RPGNow

Monday, January 8, 2018

On Secret Doors and Why I Detest Them



Secret doors. Almost every dungeon has them. I simply detest them.

It was recently asked why there were no mechanics for secret doors in Swords & Wizardry Light / Continual Light and the simple answer is it never even occurred to me. That is how much I dislike them. It wasn't even a conscious omission ;)

I find secret doors to be an overused obstacle. Just how many does a single dungeon level need?

My problem with secret doors is that they are a potential show stopper that even with good play from your players, the dice can decide the door is never found. What lies behind? For all intents and purposes it never existed if the dice decide it was never found

Concealed doors? Now THAT is something I can get behind. Look behind that armoire. Why are there curtains on this wall? What's under this rug? Good play will reveal with concealed doors what dice may otherwise steal with secret doors.

Besides, I never understood elves uncanny ability to see secret doors when others can't...

25 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am the opposite about secret doors. But, they need to be used sparingly. Have an idol of a forbidden demon lord in your mansion? A secret door may be the thing.
    Secret doors should never stop advancing through the adventure. Whatever is behind them should be an Easter egg, or extra loot.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I saw Record of the Lodoss Wars when I was a kid and it stuck in my head that elves were detecting airflow/temp and other environmental anomalies...

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think secret doors have their use, but I also think that they are often misused, as well as over used. I've know two such instances in my time, within older houses.

    Secret doors rarely lead to secret rooms. They lead to secret hallways. They were most often used as a means of moving about a castle (or dungeon) unseen. Sometimes a secret stairway leading to a secret cellar. But they were rarely, if ever, used to connect adjoining rooms.

    Elves are often given nonsensical abilities, in my view, just as Druids are given nonsensical weapons.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I feel the same way about secret doors as I do about traps. They need to be solvable through both player skill and dice rolling. Anything that can't be solved through player skill, doesn't belong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I appreciate this viewpoint (player skill vs. dice), however, I think it's totally fine for there to be things that can't be solved through skill alone. No matter how skilled/trained/awesome someone is at something, there's always *something* that could go wrong. Even the best of the best make mistakes or come up against variables out of their control.

      Delete
  6. IDK, I love secret doors. I try not to make them showstoppers. Mostly what I put behind them are bonuses that make the adventure easier, or are specific use against the BBEG. When I do put showstopper material behind them, I try to make sure there are other ways to find that area, or give sufficient clues to help adventurers find them. I don't see the big deal.

    ReplyDelete
  7. There is a house on the University of Toronto campus that has a secret door out of the man of the house's den to an outside exit. That way he (or his mistress supposedly) could leave the room without using the main hallway and leave the house without being seen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. umm, okay? It's not a secret door if everybody knows about it, which clearly they do since it's written about publicly on a random D&D forum. Hopefully I'll never make use of this tidbit of info... Toronto may be a wonderful place and I understand why the people from there are proud to claim it as their hometown, but personally I prefer warmer climates and hope never to be as far North as Toronto.

      Delete
  8. Secret doors should be allowed to be found through roleplay. If the PC is searching the area looking for a secret door, he will discover a hollow sounding thump or other anomaly. You could give them the standard roll to up their chances, but if they say, we are looking right there, then they find it.

    Also, never make it quest required to find the secret door. I’ve had DMs like this and I didn’t care for the style of play.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I like secret doors. As rule of thumb, it takes one turn to search for one, and that means more rolls for random encounters.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I can see an occasional secret door as basically a step up from a concealed door, but they do seem like they should be a lot rarer than the old Gygaxian standard of 3-4 per level of the dungeon. And I was always really confused by "secret doors" that led to places that were easily accessible from non-secret routes.

    ReplyDelete
  11. In general I don't like secret doors for the same reasons Tenkar mentioned but I have used them in a different way. Imagine the characters clear out the first three levels of a dungeon then they find a corridor and stairs going up to the backside of a secret door near the entrance. Next time they enter the dungeon they can jump use the secret door to get the third level quickly.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sure, they can be over-used... but in general, I love secret (and concealed) doors! If I was creating my own dungeon, you bet your ass I'd put several secret doors in there.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Dungeons are supposed to have secrets in them. Finding a secret door is one of the many tropes we enjoy from pulp fantasy in our games, and each DM seems to handle it differently. Ultimately I feel that players want to experience some adventure with dungeon delving and the uncovering of secrets. If that means revealing secrets through an NPC they befriended or a monster they've threatened that's fine, as long as it suits the adventure feel of the game. Simulation of finding secret doors on the other hand, not something I enjoy in my games. If players frequently search for secret doors, I make them up on-the-fly as dead end diversions for the players or alternate ways through a short term obstacle.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Whenever I use a secret door, I write specifically how it is opened. That way the players could open the door without finding it (by discovering the mechanism) or find the door but be able to open it. Thus, they become a good mix of player skill and die rolls.

    BTW I always believed the whole secret door thing came from Tolkien because I was under the impression that it was the elves who built the secret doors (like the one at the Mines of Moria), therefore they would know what to look for. In a non-Tolkien context, they've been around long enough that they'd have seen the "ancients" build the things and also know what to look for.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Secret doors make lots of sense to have. It explains why treasure is still there, allows a dungeon to open up when you want it to, gives bad guys means of moving around, etc. What doesn't make sense is a 1 in 6 chance for everybody to find it. A secret door only works if it is a secret. The fact that many systems do make it a well known mechanic is annoying. A metaplayer can just make rolls in every room, and get spoilers from an inexperienced GM. Sometimes a secret door doesn't exist because I haven't put it there yet.

    Nice article Erik.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "Besides, I never understood elves uncanny ability to see secret doors when others can't..."

    You didn't understand it because it wasn't meant to be understood. It never made a damn bit of any kind of sense.

    There were mechanics in OD&D based on the concept of the "living dungeon". Overused secret doors, stuck doors that required a character to roll but open easily for a monsters, nonsensical dungeon depth, and weird monster ecology. The interesting thing is EGG didn't write his AD&D adventures the way they were described in Book III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. The closest one was Tomb of Horrors written in 1975 but the adventures written between the AD&D MM and the AD&D PH as well between AD&D PH and AD&D DMG not so much.

    As example in G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, the secret door to 10A was actually a concealed door that is hidden by a manticore hide hung on the wall.

    ReplyDelete
  17. https://rpgcharacters.wordpress.com/2017/02/04/the-kobold-circuit/
    i like this as an example of a good use of secret pasages.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I personally like the idea of secret doors, but I kind of use them in a multiple choice approach.

    That is, a reward hidden behind a secret passage had better be optional, and that's fine.

    Failing that, a secret passage can be included, but it must not be the only method of accessing something. You should be able to get there via brute force, finesse, and charisma - or some sort of multiple-path method.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Secret door areas should be a bonus, or an escape route; an adventure shouldn't pass or fail based on discovering one secret door. But they're easy to discover if you fill the map and the party actually draws their maps.

    As for Elves (the Celtic Faerie kind), they have senses others do not, that's part of being faerie. I generally let them sense invisible things with the same chance (but do not give them darkvision, since they're more twilight/everything lit up with faerie lights people).

    ReplyDelete
  20. I like Rob's comment about finding the secret door from "the other side". I bet after you defeat the Big Bad at the end of the dungeon and get into his private chambers for looting, you'll find a way into a corridor that connects to all sorts of secret ways.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I like the idea of using more "concealed doors". Point taken and I like it.

    ReplyDelete

Tenkar's Tavern is supported by various affiliate programs, including Amazon, RPGNow, and Humble Bundle as well as Patreon. Your patronage is appreciated and helps keep the lights on and the taps flowing - Your Humble Bartender, Tenkar

Tenkar's Tavern Discord Server Events - link - https://discord.gg/fReGmuD

Blogs of Inspiration & Erudition