I was re-reading Matt Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, and something in the Tips for Players caught my eye. Hidden at number 5 of 9, the following I think is the single most important thing for any old school player to learn (emphasis is mine):
5) Ask lots of questions about what you see. Look up. Ask about unusual stonework. Test floors before stepping.
I had some cases in game recently where the players would come up to a door and search it for traps before going through. I dutifully rolled the appropriate number of d6’s, regardless of whether there was a trap or not, and looked for the magic one in six chance to find a trap when there was one. Sometimes I modified their chances based on how obvious the trap was. If they didn’t find the trap, the players assumed it was safe to go on through the door. Sometimes they were fine, sometimes not. Either way, I think relying on this roll is a mistake.
Look at it this way: most starting characters also have around a 25% chance to save vs. poison (usually it’s around 15+ on a d20). Does this mean that when encountering a strange bottle of liquid, players should just swallow it down and rely on their poison saving throw in case it’s poison? Certainly not! Why then would you rely on a 17% chance to find a trap?
In fact, the classic counter example that Finch himself uses is that prodding the floor with a 10′ pole is 100% effective at finding most hidden pit traps. Any GM worth his salt though would pretty quickly find a way to either remove the pole or make pits that are pole-proof. The point is not to find an alternative quick cheat around the problem, the idea is to really interact with your surroundings. As Finch himself says later on in “The Mysterious Moose Head”:
In other words, die rolls don’t provide a short cut or a crutch to discover and solve all those interesting puzzles and clues scattered throughout a dungeon. The same goes for handling traps (unless there’s a thief class), and the same goes for
Personally, I’m a bit disappointed by the exception for thief classes, and really this brings me right back to my dislike of the class at large. I’ll skip that for a moment. I’m not sure where the last part was going (in his PDF it does just cut off like that), but I suspect he was probably going to say “the same goes for secret doors.” That’s what I’d say anyway.
If you don’t trust a door, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to give the old “I search for traps” and see if the GM gives you anything. I wouldn’t take it as proof either way though. Next I’d start looking for ways to avoid the trap you may have missed, and that brings us right back to the old advice: ask questions. What’s the door made of? Are the hinges on this side or the other? What kind of knob or latch does it have? Is there a key-hole? Can I look through it?
You can get a wealth of info here, and hopefully enough to formulate a plan for either revealing or circumventing any possible trap. If the door opens out and uses a standard latch, well I bet you could rig a piece of rope to open the door safely from a distance. The door is made of wood and is covered in tiny holes you say? Hmm, perhaps you’d better cover those holes with your shield while you open the door to block the barrage of darts or arrows that are likely coming your way.
And yeah, the same goes for secret doors. The tunnel that dead ends for no good reason and points to a dead area in the map you’ve been keeping probably has a secret door, even if your keen elven eyes couldn’t find it. Try asking more questions about the wall. If that fails to reveal anything, it’s time to start experimenting. Push, pull, prod, or if all else fails get out a mining pick and take a few swings.
Don’t be discouraged when 95% of your questions don’t reveal anything. That’s just going to happen. In this case it’s simple to beat the odds, as there’s no limit to the number of questions you can ask. Eventually you’ll hit the 5%, and you’ll feel pretty clever when you do. And best of all, it may start to feel like you’re really there.