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D&D 5E Secret Doors

jgsugden

Legend
If you have a story situation where it makes sense for the villain to have hidden the pivotal thing behind a secret door, nd you fear that if the PCs do not find it the game will be disrupted - consider letting them fail, and then provide an alternate route that allows the PCs to get back on track, but perhaps at a small cost. It might be a journal entry that hints at the door location if the PCs buy the book, an NPC that is willing to give up the location of the door for a price, etc... Or, it might be someone else getting behind the door and acquiring the McGuffin and the PCs needing to chase the NPC. We don't want any secret door to be an absolute game stopper, but unless there is an overwhelming time pressure involved, it is rare that you can't have an alternate path available.

On a personal basis - As a DM, I create adventures agnostic to the party. I occasionally add something as a frill that 'only the PCs could do' to make them feel special, but for the most part, the adventure doesn't worry about what they can do. Players often come up with solutions I did not imagine when faced with a problem I place before them, and there are times when they fail in their mission. All of that can be used to tell good stories. There is nothing wrong with the PCs failing sometimes - as failure is one way to keep the stakes high.
 

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FitzTheRuke

Legend
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.
It's really not. 1) I can't tell you how many times I've seen players ignore that information, while they would never ever ignore "you see a secred door"; 2) It's significantly more evocative; 3) The fun then becomes figuring out where/what exactly the secret door is (with RP, skill checks or both (best, IMO).

Of course, you'd have to use your imagination as to what kind of secret door it is, and have an idea as to how it's opened, which is information that is not often described in the adventure, unfortunately.

However, if you felt that all the secret doors were the same type (say, an actual door that has similar material to the wall attached to make it look like part of the wall, with a hidden latch), then sure, when they run into the second or third one, you can just say "there's another one of those doors here".

But I still feel that it's best to at least START with something more interesting than "You find a secret door".
 

Quickleaf

Legend
jayoungr said:
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.

These secret doors obviously aren't serving a purpose. At least not directly. These are the sorts of secret doors I'd come back to later after looking at the others and see if there's a way to present some lore or foreshadowing here. For example, what if all these secret doors are open when the PCs arrive? That hints that someone recently went through an opened them, or perhaps that they're all connected to a common mechanism elsewhere in the dungeon, wherein to open other secret doors, these ones at the eastern entry level must be shut.

EDIT: Now coming back to these doors after having read through your account of the others, I'd say foreshadowing is your best bet here. Have some crystals/prisms enchanted with continual flame behind some of these opened secret doors, so that if a player closes one and looks at it, they'll realize the light is juuust visible through the seam. You can have some broken apparatus or lingering magic energy which hints that the crystals/prisms were moved about at one time. This is establishing the pattern language for meaningful secret doors elsewhere in the dungeon.

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."

There are 3 secret doors here, each doing something different:
  • Trap/red herring.
  • Minor shortcut.
  • Level transition (2nd level).
I see potential for a choice here: 2 doors lead to good things, but 1 door leads to a bad thing. For the choice to be meaningful (and the doors to remain "Secret Doors"), there needs to be a way to recognize/reveal all these secret doors (e.g. a light puzzle where the solution backlights all 3 of these secret doors, revealing their presence with a glowing seam), and some kind of pattern that the players can deduce which will alert them to the dangerous door (e.g. an elven vampire dungeon might use Elvish word for "sun" above the dangerous secret door). Not sure what that is yet, as I'm unfamiliar with Palace of the Silver Princess, but I'd be looking at the dungeon's overall themes and main opposition/occupants.

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.

Aha! Again there are 3 secret doors here, each doing something different:
  • Ambush (which should also be a minor shortcut or level transition – if the players figure it out EDIT: or there should even be a way for clever players to weaponize this secret door, e.g. triggering radiant damage trap that incinerates the vampire lurking within)
  • Secret Gate Door (this one is likely the most problematic as presented)
  • Treasure Room
Not sure about specific layout, but as you've described, it could definitely be another choice situation: 1 door is an ambush, and 1 door is the treasure. Decide! Again, establishing a pattern language consistent with the dungeon's themes is what I'd aim for so that the players who pay attention and practice a little deduction can figure out which is which.

With the Secret Gate Door, since this leads to the Throne Room, I'm assuming it's a case of "gated" design where if you didn't find the secret door, then you didn't progress into the climax scene of the dungeon. My instinct would be to rewrite the heck out of that – make the "gate" obvious and require gathering keys or manipulating devices in the dungeon in order to open it. So not really a secret door at all. And that would inform my redesign of all the other secret doors, but that's probably changing too much for you.

Or maybe the Throne Room is an entirely optional area, in which case you just make this the 3rd choice the PCs can take.

EDIT: Having gone through everything, I wonder if your pattern language for this dungeon's secret doors could be types/qualities/colors/patterns of light?
 
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jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
Quickleaf, thank you for your extensive suggestions! I'll definitely need to reread the adventure and see how to work on them, but I just have some quick immediate responses.

EDIT: Now coming back to these doors after having read through your account of the others, I'd say foreshadowing is your best bet here.
Sounds good, but I should mention we've already had one session in which the players covered the eastern half of the entrance level, so it's functionally too late to use them for foreshadowing in this run. I might still be able to do something with the western doors, though, since that part of the map is quite different, being largely underground.

For the choice to be meaningful (and the doors to remain "Secret Doors"), there needs to be a way to recognize/reveal all these secret doors (e.g. a light puzzle where the solution backlights all 3 of these secret doors, revealing their presence with a glowing seam),
Not sure what you mean by "a light puzzle"? Could you give me an example of one?

  • Ambush (which should also be a minor shortcut or level transition – if the players figure it out EDIT: or there should even be a way for clever players to weaponize this secret door, e.g. triggering radiant damage trap that incinerates the vampire lurking within)
"Ambush" might be too strong a word for this situation. The way it's intended to work is this: the PCs enter a room that has been taken over as HQ by a shady cleric and his gang. At the time they enter, the cleric and a couple of his followers are busy in an attached adjoining room (more like a glorified walk-in closet), where they keep their treasure; the treasure room door is hidden. After the PCs have had a chance to look around the HQ, the cleric and his pals enter from the treasure room and demand to know what the PCs are doing there.

Of course, if the PCs find the door first, they could be the ones doing the surprising.

  • EDIT: Having gone through everything, I wonder if your pattern language for this dungeon's secret doors could be types/qualities/colors/patterns of light?
Again, could you elaborate?

And thanks again for the detailed write-up. There's definitely a lot to consider here.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
@jayoungr You bet! So here's an example of a light & mirror puzzle, though it need not be so crafty and elaborate: Penny Arcade - News - Light and Mirror puzzle in D&D

Another version, easier for online play, might be levers on either side of a gate/door which move two braziers behind the gate. Light the braziers, move them to the right position, and a map becomes backlit in the ironwrought gate. That sort of thing.

So a "pattern language" is probably unnecessarily architectural jargon from Christopher Alexander, who was describing patterns of human use of space (e.g. many cultures like having a sitting nook by a window because it's just comfortable and pleasant place to look out, read, play music, etc).

I've adapted that term to apply it to dungeon traps in the past – basically that you as DM/writer settle on a small palette of traps (1-3) and settle on a consistent logic and way to communicate the potential threat to the players. And then you start making creative twists to that pattern. For instance, say I have a flame mage dungeon where the traps are attached to braziers, bronze torch sconces, and that sort of thing. The first time, yeah a fire bolt leaping from a brazier and striking a PC is enough to establish this pattern. The players learn to cast detect magic and avoid/counter the next hallway of braziers. But deeper into the dungeon I want to evolve that and present twists – e.g. two braziers which DON'T detect as magic, and a locked metal door at the end of the hall. What does this mean? Are they traps? Are they levers? What the players don't yet realize – but they could if they cast detect evil and good or a ranger used Primeval Awareness – is that there's a special fire elemental with False Appearance hiding within the brazier's flame.

That's trap talk.

But this same sort of thinking can be applied to secret doors.

Following with the "light" theme – which I have no idea if that fits Palace of the Silver Princess, I just made it up – let's go with patterns of light. Shifting light behind the thin seam is "safe secret door", while consistent unchanging light emanating through the thin seam is "dangerous secret door." How can I telegraph that to my players? Vampire dungeon, they have a big brass statue that shows three lamenting vampires dissolving as they look up at something (i.e. the sun). Shifting light is associated with clouds or shadows obscuring the light source, while consistent light is associated with sunlight. Something like that.

Say there's a central magic prism at each dungeon level. Activate it and light streams through the seams in the secret doors, revealing them. Some have consistent light behind them, but others have shifting/wavering light. Now the players are at the choice phase where they need to apply what they've learned about the dungeon & its inhabitants to make that mental connection that establishes their first pattern: Consistent light secret doors = bad.

And once you have that, THEN you get to start evolving the idea and presenting twists, just like I did with that trapped brazier example.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
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. I just want the experience to be fun too, as far as that's in my power.
Does the adventure say anything about wandering monsters? Many classic adventures had very harsh rules where you had to roll for random encounters every 10 minutes or every hour or something, and those encounters weren't necessarily balanced. So if you are going for that "old-school feel," that's the approach I would take. Those gygaxian dungeon crawls were a careful balancing act between poking every square with a 10-foot pole and staying one step ahead of the dungeon inhabitants.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
Does the adventure say anything about wandering monsters? Many classic adventures had very harsh rules where you had to roll for random encounters every 10 minutes or every hour or something, and those encounters weren't necessarily balanced. So if you are going for that "old-school feel," that's the approach I would take.
Yes, it does, and I have been rolling for them. But the dice didn't come up right for any wandering monsters in the first session--go figure!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Yes, it does, and I have been rolling for them. But the dice didn't come up right for any wandering monsters in the first session--go figure!
Yeah so if that's already built into the adventure, I suggest doing option 2 that I suggested upthread. Drops in easily and it works.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
I should clarify: for my players, it's the same thing. For another table or a random group at a con, sure, it might not be.
I should clarify too: I meant that it doesn't have to be.

Either way, Quickleaf got into more of the kind of thing that I meant to convey than I did. Good stuff there.
 

Use the PCs Passive Wisdom(Perception), or Intelligence (Investigation) if you prefer (I do). Have these numbers recorded on your DM cheat sheet.

When the party comes within detection range, you roll for the secret door. Mathematically if you want to have it work out the same, you need to add a bonus of DC -11, and unless the result is higher (you have to subtract 12 for equal) than the characters passive score, characters who are taking the exploration action to search for traps and secret doors spot evidence of the door. Otherwise, the players never know there was anything to find. But they need to know you are using this rule so that they don't spend time telling you they are checking every section of wall--this is the result of them doing that.

If the players are suspicious of a particular location, you can allow them to stop and spend time making a more thorough check (ie, the PC makes a normal roll themselves). Each retry takes a progressively longer time increment. 1 minute > 1 hour > 1 day.

You can also describe any features that might clue them in to the presence of a particular secret door. They either find it automatically if they correctly interact with that feature, or it just serves to tell them they should try an active check if they don't.

These three things should work.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Is it in-genre/expected/reasonable for the PCs to go over every inch of wall?

  • If it's not, then you need some consequence for doing it.

As a design consideration - putting in an element for them to engage with, and then giving "consequences" for doing so seems a bit... mean spirited.
 

Quartz

Adventurer
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!

It was quite common in some eras for doors - particularly servants' doors - to be concealed. Similarly it might not be immediately obvious that a decorated wall is actually a partition that opens, especially if it hasn't been used for a long time. Both qualify as secret doors.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
It was quite common in some eras for doors - particularly servants' doors - to be concealed. Similarly it might not be immediately obvious that a decorated wall is actually a partition that opens, especially if it hasn't been used for a long time. Both qualify as secret doors.
That might be a brilliant way to make various tool proficiencies relevant. For example, if it's this era of murals follows a triptych pattern, but there are four painted panels in a room, then maybe a PC proficient with painter's supplies recognizes the discrepancy.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
As a design consideration - putting in an element for them to engage with, and then giving "consequences" for doing so seems a bit... mean spirited.
I guess it depends on how severe the consequences are. I mean, in some ways, engaging with the consequences of your actions is what D&D is all about!
 

Li Shenron

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?
1) Go through the rulebooks and find all rules related to finding hidden things, gather them together in some reference document
2) Study the rules accurately, make sure you understand the nuances and learn them like the back of your hand
3) Throw all said rules in the toilet

More seriously... the best (maybe only) way to make hidden non-monster stuff INTERESTING is to handle the process narratively. No amount of rolls or bonuses or resolution mechanics is really interesting. Unfortunately this means you have to put the players' skills under the spotlight, which inevitable makes the characters' skills somewhat less important. But that's what it should be, just like you can't seriously expect to handle all social interactions with rolls AND be interesting. There is always a symbiosis between players' skills and characters' skills, even in combat (the characters swing the sword an shoot the arrows, but the player makes the tactics), but it's way too common to emphasize the importance of rules, rules and more rules for exploration (or social interaction) and then oh what a surprise exploration sucks.

You have to shift back some emphasis on players' decisions, for example use more detailed descriptions of the environment to invite observations, encourage some free interactions with the environment without using rules, do not make the players roll for everything and especially make them roll after not before... so don't allow blanket tasks such as "I check the room for hidden doors/traps" but instead make your players tell what their character does and eventually* have them check after to see if their character's abilities succeed or fail at supporting the character's intention (i.e. the player's). Keep in mind that some blanket rules like passive perception are actually designed for players who hate exploration and don't want to bother with it.

*and not necessarily always, I think a good approach is to think that rolls are only needed when the DM is undecided on the outcome, but I digress...
 

Stalker0

Legend
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?
The reason its different from Option 2 is its an active roll not a passive score. So sometimes it hits and sometimes its doesn't.

And to the notion of "my character thinks there may be a secret door there", again that's what the free check is for. I have basically told my players "I get it, your all super paranoid adventurers that want to check every inch for traps". So instead of doing that and wasting a bunch of time, I just give them an automatic check when they get close to something worth looking at.

But the compromise is, if they fail the check they keep going. They can't go.... "hmmm, for some reason I'm REALLY suspicious here, and I want to check it again". They already looked and didn't find anything, so they move on.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
As a design consideration - putting in an element for them to engage with, and then giving "consequences" for doing so seems a bit... mean spirited.
That's one way to do it. If the consequences are a surprise, or a punishment meant to discourage behavior (like, the consequence is boredom from fighting yet another encounter with 1d4+1 ghouls), then yes, it's mean. If you've experienced such mean DMing in the past, your trauma is understandable.

I meant "consequence" in the sense of, "don't let the players roll the dice unless there's a consequence for failure." A lot of ink has been spilled over that piece of advice so I'm not going to repeat it here except to say that I find it excellent advice and applicable to the secret-door debate.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
That's one way to do it. If the consequences are a surprise, or a punishment meant to discourage behavior (like, the consequence is boredom from fighting yet another encounter with 1d4+1 ghouls), then yes, it's mean. If you've experienced such mean DMing in the past, your trauma is understandable.

I meant "consequence" in the sense of, "don't let the players roll the dice unless there's a consequence for failure." A lot of ink has been spilled over that piece of advice so I'm not going to repeat it here except to say that I find it excellent advice and applicable to the secret-door debate.

In that sense, yes. But also in that sense then... as always, the GM has to ask themselves if they want there to be such consequences at that time. That comes back around to the question of why that door is there, and why is it secret?

If that door, for example, is there because the Evil Marquis uses it to escape, then note that sufficient delay by guards/monsters is equivalent to just not finding the door - in either case, the Marquis gets away. And then, getting beaten up my monsters and the Marquis getting away is really a double-consequence - which is starting to look like punishment...

The point of "consequences for failure" is NOT an admonition to make sure there is a cost to trying things. It is a QUESTION - is there any cost for failure? If not, then just let it happen, and don't bother rolling dice at all.
 

Arvok

Explorer
I think the easiest way to lead players to look for a secret door is to give them clues about what they might find in the dungeon. If all the legends and rumors they've heard speak of the villain's great wealth or his torture chambers or whatever, when the PCs clear all the bad guys and don't find those things they're going to start poking around. Similarly, when they're pursuing a rogue in his hideout and the rogue and all his underlings pop out of nowhere and then disappear the party should start to suspect secret doors.

Keep in mind, there should be some reason for a secret door (this can prevent the session from getting bogged down by PCs painstakingly searching every square inch of the dungeon). Constructing a secret door involves a good amount of time and effort so each one should provide the resident of the place some advantage. A secret hiding place should be reserved for something so valuable that locking it in a chest just isn't good enough protection. Such an obvious storage place might be trapped and the real treasure is behind a hidden compartment.
 

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