Sunday, February 17, 2013

Every Secret Door a Trap

As a fourth level DM one of the things I still haven't mastered is relaying details to players from the abstract imagined world.  What I mean is, anything I mention specifically is assumed to be important because I mentioned it.  If I'm not careful an offhand detail for atmosphere will set players on long, goose-chase searches.  Or, on the other hand, an actual important trigger is easy as pie to find, because, well, again, it had to be mentioned.

This isn't a problem for me with traps because I try to make traps visible anyway.  But it relegates secret doors to either easy finds (if I have a specific trigger designed) or impossible finds (search every section of wall you suspect and roll to see if you find something).

I'd love to hear how other DM's negotiate this difficulty, but in the mean time I figured out a kludge of a fix.  Make every secret door also a trap if triggered incorrectly.

That way you can have your "There is a moosehead mounted on the wall here" type triggers but players that turn it the wrong way can run into trouble.  I'd want the trouble telegraphed the same way I do normal traps-- bloodstains, bones, body parts.  And that would mean the existence or (approximate) location of secret doors would not, in fact, be secret any more, but how to pass through them would be.

But then, if you have traps peppered about a dungeon, a trapped secret door might not be obvious.  Players seeing it might assume it's just another trap and avoid it altogether.  And only normal things that tip off secret doors ("hey, there's a blank spot on the map here!") would send them back to re-check it.

Anyway, here's an example of what I had in mind: a square room has a mosaic running hip-high around all its walls.  Each wall has underwater scenes with mermaids, shipwrecks and a single giant clam with a pearl in it.  There is a bit of bloody cloth jammed into the crack between floor and wall.  Pushing one of the pearls will 1) open a a pit trap below the whole room 2) open a dummy secret door to a dead-end hallway and shut the door behind you in 5 rounds 3) nothing 4) open the real secret door.

I guess that might be more of what people call a "trick," and it certainly makes more work for the DM to put in than a plain vanilla secret door, but it's another possible approach.


  1. Bury your trigger. Describe a room only in broad brushstrokes to start with; don't turn the resolution up until your players start poking around. In your example, describe the room to the players as having mosaics of "underwater scenes". If they investigate the mosaics, tell them they show shipwrecks, clams and mermaids. If they specifically look at the clams, tell them about the pearls, and if they specifically look at the pearls, they spot the secret trigger.

  2. Simply put, you have a variety of things in each room both significant and not. You allow the detection of secret doors separate from the players ability to open them. You insure there is a cost for being through.

    It is amazing what players will miss, even when they attempt to be through.

  3. Generally, though often inadvertently, I will describe a few unusual things in each room, and most will be unimportant but a few may be traps/doors/etc.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    @John: That's great advice in general and works well with my example room. But my example room is already the solution to the problem I'm thinking of. What I'd want to hear is how you'd handle a secret door that wasn't also a trap. Is there a mural in all the rooms in the dungeon? Then players will tire of examining murals and they will essentially function as bare walls (impossible to find secret door). Is the mural unique to this room? Then of course players will check it out closely and find the secret door trigger (easy as pie).

    @C: Thanks for the links. I've read them a couple times and it seems that you are handling secret doors traditionally: Player decides to search 10' area > you roll secretly to determine if the find anything > continue until secret door is found or players give up. I like the idea that finding a secret door doesn't mean players can open it, which is the point of my post. But, again, I'm stuck with the same conundrum: a secret door's trigger is abstracted and thus requires careful searching (rolls) to find or a secret door has an explicit, detailed trigger which means it will be obvious in the dungeon.

    The only solution seems to be to have lots of junk and debris in a dungeon, like mooseheads on the walls that don't open secret doors, but in the end raising the noise in the signal to noise ratio is pushing secret doors into the impossible to find category. In essence a dungeon of junk-filled rooms with explicit triggers is the same as a dungeon of bare rooms with abstracted triggers.

    @Zavi: One thing that happens with me is that I'll place treasures (often randomly) and think about how they'll be situated in the rooms they are placed in and then improv all the random junk in the other rooms. But what I've found is that players, especially newer players, can't tell my placed details from my improvised ones. So, the thing I just said off the top of my head is equally important to them as the ring of diminution that I was hoping they'd find.

    1. But what I've found is that players, especially newer players, can't tell my placed details from my improvised ones.

      That seems like a positive to me. It means the description feels real. There is no glowing "active area" like in a video game. Why do you see this as a problem?

      The way I do it, I have a descriptive trigger (or "key") that if the players manipulate directly in the correct way, that opens the secret door without costing much (or any) time. If players resort to the X in 6 search chance (what I call "abstract searching") then they have to take the time cost (which is usually a random encounter check) and if the check is successful then I will describe the thing they found.

    2. Hey, thanks. Yeah, I'm happy because it seems I can plausibly improvise details for the imagined world. The problem comes from certain assumptions I have/design processes I use that I'm not communicating well. I try and place magic and treasure items randomly so I'm not expecting players to do anything. That means some items are more important than others. If all items appear equally important to players that can be a problem for them, if only in the time it takes them to sort it out. I might also be assuming a more parlour-game-newbie-friendly-probably-a-one-off-dungeon style than most folks are. I also tend to think of magic items as things I want them to find so they can start using them and not as end goals for the night. But this is drifting more into details in DMing and less about secret doors (though they are confusingly entertwined in my mind).

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  6. @Telecanter: Not every room in the dungeon has a mural, but presumably many of them have SOMETHING in them, and only a small fraction of those things are secret doors. More noise doesn't make it impossible for the players to find secrets. The idea is that, faced with too many possibilities for a comprehensive search, the players will choose to investigate whatever features they think are most likely to be concealing treasure, whether by logic or hunch or subtle clues or whatever. Just place your secrets in a way that you feel "makes sense", and give the players a benefit of a doubt when they describe how they're searching. There's a bit of luck involved and they're certain to miss a lot, but that's okay.

    To answer your question, here's the basic room description surrounding the most recent secret portal I designed:

    Spacious, well-furnished bedchamber and study, with rugs on floor, armchairs and sofas, four-poster bed, wardrobe, heavy worktable, and bookshelves along walls.

    Now, admittedly, I didn't consciously think all this through when I wrote it up, but I think it holds up okay. Putting myself in the players' shoes, where am I most likely to find the trigger for a secret door? My guess would be under the desk, on the bookshelves, or in the wardrobe. I feel under the desk and find nothing. Trying every book on the shelves would take too long, so I open the wardrobe, which holds an "assortment of tasteless robes" (worthless). Ignoring these, I feel around the back of the wardrobe and find a hidden switch. Success!

    The actual room has some additional factors that make it both easier and harder to find the secret, but it's a better example this way. The trigger is buried two "layers" down - not in the room description, and not in the description of the contents of the wardrobe, but anyone feeling inside or removing the clothes and examining the back of the wardrobe would find it. It's inside a feature which is notable, but not particularly unusual. There are other features in the room that could also hide a trigger, so the players have to choose where they'll search and how much real-time they're willing to waste on it.

  7. There is the question of how much you want the players to find the secret doors. What are you aiming for? That the door should be found? That the door should have a decent chance to be found? That the door should have a realistic chance to be found (IE not high, given that it is supposed to be secret).

    I make secret doors obvious in plot driven adventures, since I want the players to find the secret door and what is on the other side. However, in my mega-dungeon, I go by John's method. That makes it an actual accomplishment for the players, if they figure out a secret door and find the shortcut or treasures behind it.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    @John: I wonder if my difficulties are from having dungeons that are too ruined-- lots of stuff and debris, but nothing like your example that would serve as not-so-obvious hiding places.

    @Rubberduck:"There is the question of how much you want the players to find the secret doors. What are you aiming for? That the door should be found?" That's the really odd thing, a secret door is sort of contrary to the whole conserve your creativity style of DIY dungeon design, it is a detail you spend time on that players probably won't see. Rather than comment more here, I'll make a post.

  9. I am terrible at coming up with traps. I think it's because I spent most of my RPing days playing space opera sci-fi games and not fantasy. So, now that I'm running a fantasy game, I'm kind of at a loss; I'm using modules for the first time in my life! GAH!!!
    So this stuff really helps dudes like me out. Thanks, Telecanter.

  10. Thanks for letting me know, Tim. Sometimes it's a blow to my confidence to feel like everyone DMing considers something that boggles me trivial, but you gotta learn somehow, right? And sharing what boggles me and and trying to figure it out is how I learn. (And at the best of times I think this process leads me to ideas that the people who aren't boggled had never thought of).