5 Ways To Power Up Your Secret Doors

From JohnnFour

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1179

Brief Word From Johnn

Today I’ve got some secret door tips for you. I also had time to add some reader tips from my backlog afterwards that cover a variety of topics.

Before we get into those, I have a request of you.

I’m looking to refresh my links on where to find players and GMs online.

I’m getting more emails now from folks who can’t find a great gaming group.

And my links are old.

Like, Yahoo Groups old.

To help these GMs I’d like to send them links that actually work, heh.

If you know of any places where folks can post group wanted ads or find GMs and fellow players, please hit reply and let me know.

Thank you!

Depending on your system, secret door checks every five feet bog gameplay down and soon get tiresome.
This topic came up in the most recent Wizard of Adventure Zoom call:

How do you handle secret doors??I’m not a big fan of the passive check, or maybe I’m using it incorrectly.?I believe there should be some player ownership to finding the secret stuff, like “Hey, I found that, lets get inside it.” and not “The DM told it was there so I guess I’d ?better figure out how to open it.”?

Today I’ve got five tips for you on how to solve the problem of secret doors.
The first couple you might’ve encountered before, but are always good to keep in mind.
The others I hope you find are new and interesting ideas for your campaigns.

1. Apply Pressure

There should be a cost when players begin scouring every slab and stone for secret doors.
Introducing a potential bad consequence for careful searches gives players interesting choices. This makes your games more fun.

Warrior: Hey gang, do we stop here to search for secret doors? Last time we got ambushed by those orc guards and that didn’t go so well.?
Wizard: Yeah, and I’ve got the scars to prove it! But we’re here to find the sceptre. What if we miss it??
Rogue: Maybe we clean the place out first and then check?
?Warrior: But we’ve got those Iron Fist jerks following us and they might find it before we do!?
Elf: Wait, did you hear that? Is something coming?! We gotta decide fast here guys.?

So one classic solution is wandering monsters.
Delivering great story-driven “random” encounters is a topic for another day though, heh.

Another way we can add pressure to trigger interesting choices is an Impending Doom, borrowing from Dungeon World a bit.
We could light the place on fire necessitating urgency. Or flood it. Or otherwise trap it so there’s limited time.

In the fictional convo above, adding rivals creates nice pressure on parties to keep moving, as well.

Anything with an expiration date causes urgency too.

…Prisoners whose safety remains unknown.
…Half-life of some powerful one-shot magic item or effect.
…A nasty effect at sundown or sunrise.

Applying pressure so that searching for secret doors becomes an interesting choice will help keep your games moving along.

2. Swap to Broader Area Checks

House rule so search checks apply to larger areas.
This decreases the number of rolls required, which speeds up the game.
While it devalues the purpose of secret doors a bit, the trade-off might be worth it for you.
Note that this need not be a permanent or absolute approach.
You might make it apply to just one location — perhaps the environment makes checks easier.
Or maybe the party has a limited-use magic item.
Or an NPC with incredible skill accompanies the PCs on this adventure.

It’s your game, which I don’t think is stressed in systems like D&D 5E enough.
Change what you want to make gameplay better for all.

3. Make Them Plot Points

This was a tip from Wizard of Adventure Shazear on the Zoom call:

I prefer the idea of making them a plot point.?
Meaning they find the door when it’s interesting or there’s a lull.?
Maybe the dwarf was too drunk and then stumbled into it.?
Make it part of the story.?
Otherwise, like you said, it becomes just a mechanics problem.?
Especially in virtual tabletop. It just becomes them playing a 2D computer RPG at that point. Roll, roll, roll.?

This can be a great approach, depending on your GMing style.
If players know they don’t have to pixel bitch adventures to find secret doors, they won’t waste session time looking for them.
You also get confidence and flexibility because you are directing the discovery.
While plot point secret doors remove the gamey-ness of doors, and some player agency, what you gain might more than make up for it.

4. Make Them Fun Mini-Games

Why add secret doors to your maps and adventures?
I think it comes down to GM style, player preferences, game system, and other local factors.

For me:

Discovery. Players love uncovering secrets.
Puzzles. It’s about where to look, how, and when.
Reward. You can reward players for making good choices.

It’s a tricky question actually, and worth noodling on during your day:

Why do you want secret doors in your games?

If it’s not for mechanical reasons, you might consider the plot point approach.
If it’s to surprise and reward, then you might also consider a more narrative approach.
However, if your goal is (as I call it) to “make a game of it”, then you’ll want to put in place mechanics and processes that suit your tastes.

For example, it was mentioned on the call to have players roll in advance to save time.
Another great suggestion was to add traps and puzzles. Here, you aren’t focused on the finding of the doors.
Instead, you make the game about how to open the doors or how to avoid harm.

You could also change the mechanics to provide wider areas of effect, as per tip #2.
Something I had success with years ago was turning perception mechanics into broad “intuition” signals.

Johnn: Everyone make a Perception check for me.?
Johnn: Thanks!?
Roghan, you bump your head against the wall.?
Krug, your spidey senses say there’s something not quite right here.?
Sir Valiance, you see some unusual lines in the floor.?
Little Phingers, your gut says there’s a secret door or something like that near the fireplace.?

Sometimes the party would only get a “something’s not quite right signal.”
Other times, like in my example, they’d get enough specifics to home in on fast.
At this point, you put your game design hat on and decide what the gameplay experience is you want. Write it down in plain language.
Then figure out what mechanics would best generate that desired gameplay.

5. Put Them in the Right Places

My final tip today is about adventure design.
If you put secret doors in random places, you reward the “check every 5 feet” behaviour.
However, if you place them in areas that make sense, you then start challenging players in a great way.
Ask yourself why anyone would go to the time, expense, and effort to build a secret door.
It’s especially difficult and costly to hide portals.
So there must be a solid reason for all the trouble.

For example:

  • Escape routes for villains
  • Ambush spots
  • Hiding valuables while keeping them nearby

These reasons translate well to adventure and map design.
If players expect your world to make sense in this way, they’ll stop looking everywhere for secret doors and instead get strategic.
To me, this offers the best kind of gameplay. It’s a challenge for your players. And it allows character skills to shine.
It also makes adventure design fun as you work through this line of thinking to build interesting maps and locations as puzzles.

It’s Your Turn

If feeling the pain of too-frequent secret door checks, consider first why you want to add secret doors to your game.
Then think about what your ideal discovery gameplay would be.
Then consider the ideas above for potential approaches.

If you are a Wizard of Adventure, you can listen to the full conversation here in the members area. The secret door discussion starts at the four minute mark.

If you are not a Wizard of Adventure yet, here are details on how much it costs and what loot you get each month.

Discuss these game master tips in this thread at the official Roleplaying Tips community forum.