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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8 Responses to Searching for Secret Doors

  1. David says:

    That’s pretty much how I handle it too. I don’t think I’ve ever worked out that the candle needs to be turned to the right 90 degrees, which will pop a panel across the room which will reveal a switch that when pulled will unlock the secret door on the floor under the rug in the next room.

    Just… no.

  2. JB says:

    Sounds like you ARE a “softy,” at least considering your daughter.

    However, regarding secret doors I’m an even BIGGER softy: I don’t bother having characters even choose ten foot section, but instead ask them if they want to search “the whole room” or not. Roll dice times number of turns for success. It just speeds play.

    : )

    • Lord Kilgore says:

      I’m curious about why you think I’m a “softy” considering my daughter. Her character sheet says her PC is a 300-year-old elf thief (presumably fairly streetwise) with a INT of 13, a WIS 12, and a CHA of 16. The player running the PC is (was at the time, anyway) a 7-year-old girl.

      Do you rule that elf thieves with those numbers have the mental and speaking abilities of 7-year-old girls if they’re played by 7-year-old girls?

      I put a lot of stock in the “player skill” camp, but the numbers on the character sheet do mean something, don’t they? Or should kids and regular people play the parts of kids and regular people?

      I use the 10′ search per turn as a way to make it “cost” characters to search. They can take the time, risking wandering monsters and consumption of torches and such, if they choose, but allowing a whole room to be searched seems like to low of a cost. To me anyway.

      • JB says:

        Hmmm…did I not throw a “winky” face in there?
        ; )

        Honestly, Lord K, I was just joshing…I certainly DO think the numbers on one’s character sheet mean something. Though to be perfectly frank, I’ve never equated a high charisma with (necessarily) being a “smooth talker;” I define charisma as that “undefinable something” that makes others (NPCs) like or dislike a character.

        For example, a PC thief may have a LOW Charisma (like an 8 or 7) but the player might be one hella’ smooth talker. Even though the PC can spin the BS pretty fast and loose, there’s something undefinable about the guy that rubs people the wrong way (hence a penalty to reaction rolls). On the other hand, a PLAYER may not be able to lie to save their ass, but with a high Charisma folks might give them the benefit of the doubt, thinking things like “oh, I’m just imagining it, this guy’s a good bloke” or whatever.

        So no, I think it’s all good fun to play whatever you want to play. Your character’s random abilities give you clues as to the individual strengths of your character (just as elves are ALWAYS better at finding secret doors…whether because of heightened senses a keen institution or being oldest enough to be wise to such petty’s just mechanical). When I DM, I haven’t let player’s LACK of “skill” trump their “God Given Talents” (i.e. random attributes)…just because a player declares a pedestrian “I swing at him again!” doesn’t mean I remove a high strength bonus in combat…that’s the game, and holds true with Charisma also.

        Sorry if I was a little too flippant there!

        • Kilgore says:

          Well, upon re-reading my reply I see that it was a bit more “challenging” than “curious.” I honestly was only curious, not calling you out. So, cool. I’ve had a few player skill vs. character skill discussions lately and have seen a few on the internets (including another after I posted this) and my response was worded as if it was part of them instead of a simple request for clarification.

          As for CHA equating to “smooth talking” to talk your way out of trouble, I guess I see that as EXACTLY part of the “undefinable something” you mentioned. LL and 1e both include the word “persuasion” in their definition of charisma and the Mentzer Basic says that when you have high charisma you can “probably get your own way a little more often.” I don’t have access to my B/X books right now, so I don’t know for sure exactly what they say about charisma, but I’d bet it’s close to these.

          • JB says:

            “Charisma is a combination of appearance, personal charm, and leadership ability. It helps the DM decide how a monster will react to a player character. It also affects the number of retainers a character can hire and the morale of these hirelings.”

            Moldvay, page B6

            Nothing about persuasiveness per se. A car salesman might have a clever or logical argument, but it’ll be a lot harder to make the sale if he lacks charisma.

            (I didn’t think you were calling me out…but I certainly didn’t mean to imply we should play ‘no-holds-barred’ with our younger players!)
            : )

          • Kilgore says:

            I see “personal charm” and “It helps the DM decide how a monster will react to a player character” as the “undefinable something” and “smooth talking” which (to me) very obviously includes persuasiveness. I guess others might see it differently.

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