log in or register to remove this ad

 

D&D 5E Secret Doors

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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.
The way I do it is a given exploration task - find traps, search for secret doors, loot, forage, track, etc. - over 10 minutes covers 1000 square feet of area. If you're using a VTT, you can create an asset with an aura of that size and the players can just drop it on the area the character is searching. If the secret door is in that area, then they have a chance of finding it.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
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.

One of my mottos is, a game is a series of interesting decisions. I think your problem is, neither Option 1 nor Option 2 involve any interesting decisions. In Option 1, there's no reason NOT TO search for secret doors, and in Option 2, there is no reason TO search for secret doors. So you might reframe the problem as: Given a dungeon environment, what would encourage the players to search for secret doors in some places but not others?

The whole thing about rolling vs. passive is a red herring. IF you have the players deciding where to look and deciding where NOT to look, then whether you roll or just make the finding automatic is kind of secondary.
 

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?

Those people need to remember to keep player and character knowledge separate. It does not matter if the player thinks there "has to be" something there, if the character has no reason to suspect it, or has not been given a clue by the DM to suspect it, then the player should not cross that line.

But in your situation, that would not be the case once more than a couple of them have been found. One secret door is unique, two is a fluke or coincidence, but once they find that third one? Then they will be on watch for them everywhere and will likely want to backtrack to the start and search again. Or there are rumors that whoever built this place loved secret doors and that makes them expect to find them. Then you could even give them a bonus on their passive check.

And for clues there is a door nearby, there are the odd scratches or scrapes on the floor by a wall, or a book that looks out of place on a bookcase, or the one torch/oil lamp on the wall that is not lit, the odd little draft, condensation on the wall or floor by a wall. odd smell of smoke in a room with no torches/lamps, a statue or ornamental suit of armor that looks off and is hiding a switch.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Honestly, I hate passive Perception, and I ignore it my games for the most part - at least for things like finding secret doors (I do sometime use it for determining surprise).

When it comes to detecting secret doors, if the players are specific in where/how they check, I don’t make a roll. If they make a general check, then I roll. Conversely, I try to ensure that any secret door has a “tell” so its more likely that players only check those areas that actually have a secret door in the first place and aren’t wasting time with constant rolls. If they are persistent, I go with the prior “take 20” rules so we aren’t wasting an unacceptable amount of time rolling for checks.

This is clearly against the rules as written, but in this case I find those rules to be tedious and unfun.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Those people need to remember to keep player and character knowledge separate. It does not matter if the player thinks there "has to be" something there, if the character has no reason to suspect it, or has not been given a clue by the DM to suspect it, then the player should not cross that line.
The player decides what the character suspects since in this game the player decides how the character thinks. It's just the character may be wrong in that suspicion and could waste valuable time or resources searching for something that may not be there.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
One of my mottos is, a game is a series of interesting decisions. I think your problem is, neither Option 1 nor Option 2 involve any interesting decisions. In Option 1, there's no reason NOT TO search for secret doors, and in Option 2, there is no reason TO search for secret doors. So you might reframe the problem as: Given a dungeon environment, what would encourage the players to search for secret doors in some places but not others?
That's very well put.

So ...

Anyone got an answer to that question? Because I'm stumped.
 


The player decides what the character suspects since in this game the player decides how the character thinks. It's just the character may be wrong in that suspicion and could waste valuable time or resources searching for something that may not be there.

Not if it is some area of knowledge that the character would have no clue how something works.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Not if it is some area of knowledge that the character would have no clue how something works.
How do you figure? The game says the player decides how the character thinks, what it does and says. There's no prohibition on what those thoughts or actions can be. If I want my character to search a wall for secret doors for any reason or no reason at all, that's my business. It just may not be a good use of my time if there's no secret door there.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
That's very well put.

So ...

Anyone got an answer to that question? Because I'm stumped.
I'd love to help, but when I approach this same dilemma in my own games, it depends on the specifics of the adventure. I think that's what myself and @Stormonu are driving at. We get that you're stumped, but to better help us to help you, could you share a bit about the adventure you're running? And specifically how secret doors are being used in that adventure?

Sometimes when I ask this question, I get back an answer that is vague or frustrated, either because the DM doesn't understand my question OR because the adventure doesn't really give any thought to the meaning/implementation of secret doors in the specific context of that adventure. In the former case, I can present some very specific targeted questions once I know the gist of the adventure. In the latter case, then it's more about introducing something new or a fresh spin in order to make those secret doors more engaging.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
Honestly, I hate passive Perception, and I ignore it my games for the most part - at least for things like finding secret doors (I do sometime use it for determining surprise).

When it comes to detecting secret doors, if the players are specific in where/how they check, I don’t make a roll. If they make a general check, then I roll. Conversely, I try to ensure that any secret door has a “tell” so its more likely that players only check those areas that actually have a secret door in the first place and aren’t wasting time with constant rolls. If they are persistent, I go with the prior “take 20” rules so we aren’t wasting an unacceptable amount of time rolling for checks.

This is clearly against the rules as written, but in this case I find those rules to be tedious and unfun.
I didn't like Passive Perception either until I started thinking of it this way: Passive checks are done passively, with little effort. You don't use Passive checks when something requires active action. So Passive Perception will only make you notice things that one might notice at a glance. This is similar to the "Telegraphing" comments from above. For example, I will describe to the high-PP character that they notice "a draft" (secret door) or "rake-marks in the dirt" (concealing a pit trap) or "a flagstone that is slightly depressed compared to the others" (a pressure plate), or whatever.

Then it's up to them to investigate further (usually using active Investigation or sometimes Perception checks). Or to continue on and ignore me.

What I'm not going to do is have a high PP have me just point out all traps and secret doors without any chance of triggering/missing them.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
I recently ran a dungeon generated during play with the random tables in the 1E DMG, and there were a few places where there ended up being a lot of secret doors. I telegraphed the existence of all the secret doors to the players which resulted in them all being noticed for what they were, and the challenge became more about how to open them, especially in one place where the secret door was combined with a pit trap that you'd fall in if you failed to open the door.

There's one category of secret door that I think I'll do differently if I run this type of dungeon again which is the secret doors that can result from dead ends. In play, I checked for secret doors at every dead end, so I knew if they were there or not and telegraphed them to the players accordingly, but in the future I'd like to leave them unresolved and un-telegraphed (because I won't know if they're there), and if the players look for secret doors at the dead ends, the success or failure of their attempt will determine whether there's a secret door there or not, which I think would mix things up and relieve the monotony a bit.
 


I assume people are always searching for things and roll as they explore.

Yeah, in older editions, a lot of groups developed a standard operating procedure, that could just be written down and not have to be repeated verbally over and over. Things like the marching order, steps followed when entering a new room, etc.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
That's very well put.

So ...

Anyone got an answer to that question? Because I'm stumped.
Well the first thing I can think of is: you're not going to stop and search inch-by-inch for secret doors in the middle of a raging battle, or while sneaking past a deadly foe, or while frantically trying to deal with a devastating trap or hazard. So danger is a good motivation to NOT search for secret doors. Danger is effective from both an in-game role-playing standpoint ("This place is scary! Let's keep moving!") and from a meta-game tactical standpoint ("Searching here is not worth another encounter with those green-slime-flinging kobolds"). So it could be that your dungeons aren't dangerous enough or that they don't seem dangerous enough.

Right now I'm running Dungeon of the Mad Mage and I'm using the Angry GM's Tension Pool to represent danger (although I am calling it the "Doom Pool" because I think telling players how they should feel robs it of some of its effectiveness). It works decently well. The players can always see how many dice are in the pool (more dice = more risk of badness) and I tell them straight up when their actions wil add dice. "Sure, you can search this room, but it'll add 1 Doom Die to the pool..." It's an abstration representing the time it takes to search, the noise they make, the evidence they leave behind, etc.

You can also scare players purely through descriptions. They might hear noises in the distance or see evidence of monsters having come through very recently. This works well if the players have encounterd the monsters, and found that they are not to be trifled with. It works less well when the monsters are pushovers and the PCs are clearing the place out room-by-room.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
I'd love to help, but when I approach this same dilemma in my own games, it depends on the specifics of the adventure. I think that's what myself and @Stormonu are driving at. We get that you're stumped, but to better help us to help you, could you share a bit about the adventure you're running? And specifically how secret doors are being used in that adventure?

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

Right now I'm running a 5E conversion of Palace of the Silver Princess (the original orange cover version). The eastern half of the entry level has quite a lot of secret doors, but honestly, I'm not sure why they're there. Nothing particularly important, exciting, or valuable is hidden behind them, and they don't grant shortcuts to anywhere. Some of the rooms behind them are left for the DM to fill.

The western half has fewer but more interesting secret doors. There are two rooms with secret doors (as well as false doors) that both lead into a third room containing nothing but a trap/red herring. There's a short hallway with secret doors on each side that constitutes a minor shortcut by joining two other hallways. And there's another room with a secret door that leads to an alternate way up to the second level. There must have been a mistake in the writing or printing, because this room has no description in the text, not even one of the blank ones that says "Add your own monsters/traps/treasure here."

On the second level, the secret doors are more interesting and frustrating. There is one that one of the major NPCs will appear through, surprising the party. Said NPC might be an adversary or an ally, depending on how his first encounter with the PCs goes. There's another that completely divides the two halves of the floor--you can't go from the ballroom to the throne room without passing through a secret door! And the area where the fabled treasure resides is completely hidden behind secret doors.

I expect you'll tell me this is bad design, and I don't disagree, but I'm committed to presenting this bit of D&D history in all its historic weirdness. I just want the experience to be fun too, as far as that's in my power. In our first session, I allowed the secret doors to be found automatically by our player with the high passive Perception, but I don't think that was particularly fun for anyone. And saying something like "You see scuff marks on the floor by the wall" is basically the same as saying "You see a secret door" (EDIT: for my group, anyway), so I don't think that makes the process any more engaging for the players.
 
Last edited:

SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
In our first session, I allowed the secret doors to be found automatically by our player with the high passive Perception, but I don't think that was particularly fun for anyone. And saying something like "You see scuff marks on the floor by the wall" is basically the same as saying "You see a secret door," so I don't think that makes the process any more engaging for the players.
This is the dilemma.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Right now I'm running a 5E conversion of Palace of the Silver Princess (the original orange cover version)....

I expect you'll tell me this is bad design, and I don't disagree, but I'm committed to presenting this bit of D&D history in all its historic weirdness.
Are you open to creative ideas for how to slightly tweak these secret doors specifically at the content level, or are you wanting to adhere strictly to the text without deviation, and are looking for more programmatic solutions at the conceptual level of "secret doors" in general? If it's just in general, then go the exploration tasks / 10-min exploration rounds route that @iserith and others have recommended.

Because if it were me, I'd definitely be choosing to tweak what's written and I have a few ideas based on your excellent summary. But you did mention historicity being a factor, so I don't want to do a bunch of design that wouldn't be useful to you.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
To reiterate and consolidate my previous posts, you got two basic options in my view.

1. Offer searching for secret doors as a trade-off against staying alert for danger while traveling the dungeon. Passive Perception applies when there is uncertainty as to the outcome and a meaningful consequence for failure. Require that the character doing this is in the back rank of the marching order, which makes them vulnerable to attacks from the rear of the party, particularly as they are automatically surprised if a stealthy monster attacks. Depending on the character's passive Perception score, the party may opt to assign another character to Work Together with this character so they can get that passive score up to 20. This character would also be automatically surprised. Once a secret door is spotted using this approach, then set the expectation that figuring out how it works takes about 10 minutes and, depending on their approach, an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Tie a wandering monster check or other time constraint or risk to that task so there's a meaningful consequence for failure.

2. Don't offer searching for secret doors as a trade-off against staying alert for danger while traveling the dungeon. In order to find a secret door, the characters must stop traveling and explore an area (perhaps 1000 square feet per 10 minutes). When describing the environment, you drop a clue in there that hints at a secret door being in the area. The players then describe what tasks they want to undertake. If a player is reasonably specific about searching for secret doors, perhaps by referencing the clue you dropped, then they make a Wisdom (Perception) check if there's uncertainty. Again, tie that 10-minute interval to wandering monster checks, time constraint, or other risk to create the meaningful consequence for failure. As well, require that another 10 minutes be spent figuring out how it works (unless it's somehow obvious or the player makes a lucky guess) which comes with similar risks as searching for it. Anyone not keeping watch here is also automatically surprised as above if a stealthy monster comes calling.

This sets up meaningful trade-offs and choices for the players that are easy to understand and resolve while creating tension with time constraints. This is about the best result you can hope for in the context of the D&D 5e rules in my view.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
Are you open to creative ideas for how to slightly tweak these secret doors specifically at the content level, or are you wanting to adhere strictly to the text without deviation, and are looking for more programmatic solutions at the conceptual level of "secret doors" in general?

I want to change as little as I can get away with, but if the original is actively un-fun, then I'm definitely open to the idea of modification. Am thinking about the suggestion from @Sacrosanct about substituting puzzle doors for secret doors, for example, especially since my players have indicated that they like puzzles.
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top