I started semi-regularly running games of Dungeons & Dragons recently, and I've since been devouring all the advice on it I can read. I'm particularly fond of the Unearthed Arcana on traps that Wizards of the Coast released a few months back, and appreciated the structure recommended in there for designing traps: Level and Threat, Trigger, and Effect. I've found this very useful in guiding my thinking, and thought something similar might be useful in describing secret doors and passages.
A Tentative Format for Describing Secret Doors
The tentative elements I've come up with are the following:
- Concealment: A description of the door/mechanism and how it is obscured from immediate detection or otherwise obstructs wanderers from opening it.
- Trigger: Detail of how the door/mechanism is opened/operated.
- Discovery: Example means by which characters might discover the secret door and determine how to open it.
- Destination: What opening the secret door uncovers and/or where the hidden passage leads.
Example Secret Doors
I'm currently building a dungeon set in an ancient, abandoned Dwarven mine, so I'll share the two secret doors I've come up with for that project here.
- Concealment: A statue of a stately dwarf stands in the corner of a fork in the dungeon, extending an arm that raises an axe above his head.
- Trigger: Pull the arm down like a lever. It ratchets with a winding sound until it reaches the bottom of its arc, then the statue pulls backward like a door on a hinge while the arm raises.
- Discovery: A DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check of the statue reveals seams around the base of the arm. A DC 15 Investigation check of the corner in general reveals a hallow sound to the walls about the corner, suggesting there is space in the interior.
- Destination: Opens into a cramped passage that leads directly to a
hidden room full of treasure where a mimic lies in wait.
Banquet Hall Mosaic
- Concealment: An elaborate 20 ft. mosaic that decorates a large banquet hall in the west end of the dungeon, depicting a great battle between the founders of the mine and hostile invaders, and obscuring a secret door embedded in the wall itself.
- Trigger: Press in the eyes of the central heroic dwarf, and the door will unhook from the wall on one side and drift slightly forward on a hinge, eventually revealing a 5' wide opening if pulled the rest of the way.
- Discovery: A DC 18 Wisdom (Perception) check reveals the fine seams that outline the door. A DC 15 Intelligence (Investigation) check determines that the aforementioned eyes of the hero of the mosaic have a polished or worn quality to them, indicative of how more frequently they were touched compared to the rest of the mosaic.
- Destination: The door opens into a passageway that goes down to the second floor of the dungeon, leading to hidden cells where secret prisoners were once kept.
I'm not sure how practical it is to use this format for describing secret doors in my notes in preparing for sessions. I'm still new to dungeon mastering, and I'm not sure how verbose I'm ultimately going to want my notes to be. Regardless, I think I'm finding it useful in guiding my thinking in designing secret doors.