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In one of the published 5e campaigns there is a secret door that:

can be noticed with a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check.

The way I read this and the way I understand passive perception, that means that any character with a passive perception of 10 or greater would notice this without actively rolling for it. Since most characters are going to have a passive perception of at least 10 (or certainly you'd hope that someone in your party is above 10), isn't this secret door kind of.... not that secret?

Is there something in that wording that excludes the use of passive perception from noticing that door? or is it just meant to be a pretty obvious secret door?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not all concealed doors have to be impossible to spot. Perhaps it's like this sort of door - it's a servants' door in a stately home; designed to blend in (why ruin the decor just so that the staff can serve you your dinner in a more timely manner?). Not necessarily secret, but certainly discreet. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jan 29 '16 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @anaximander 5e doesn't keep the distinction, but in earlier editions what you describe was the difference between a "secret" door and a "concealed" one. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 25 '17 at 17:34
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Yes, it's a pretty obvious secret door.

As you say, passive Wisdom (Perception) is 10 + WIS, so anyone with a non-negative WIS modifier will passively notice it.

But that doesn't mean you definitely see it.

The interesting exception I see is if your party is rushing through the area. Per Travel Pace moving 400'/minute or 4mi/hour will earn you a -5 to passive perception (PHB p.182). Lots of characters don't have the +5 WIS modifier necessary to offset that, and might blow right past it.

@Dale M points out the more likely scenario when this may happen: disadvantaged passive checks. By rule (PHB p.175), a passive score receives a -5 bonus when subject to disadvantage.1 Low light, obscuring conditions, or other environmental challenges could create disadvantage, similarly challenging one's ability to notice a DC10 secret door.


1 The "disadvantage=-5" rule of thumb is a lamentable addition to 5e culture. But, as this excellent answer shows, in the specific case of DC10 it's the perfect modifier. The second graph in the linked answer -- the vertical distance between the black and blue curves, to be precise -- shows this to be the case.

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Yes this is how secret doors work

DMG p.103

Use the characters' passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to determine whether anyone in the party notices a secret door without actively searching for it. Characters can also find a secret door by actively searching the location where the door is hidden and succeeding on a Wisdom (Perception) check. To set an appropriate DC for the check, see chapter 8.

A quick jump to Chapter 8 (p.238) tells us that a DC10 door is "easy" to find. So, yeah; unsurprisingly things that are easy are ... easy.

Note that anything that gives disadvantage to the check imposes a -5 penalty to the character's passive Wisdom (Perception) roll or roll 2d20 take the lowest for an active check.

One example of this is dim light like you get from darkvision and many light sources; if your PCs are using darkvision to navigate the dungeon they need a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 15 to find this door.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, that's what I thought, it just kind of seems a little funny. It's like a secret door behind a bookcase but there's a glowing "Fire Exit" sign above it or something... \$\endgroup\$ – Besty Nov 22 '15 at 22:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or the bookcase could have obvious scrapes along the ground. Or an unlit torch next to it. Or a book sticking out. Just about anything that would be considered easy to spot for a group of adventurers. It doesn't mean the door itself is easy to see, but rather it's easy to discover there's a secret door. Opening it might be another matter entirely. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Nov 22 '15 at 22:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Besty funnily enough I ran a lrp game in a mansion that had the best secret door I've actually seen... with glowing "Fire Exit" sign above it. It was as easy to spot the door as you might imagine. From how difficult it would have been to spot the door had it not been for the fire exit light, the difference between day light and dim lighting conditions matches the 5e mechanic exposed pretty well. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Oct 26 '17 at 10:25

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