From the Archives – Gamer Cheat Sheet: Locks, and How to Open Them

Game Ready Content Cheat Sheet From the Archive Game Ready Content Tech

intricate lock - made in 1500'sTodays edition of Gamer Cheat Sheets deals with a non-conflict oriented staple of RPGs: locks and how to unlock them. As someone who has picked a lock or two in my life, I can honestly say that the satisfaction of “solving” a lock is incredible. The subtle pop of an unlocked lock feels like a gunshot, and the feeling of knowing the lock and manipulating it without a key brings quite an adrenaline rush.

A Wannabe Larcenist

My first foray into picking locks came virtually in 2006 through the instruction-less Flash game “Click Drag Type.” (Yeah, I set that link to open in a new window, because I’m guessing you’ll be gone for a while.) One of the first challenges in the game is making a key to fit a lock. When I saw it, I realized I had never thought about how a lock worked, and my mind was officially blown.

Fast forward to 2009. I’m sitting on the floor with my infant and a boatload of Duplo blocks. Bored, I start putting them together, mindlessly at first, then with purpose. After a good 20 minutes or so, I have fashioned a bona-fide working 3 pin lock and a matching key! (Granted, the key was as long as my forearm, and the lock was the size of a small dog, but still!)

My wife took pity–whether on her bored husband or her infant whose toys kept being stolen I cannot say–and bought me a set of lockpicks and the book Secrets of Lock Picking by Steven Hampton. I promptly bought a small handful of padlocks and built myself a deadbolt mounted on a small two-by-four and got to practice. I’m not very good, but I get the concepts–and I believe a GM can arm herself with these concepts to improve the players experience during in-game larceny.

Types of Locks

There are many different types of locks, ranging from pattern-based (like combination or electronic punch-code locks) to “magical/technological” (either the Wizard Lock or the retinal scanner). When most people talk about picking, though, they’re talking about locks that require a physical key to open–and the two breeds that will most likely come up in your games are pin-tumbler locks and warded locks. The purpose of this post is to give GMs and players an intro to what picking a lock is like, so that their descriptions and experiences in-game feel more accurate. Therefore, we’ll simply use the pin tumbler lock as an example.

Pin tumbler locks are the types of locks that are probably on your home or car. The idea is that you have some device which offers real physical security, and you have a corresponding key which is generally kept on the person of the lock’s owner.

How it Works

The pin tumbler lock is the most common type of lock in modern times, and variants of such locks date back to ancient Egypt. If you played the “Click Drag Type” game a few moments ago, this is the type of lock you looked at. At it’s most basic, this is a device with a cylinder (a “pin”) of material in a vertical shaft that connects two pieces of material. (See the drawing, it makes more sense!)

An Egyptian-style Lock and Key

The pin, held by gravity in its resting place, keeps the two pieces of material from moving in the same way a nail holding them together would. However, a key may be inserted below the pin through a keyhole, and the key pushes the pin above the lower material–again, imagine our nail being pushed halfway out. The materials may then move freely.

Modern locks add several factors to this very simplistic illustration. For example, in modern locks, pins are made of 2 pieces–each pin is broken in a different place. In the “Egyptian lock,” it doesn’t matter if you “over-elevate” a pin, which makes picking it easier. In a modern lock, each pin must be raised to a precise height where the breaks line up. (This is what all the peaks and valleys in your key do.) The pins are spring loaded, so gravity isn’t doing the work of holding them in place on its own.

Illustrated is the ancient Egyptian variant of this, which is essentially a door barred on the outside with the lock on the bar itself. Technologically, it is a step above a barred door (which requires the person locking the door to be behind the locked door). Such a lock can be virtually any size and made of any material (though the inner workings are usually metal, because they must be small but strong).

But what if I don’t have a key?

Picking a one pin lock is a breeze–you insert a pick through the keyhole, and push the pin while gently pulling the door until you find the breakpoint. However, anyone willing to go through the trouble of making a pin-and-tumbler lock (even out of Duplo blocks!) is going to make more than one pin. With multiple pins (each with a unique break point), the lock picker has to manipulate each pin independently and in sequence, and simultaneously do something to keep the already-picked pins in place while manipulating the rest. This is most often done by applying tension to the lock.

Imagine the ancient Egyptian barred-door lock: one can imagine how a lifted pin could stay in place if one put a gentle pulling pressure on the bar. With a modern lock that rotates when opening, the picker exerts this pressure by using a second implement that allows her to put some torsion pressure on the pins. It’s thus important to note that it almost always takes two picks to open such a lock.

If Da Vinci had been a thief…

The artistry of picking the lock is twofold. First, the lock picker must literally feel when the pin’s breakpoint is aligned with the break line of the locked materials. This is achieved by sensitive fingertips: there is a subtle shift or click that can be felt when a pin is in place. Second, the correct pressure must be exerted on the lock when picking it. Too little, and the pins just fall back into place. Too much, and the pins can’t slide freely. And if a mistake is made, the picker must start from scratch.

When all the pins are in place, all those tiny little nerves that the picker is using to feel the lock get a big jolt. The torque wrench being used rotates like a key (or, in the Egyptian case, the bar comes tumbling down!) This is that “gunshot moment” which is followed by the pride of knowing the lock on an intimate level and the adrenaline of doing something which either feels or is illicit.

So, how does this fit into my game?

Hopefully, having a better understanding of the pin tumbler lock can help a GM more accurately describe a lock, or a player more accurately describe what they’re doing when they pick a lock. The beauty of such a lock is that it fits in nearly any RPG. If the ancient Egyptians had these, they certainly could occur in Greyhawk. Pin tumbler locks are all over the modern world, and even are likely to be fairly ubiquitous in future settings. Sure, Aztechnology could re-key all their doors with Matrix-linked DNA scanners in your Shadowrun game, but they’ve got budgets just like the rest of us. The janitor’s closet probably has a device that deters most would-be thieves, most of the time.

But knowing is only half the battle. Here are some specific examples of how you can use a knowledge of locks and lock-picking to improve your experience.

Tools of the Trade: Games like D&D are fond of telling us that the quality of tools (and the number of them available) has a direct impact on the rogue’s ability to pick a lock. But even a total novice like me has successfully picked the lock on my front door with a stout paperclip and a flat-head screwdriver. A master larcenist would be loathe to carry a full set of picks, let alone leave them all in one pocket. For color’s sake, consider making your sneak a character who doesn’t have a bag labeled “picks” and instead is a master of makeshift materials.

Temperament of a Thief: In RPGs, roguish types tend to be adrenaline junkies. Picking locks should feed this addiction. However, this should be balanced by the sneak’s ability to focus. Think about the fun-loving and large-living performer who suddenly becomes tense and serious before an audition. One skilled at picking locks should have a similar temperament.

Perhaps the thief is the character who suffers from ADHD, and can only personally control the jitters and attention jumps when confronting a confounding puzzle (like a lock). One can imagine party dynamics: when the thief finally shuts up, the party probably does too, because they know a dire challenge is at hand.

Consequences of Failure: Without a knowledge of how locks work, they appear to be very binary devices. Either they’re opened, or they’re not. Understanding the art of picking gives far more interesting options for your games. While success should almost always open the lock. failure need not be as boring as “It’s still locked.” Perhaps failure means the pick broke in the lock, or worse yet, the thief broke a pin in the lock!

Alternatively, a narrow failure might result in the lock being opened, but a more dire consequence is met. In the case of the Egyptian lock, perhaps the rogue is so focused on the pins that, when opened, the bar flies out of his hands and clatters on the stone floor, alerting the guards on the second floor. The same thing could happen with a modern lock–the difference is that the torque wrench/screwdriver would be the thing flying out of the thief’s hand.

Lastly, as mentioned, success in picking a lock brings quite an adrenaline rush. If your characters are in a time crunch to get a lock opened (perhaps before the guards make their rounds), consider having one opened lock reveal a second! Before you cry foul, consider a screen door/front door scenario where such a setup might be common. A failed lock picking roll might actually result in the success of picking the first lock, but the adrenal high from this has the thief buzzing too much to focus on the second lock. This can be a good opportunity for a thief to make use of some otherwise underutilized skills to bring his focus and emotion back under control.

Where to go from here

It isn’t illegal to pick a lock you own. Read a website or a book on picking a lock, and try your front door. Alternatively, pick up a cheap key-based padlock from the dollar store: you should be able to figure out how to pick it with a couple paperclips within an hour.

Also, do yourself a favor and read up on warded locks (which may well be the topic of a future cheat sheet). These are (usually) nowhere near as secure as pin and tumbler locks, but they’re dead sexy in appearance, and the mere shape of the key helps define tone for darker horror-based games.

Two words of warning: first, to my understanding, it is illegal to carry a set of lockpicks outside one’s home in most or all of the United States. So, whether you buy a set or make your own, educate yourself about your rights and responsibilities regarding picks. Second, don’t mess with other people’s locks without their permission. This should go without saying, but doing so, even to play a prank on an overzealous GM, can be grounds for arrest.

Are you a more experienced lock picker than I? Do you have a better term for people who pick locks than “lock picker?” Or can you offer better legal advice than I? Tell us about it in the comments!

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