Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"You fail to find anything out of the Ordinary..." DM House Rules for Secret Doors and Traps

Have a Bottle of Wine...or a secret door to a hidden treasure room!

I am currently watching on Netflix Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose" (1981) starring Sean Connery as a Franciscan friar investigating murders in a Benedictine abbey.  

Aside from being an excellent medieval mystery  film (which I had no interest in as a boy because it wasn't swords and sorcery or a shoot em' up) , there is a sequence with a secret door which, aside from giving me a new idea for one of those devices, inspired me to write briefly on how I handle secret doors and traps in my dungeons or other adventures.

I do not use…at least by itself…the  mechanic given in the Holmes Basic Edition or the later Basic and AD&D editions where a die roll is used to see if characters are able to detect secret doors and traps. 

That seems a little simple  and does not allow for really challenging the players and allowing much  DM 
creativity in creating novel secret doors. 

So  here are my house rules on secret doors, which I acquaint every new player with, usually when they are about to enter a dungeon wherein I have placed secret doors.

The rules state that Dwarves can find traps one third of the time (2 in 6 chance). However, I restrict this bonus to investigations involving  engineered  stone works, as that is reasonably the domain of dwarves. In my mind, there is no reason why a Dwarf would be any more able than other character classes to detect more subtle mechanisms such as hidden bookcase latches, turning paintings, etc.

Thieves on the other hand, have a remove traps percentage chance ability as a character class benefit. I have never understood why "find traps" was not added to the table so that is house ruled in for my game as a trap must be found before it can be removed. Thieves are opposite of dwarves in this endeavor--they are of little use in searching for traps which involve engineered stone works and I do not allow them to search for such traps  (at least with a simple die roll). they are confined to searching for those traps of  a delicate mechanical nature (locks, latches, trip wires, etc.).

Elves have excellent chances for finding secret doors due to their vision--merely passing by one allows for a 2 in 6 chance. make that 4 in 6 when they are actively searching for one. However, I think it goes without saying that this is in well lit conditions and so that is a house rule. Infravision (or Darksight as I prefer to call it in my game--less technological sounding) is good for seeing room dimensions and living things but it does not bestow a clarity of the sort to see secret doors. So I only give this bonus to an elf character if there is a least torch light present.

With the aforementioned in mind, like most DM's, I make the rolls for secret door and trap detection behind my screen when a player announces they are using the ability or an elf passes by a secret door.

 If the roll fails, I simply say "You fail to find any secret door, trap, etc."

 If they do succeed, I tell them if a trap is present or a secret door and if one is not I will sometimes  give some assurance such as "You are very confident it's not there" but I do not always as sometimes this is a give away to them --if I don't give them assurance and yet say "You detected no traps" they may surmise immediately that they simply failed the roll and a trap is indeed present. So I mix that up a bit,  usually saving assurance for when they are endlessly handwringing about thinking they failed and that a trap is present when yet they succeeded and one is not!

That said, just because someone finds a secret door, elf or otherwise, it does not necessarily follow that they know how to open it. So secret doors come in two basic models  in my games: the conventional, traditional dungeon sort and the Saturday Night Special variety.

The first category are a matter of a mere die roll as is stated in the rules and I generally employ them as a means of rewarding prudent and careful adventurers who are being reasonably mindful of their environment. Also for added interest for players and especially newer players. Of course in moderating this die roll I observe all of my previously stated house rules. Sometimes I will make it a freebie that when the secret door is found, the way in is readily apparent, i.e. push on the panel, slide it, move the altar aside, etc.).

Other times, as a mixture between these two models of secret doors (or traps, at times) I will require players to discover the mechanism I have designed into the adventure.

This might be pulling down on a candelabra chandelier hanging down over the room, a magic password,  turning a statue, emptying water from a stone vessel by means of a spout, lighting a fire in a hearth which will boil away water in a  vessel behind the hearth which will in turn, when it is lightened, relieve the weight on the mechanism holding the door shut etc. The list is really as long as your imagination as a DM (or the imaginations of those you borrow from) can make it.

A S.N.S. is a more complex matter.

This is something of a  design that I took the time to construct in a fashion as to make it  (hopefully) original and to challenge my players.

I'm not giving this one up on a mere die roll, not even to a pesky elf who has a 4 in 6 chance or a dwarf with a 2 in 6 chance... not unless the construction of the door is such that it is warranted, ans sometimes, not even then!

 Instead, players aren't going beyond the S.N.S. until they find it and trigger it by interacting with the room description and actively doing things to find and/or trigger the secret door (or trap). 

The room description holds the clues--if the furniture or fixtures of the room are intriguing enough, this can be a clue in itself. 

Other times they enter the maze with some clue already that there is a secret door, such a s a hidden rune saying so, a town rumor, or a portion of map which shows features of the maze which don't fit anywhere on their existing map made through initial exploration.

 In such a case, the  furnishing s of the room holding the S.N.S. can be completely mundane and unremarkable, it matters not;  the players will seek it there eventually through sheer process of elimination.

Unless I have some very compelling reason for doing so (like trying to conclude a series of games whose time has come for wrapping that chapter up), my general rule is that if you don't find the S.N.S., you will get not one clue beyond what I have written into the adventure and it is lost to you otherwise. Whatever  was truly lying behind the S.N.S. will always remain a tantalizing mystery, if indeed it was ever real at all…only the DM knows! This can even be the basis of further adventures!

Using the above listed approaches to secret doors has created some very interesting moments in our games. 

Sometimes, I felt like a chump as a door or mechanism I had thought quite clever was unraveled in seconds by a deductive player.

 Other times, it made for some very interesting tension in the game and a great sense of reward and accomplishment to the deducing player when it was unlocked .

And there were sometimes periods of frustration when it could never be found and I asked myself if I had made it too hard or escoteric or if, and I devoutly hoped it so, I had simply outwitted them!

 I do of course want all my S.N.S.'s to be eventually found and opened, but I like matching wits with my players as well! They best me at that game often enough, a DM needs some dignity.

I'll conclude with an example of a S.N.S.

I created a favorite one which combined both magical and stone construction mechanisms .

 The party was exploring a sunken Temple of Poseidon, the sea god. They came to a chamber where there stood a ring of pillars with statues facing out from the room's center ,wherein the floor  was carven with a circle of magic runes inlaid with electrum. The statues of warriors, clutching giant steel scimitars,  had jeweled eyes .

The statues were intended by me as a red herring--first off, I wanted the party to wonder, "Will they come to life at some point, attacking us?". 

Secondly, I wanted them to be distracted by the swords--the simple fact is they were not magical at all and the hilts were so constructed as to be fastened to the stone hands and not removable without breaking them. This lured players away from thinking about secret doors at all! Finally, the jeweled eyes were there to tempt the party to pry them out (easy enough) and keep as loot.

However, they possessed a sure word from the person who had sent them on the quest that a hidden tomb lay within the Maze, one that had been searched for but never found. The tale had been told in such a way that little doubt  was left in the player's minds that it was the truth.

Thus they knew, after exploring the maze and not finding the tomb, there must be a secret door somewhere. 

The secret to the door was to turn the statutes inward towards the magic circle. When the last statue clicked into place, beams of light shot out from the jeweled eyes towards the runes, which began to glow. Then, magically, a hole appeared in the floor  in the size and shape of the magic circle. Steps led down to the hidden tomb, where the adventure's end and the treasure were both to be found!

In using this kind of a portal, I would not allow an elf or a dwarf any die roll to find it, though if they specifically declared searching for something I might make such a roll behind the screen to mislead them!

You say "How will they ever know?"

They know the die roll is not always the end of the matter because as I said I have thoroughly explained all of these rules on secret doors and traps to my players.

Some may object that this negates the elf and dwarf's special abilities ("The dwarf would see it!").

 I disagree, since I do make use of these abilities in Class 1, non- S.N.S. doors and traps, giving them ample opportunity to use their racial abilities normally.

But even allowing for those abilities, I don't think it unfeasible that some ancient civilizations or very clever architects could design mechanisms that would baffle even the trained  eyesight of the elf and the dwarf or the nimble fingers of the thief.

What do you think of these rules? Unfair? 

I disagree that it is unfair, but in any event if you go with a simple die roll you miss out on some awesome opportunities to give your dungeons a new depth, taking away the chance of both giving your players a great intellectual challenge (which to me is a major part of the dungeon adventure, not just monster bashing), and denying yourself some real fun in writing out your dungeon keys!

Comments are welcome. Now, back to the climax of my movie!

Update to Post: Excellent film! If you have not seen it you must. And if I had a party of players who had never seen it, I would not hesitate to lift the plot, events and characters whole cloth for an entire adventure of a vey different and refreshing genre. Aside from  being a great medieval story, it is stock full of great ideas from NPC's to traps, poison books, secret doors and abbey details.  


  1. Name of the Rose, one of the great films that everyone should see.

    I love secret doors, but I hate designing how they operate. What I think is clever is often not appreciated by the players.

  2. This is very true. Movies like this or books can be good places to..ahem...be inspired with ideas. But I just finished the film and it will definitely remain a favorite, though my wife despised the ending! You are right though--players sometimes don't even care or they simply get frustrated with the whole process. Its a weakness of mine that in addition to riddles, I very often feel a dungeon is not complete without am elaborate secret door. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Curious what her preferred ending would have been.

  4. I don't find your house rules to be unfair at all. Do you recognize a difference between secret and concealed doors? The concealed door is kind of a meaningless term for me, at lest I've never wanted to tie a die roll to it. *There is a door concealed behind a tapestry. Character looks behind tapestry, character sees door. Perhaps I am just being too limited in how I define a concealed door, I dunno.

  5. @Paladin: don't want to leave a spoiler here in case anyone watches it but she was not happy with a certain monk's decision at the end of the film!

  6. @Ragnorakk: What an omission on my part! I didn't address concealed doors at all. As to whether I would tie a die roll to it it would depend on how concealed the door is and what is concealing it, i.e., vines, spiderwebs, etc. A simple hole in the wall behind a piece of furniture would simply be a matter of moving the furniture aside. Thanks.