Save vs. Secret Doors

There was an interesting discussion over on the DF forums about perception rolls, covering everything from Wisdom checks to secret door and hear noise rolls.  While the topic was pretty broad and the conversation rolled from one element to another (and teetered on the edge of  a “what is old scool?” flame war), I found a couple quotes on the hear noise/secret door side kind of thought provoking.  I thought I’d explore them more in detail here on my blog.

First, from nagora:

But it’s better for the players to ask about the environment than for the DM to simply feed them clues based on dice rolling. If a player says that they’re hanging back from the party and listening for footsteps behind them, then I’ll let them know if they are being followed. Otherwise, I’d be inclined to just give them their normal listen-at-door roll which is usually pretty low, for example.

And next, from redbeard:

I’d much rather see the various character spotting abilities* as ‘saving throws’ against failures of role play. If you have to get the dice out, you’ve missed something, made a mistake, or done something wrong. Like Nagora says in his example I quoted, if the player was smart enough to state that their character was listening, they succeed. If they did not have that foresight, then they get a die roll to save. The kind of dice mechanic you use for that die roll varies according to game system and circumstance.

*Character spotting abilities include such things as elf secret door detection, ranger surprise bonuses, surprise rolls of any kind, thief skills, dwarf stone abilities, etc.

This is really fascinating, as it does approach an area I’ve found somewhat irksome myself.  Say for example that you have a large oddly shaped room with various alcoves, columns, and other features.  Perhaps there’s a secret door in the back of the third alcove from the left, and a player specifically states that his character searches that particular alcove for a secret door, perhaps due to some clever clue he picked up on that pointed him in that direction.  Do you roll the dice?

Compare this to say the entire party stating that they’re going to fan out and search the entire room for secret doors.  If there are six party members, do you just grab 6d6, give them a roll, and if any comes up a 1 then they found the secret door?  Or do you force the players to specify exactly where they’re searching (a bit of a give-away in my opinion)?  Or perhaps just roll 1d6 figuring only one of the 6 players is going to search that particular spot.

I personally find it rather irksome in the case where the player is searching the exact right spot to roll the dice and give the player just a 1 or 2 in 6 chance of finding the secret door.  I mean, they’re looking in exactly the right place, shouldn’t they be rewarded for that?  I find it very dissatisfying as DM to see that roll fail when I know the player is exactly right.  On the other hand, what if the player says he searches each of the six alcoves in turn?  Should that garner the same non-roll?  What if he says he searches every 10′ increment of wall in turn?  Granted the latter cases here come with the detriment of spending many turns and possibly enduring many wandering monster rolls, though a clever party will split the work between all members to reduce the total time spent.

Clearly there’s a fine line here.  I’m not sure there’s a good general rule of when to roll the dice and when to just give it to the players.  Taking it case by case means though that I’ll probably always be second guessing my decisions.

Hmm, I was hoping by forcing myself to write this out as a post I’d come to some conclusion, but I have not.  I’d love to hear more opinions on this one.  Anyone?

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3 Comments

  1. I’m considering taking a page from the Gumshoe system (to supplement my 0E/Retroclone tendency to give it to players who choose the right place to look, as you mention), and adding all-or-nothing investigation skills which give details to characters who have the right skill (or maybe I’ll look to HeroQuest for another bit, and just give it to characters who have the right background) and look in the right place. On the one hand, the principle of “player skill, not character skill” should hold for my Retroclone campaign, but on the other hand, my players and I have been using skill-based games for too long to want to abandon skills entirely.

  2. I imagine you’ll find the same problem I’m discussing here, that is, figuring out where to draw the line between rolling and not rolling.

    I too had a strong background of playing skill based games, and it took me some time to give up on them. Trust me though, it’s worth it. I recommend at least trying a session or two with no skills, I think you’ll find it liberating.

  3. If the players have reasoned out the location of a secret door, I’m not going to roll. (Except to make them think that I’m leaving it up to the dice.)

    If the players have reasoned that there is probably a secret door in a general area, it depends upon time. If they only have a brief time, I’ll let the dice decide. If they take time, I’m not going to let the dice prevent them from finding it.

    If they’re just searching for the sake of searching, then I’ll leave it up to the dice.

    Well…unless I want them to find a specific secret door for some reason.

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