Searching for Secret Doors

After years of trying it all sorts of different ways, this is how I handle searching for secret and concealed doors:

1-in-6 chance to discover a secret door if searching a 10′ area for 1 turn (2-in-6 for concealed doors), modified for race. If an opening method is defined, performing that action will always open the door.

Put the candle back!

Put...The candle...Back!

This is pretty straightforward and seems to be the best balance between roll and role playing. If removing the candle from the sconce rotates the bookshelf to reveal the secret passage, it can be discovered by a player rolling a 1 on a d6 if having a PC generically searching the area OR by the character removing the candle.

Some DMs apparently describe the room in exacting detail and then require that players role play their PCs through every specific step of the search. Doing it this way can be fun sometimes, but it has a few obvious drawbacks.

  1. Playing out the search is time-consuming and (in my opinion) pretty tedious. For example, if the PC chooses the wrong candle, it would go something like this: “I remove the candle…I put the candle back…I try to twist the sconce clockwise…I try to twist the sconce counter-clockwise…I try to push the sconce up…I try to pull the sconce down…I try to pull the sconce out…I try to push the sconce in…I try to push the sconce up while twisting clockwise…I remove the candle and try to push the sconce up while twisting clockwise…[ten minutes later]…I go to the next sconce and remove the candle…I put the candle back…I try to twist the sconce clockwise…[and on and on and on].” Repeat for every item in every room that the players want to search. Some people may find this sort of thing repeatedly fun. I don’t.
  2. For a detailed role play of a detailed search to work, the description of the room has to be given in minute detail and it has to be understood clearly by the players. (This is also an issue with mapping.) The PC could take in hundreds of details and have an accurate understanding of how they all fit together with one quick glance. During play, however, the DM will be lucky to get everyone at the table to even understand which wall the bookcase is on without at least one or two questions from players. And then, after who knows how long playing out the search, one player is bound to suddenly go “Wait…the candles are on either side of the bookcase? I thought they were ABOVE the book case.” The better the DM is at description, of course, the fewer problems there will be. But for this approach to work, every room everywhere will always need to be described exactly unless you want it to be obvious to players that the one time you mention candles means that they should investigate the candles.
  3. What’s to say that, rather than removing the candle from the sconce to rotate the bookshelf, you need to perform the following actions in sequence: 1) pull the sconce out, 2) rotate it a quarter turn counter-clockwise, 3) push it back in, 4) rotate it back a quarter turn clockwise. After all, the door is meant to be hard to discover. Adding reasonable complexity above and beyond a simple button or hidden latch takes points one and two and multiplies them by a hundred. Again, this just isn’t what I’m looking for when I game.

If a player simply declares that his or her PC is going to search a section of wall for secret doors, I mark off a turn and roll 1d6. If the result is a success, I tell them that they discovered how to operate the sconce to rotate the bookcase and tell them how it works. We all just assume that the PC was trying all sorts of things that seemed like reasonable possibilities without requiring the player rattle off every little action every single time. I see this as similar to how we assume a character in melee combat is always dodging opponents’ attacks and simultaneously pressing their own attacks in hopes of landing a blow without requiring a second-by-second description of exactly which maneuvers the PC is attempting and exactly how he is swinging his weapon.

Later, if the PC returns to the room, they can tell me what they do to open the door (assuming they remembered) or I make them roll again. If they neglected to remember how to operate the door, I might give them a bonus to their chances to simulate the idea that, though they can’t remember exactly what to do, they do remember it had something to do with twisting the sconce to the right of the bookshelf.

On the other hand, if PCs observe someone opening the door, say by using a ring of invisibility to follow an unknowing enemy, they can learn how it works and simply do the same thing themselves. No roll required. Likewise, if they walk into a room with a tapestry on the wall and they tell me that their character looks behind the tapestry, I don’t require a roll to find the concealed door behind it.

I do think that the skill of the player is an important element of the game, but there is a reason that we roll dice, record things on a character sheet, and use those numbers to resolve actions. If my young daughter doesn’t quite know how to talk her way out of trouble with the city watch but her PC has a charisma of 16, I’m going to allow a roll for success despite the inability of the player to act convincingly in character. I also don’t require players of spell casters to actually memorize magical incantations and recite them accurately in order for their character to cast spells, and I don’t require players of elf PCs to actually speak elvish if they want their character to speak in his native tongue. But maybe I’m just a softy.

This combination of basic quick rolling for secret/concealed door searches and specific action always working seems to be a good one for us. How do others handle it?

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