On Reader Mail, The Skill of the Roll

Ryan writes in,

"I do have another question though. In games without things like perception, players must skillfully decide what to spend their time investigating. This is all fine and well. However, when it comes to things like secret doors and traps why is there still a roll after the player has used both their skill and time to investigate something that ultimately is chance?"

Misunderstanding, perhaps?

This is completely understandable, if you move to classic D&D from a version with a search check. Why the very existence of this rule seems baffling!

Why is there a roll to find secret doors?

Here is the pedantic information: Old games centered around dungeons. These dungeons were vast, mostly empty, and had a very high percentage of secret doors. Often, the secret doors connected two areas that you could just walk to by going around to the outside of the room.

What was the point?

I have two answers for this: first, how secret doors were used classically; secondly, how I use them today.

Classic: Dungeons were mostly empty, filling most of a sheet of paper solid, having half a dozen or so 'special' rooms, and the contents mostly being defined as entries on a wandering monster table. Dungeons were not 'adventure sites', they were underground battlefields. In this situation you would search for secret doors for two reasons. One, to have access to mobility and control over the battlefield ("Oh shit, we flee from the trolls and run into this room and out the secret door to evade them."), and two to gain early access to other areas of the dungeon (i.e. "we've explored all we can here, but there's still probably something down in this corner, and we don't want to go through the hobgoblin camp to get there"). Secret doors also helped the Dungeon Master, by providing alternate routes for the movement of wandering monsters.

In this case, player skill wasn't used to find secret doors. It was a mechanical rule of the game that allowed the players to spend resources, to gain an advantage and solve problems in an indirect way. The resources being light, spell durations, and wandering monster risk. The skill was in decoding the map to understand where they were, and selectively using it in a way that minimized resource expenditure.

Classicly, you could use both choice and character skill to discover traps (sending victi henchmen forward, tapping with a pole, etc.) The thief's ability to detect traps was focused on things like doors, chests, or other areas where they were likely.

Modern: I create mechanisms via which secret doors are triggered. It is certainly possible for players to locate a secret door, and still not have or understand the means by which it opens. The areas, along with the secret door triggers, are designed to present a challenge for the players. Spending time looking for the secret door will just confirm that one is there, for the same cost paid in earlier games. The real challenge comes in trying to discover the trigger and how to open the door.

The person running the game must have no preconceived notion of what should or should not happen. The secret doors should always be optional (truly the entire everything in the game should be optional and player driven) and should never create a situation where nothing can continue until the passage forward is discovered. This allows the doors to have a specific solution in order to open them without it being pixel bitching.

Regarding traps, currently, if there is a trap in a room or corridor, there is always some sign of it given (if it would leave a sign, and it usually does.) As for doors and chests, if a player asks I just go ahead and tell them truthfully if it's trapped. They have to remember to ask though.

In conclusion  the secret door roll is a mechanical feature of games, much like the chances to bash down a door or the frequency of wandering monster checks. It is a game mechanism with a cost that can be activated by the players. The key feature is that it is one of the moving parts of a game, rather than a character ability, characterized by it never increasing and being tied to permanent, non-changeable, selections like race.

I think there's a large swath of games history where the issue of secret doors and traps is designed pretty incoherently. I think it works quite well in the original system, and am finding the modifications I've made to the way I run traps and secret doors working out fantastically now, but --

How it was supposed to work in 1986? Errrrr. . . 2001? Hmmm. . . .

Speaking in a generalization, those eras were characterized by searches being down to character skill. Lots of rolling, few costs for doing so. Designs were very linear, so secret doors either hid treasure or blocked the completion of the module. There were methods for addressing this (take 10, etc.) but were fairly uninteresting for the participants. At that point, the roll was the game, and the role of the player was minimized.

If you have any questions of your own you'd like answered, message me on Google Plus, or give me an e-mail at campbell at oook dot cz


  1. I'm sure everyone received the D&D experience they deserved but you could find as much roleplaying back in the 70's and 80's as you could want, and plenty of roll-playing as well. It's is just that it paid better to come out with gobs of books on using dice than teaching people how to use their imagination. And that, using your imagination, is the hard part, the impossible part of the game, to package and sell. To me it seems like the modern editions are all about rolling the dice and not just sitting down and explaining to the DM what you want to try and do as a player.

    The 70's especially was characterized by how Gygax & Company wanted the game to be played and how people actually played it. What you could expect was to hear a player say "I want to search for a secret door," and the DM to reply,"Ok, tell me how are you going to do it," not, "Roll a d20". It is just that the one method makes the player have to use their imagination and the other doesn't. The dice are the path of least resistance and I do not see that entropy in gaming has reversed its natural flow in 2013.

  2. One thing I can say the OSR is dropping the ball on is really explaining to people how to run D&D in the old-fashioned way. Like procedurally detailing how it works. I played a S&W with a young guy who ran that game exactly like I ran 3e, complete with 5' steps, AoOs, 5' grid, spot checks, individual initiative, etc. The game kinda sucked but I don't blame him as S&W doesn't actually describe how to run the game. To be fair, the old games never did this either.

    For example, the only written description I've seen on how to run traps in the pre-thief games is in the example of play for Empire of the Petal Throne.

    1. I'm writing quite a bit about that. . .

    2. Exactly: blogs write about that, rulebook don't.

  3. So is having an entire 10 or so rooms behind a secret door, populated with treasure and a monster, pixel bitching? Or is it only pixel bitching if a specific quest objective is hidden behind the secret door?

    Also, I wonder if you could clarify something you said about trapped chests. Correct me if I am wrong in this interpretation of how you run trapped chests.

    If a player approaches a chest that is trapped with poison needle and says, "I go to the chest and check for traps." You then say, "yes, you see a poison needle in the latch." and then have the PC disarm it via a roll on their disarm traps skill - whatever that might be?

    1. Having a door with a specific method to open, is only pixel bitching if the game can't progress unless the door could be open.

      Not quite: I say "Yes, the chest is trapped" and they can tell me what they do at that point. Once they locate the trap, I use a mini-game to determine if they disarm it.

  4. the secret door roll is a mechanical feature of games, much like the chances to bash down a door or the frequency of wandering monster checks. It is a game mechanism with a cost that can be activated by the players. The key feature is that it is one of the moving parts of a game, rather than a character ability, characterized by it never increasing and being tied to permanent, non-changeable, selections like race.

    I think this is a very interesting point, and leads to the following question. What is the most effective player interface to such game mechanisms? Do they belong on the character sheet? I think there is a good argument for having an explicit "1 in 6 search" (or whatever the chance) is written on the character sheet. What about mechanical features like the ability of a dropped ration to distract an unintelligent monster with a 90% chance?

    Requiring players to read and absorb the rules surely can't be the most effective approach.

    There is a counter argument that this is a crutch against creativity, that players will "look to their character sheet" rather than solving problems diegetically if there are too many options written down there (like with 4E powers). But it seems like there should be an appropriate balance.

    1. There is no clear line.

      I think that any frequently interfaced mechanical system should have the parameters outlines, but the system itself must provide an interesting choice every time, as the searching for secret door system does.


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