Monday, September 19, 2016

Fundamentals: Hidden Doors

Well, come on then, man, someone is
going to find it as soon as they try to
take the wine bottles.
It's a thought been on my mind and that's the fundamental fixture of hidden doors. I get it, they are classic, but they seem like a wonky mechanic to me. I mean, they aren't totally awful, and in some circumstances, they make sense, and they are somewhat iconic of the genre, right? So I'm going to make this a twofer: first we can talk about door mechanics, and then I'm going to get into opinions on hidden doors, which are weird to me, ok?


So a hidden door is a door that is not so obvious as other doors. They are mechanically simple and described on p. 6 of Dungeon Fantasy 2 and as a bit of a simplification, the critical abilities to determine the success of locating a secret door are Perception, Observation, or Traps, that is usually done secretly by the GM. There. That's everything.

So What's Weird About Them

Finding a hidden door is a binomial contest and the party doesn't know when and if they failed to locate one. They know they received a reward because the GM told them, but if they fail, it might as well have not existed. I'm a lazy person, so this is somewhat offensive to my sense of conservation of detail. If I want to give something to my players, it seems more better to just to have it out in the open so that they can play the game and weigh the consequences of accepting or abstaining from the challenge, and the consequences of succeeding or failing at the challenge.
The secret door is all reward, and no challenge in other words.

Why Should a Door Finding Mechanic Even Exist?

Secret doors are a classic and a real thing that exist. Mechanically, if I had to give a really good justification for a hidden door to simply exist just because, it's because of published adventures. Some adventures are meant to be run repeatedly, or by different people or the locations are meant to be returned to at a later point in the game, and in such a situation, the hidden door is a surprise element that can mean that even when walking down the halls of a familiar tomb, there's a chance you might see something new today because the dice might just roll slightly better in your favor today, or maybe your stats are a little higher, or you are with a group with different talents better suited to finding them.
For this reason, I think a secret door is ok to exist in a vacuum with no context clues or anything that could point the players towards finding it. Otherwise, you might as well just make a narrative decision that the players do or don't find it, or just roll "off-line" during session prep to see if they will find it before they get there.

Though, With Context, The Secret Door Becomes Defensible

Now here's a thing, without context, these hidden doors make sense in a limited number of ways, but with it they become more important. Instead of throwing a secret door in an area willy nilly, ask yourself why a secret door should be there. Is it a recently added facility, or something that has been left over by whoever inhabited it earlier? Some practical reasons for a hidden door:
  • It's for quicker navigation, especially important in places where security matters, a great number of locations in a Dungeon Fantasy setting probably qualify.
  • It's to hide something precious, a typical manifestation, because "beating" a challenge deserves a reward right? 
  • It's to hide something awful. Maybe an embarrassing secret, a much bigger crime, or a terrible monster they can't even control.
Why does context matter? Because it flavors what kind of context clues are needed to define it. For the first example, a catwalk or the crawlspaces that lead to any other location in the facility, are probably used regularly by whatever intelligent beings care about keeping it safe. Discovering it probably means realizing that enemies are popping up in unlikely places, or you are getting surrounded in fights where that shouldn't be likely. Someone that wants to find these places will probably discover them by using stealth and/or shadowing  when they find a guard making the rounds.
On the other hand, the other two might be heavily guarded to keep someone from breaking in or breaking out, and the door is probably in a location that matters. They are also probably so special that there are murmurs and rumors about them in nearby cities and villages. Maybe Streetwise can find out about illegal going ons that are somewhat hush hush, and perhaps Carousing, Savoir-Faire, or Research can help you find out about local legends. Maybe after clearing out a dungeon, rumors about the big secrets left behind should be easier to scope out.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

Dunno why this was bothering me. It seems like a sacred cow, not that I ever talked about it out loud to get any backlash. I don't use secret doors a lot, but I think not using them is a punishment for players who like using templates like Artificer and Thief, so maybe talking out how to implement them in way that isn't dumb is just me processing. 


  1. "Finding a hidden door is a binomial contest and the party doesn't know when and if they failed to locate one."
    Unless there's a suspicious deadend or hole in their map. I have had players make holes in walls because they were sure they missed a secret door.

    1. Yeah, a point I didn't get to but I should have made... it's a small tangent from context, that if a room makes sense to be somewhere, but you can't find a way in, then maybe a room is actually there?

    2. I always leave some clues to secret doors; because the map would indicate that something is there, tracks lead to a wall, something else mentions the room, sounds can be heard from the room, or similar.


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