate the obliviousness of players. They will regularly miss things you think are painfully obvious. And when they do catch on to things, they’ll feel like they’re clever for doing so, which is exactly what you want.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
If you're going to resolve finding secret doors with passive Perception while the PCs are traveling the dungeon, then I suggest you make that a trade-off against keeping watch for danger. In other words, you can't do both, unless you're a ranger in favored terrain. Therefore, the character has a chance to notice secret doors, but is automatically surprised if a stealthy monster comes calling.

Rather than do it that way though, you can also do it the way @Charlaquin suggests and telegraph the existence of the secret door in some fashion and then, if the PCs search the room, whoever is specifically searching for secret doors in a way that speaks to what was telegraphed can either find it outright or you can call for an ability check. In most dungeon environments that I run, I break down basic dungeon tasks into 10 minute blocks of time and then either have wandering monster checks every 10 minutes or every hour. This builds in a meaningful consequence for failure for these tasks.

So, for example, the PCs enter a chamber that the DM describes. The fighter keeps watch, the cleric searches for traps, the rogue looks around for stuff to loot, and the wizard searches for secret doors. This all takes 10 minutes. Resolve each task in the order that makes the most sense, asking for ability checks when necessary (Wisdom (Perception) for secret doors), make that wandering monster check (or tick 10 minutes off till the next one), and throw a monster at them if called for. If that monster is the stealthy sort, everyone but the fighter is surprised automatically. Once that's done, describe the situation as it now stands and ask what they do. Repeat till they move on.

Also remember that just finding a secret door doesn't have to be the beginning and end of the it. Sometimes figuring out how it works is also complicated and, depending on how the PCs go about it, it may call for an Intelligence (Investigation) check to make a deduction about how it operates. This is another 10-minute task in the above framework which comes with further risk of wandering monsters (or moves the clock closer to them or closer to some other time limit).
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
If players aren't sure that they're seeing all doors, though, doesn't that risk the "going over every inch of the wall" problem?
It depends on how you adjudicate that situation, really. Ideally, it shouldn't take up any additional game-time or result in any additional rolls, because repeated actions (like searching) are exactly what passive scores for supposed to be used for. So if your players say, "We're checking the walls of every corridor we pass through and every room we enter for secret doors," that's no different from saying, "We're keeping our eyes open and using our passive Perception."

If the players want to search a specific area or object more thoroughly, then I might make a roll. But if the rolling ever becomes tedious, then it's time to have a discussion with your players or re-think how you're doing things as a DM.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
I'm running an adventure with a lot of secret doors right now, and I'm struggling with how to keep them from becoming monotonous on the one hand or trivial on the other. I don't want to slow down the game while the players go over every inch of wall, but just allowing the characters with high enough Passive Perception to see them automatically means they're not actually secret at all. (Someone in my group has PP 15 at level 1.)

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to keep them engaging?
What adventure are you running?

When I see secret doors are a thing in a module, my first investigation is "how are these secret doors being used by the module?"

Example: In Tomb of Annihilation, the final dungeon has a couple secret doors. They're not presented as puzzles. The dungeon doesn't have a great time-keeping mechanics (besides not wanting to take a long rest because night hags). One is connected to a trap, but mostly they seem to be of the monotonous "you must be this Perception or taller to ride" variety. However, a closer look at the overall dungeon revealed that there are these skeletons with keys built into their heads wandering around... sometimes found in areas only accessible via secret door or even areas there's no explanation for how the skeleton got there! There were also wight dwarfs sneaking around all over the place and resetting traps. So the answer to figuring out how that module used secret doors was all about circulation. PCs following monster to an abrupt dead end, or even spying on them using the secret door. Footprints in the dust stopping at a dead end. Monsters flanking the PCs, coming from a seeming dead end. That's how I ended up using secret doors in the Tomb of the Nine Gods.

The key is figuring out the relationship of the secret doors to the specific dungeon & overall scenario holistically.

EDIT: Oh! I remembered one more way to use secret doors – besides puzzle, trap, timed exploration element, or hinting at dungeon circulation – and that's the OSR method where the players are expected to make inferences about the dungeon's layout (and potential secret rooms) based on their emerging map.
 
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jgsugden

Legend
Secret doors are kind of a simple mechanic. Either you find them or you don't. Trying to spice that up is not going to help. And if your players invested in a high passive perception, they should be rewarded for it - finding them should be relatively trivial if they invested enough. I played with a first level human variant rogue with the observant feat and expertise in Investigation and Perception in a party (passive 22 in each) when the DM treated a passive score as the floor for any perception or investigation roll ... except he thought that it was boring of the PC just found everything without trying, so he raised all the DCs. That effectively negated that investment, and the player raised it as a beef.

My advice: Don't try to upset the applecart by playing with the DCs. Instead, build it as you would in the absence of any knowledge of the character skills, and make the interesting things about the secret doors be elements other than whether you find them. Unusual locations, sizes, opening mechanisms, etc... can all be interesting.

If you want to hide a secret door where high perception will not help, place the secret door someplace the PCs will not go. For example, how often do PCs look under a bridge? How often do they climb out the window and onto the ledge and go around the corner? I use these for secret doors I want others to use against the PCs. Sometimes the PCs will find them, despite your best efforts, but if they do, they deserve to get the advantages of finding it.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
One secret door leads to Molly and Fibber McGee's closet.
You open the door, a ton of stuff falls out (get the sound effects from the 1930s radio programs), the area in front of the door is difficult terrain (because cluttered), and there is a nifty item to pick up - a key to a future door, a Medical Kit, an Art Object, a game set, the amulet that wards you from mindless undead guards in the basement, just something the PCs will be glad they picked up ... even though that crashing racket drew the resident wandering monster's attention upon them.
 

Passive Perception doesn't have to be a static number. Have the secret doors roll (1d20+DC-11) against the player's passive perceptions, rather than just comparing DCs. If the players slow to a crawl in order to double check every section of wall, utilize wandering monsters to keep them moving.
 

akr71

Adventurer
I agree that the Passive Perception autopass/autofail may tend toward monotonous or trivial when there are frequent secret doors. I would handle it by treating secret doors as puzzles. The party knows the door in there, but how does this one open? Now the players can roll (active) Perception and/or Investigation checks.

Think of the stereotypical secret door bookcase. Which book triggers the door to open? Have there been any clues that might lead one to the correct title? Maybe its not a book at all but pulling on the torch sconce this time. This will lead to a lot of work on the DM's part to make each door interesting and challenging and if the players don't like puzzles, they may get frustrated. I don't expect my players to necessarily solve the puzzle themselves - a decent Investigation will lead them toward the solution.
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I agree that the Passive Perception autopass/autofail may tend toward monotonous or trivial when there are frequent secret doors. I would handle it by treating secret doors as puzzles. The party knows the door in there, but how does this one open?
This is generally how I handle it. It's usually 10 minutes to find it and 10 minutes to figure out how to open it if they are successful on both tasks. That's either 2 wandering monster checks (if on 10 min increments) or 1/3 the way to a wandering monster check (if hourly) and/or +20 minutes to the countdown to doom (e.g. prince is sacrificed, dungeon collapses or sinks beneath the waves, etc.).

Also, almost all of my secret doors lead to treasure, a shortcut around a dangerous area, or a safe place to short rest. So players know that a secret door is generally of great benefit which makes them more willing to risk being surprised by wandering monsters to look for them.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
I don't want to slow down the game while the players go over every inch of wall
Is it in-genre/expected/reasonable for the PCs to go over every inch of wall?
  • If it is, then what you need is a mechanic to speed up the game play, and Passive Perception fits the bill nicely. It means they're guaranteed to find most secret doors, but that's why the PCs are doing it. If it's in-genre to do a slow, thorough search, then it's in-genre to find the doors.
  • If it's not, then you need some consequence for doing it. The classic method is they take too long searching and get hit with random encounters; or, there's some sort of time pressure in the adventure. But there are also lots of "soft" consequences you can apply too. Google "angry gm tension pool" for one abstract mechanism. You could require thorough searches to use up some cheap-but-finite resource like chalk powder or torches. I've also considered rules for boredom and fatigue to represent super tedious things that the players think their characters should be able to just do. Weigh this sort of stuff against your genre expectations to figure out why the characters aren't doing an inch-by-inch search.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I’d like to know more about what the purpose of the secret doors are for in the adventure.

If they are concealing the “true path” to an important area of the dungeon, I’d suggest replacing them with some sort of puzzle block to get past than a perception gate.

If they are “side areas” that lead to extra-credit area with loot or extra encounters, it’s fine to leave them as is - perhaps with some sort of clue to their presence (a certain discolored brick, a small rune, scratch marks on the ground, etc.) where players can ask direct questions about their presence (or lack) to not have to rely on purely random perception checks to locate.

If they are “alternate/secret paths” that bypass/end around important areas, consider changing them to one-way doors or simply leave them as bonuses for observant players.
 

delericho

Legend
Some thoughts.

Firstly, don't gate any must-find areas behind secret doors. Everything that follows rather depends on that...

The key, I think, is to put in place a tension behind risk and reward - the PCs naturally want to find all the treasures in the place, but they should also be wary of the various dangers and want to avoid those. So set up a system where to spending lots of time searching also increases the danger...

One of the things I do is have a fairly aggressive clock for random encounters. Additionally, random encounters never carry treasure, and don't grant XP. So they're very strictly a bad thing to be avoided where possible. Simply having that in place discourages the "go over every inch" problem.

Additionally, I set the DCs for finding secret doors simply for being in the area, extremely high (traps too, BTW). So to find them, you're going to have to be more specific - being in the room won't do it, but checking out the bookcase, or statue, or whatever might.

On the flip side, I make sure to seed the area with clues for the locations and types of secret doors. For instance, I theme my dungeons - a lost dwarven mine will have secret doors of this type, while a goblin city will have secret doors of that type (and not the other). So clever players can figure out what to look for.

Additionally, I try always to place a 'broken' secret door early in the dungeon to deliberately give away some of these clues.

The upshot of all of this is that secret doors become nice-to-have/Easter Eggs for the players to find (if they're interested), but there're never necessary to finish the adventure. They're findable, but savvy players will have a much easier time of it. And exhaustive searches, while effective, quickly become discouraged, because they just take up too much time (and soak resources for no reward).
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
Is it in-genre/expected/reasonable for the PCs to go over every inch of wall?
  • If it is, then what you need is a mechanic to speed up the game play, and Passive Perception fits the bill nicely. It means they're guaranteed to find most secret doors, but that's why the PCs are doing it. If it's in-genre to do a slow, thorough search, then it's in-genre to find the doors.
It's a dungeon crawl, so yeah, I'd say that searching is in-genre. But the problem is that there seem to be two standard ways of handling it, and neither one is satisfying:
  • Option 1: "We check the east wall. Any secret doors?" (Optional: "Roll Perception." "12.") "No, you don't find any." "We check the west wall." "No doors." "Okay, we move 10 feet south. Any doors on the east wall?" This is excruciatingly tedious, and you can sense that everybody at the table is bored, but they don't want to miss a door.
  • Option 2: "You see a 30-foot hallway leading south. Player A with the high passive perception score, you notice a secret door in the east wall." This completely negates the point of having a secret door in the first place, because it's not actually secret.
Making it so that some of the doors are findable with passive perception and some are not just seems likely to lead back to Option 1, except with even fewer successes to break the monotony.

It seems like there's got to be a sweet spot somewhere, where the players can drive the search and finding the doors is still a product of their own initiative, but where they don't get bored spending a large proportion of the time on unsuccessful searches.

Maybe dividing up the dungeon into segments larger than one room (or length of corridor) at a time might work? Have them explore a portion of the dungeon first and then either make a roll at the end to see if anyone noticed anything along the way or tell the character with the highest passive perception, "You remember noticing a crack in the wall three rooms back."

There's also the wand of secrets, but it only has a range of 30 feet and it has a limited number of charges.
 

Stalker0

Legend
In my game whenever the party or rogue gets within 30 ft of a secret door or trap, they get an auto investigaton or perception check (whichever is appropriate). If they succeed they find the thing.

but if they fail there’s nothing to see, and the players don’t “search inch by inch”. It’s worked well in my group
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
In my game whenever the party or rogue gets within 30 ft of a secret door or trap, they get an auto investigaton or perception check (whichever is appropriate). If they succeed they find the thing.
Doesn't that just lead to "Option 2" above?

And what do you do if the players suspect there's a secret door but the PCs' auto check isn't high enough to find it automatically?
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
This completely negates the point of having a secret door in the first place, because it's not actually secret.
Welllll, kind of. It negates ONE point of having a secret door, which is, making the players decide when to search for secret doors. However, there are several other points that it upholds.

A) Dungeon design -- The door may be better hidden from one side than the other! Maybe the PCs see it but the troglodytes on the other side don't.
B) Dungeon ecology -- The fact that the troglodytes don't see the door might be why they've never come through it and gotten eaten by all the gelatinous cubes on this side.
C) Role-Playing -- It's MORE FUN to find a secret door than to just see a plain old obvious door, even when you don't have to do anything. In fact, the player DID have to do something -- they had to spec out their character to have a high Perception. Probably because they enjoy finding all the secret doors! It is an expression of their character concept and reinforces their value to the party.
 

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