Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Secret Doors

Secret Doors in a Dungeon:
  • might be the ultimate exploration payoff, the exact kind of mysterious feature you were hoping to find when you set off into the unknown.
  • are simple machines that still function (unless they don't).
  • are the dungeon feature that has the most story built in; someone was doing something they wanted to hide.
  • are an important part of the genre trappings.
  • might assume players will make several visits to that dungeon and thus have more chance of finding them.
  • might assume that dungeon has intelligent factions that can use them as an advantage against a party and help tip off their existence.
  • can be a shortcut that makes travel between two spots in a dungeon faster and easier.
  • can lead to hidden rooms with treasure items that may never be found.
  • can act as "pinch points" that will open up whole new areas of a dungeon once found.
  • require thought and effort by the DM to create and place and might never be found.
  • are probably the best example of the difficulty of negotiating player vs character skill (well, along with traps).
  • might assume a more adversarial DMing style that is trying to challenge clever, persistent players.
  • might assume a search of the dungeon 10' by 10' by 10' by 10' section, and a particularly slow and laborious progress through the dungeon.
  • might assume players are making detailed maps.
  • might assume more experienced players that have been introduced to all these ideas.
This feels like an assignment from DM school: "Write 200 words on Secret Doors.  Due by Wednesday." Hahaha.  Now I'm interested to try these things:
  • Design a dungeon as I normally would and then roll randomly to determine which of the doors are actually secret, and then see how that changes the place.
  • Make a table of secrets people would want to keep hidden and think about how those might affect the shape / function / location of a secret door.


  1. I would absolutely attend/teach DM school.

    My favorite secret door was one that circled around behind the hall where the players entered. When the party encountered a large group of goblins it seemed permissible to let a few flee, until it turned out the hall they were fleeing through actually came out a secret door behind the players and they were surrounded.
    This obviously requires the dungeon to have strategically intelligent inhabitants, but is very fun tactically.

  2. In reference to your last notes: I've actually just mapped out a pretty large dungeon level (70ish rooms?) and randomly generated which of them were locked, trapped, or stuck. I've placed factions and the largest dungeon features but haven't actually keyed the individual rooms and I'm interested to see what I do with the random secret doors, and especially what my players do when they figure out their dungeons /have/ secret doors. They're pretty green.

  3. Secret Doors in a Dungeon: are apparently mandated by some building code based on Tolkien and Scooby Doo.

  4. You know, I've always found secret doors easier to adjudicate than traps because secret doors can't kill you.


  5. I am hoping that someone will write an article discussing different types of secret door, describing them so that they can be discovered and opened by player skill rather than die rolls. I don't really have enough ideas on the subject to do it myself, but someone out there probably does.

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    @Zavi: yeah, I pretty much treat the blogosphere as a DM school where I'm always learning. But a place to meet in person and run games and talk about how it went with other DMs would be pretty sweet.

    @Nate: It could be quite generative to answer the question "why would this faction have a secret door here?" As for new player knowledge maybe have a broken secret door stuck open, or the more obvious solution let them see someone escaping via one.

    @Roger: yep

    @C: It's true traditional traps are more tricky, but I've pretty much eschewed the secret, insta-kill trap as pushing play to boring tap-tap-tapping. So, my traps have become more hazards that are not secret but need to be overcome.

    @faoladh: Looks like C's got you covered. I think I'll write a why-is-this-secret-door-here chart that might be helpful too.

  7. First, I've been foolishly circling the G+ watering hole and neglecting the actual blogs. And see what happens: something like 30 interesting conversations I missed out on from Telecanter. Must fix this.

    One thing that's totally missing from this conversation is the kind of relating-objects-in-the-gameworld that Infocom games and Monkey Island were all about. Secret key for the secret door? Give it to an NPC (or give all the goblins a key card/chit/tangible map... or different layers of access for different ranks/positions/factions). Maybe you're simply not going to find one of the most useful ways through the dungeon unless you somehow get into a faction (by charming a member or posing as members or some other social trickery). I'm not suggesting getting as crazy with it as those games did - nothing so extra-diegetic as shrinking a sweater in the tumbledryer to give to the hamster so it can run in the cold to catch the cheese golem to... but it doesn't all have to be plumbed into the architecture right there.
    I know you know this: you've designed remote control rooms and theatre vignettes that control events elsewhere in time and so on. I'm just a bit puzzled that the old secret door doesn't seem to get the same treatment.

  8. Thanks. I'm almost done with a chart that might point a bit in that direction: "Why is the Secret door Secret?" Basically *who* wants it kept secret can give you lots of narrative levers and such.