Sunday, June 21, 2015

DF Secret Doors, secure doors, & my games

In the dungeon in my Cold Fens game, there are a pair of secret doors (and some not-so-secret doors) that didn't just open when found.

In a world with See Secrets, Earth Vision, and other seeking type spells, a secret door isn't good enough if it's merely secret. Detection is trivial with the right magic. Nevermind detection with mundane means - guys with very high Perception, supernatural detection powers that say something is behind that otherwise "blank" wall, and so on.

It's not enough to conceal the means of opening them, either. They'll be found just as easily.

Nor is making the doors tough to open. Shape Stone, Lockmaster, and related spells will take a door apart. Mundane means will do for most doors. A door thin enough to be an actual moving door in a small area of space is going to be breakable, eventually. Thick ones have vulnerable hinges, somewhere. Bash, bash, bash - it might take a while, but unless it's very thick, it changed the issue from "how do we open it?" to "how long before it falls?"*

To be a challenge, it needs to be tricky to open. Otherwise they are found trivially and opened quickly.

Here are some ways I've made secret doors, and secure doors, more of a challenge, in both Felltower and the Cold Fens:

- Doors that fade into ethereal (?) insubstantial translucence for those who are wet with unholy water.

- Doors of magic-immune metal set into walls of magic-resistant stone, shot through with anti-magical metal.

- Doors of immense weight and size, with concealed hinges, no handles, and no visible lock, which open only to voice command.

- Doors which only appear at all if the key is brought close to the door.

- Doors which are magically trapped, even to the point of attacking semi-distant casters trying to open them.

- Doors with a remote trigger to open them.

- Doors with a remote lock, which when undone stays unlocked long enough to the get to the door and open it.

- Doors in such tight quarters you can't swing a hammer, battering ram, or other brute force device to get through.

- Secret doors in Low and No Mana Zones.

All of these are generally coupled with thickness, internal or external armoring, concealed hinges (so they can't be attacked with ease). A passive defense like a door will never stand to PCs given unlimited time to work on it. It will slow them down, and cost time and resources - great if you expect to be able to get to your door to chase off intruders or just want to slow them down.

They also reward those who just have the keys, know the secret passcode, know the trick of the unholy water, etc. In other words, the security slows down those not allowed in but doesn't bother the knowledgeable.

None of the above will really stop blowing past these doors with sufficient brute force or sufficient magical power and skill. But these types of special challenges also reward non-brute force solutions and de-trivialize bypassing secret and secure doors.

* The usual counter is wandering monsters and "but we'll be heard." These are not always issues, and a person concealing a door and using it for secure access control can't depend on 1d6 wandering whatevers or alerting the ogre in the next room. I find these aren't really big concerns for PCs, no matter what comes a-wandering if they make too much noise.


  1. Can you assume that the maker of the secret door had a skill level that took into account magical detection? Maybe he created some magical deadzones that give the illusion that there is no secret door to a person with See Secrets or other magic? If this could be true then maybe there could be a contest of skills between the maker of the secret door and somebody trying to detect it even with magic. Thus a person with high skill in making secret doors could keep them secret even with magical spells unless the spellcaster knew them at a high skill level.

    1. Well, yes, you could, but you'd want to make it rules-consistent so the players have a reasonable chance to come up with tactics to overcome it. So it would need to be a magical deadzone that the person with See Secrets is not standing in, or they'd notice when their spell dropped. You wouldn't get a contest of skills. For, you need spells like Hide, Avoid, or Conceal Magic, and they don't work reliably. You'd also give up all of your own magic if you went for a No Mana Zone, so you'd have to totally rely on mundane protections after that. It's hard to have a non-mechanical trigger in a NMZ.

      Plus, you know, mundane detection - Perception rolls, careful searching in likely spots, Tracking rolls, etc. come into play. Even with a -10 on search rolls (the "almost impossible" range, and actually impossible for most normal folks with less than a completely thorough search aided by appropriate tools to give bonuses) there will be PCs with a good chance to spot it.

      Besides, this is DF. A low skill caster has a 15 or 16 in all spells in DF, and there is a serious benefit to having 20+ . . . so people get important spells at 20+. Which means you get into the "arms race" - security spells need to be in the 20+ range to matter. It's seriously not fun if you need a 20+ in detection spells to even have a shot at getting anything done, sort of like saying all DF fighters have weapons skills in the 16-22 range to start with so all bad guys have weapons skills in the 22+ range. It's just re-setting the entry point, and reducing the fun of being awesome (and making normal, less powerful folks utterly irrelevant.) Those need to be more exceptional than common, or the players will appropriate respond by jacking their skills up into the 25+ range. Once that kind of thing starts to happen, you'd just changing different costs for the same effect, which is the PCs spot secret doors.

      It's better, in my experience, to have a mix of the above out there, so you can't rely on one method to solve everything.

    2. I mean something like magical architecture where mana is directed away from the secret door. It is not a no mana zome just a mundane way to redirect the magical energy to fool spellcasters.

    3. But that is a major form of power, if you think about it. If you can redirect mana, not just attention via Avoid, it would have sweeping potential beside just hiding doors.

    4. Maybe to use a power like that might cost a lot of money in materials and take a lot of time to do. That way it would not be common except in places where the dungeon builders really want secret doors.

    5. It just seems like having that sort of power available means either a wider swath of similar powers would also be available, or there are other, better ways to stop people from coming through your doors. The first is my main concern - the ability to spoof or redirect mana elsewhere means a potent power that's really wasted on keeping a secret door hidden.

  2. Sure, wandering encounters from noise are no problem, unless you are on Felltower level 2 where the Lord f Spite hangs out

    1. I had it in mind, actually. The players quickly adapted from worrying about The Lord of Spite to using noise to try and attract him. That is turning a con into a pro.

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  4. Great piece, Peter---I really like your thinking here!

    How much luck have you had with players missing out on remotely-controlled doors/locks, serieses of secret doors that need to be activated from afar and then moved to and through quickly, keys to unlock and discover magical doors, etc.? I love these kinds of puzzles, but have found that few players ever end up putting all of the pieces together successfully, that they usually leave for greener/easier pastures....


    1. Generally, it's a mix of:

      - bash them down with brute mundane force or magic
      - abandon them for greener pastures
      - forget about them.

      Usually in that order. The "unholy water" ones in my recent game sessions worked because they had literally no other way to go, not enough brute force, and clear indication the continuation of their mission was beyond the door. Still took lots of discussion, part of two sessions, and a ton of emails. Had they had other stuff to do, it would still be there.

    2. "Something's wrong. Murder isn't working, and that's all we're good at."

      That pretty much sums up our problem with puzzle solving... from the player perspective, I think we miss more loot and/or secret areas than we actually find.

      We have found enough cool stuff for us to keep trying though.

    3. That's partly why I can put such cool stuff behind such doors - it's a reward for clever perseverance.

  5. Good post. I can always take away some thing from your posts for my game.

    1. Thanks for saying so. I try to think, with each post, "How can I make this useful to someone else?"

  6. After years of gaming I've learned that I don't want to keep secret doors secret. What fun is that? The fun of a secret is in its discovery. Make it too difficult and it is either never noticed or never understood, which is ultimately a waste of time for both the designer (time and energy put into something that doesn't see use) and the players (beating their heads against a problem and giving up). I agree with you that secret doors should be a challenge, mainly because I feel secret doors should be /interesting/ and, at least for me, something that challenges me keeps my interest. The purpose of a secret door is for the NPC to keep intruders from finding something, not for the GM to keep players from finding something. Secretly I *want* the PCs to discover my "secrets" and figure out my puzzles, even if I present them as if they were supposed to be unfindable and unbeatable. Because I want my creativity to be experienced and enjoyed by my players.

    I like the list of ways you've made secret doors more of a challenge. It is good for getting new ideas for my own adventures.


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