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How To Use Secret Doors Effectively

by Jae
secret doors

In the world of Dungeons and Dragons secret doors abound. But most of the time they go unnoticed or end up hardly being secrets at all. This is a problem of making secret doors either too secret or too obvious. Often this is because the purpose behind the secret door hasn’t been fully explored and a balancing act ensues with no certain correct solution.

So how does a dungeon master use secret doors in their game to their full extent? Let’s tackle some examples and find out!

Types of Secret Doors in DnD

Before we even talk about how to use secret doors, we need to look at what they are. There’s not just one type of secret door. This means you need to know if you’re using the right secret door for your adventure, and that requires knowing the basic options you have to play with.

Not all secret doors are created equal. Not only do secret doors appear in different locations, they also have wildly different mechanics and operations. We’re going to talk about a good number of examples here, but these are just some of the possible secret doors you can use. The most important thing to remember is that no matter which type of door you use, they all hide a room or a passage with a specific purpose.

Basic Secret Doors

For our first example we’re going to look at the basic secret door. The door is usually made to look exactly like the wall it is fit into and has no handle. It can open either by a push and release or a swinging mechanic, but it’s not complicated in any way.

The only thing that stops people from using it is that it is not obvious that it’s there. These doors usually fit into large spaces or secluded offices. Because they have no additional mechanics tied to their use, they only work in areas where people wouldn’t think to look for a door in the first place.

Bombable Walls and Secret Passages

Next up we have an even more basic and single use secret door: the bombable wall. Breakaway walls are not something that you put in front of common use passages. These are what you put up to hide valuables you don’t intend to get to or secret passages you would only use in an emergency. This could be as simple as drywalling over a door or as complicated as building a natural looking stone face over a hidden cavern or dungeon wall.

These are often fun for nostalgic reasons and they give your players a sense of finding something like they might have in an old Zelda game. Careful, it’s a secret to everyone.

Lever and Sound Secret Doors

Another type of secret door is the one attached to a perplexing lever. With these secret doors your party pulls a lever and they hear mechanics whir into action in the walls, but they never see what happens. Somewhere a secret door has opened and it’s a secret because it’s not where the lever is.

If you want to make these very secret you can put the doors on a timer so the door closes after a little bit if the party never finds it and the lever clicks back into place. Be careful with this though. Your players will need to have some signal that the door they’re looking for has closed, often in the form of another sound or in seeing the lever reset.

Hiding Secret Passages Behind Tapestries

Beyond mechanical doors we have the ones that are not a door at all. A simple hole in the wall covered with a tapestry or painting can make for a great secret passage. They’re not so much a secret door as they are a secret beaded curtain, but they’re still fun to use.

With these your players can get more hints that they exist if they can hear something down the open passage or feel a breeze in the room. There’s a huge hole in the wall after all, so it makes sense that an astute adventurer would notice it.

Magic Doors

With our first four doors out of the way, we’ve not even touched on magic doors in this article. With magic doors you can do all sorts of things. One of our favorites is the illusory wall. This is simply a wall you can walk through. It’s not too hard to use, but it offers a lot of interesting ways that players can find it.

My favorite solution for these comes in the form of players narrating leaning against something and accidentally falling through. It’s a funny mechanic that can offer some laughs to an otherwise serious campaign setting.

Interdiction Doors and Forbidden Secret Passages

Another form of magical door is the interdiction door. Interdiction simply means to forbid, and these doors are typically the same as magic doors we just talked about, but they only allow certain people to walk through them.

The doors might ban all sorts of stuff like armor and weapons or they could be functionally the opposite and require characters to have a certain item on them to pass into the space beyond the wall. The flexibility here is very useful when you want a secret door and a puzzle in the same room.

Optical Illusions and Doors Hidden in Plain Sight

Escherian secret doors are ones that are right in front of you but you just can’t see them. These are passages that are open to your players but they’re designed in such a way to be visually identical to the walls the players are walking by. So they never know there are other passages around them.

For a really great example of this, the first secret passage in the classic movie Labyrinth is set up exactly like this. You can really put these wherever you want to, they can even be doors in room corners that look like dead ends. Or you can turn them into traps where the floor is actually a pit into a slide. Optical illusions are fun, but be careful implementing them, as they can be hard to describe to your players.

Hide the Button, Not the Door

Push button doors are a lot like the mechanical ones we already talked about. However, the door is not always the thing that is secret with these passages. The tricky part is that the button to open the door is hidden. It might be in the room, on the wall, a book that needs to be pulled, or an item that needs to be set on a pedestal.

Really anything can be the trigger and the door can be hidden or obvious as long as the opening mechanism is the secret.

Spinning Bookcases: a Scooby-Doo Classic

Classic bookcases also make great secret doors. Everyone enjoys pulling a book and having a shelf swing around. It’s a fun trope in all the right ways and your players can get a kick out of using something they kind of expect, but don’t know if it would be there.

It’s really similar to hiding treasure behind a waterfall. Your players know to look there for treasure, but it’s such a trope spot that it’s hit or miss if they’ll find anything.

A Billion More Secret Doors

The examples we described are just a handful of ideas off the top of our heads. Each is unique, but they all stick to the secret premise. Beyond the basic idea that they’re all hidden doors, each has a unique mechanic that makes it fun for your group to use. Next we’ll look at how to implement these in your game in a way that they can actually get some use.

What’s Even Behind a Secret Door

The best things to put behind hidden doors are loot and advantageous secret passages. A hidden area will commonly be built for one of a few reasons:

  • As an escape route
  • As a room to do things someone shouldn’t be doing
  • As a hidden vault
  • As a way to bypass traps

These options are all fun and mostly straight forward, but the way to bypass traps one deserves a bit more mention.

When your players are in a place that has a boatload of traps, how do you think the trap maker bypasses them? Secret tunnels, through the dungeon, underground.

These kinds of secret doors are very purposeful and they’re something your players can learn to look for. If they find one passage to bypass a trap, surely there are more. Each might be exceedingly hard to find, but in the case that your players know what they are looking for they have a chance to skip a trap in a safer way. Simply put this is just another tool you can put in your players tool kit.

Just as the example above shows a purposeful implementation of secret doors, any other use should be just as meaningful. Secret doors are not hidden just to be found. You are in the wrong mindset if you’re thinking of your players first when you apply secret passages and rooms in your setting.

Instead ask yourself what would need to be hidden here? Why is it being hidden? An adviser to the kind might have a secret lab. A dungeon might hide shortcuts for those who maintain it. A meeting hall might have secret escape routes for members in case of a siege. These are all purposeful and as long as you have a good reason for a secret to exist, you’re going to make better secrets for your players to discover.

Secret Secrets are No Fun – Giving Hints About Secret Passages

The worst secrets are the ones your players never find. You might spend some time making a handful of clues and end up shocked when your players find none of them. Don’t be. You really need to smack your players in the face with clues sometimes. Make way more clues than you think you need to.

While that might sound like a lot of effort, you’re not just handing these out or making it super obvious. Each clue you use should be a single sentence of description, a vague rumor, or a written hint. Nothing beyond that should be given, but your players should be able to get multiple hints that a secret door would exist.

So what makes for a good hint?

A good hint for a secret passage could be:

  • Scuff marks on the floor near a wall
  • Dust on a bookshelf that’s been disturbed more than other spots
  • A scrap of paper with a location written on it
  • A map with a star on a room
  • A rumor that someone disappeared somewhere as if they were a ghost
  • A chase that leads to a dead end, but the culprit is nowhere to be found
  • A sconce missing a torch
  • A statuette that has one spot rubbed clean from frequent contact
  • Footprints that lead to a wall
  • A crack in a rock-face
  • A sense of magic
  • A wall that is colder or warmer than others
  • A mysterious lever that when pulled makes a mechanical sound of moving stonework
  • A rug with an odd pattern that seems to indicate a direction
  • A painting that doesn’t fit within a collection
  • Glowing runes that can only be seen in the dark
  • The sound of wind whistling in a room underground

Any of these hints can indicate a secret passage. Some are heavy handed while others are more subtle. No matter how obvious you might think some are, your players might still not act on them, which brings us to our next point.

Secret Doors Should Never Be Mandatory

Your players won’t find everything, so don’t put secret doors in front of the critical path unless you plan to fudge some numbers. If you hide something your players need behind a secret that they can’t find or don’t figure out, you’re setting them up for failure.

Instead, put optional rewards behind secret passages and if you need to put story critical stuff behind secret passages make sure there is a way for them to fail gracefully instead of just ending the storyline.

I Check for Traps, I Mean, Secret Passages!

Secret passages should never be revealed with passive perception. This might be divisive, but it is often much better to have players find clues with passive perception and then have them either use active perception checks to find the secret or let them take 20 to do a thorough search of a room at the cost of time.

Even when they do this there is no guarantee that they will succeed, they still have to beat the DC of the secret or in role play, reason out how they would find the secret passage in the first place.

In our games we often reward players who describe the process they use to deduce where a secret might be by either giving them advantage, or if they hit the nail on the head with their description we let them bypass the roll altogether.

This rewards them for listening to your descriptions and for synthesizing new information based on what they heard. Wherever possible you should reward your players for this kind of play, because it actively makes the game better for your whole group.

Setting DC and Other Hidden Door Mechanics

To be completely honest, you don’t need to set a DC for doors ahead of time. You can by all means do so, but it won’t make the scene you’re running more fun. Secret doors should be hard to find, that’s the point, so setting a high DC would be the natural state or things, however your players might walk right up to a door, know it’s there, and then get a bad roll even on advantage and not be able to figure it out.

Don’t do this.

Instead let your players reason through a scene and set your DC based on what they know. The more they know the easier it should be to find and figure out the secret passage, thus lowering the DC. Still give your players advantage for particularly good sleuthing, but by augmenting the DC to match the difficulty of the situation paired with their knowledge you make the roll more attainable and the reward feels more well deserved.

You’ve Discovered a Secret Passage… To The End of The Article!

Secret doors can be a ton of fun, but they are often cloaked in mysteries that will never be uncovered unless you’re careful with their placement. The point of these secrets is for your players to discover them, but not without a bit of effort.

By placing the correct type of secret door for your setting with a logical purpose for the secret to exist you give your players more room to connect the dots themselves and feel clever for their work. Then if you design your clues with a careful eye for detail and adjust your DCs on the fly, your players will have a great time finding at least some of the hidden doors you tuck into each of your dungeons.

Happy DMing!

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