Don’t let yourself get caught by one of D&D’s greatest foes. End the tyranny of locked doors and their ilk today with these tips.
Look we’ve all been there. Everything is going perfectly–not only was everyone able to show up for the game, they’re also not distracted by a cool dog video, the phones and laptops are away and, shock of shocks, the PCs actually want to go on the adventure you’ve set out for them instead of spending half the time shopping and the other half of the time bickering about how they’re best going to get to the dungeon. Indeed, they’re already halfway through the dungeon when they come to it… that one locked door.
And sure, you wanted it to be a little challenging. So the DC is a little high, but it should be pretty easy for the rogue to–oh, nope, they can’t roll above a three. Okay. Well the lock is broken–but the rest of the dungeon is calling to you to come and explore it. OR the whole party could just sit there at the door for the next three hours trying to figure out how to brute force their way through it.
Guess which one the average party will choose, nine times out of ten? That’s why today we’re going to talk about how to fail forward, and what to do when the party just can’t seem to get past that one door.
Now, for the record, this doesn’t have to be an actual door. It could be a metaphorical door–for some, the door they can’t open might be shyness, for others, a lack of education… but for us, the door you can’t open is an actual door. And we’re going to talk about how to get through it.
Only a failure from a certain point of view
The first thing we have to address is what that skill check means. Now D&D runs off a binary system. You have two states–when you make a lockpicking roll to open the door, you either succeed or you fail. If you succeed, then the door opens. If you fail, it doesn’t–fail by enough and you can’t try again, sorry folks, park’s closed.
Other fantasy adventure games don’t have this problem. Whether it’s the 2d20 system’s method of succeeding at a cost or the Apocalypse World engine’s idea of a partial success–there’s no gradient. There’s no spectrum that measures success or failure. It’s not necessarily a bad thing–but it does set out certain traps in your thinking. After all, if the door opens or doesn’t, that kind of pass/fail structure frames the question as a yes or no question.
But the thing is, as the DM you might want the players to get in the room. Especially if they need to do it to advance the plot. Same goes for if they need to catch a thief or get a certain relic. What to do then? Reframe the whole concept.
Instead of looking at the door as a thieves’ tool check, or something for the players to bash down, think about what the roll represents. Instead of failing to open the door, think of it as failing to open the door as conveniently as you’d like. There should still be a way to open that door–but maybe now it involves finding the person or monster that has the key. Or finding a knock scroll in a Wizard’s lab elsewhere in the dungeon.
No one of consequence
So now that you’ve reframed the dilemma, think about what the consequences for failure might be. If picking the lock is meant to facilitate a quick, quiet entry in the room, then maybe that path is closed off to them, and any other way in the room involves making noise or attracting unwanted attention.
Or maybe it costs them some extra resource they have. Basically think about what costs/resources the players might have, that they can then expend to open the door. This can be magic items, it could be hit points, if they’re beating up an enemy that holds a key. It might even be the element of surprise–now the people in the dungeon know that PCs are about and take extra precautions. You can make a failed roll still feel like it carries consequences without halting the action.
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Another way to think about getting through the door might mean going off and finding an alternate exit. There’s a prompt you get in certain games like Skyrim or Fallout where a door is barred from one side–but that usually indicates there’s another way in. You just have to find it. If they can’t open the door from the side they’re on, maybe drop a hint or two about another way in. Perhaps a secret door–or better still, if you can get them to move on, have a path wind its way back through secret passages and into the room.
That’s the other big trick here. Look for ways to gently encourage your party to move along when you can’t seem to get past the door. You can point out details like the ornate lock and keyhole, or talk about how their might be a secret entrance later on down the road. If that doesn’t work, you can always call upon your trusty random encounter tables to have something wander down the corridor to wherever the PCs are. Whatever it takes to keep them from getting bogged down by one particular obstacle.
Give them friends on the other side
Of course, speaking of consequences and wandering monsters–if the players are well and truly stuck, they’re likely making noise. The attention could always come from the other side of the door instead of the wandering monster. I’d use this one sparingly, though, or they’ll become accustomed to everything going super smooth and easy for them, and that’s the last thing you want either. Ideally they play in a game that is catered entirely to them, but feels like it isn’t.
Happy Adventuring! What do you do when your party seems stuck at an impasse? Let us know in the comments!