Some old-school dungeon modules have the bad habit of including secret doors, unspoken trap mechanisms, unpickable locks, and other keyed items that make sense in a certain game procedure but that lack vital information for understanding them in a fiction-forward game. When I design game elements like these, I ensure I have an idea of how they're supposed to function in the fiction of the game world so I can reliably respond when a player describes interacting with that element. Without knowing that a secret door has some kind of seam or handle or trigger, I can't represent an investigation of the area around that door outside of the Searching For Secret Doors procedure.
In some ways, the problem is worse for a lock that the text deems unpickable. Both the average player and the average DM have little theoretical knowledge of how a lock, modern or medieval, functions. The player doesn't know how to approach a lock from a fiction-forward angle once their lockpicking roll has flatly denied, and if they did a DM likely couldn't elaborate.
Here I offer ten good-enough justifications for a door to be considered unpickable, that shouldn't be too jarring to apply if you notice at the last minute that it's listed as such in the room description. Since the PC attempting to pick a lock is presumably proficient in doing so, err on the side of telling them all about the mechanism of the lock before them. As it is said, any locking mechanism is also an unlocking mechanism, so these can all be theoretically bypassed with significant effort (which, remember, OSRly is a good thing.) Anything below that would be deemed implausible by a real-world expert is acknowledge and accepted.
d10 Unpickable Locks
1. Picking this lock in the usual way will actually snap a “trap pin” into place, making it impossible to open, even with the key. If you recognize the reinforced ring around the core that thwarts drilling, you might know the trick, lifting certain pins higher than you normally would to avoid triggering the trapped pins.
2. The lock is enchanted to only yield for a key with a matching enchantment. Dispelling the door renders it unopenable for the duration. Arcane thieves and rich city locksmiths could enchant any key or narrow bit of metal to match the lock if they had access to it.
3. The lock has two cores, the hidden second one activated when the other one has turned 30 degrees. This means a prospective picker doesn’t have access to the pins at a time they can apply tension to them.
4. A retracting plate inside the lock prevents a picker from applying pressure while inserting the pick. Its mocking devil face-shape adds insult to injury. This feature is obvious on sight even to someone who hasn’t seen it before.
5. The lock cylinder curves sharply, requiring a key formed from a tight chain. Normal picking tools cannot reach the back of the cylinder. This lock is easy to break, which renders the door inoperable.
6. Additional pins in the side of the cylinder need to slide inward for the lock to turn. The key is magnetic in just the right areas to pull the pins into place. A typical set of lockpicks has no means of pulling these extra pins in, and a thief may not even notice them.
7. The half-circle faced key rotates under a metal plate as it is inserted, in a motion that typical tools cannot replicate. They are prevented from even entering the lock chamber.
8. When the key locks a lock, the last third detaches in the cylinder, lodging it in place and rotating it out of position, making the last few pins inaccessible until the key is reinserted to snap onto the tip, or until or a precise facsimile is manufactured to fish it out
9. The pins of this lock are made from ghost bones, and provide no accurate sense of touch or tension through lockpicks. Accordingly, a thief cannot tell when a pin is in position. A cleric Turns this door as a 2* HD undead, which doesn’t unlock it but renders it pickable. While it is Turned, the key will not work.
10. Two-factor Authorization 😨! What is apparently the locking mechanism of the door is in fact simply a trigger for a spell to telepathically send a unique password to the wizard-smith who designed this lock, which must then be spoken aloud. Dispelling the door renders it unopenable for the duration. A mind reading spell can secure the password as it is sent out.
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