When is a wall not a wall?
When it's a secret door.
Secret doors are a common trope in D&D and as a game master, I don't really know how I feel about them.
On one hand, they feel like a reward for thorough investigation, leading to cool moments of discovery.
On the other, they can be easy to miss, which you might think is the point, but what it actually means is wasted preparation on my part and missed opportunities for my players.
The secret door in this story is a great example, because it could have easily gone either way...
If you're planning on playing through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage and want to go in blind, this blog post spoils some stuff on the sixth level.
You have been warned.
We Don't Need No Passive Perception
The door slid closed; the mechanism perfectly smooth. The seam was flawless, imperceptible to all but the most trained eyes.
Like those of the young engineer standing in front of it, admiring his handiwork.
He lay his hand gently on the door, indistinguishable from the surrounding wall, and murmured a quiet prayer. He implored the keeper of secrets under the mountain, that the eternal rest of his king would never be disturbed.
Then, he turned to the lone figure behind him and nodded.
The grieving queen and the engineer walked solemnly from the empty chamber, back towards the bustling dwarven civilization.
And the door mourned.
Life continued, as it always does.
The dwarves explored and expanded and the barren chamber in front of the door became a staging ground for their expeditions. Great piles of provisions and supplies were stacked against the walls, obscuring the door from view.
Grand processions of dwarven warriors and explorers traipsed through the room regularly. Often, they returned, laughing and jostling, having discovered some great cavern or new seam of ore.
Sometimes they didn't return at all.
As time wore on, the edge of the dwarven kingdom moved further and further away, and the room fell into disuse. Occasionally a dwarf would wander through, busy on some task or another, oblivious to how close they were to the final resting place of their illustrious first king.
And the door watched.
They came, again and again. Pushing against the bulwark.
Roaring in pain from the whips of their dark-skinned masters, the ape-like creatures thundered forward, slamming into the barricade. They met a sturdy wall of dwarven steel and dented it only slightly.
Then came the spiders.
Skittering across the floor, ceiling and walls, they lashed the protectors with sticky webs and sank their venomous fangs sank deep into dwarven flesh. The dwarves were a hardy people though, and the venom and webbing did nothing more than slow them down as beat back the swarm.
Then came the elves.
Screeching, laughing and moaning, the lithe warriors of the Drow danced and sang as they slaughtered. Flashing blades and deadly crossbows wrought a heavy toll on the stalwart dwarven defenders, tired and weakened from the hordes they had just faced.
The dwarves fell, the bulwark shattered, and their blood ran freely through the chamber.
And the door raged.
The keep was no longer secure.
The king was dead, the war lost. The Drow were freely stalking the passageways and chambers of the engineers home, murdering and raiding as they pleased.
But his duty was not yet done.
He had to know that the tomb was safe.
Entering the chamber, his heart fell. It was a slaughterhouse, rotting dwarven bodies strewn haphazardly amongst the debris. He moved carefully through the carnage, and pushed past the last vestiges of the barricade.
Then he saw it.
The door, secure. The tomb, unspoiled.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he crept back towards the entrance, intent on returning to the last of his kinsmen. They were planning on leaving soon and he didn't want to miss them.
A dark shadow loomed over him.
Two blades flashed and the engineer fell, his blood spurting across the smiling face of the Drow warrior.
And the door remained.
The old man moved effortlessly through the debris filled chamber, his cloak completely at odds with his movements. He whispered quietly to himself as he walked, discordant voices whispering back.
When he reached the centre of the room, he stopped. Flicking his head to one side with an audible crack, his hands fluttered rapidly in front of him.
The debris shifted, swirling around him as it was ripped apart into it's constituent components. Great clouds of metal, bone, wood and stone whirled through the air, caught up in a torrent of magical energy.
He waved his hands towards the ground and the streams of matter coalesced into rusty arms and armour.
He pointed towards a nearby alcove and a broken sarcophagus formed, complete with equally broken skeleton. Dwarven runes carved themselves into the wall above it, leaving a message for any future explorers.
Finally, he spread his arms wide and the last of the material flew to the far sides of the room, repairing the great crystal pillars there, light flickering forth.
Satisfied with his work he looked directly at the door and winked, a smile twitching across his face, then disappeared in a puff of smoke.
And the door smiled too.
The ancient dwarven halls were silent. Undisturbed.
Then, the walls trembled. Gentle at first. Motes of dust fell from the ceiling and the rusty old weapons and armour in the chamber rattled quietly to themselves.
The trembling intensified, evolving into a rumbling noise.
Finally, a great crash in the distance, stone striking stone as something exploded through one of the heavily fortified walls.
Heavy footsteps, stalking through the halls. Searching.
A monstrous armoured beetle lumbered down the hall towards the door, claws rending great gouges in the wall as it forced itself forward.
Antenna whipping from side to side, it inspected the chamber in detail, crushing things indiscriminately beneath its chitinous hooves. It moved through the room slowly, tracing the walls, it's mandibles clicking menacingly.
Finding nothing, it moved on.
And the door feared.
Harsh dwarven consonants filtered down through the hall leading into the chamber. But these dwarves were not the rightful heirs to the once great dwarven kingdom.
Their dark skin was akin to the Drow that had mercilessly crushed the original inhabitants of the keep and they had no right to be here.
But here they were all the same, and their pale eyes glittered with greed.
Splitting up, some picked through the rusted arms and armour lying on the floor, while the others went to the ruined sarcophagus, intent in ransacking anything of value.
One of them barked a guttural laugh and picked the skull out of the shattered casket, holding it aloft and soliloquising some grand speech, making the others grunt in amusement.
Finding nothing interesting, the leader of the raiding crew growled a command and the interlopers moved on.
And the door hid.
She moved stealthily. Cautiously.
Clad head to toe in jet black armour, she had been here before. Scouting.
Now she returned with friends.
Behind her comes a slight woman, fluttering along on a pair of gossamer wings, a foul expression on her face. Then a regal looking red-skinned man, head adorned with a fine set of horns. Finally, a furred creature walking like a man, with a small monkey perched on his shoulder.
As they survey the room, their attention is drawn to the broken coffin.
Gathering around it, they fairy pores careless through the remains inside while the rabbit-man translates the inscription on the wall.
"Our king is with the gods. Here lie his bones"
Clearly excited by something, the group takes some of the bones for purposes unknown and then finding nothing else of value, they prepare to move on.
But the armour-clad woman hesitates.
A small mechanical spider emerges from her pack and she takes it into a gauntleted hand. She whispers quietly to it and it bobs up and down in response, then skitters away, searching for anything undiscovered.
It stops at the hidden door, tiny robotic legs having found the miniscule seam, and warbles a sound indicating the discovery.
As the group gathers in front of the wall the fairy signs dramatically, then presses herself up against the seam, squeezing through like liquid seeping through a crack.
And the door opens.
We Don't Need No Investigation Checks
For all of my mixed feelings about secret doors, when the one in this story was found and opened, it led to a series of rewarding encounters for both me and my players.
As you might be able to tell from the story, the secret door led to a false tomb, which lead to another secret door, which led to a demonic prison which led to another secret door which led to the true tomb of the first dwarven king and his beloved artefacts.
But what if they had missed the secret door?
None of that would have happened.
But I suppose that's life. You don't always get to see and do everything and sometimes you miss out.
And in having missed out, the world is ironically a richer place, because it doesn't just exist for you. It's not a theme park, where the experience is carefully calculated to tweak all of your mental buttons, it's an actual place where things happened, and secrets exist.
As much as I might lament creating something that no-one ever gets to see, it still serves a purpose in the grander scheme of things.
Which makes me happy in a different way.