The Nature of Secret Doors is to be Found

That is an actual hidden door from Rosenborg Castle, though not very secret. Just kept innocuous.

In roleplaying games there is a pleasure in finding objects, that are supposed to be hidden. When playing Call of Cthulhu, there is a satisfaction in finding the hidden document, that reveals the plans of the cult, and in Dungeons & Dragons finding the hidden treasure room is cause for celebration. Finding the hidden treasure room is a reward.

In a previous post I ranted a bit about passive perception being a passive mechanic (then I forgot about this post, which have been gathering dust for quite a while, until I saw this post on secret doors at Gundobad games), that removed choice from the players, and it did not really solve the basic issue with objects hidden in roleplaying games. One basic issue is, that if you do not know, if something lies hidden, how do you then decide to search for it? If a hidden object is not found, it might as well not exist, as it makes no difference for the players. 

This brings me to the statement, that ‘The Nature of Hidden Things is to be Found’. In the real world it certainly might not be so, but in stories it is so, and in that sense roleplaying games are stories (and they are puzzles in the sense, that finding a hidden object often requires the players to solve some kind of puzzle).

It is very easy as a GM to place an unfindable secret door in a dungeon, but if it cannot be found, then you might as well not bother placing it in the dungeon. So hidden objects are there to be revealed, and in order to find, what is hidden, there must be a way to reveal for the players, that something is hidden.

The tedious way is for the players to find, that the goblin king has no treasure, and they must deduce, that the treasure is hidden, and after cleaning out the dungeon they move from wall section to wall section declaring, that they search the sections (and rolling to find secret doors). This is what makes Tomb of Horrors tiresome to play. The players must search again and again for secret doors in order to progress through the module (and part of playing the module is to try and defeat the players with the tediousness of searching the one dead end passage after the other).

There are, however, different kinds of secret doors. For instance, in The Caves of Chaos one of the secret doors leads to hidden passage connected to the hidden temple – and one part of the passage leads out to a random part of a corridor, which it is unlikely for the players to search, while the other part of the passage is in the high priest’s office. The secret doors at both ends of the passage and the hidden passage are revealed, when the high priest tries to escape from the characters. In other words, it is a secret passage, that is supposed to be revealed, once the players trigger the escape.

An alternative type of secret door is the one, that hides an ambush. Behind the door sits a group of kobolds waiting to jump the adventurers, as they pass through the dungeon.

What we have here is to types of secret doors, that are revealed by the monsters, that are using them for ambushes and escapes. They become revealed during the game, and from then on can be used by the players.

A third type of hidden door, is the one that is only hidden on one side. For example, a door placed near the entrance, which is camouflaged on the one side. When entering the dungeon, the door is not noticed, but when entering the necromancer’s quarters deeper in the dungeon, the opposite side of the door is seen and can be used. Using the secret door is a short cut through the dungeon allowing the players to easily access and leave certain areas. This kind of hidden door is a reward for having reached a certain part of the dungeon, and the players are being rewarded with an option of more easily entering hidden parts of the dungeon.

A fourth type of secret door is the puzzle type. When entering the room behind the fireplace in Castle Ravenloft, the adventurers find a corpse holding a torch lying almost next to a sconce. If the torch is placed in the holder, it opens a secret door. This is not a difficult hidden door to find, but it is still fun to be piece the hints to together, and then be rewarded with discovering a hidden door (much as in Escape Rooms/Mystery Rooms, where solving a puzzle and suddenly see a secret door open is a pleasure).

Some puzzle-secret doors, as the example from Castle Ravenloft, are easy to find, as the description of the area suggests for the players, that there is something to interact with. Another option is the ‘area signaling hidden objects’. There are areas in a haunted house or in a dungeon, that invites the players to explore them – an office with a heavy desk, a cupboard filled with books, a full-size mirror on the wall and a thick, soft green carpet – and in a such an ‘area’ secret doors leaves ‘traces’ to be found, when the players state, they examine the objects – the cupboard slides to the side, and this leaves marks on the floor; the mirror is uneven, as it hides a passage and have not been placed correctly (or perhaps the hidden passage is cold, and the temperature difference leaves a mark on the mirror), when last used; the thick carpet covers a trapdoor; a drawer in the desk has a false bottom, that hides a strange key – and looking closely at the walls, reveals an odd keyhole.

Creating an ‘area signaling hidden objects’ and having the secret doors leave ‘traces’ sets up a situation, where the players can explore the setting, and by asking clever questions, can be rewarded with finding hidden doors. This can be played out without using die rolls and perception checks.

What is Hidden Must Be Made Findable

The nature of hidden doors is to be found, and in order to do so, the secret doors must be used in such a manner, so they are revealed or becomes revealable.

  • The secret door is used by the villain as an escape route, and using the passage reveals it.
  • The secret door is being used for an ambush, and using it reveals it
  • The secret door is reward and functions as a short cut, and is found, once you get around it.
  • The secret door is placed next to an obvious puzzle
  • The secret door is placed in a ‘hidden objects area’, where it leaves ‘traces’.

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