Thursday, January 11, 2018

Secret Doors in GURPS DF / DFRPG

Let's talk Secret Doors!

Erik Tenkar doesn't like them at all.

I can sympathize with that.

The mechanics for secret doors in the games I grew up with - B/X D&D and AD&D, mainly - were pretty cut and dried. Make a roll, find them or don't find them, and then move on. Fail that roll, and that was that. Succeed, and at least as we played it, you find and open it and move on. Naturally the AD&D DMG leaves you the possibility of discovering the means of open by roleplaying, and isn't crystal clear on what happens if you fail the initial detection roll (DMG, p. 97).

Basic D&D is even harsher. "Each character has only one chance to find each secret door." (B21) And you need to be searching -
it's not "secret door radar" although the wording of even earlier D&D books doesn't say that it isn't that. In any case, blow that roll and it's hidden from you forever.

If you couple this with putting critical adventure elements behind a secret door, you can potentially putting in a block in your adventure. Make this roll or the adventure ends.

You can put "bonus" materials in an area closed off by a secret door, of course. A shortcut past danger, for example, or extra treasure, or a room with some hints or clues about things ahead. Make it so that an intelligent guess (or just stubborn thoroughness) and a lucky roll gets you bonuses but don't kneecap the adventure (or the group!) because no one rolls a 1 (or a 1 or 2 for a demi-human.)

Even so, it can feel like the dice decide if the GM wasted a bunch of time on something that cannot be detected through good play.

Me, though, I like them a lot. This might be because I play GURPS, which doesn't actually natively come with "secret doors" rolls. They're subsumed, like most of everything else, into skill and attribute and secondary characteristic rolls. Good play nets you the chance for a roll, and the roll tells you how well your paper man executed your plans.

On top of that, check out what DFRPG (Exploits, p. 19) has to say about secret doors:

"Finding them always requires an active search; the GM rolls secretly against the highest of Vision, Observation, or Per-based Traps for each searcher. Success reveals a door, if there is one; it may require an IQ-based Traps roll to open. These rolls often have steep penalties.

A few things, here:

- it doesn't say it's one try. Therefore, it's not one try. GURPS is pretty harshly specific about "one try."

- it doesn't even give a special penalty for trying again and again! (Editing later: Aside from the general guidelines on Exploits, p. 7)

I would, because I know that merely looking more or longer or again doesn't mean you'll find something you missed the first time. It's too easy to just confirm your failure when you try to find something again. So giving a cumulative -1 (or even -2 or more!) to the same PC would make sense. You can offset this with more time (Time Spent, in Basic Set p. 346 or Exploits p. 6). I'd also allow a "re-set" of a cumulative penalty after you change the nature or parameters of your search. Going from "just look around and tap" to "methodically search the wall from top to bottom, left to right, by quadrants, touching the wall and gently knocking" would mean a re-set of penalties and> should net a bonus for thoroughness. You might (and I would) just make that bonus time-based - taking 20 minutes to search is the same as trying assorted methods that take 20 minutes to execute. A specific bonus for particularly appropriate methods (tapping on a thin door, tracing characters or lines on a decorated wall, etc.) would also be appropriate.

Some people will object to a roll at all, but I've long argued that a roll is appropriate on the "Honey I can't find the pepper" principle. Search the spice closet for a few minutes, and you can't find something, yet the next searcher comes along and plucks it out from right in front of you. Just because you're in the right place doing the right thing doesn't mean you succeed at your task. Sometimes, like in combat, you make the right decision and just miss. Since you have unlimited attempts, not counting in-game issues (wandering monsters, food, etc.) or out of game (boredom, distraction, etc.) it's not a game-stopper, it's just a cost for thinking Per is a dump stat.

- opening it may require a roll. For opening it, I like "may require" a roll. Sure, it may. Or it may be trivial to open. Or it may require role-playing or other exploration because the opening mechanism isn't removing the candle but rather throwing a lever back on level 1 to unlock the door or splashing on some unholy water or pushing a button down the hall behind that pit trap. It's just a suggested mechanic. And unlike finding something, it's realistic to have something be easy to use once it's in hand. Finding your keys is hard, using them is easy.

So I like and use secret doors. Partly it's nostalgia for the lined "S" on maps. A good chunk is the the way secret doors work in my chosen game system. And I've coupled with that idea of "put in extra, not required" as the basic (but not universal) standard to keep things going.

So I don't hate them. But I'm not playing with a rule set that boils down to "roll a 1 or the adventure ends," either.


  1. I like secret doors. But I agree that "find this or miss large parts of the adventure" is sub-optimal. So secret doors should either be reserved for optional bonus areas, or deliberately made easy to find with multiple clues. (For example, if it's obvious they're missing something because they think they've explored the whole dungeon and not found something they expect is there, they'll search again. Or maybe something will go through the door later and give them another chance to find it via Tracking.)

    I find secret doors kind of annoying in Roll20, because it requires being precise with the Fog of War or Dynamic Lighting to avoid accidentally tipping players off. So I don't actually draw secret doors on the map at all. I just draw a nice thick wall, with the secret room or passage way over on the other side, and remember where the secret door is. If the players find the secret door, I can erase a bit of wall and put a door there.

    In DF/DFRPG, I have "find secret door" for each PC on the GM status sheet, because it comes up so much. It's a little bit fiddly that it's the best of 3 values, but once you write it down that doesn't matter.

  2. I trick I’ve used for secret doors I want them to find is to also have a map available to find elsewhere in the dungeon that has the location of the secret door marked.


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