One of the classic villains of the TTRPG experience came up on a couple of podcasts I listened to this week: Doors.
Doors terrify players. Closed doors especially. Whose door is this? Why is it closed? What can happen to anyone who opens the door? Or touches it? Are the PCs prepared for what Schrödinger has in store for them on the other side?
Despite their long tradition of slowing down play, getting around the logistics of dealing with doors is not an insurmountable obstacle. It just takes a little understanding.
Why Doors Slow Down Play
My fellow GMs, why is it that our players know how to engage with most details we describe, but not doors?
“In the center of the room, a doll the size of a young monkey stands on a carnelian altar, surrounded by grey candles burning without fire. The black floor tiles ripple like a lake in a breeze. The sconces around the room resemble your parents, quietly contemplating. There are two more exits, behind closed doors.”
Whether the other details in the room disturb your players, spark their curiosity, or trigger their fight or flight response, they’ll elicit a response. This leads to roleplaying moments, skill checks, and other interactions between players, their character sheets, and us.
Doors, on the other hand, often lead to silence. A lack of engagement. The antithesis of the ideal RPG experience.
Part of the problem with doors is that they’re generic enough that there’s little to ask about them, but what they represent is broad enough that there’s no one way to deal with them. Dealing with doors also does not directly tie to any rule. There’s no Door Handling skill, for example. Instead, there are multiple checks required to cover the rules of a door (Perception and Thievery, in PF2, sometimes more than one of each). There also aren’t any spells that quickly deal with all of the logistics and mysteries of a closed door. In fact, most of Pathfinder 2e’s door-related options add logistics to getting through doors.
The Players/GM relationship is built on trust, and even the GMs among us who don’t run adversarial games can be tempted to spring a gotcha moment on our groups. The worst example of this is using a low Perception roll to add a surprise that wouldn’t have been there, rationalized as “how often do I get the upper hand on my players?”
The problem is that the more we abuse our player’s trust, the slower the game plays. More skill checks, more redundant skill checks just in case the first one failed. Secret checks compound this, in my experience. The players who would play up that they know they failed the skill checks but their character doesn’t lose that opportunity, and the players who make every excuse to act with extra caution when they suspect they failed a skill check react that way with every skill check. As the apex of trust between us and our players, doors culminate this behaviour.
Handling Closed Doors
So how do we fill our dungeons with every door that should logically be there, without turning every door into a break from the action? Presentation and repetition.
The Other Senses
“You see a door.” OK. Do I hear murmured conversation on the other side? Or clanging metal? Do I smell spices, or soap, or perfume? What else do I see about the door? A huge metal lock?
A door is never just a door. It’s a preview of the next room. A private room has an obvious lock. A volatile room needs a solid barrier to contain its dangers. A closet might even have a sign indicating what to expect inside.
We can’t limit our descriptions to “There’s a door”. We need to stoke our player’s imaginations, cue up the rolls they can make and rules they can use to engage with the scenes.
After your players checked out the doll, the altar, the floor, and the sconces, they’re ready to move on to the door. That’s a good time to remind them that doors swing two ways.
“You’re alone in the room, and all exits are closed. Did you want to take a moment, or start your plans to move on.”
Either way, the players should check the doors, but by limiting focusing on whether they’re seeing if the doors are secure enough to stay in the room, or assess the threat on the other side, we contextualize how the players approach the door. That context informs how we present information. If they’re holing up in the room, a secure door is a good thing. If they need to get through the door, it’s a challenge.
This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the door problem, but it coming up a few times recently made it feel worth dedicating its own article to. But now, the tables have turned and the topic of that article is a bullet point in this one!
S.O.P. is a business term that stands for Standard Operating Procedure. Basically, once a way that works is discovered the hard way, the S.O.P. makes it the way to save time and effort. The best example of an S.O.P. at the game table is marching order. Instead of asking every exploration mode what order the group is traveling in—or, worse, only asking when it would be relevant to a trap or encounter—setting the marching order that the group always travels in saves time and let me know who was where when it mattered.
In the case of doors, setting a closed door protocol means skipping a lot of humming and hawing that adds nothing to a session. Likewise, establishing that searching a door can’t trigger a trap, meaning the players can make Perception checks without fear of repercussions, and that one Perception check on a door examines the door itself, checks for traps, and listens in on what’s happening on the other side. It may sound like a lot for one check, but it guarantees a quick turnaround on a traditionally teeth pulling moment at the table.
It’s also good to establish how stealthily the group can open the door for more information, and if they can close the door like it’s a readied action. This is usually my bridge too far, as I find a door opening attention-grabbing, but whatever suits your style.
A door is a barrier for the characters, but it should be an opportunity for the table. Our chance to hint at the next part of the journey. The players chance to evaluate where they are and what to do next.
Every two weeks, Ryan Costello uses his experience as a Game Master, infused with popular culture references, to share his thoughts on best GMing practices to help his fellow GMs. Often deconstructing conventional wisdom and oft repeated GMing advice, he reminds his fellow GMs that different players play the game in different ways, and for different reasons.