Monday, December 20, 2021

What If (All?) Secret Doors Were (Obviously) Trapped?!?

 Here's a weird idea.

(It's final-exams grading/marking season for Professors ... which makes chatting about a weird gaming idea much more appealing than trying to cram in yet another student paper right now). :-) 

Last year, I posted an idea about secret doors in dungeons that seemed to go over well: what if (almost) all secret doors could be detected automatically, but risking the necessary time/encounter checks to figure out how to open them offered the real challenge for dealing with such concealed portals? 

Anyway. As one does, I recently read another blog post about managing TRAPS (and for the life of me, I'm sorry to say, I can't even remember which blog it was, let alone whether this was a recent post or an old one. Finals-exam season brain, I'll conveniently blame you again). That post talked about making traps obvious, automatically detectable, so that figuring out how to deal with the trap (without just rolling to disarm it) was the challenge. [Of course, this is an idea that many people, including Chris M, have written about too]. 

[EDIT: I think it was a now year-old Ben Milton/Questing Beast video, titled "Stop Hiding Traps!"]

Tonight's idea: what if you combined both of these, like so...


1) With their keen eyes and instinct for [getting themselves in] trouble, adventurers usually have no trouble picking up on the subtle clues that point to concealed doors or hatches. If the party spends a full turn exploring a room, they automatically detect any secret or concealed doors therein

2) Pesky dungeon-builders know how inconvenient adventurers can be, and they plan accordingly. All secret doors have a 50% chance of being TRAPPED. [Or, enter your own weird edgy version here. I'm particularly thinking about: what if ALL secret doors were trapped, without exception? And what if hardly anything else were trapped? "The trapped door" luring players on to hidden treasure would become its own dungeon-locale motif. Huh. ].

3) Make the existence of a secret door and a trap on said door obvious to PCs, and then let them act as they see fit. Traps must be navigated, defused, mitigated, dismantled, or endured through fictional manipulation, not nerfed through dice rolls. 

4) Remind players that secret doors usually hide juicy things, like treasure or new dungeon levels. Cackle as they die in terror. 



Actually, I think this could do some interesting things. It offers a non-mechanical, non-gamist (if you will) way to address the problems I mentioned in my post last year about secret doors (minor details like prepping cool hidden content that likely won't get discovered ... or running modules with no detail on these important hidden doors, etc.). 

Now, running things this way also ADDS work. You need some coherent traps, with clear mechanical function, and ways to signal those aspects to inquisitive players. 

But you'd gain ... oh, I don't know, I'm sort of spitballing here. But you'd gain a recognizable signature aspect to dungeons - the players will learn to love the lure of more-exotic treasures in hidden halls, and they will learn to dread the sting of mis-handled traps, and they will have a clear incentive/risk-reward balance to think through, letting them decide whether to bother with trapped doors or not. 


I'm not a lawyer, and I didn't sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I'm not saying this is a good idea, mind you, but it strikes me as offering some intriguing possibilities. 

That is all. A few ungraded papers still beckon, mockingly...


  1. Allow meself to defend meself proactively.

    Yes, I really do understand that there are lots of good reasons to put traps in other places, too, and that there are lots of good reasons to like the normal B/X rules for finding traps or secret doors. I still like some of the implications of my proposal (whether I'll ever implement it in play ... less sure).

  2. I'm all for relevant details about door and trap mechanisms.

    I'm not sure how the approach helps you with a published adventure that lacks details needed to run the door/ trap (you still have to add them).

    But automatic detection probably speeds play, and will certainly reduce the likelihood of players missing whatever is beyond the door. So it's a way of highlighting or distinguishing (or making more enticing?) one of the paths the adventurers can choose.

    If the door is, in fact, truly secret (i.e. from anyone other than PCs) then its 'secrecy' also explains why no-one else has already sprung the trap, looted the room beyond, or taken account of the existence of the secret way past their guard post.

    Traps that characters can figure out for themselves, once they've spotted them, are commonsense as far as I'm concerned.

    If the characters have to search to find the secret door, then you still have an important chance that your content might be missed. But it's still better than the chances if they have to search AND roll the die.

    I guess I tend to play that if the character performs a test that would obviously give away the presence of the door, then the player doesn't have to roll.

    Once you get into 'secret' doors that can automatically be spotted without a search, it's no longer really a secret door. And a trap that characters can automatically spot is more of a hazard or obstacle than a trap.

    From the trap setter's point of view (assuming the trap setter knows that PCs can always spot traps... ) it's a deterrent to movement (or an invitation to go that way...) rather than being useful to hurt or trap enemies.

    It's possible to put a dangerous mechanism in plain view in an ominous or impressive passage without having any special concepts called 'secret doors' or 'trapped secret doors'. The 'obviously trapped treasure' is also a well established D&D trope.

    So you're really talking about taking out the idea of 'secret' elements from the game, or playing with the mechanics for detecting 'secret' elements. That's fine. It's certainly true you can entirely replace them with other fun elements (puzzles, interactions, push your luck or gambling mechanics).

    So it's a question of the pros and cons of what certain elements add to play:
    a) the possibility of not finding some pathway or object placed in the adventure; or
    b) the possibility of not finding those things as the result of a die roll outside the players' control
    c) the possibility of taking damage (broadly defined) from an action that doesn't normally involve damage, but might, given the characteristics of the fictional environment, carry that hidden risk.

    I think there's pros and cons to all of those. It's one of the (many) areas where you can adjust the way you play (or the mechanics you use) to create different kinds of experiences.

    I think you have an interesting idea about an elevated likelihood that a secret door has a trap attached to it. But it makes a bit less intuitive sense than e.g. a treasure chest having a trap attached. Presumably the secrecy of the door is already some protection against unauthorised use.

    1. Hi! Thanks for the detailed thoughts. Sorry for a slow response over the holiday. My 'trapped secret doors' post was sort of a roughed-out idea suggested on the fly, and you've done a good job of articulating some of its limits. :-) Actually, I think this would be most useful as a way to design *a particular* dungeon, and probably less useful as a standard approach for all dungeons. For one thing, as you note, this would add work when converting modules or published content. (My original post on secret doors, linked in the post above, has better tools for running secret doors in published content).

      I will say that my intent was absolutely to present traps here as obstacles to be solved, not (the usual) surprises to be sprung. In my earlier post about secret doors, I considered the question, "what if PCs with adequate time will always find the secret door, but taking the time to figure out how to open it requires a security gamble?" This latter post changes the question, to: "what if PCs will always find the secret door, but exploiting it usually/always requires negotiating their way past a dangerous hazard?" The first approach is probably much better in general, but the second, I'll maintain, would make for some interesting occasional challenges.


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