Picker’s Problems: 7 Ways RPG Lockpicking Fails to Impress

Game design is all about creating obstacles to overcome, and what’s better than a locked door to do just that? Lockpicking is a staple mechanic for open-world RPGs, but I believe that their implementation has gone from “staple” to “stale,” with flaws that often make the classic locked door an annoyance more than an obstacle. These flaws are “Picker’s Problems.”

Though such flaws root themselves in many games, players will notice their effects the most in RPGs. For this reason, I will be using a few (really just Bethesda) games as points of reference to highlight what each flaw is, why it matters, and how it can be remedied. These Picker’s Problems aren’t too big to handle, so let’s start with the first: Schrödinger’s Content.

Schrödinger’s Content

You see a locked chest in front of you. Until you can unlock it, that chest is both exactly what you need and more junk that you don’t need, but how can you tell? This is “Schrödinger’s Content,” and it’s a foundational Picker’s Problem.

Because locks serve to separate players from loot and information, it makes sense that the player doesn’t know what a chest holds; however, without enough information it’s impossible for the player to tell if a locked chest is really worth opening. This makes many players (myself included), walk away from a locked box thinking “I probably wanted what was in there…”

Fallout 4 handles this well in one particular instance. Leaving the vault for the first time, the player finds a very conspicuous case holding a weapon called the Cryolator. The sole survivor says something along the lines of “I’ll come back for you.” By simply giving clues, the player doesn’t fear missing essential goods: they know they can come back later if they want an ice-themed weapon.

No player will wonder if this case is hiding more stimpaks and jet.

Giving clues also takes the form of sensible loot placement. A locked ammo crate probably contains ammo (energy weapon ammo, traditional ammo, and grenades all need separate containers, by the way). A locked door with a sign reading “ARMORY” probably leads to the armory. Locks and barriers shouldn’t be a total mystery.

A treasure map, a rumor, a riddle — without some indication of what to expect, players will have trouble gauging what’s worth returning for, or whether or not they want to invest in lockpicking at all.

Where Did All the Skill Go?

“Metagaming” is the practice of using knowledge and skills that you have as the player to inform the decisions of your character. Generally, this is a bad practice for roleplaying games. Sometimes metagaming is rather unavoidable, but in Skyrim‘s lockpicking minigame, it’s built in. Regardless of the nature of your character, you can always attempt to pick a lock in Skyrim. This is “lockpick metagaming,” and it’s our next Picker’s Problem.

Though your character may be “Grufbald Iron-Tusk, Door-Smasher of the West,” you as the player have over 100 lockpicks and time to spare. Grufbald may be too brutish to work a door knob, but you’re probably willing to fiddle around for a minute to unlock a master-level chest.

Lockpick metagaming is a Picker’s Problem that cheapens investment into lockpicking by removing the barrier to entry.

You (Just Barely) Suck

On the opposite end, we have Fallout 3. In this game, you’ll need a lockpick skill of 50 to pick an average-level lock. If you have a skill of 49, too bad. Funny how, when your lockpick skill was between 25-49, one point in that skill didn’t have a noticeable effect: now, it’s the difference between that last steel ingot and another round of killing trogs. While I acknowledge the presence of temporary skill-boosting consumables, “Hard Limits” on a character’s ability to lockpick feel fabricated, un-immersive, and make the minigame trivial. Here’s why.

If the player doesn’t meet the lock’s required skill level, the lock cannot be picked. They will NEVER open it. If the player does meet the lock’s required skill level, they have practically already disabled the lock: now they just need to go through a pointless, time-wasting minigame. You know you’re going to beat the minigame. The game knows you’re going to beat the minigame. You still have to do it anyways.

With hard limits, barriers to lockpicking feel unnatural and lockpicking minigames become nothing more than gameplay padding.

404: Alternative Not Found

It isn’t controversial to claim that RPGs should have multiple solutions to problems. Locked doors and containers, however, tend to have one: lockpicking. It’s a “One Way Lock,” as in, “You’ve only got one way to open this lock, and it involves a lockpick.” This is our next Picker’s Problem.

Although using a lockpick should be the best way to open a lock (besides having the key), it should not be the only way. I’ll talk more about keys later, but for now, here are four strategies a player could use to open a locked door or container, besides lockpicking. None are fully detailed, but each has a limitation or disadvantage that still makes lockpicking a better option:

  1. Explosive breaching. The right explosives and the skill to use them allows the player to blast open locks. It’s dangerous and loud, but gets the job done. Added risk-reward comes from the possibility of destroying mundane goods and perhaps even detonating stored ammo and explosives.
  2. Sheer force. Very high strength, bolt cutters, or a well-placed shotgun blast could all open specific, weaker locks.
  3. Request help. A companion with the ability to pick locks creates a sense of opportunity cost in who you take along with you (as opposed to picking the best fighter or the companion who can carry the most junk).
  4. High-end lockpicks. While someone skilled in the craft won’t need special tools, rare and expensive lockpicks can temporarily give less-adept characters an advantage.
    How is this thing locked, anyways? You’re really telling me it uses a traditional key lock, like everything else in this place?

A “one-way lock” makes the player feel like the game is ignoring their choices: as if certain investments only matter when the game agrees, rather than when logic would apply. It’s a bad precedent to set in an RPG.

Lucky Keys

It’s nice to find a key to a locked chest, but how often do games implement keys in a clever way?  Most containers and doors won’t have keys, and if they do, they aren’t hidden creatively. Usually, it’s the “boss-with-key-standing-next-to-locked-door,” or the “mysteriously-untampered-desk-drawer” that provides the player with a key. To add to the sloppiness, there’s usually only one key. I sure hope they don’t lose it!

The lucky key is a delicate Picker’s Problem. Keys are often blatant and uninspired in how they’re placed and usually unlock just one door or chest. If the game expects the player to find the key, lockpicking becomes less valuable. If there’s no key at all, lockpicking has too much power.

This issue is alleviated through flavorful barriers to acquiring keys. Hide a key through a flirty dialogue option with a guard, or allow a character with high enough reputation to ask for it directly. Maybe a small-time thief found it, and is pawning it off. There’s plenty of possibilities that make acquiring a key possible without seeming uninspired.

The lucky key is a Picker’s Problem found where bland design and imbalanced gameplay converge, emblematic of missed opportunity.

Something About Pain and Gain

Forced entry is about weighing possible penalties and rewards. The lock is an obstacle, but is the player better off leaving it alone? The sixth Picker’s Problem is when a game wildly misjudges the penalties and rewards associated with lockpicking, and Fallout 3 is a perfect example.

The lockpicking system for Fallout 3 uses the following rules:

  1. If you don’t meet the lockpick skill level, you cannot attempt to pick the lock (a hard limit).
  2. If you do meet the lockpick skill level, you must play the minigame to open the lock (another aspect of a hard limit — the timewaster minigame).
  3. During the minigame, time is frozen.
  4. During the minigame, you risk breaking some of your lockpicks.
  5. Finally, during the minigame, you may attempt to “force” the lock to complete the minigame instantly. This has a chance to either jam the lock or open it.
  6. A jammed lock can only be lockpicked again after acquiring a late-game perk or by finding the key.
Darn, I need 100 lockpicking. Not sure how I’d get through this door otherwise.

This system is a substantial failure. Let’s go point-by-point.

  1. A hard limit is intrusive and unrefined.
  2. Minigames in hard limit systems are timewasters.
  3. Freezing time means failed attempts have no cost besides broken lockpicks. This is a huge missed opportunity for creating natural tension.
  4. Breaking lockpicks is a laughably small cost in most games, including Fallout 3. If you do manage to run out of lockpicks, the penalty becomes more annoying than anything.
  5. Forcing locks is unreasonable when the cost of attempting the minigame is so trivial.
  6. The penalty of jamming the lock is far more damaging than continuing to attempt the minigame, making the option to force the lock even worse.

With misjudged penalties, lockpicking mechanics feel contrived and end up punishing players in uneven ways.

Nothing but Loot and Lore

The final Picker’s Problem is a limited scope. For many games, lockpicking is nothing more than a skill for additional loot. It doesn’t have to be that way. Players could use lockpicking to disarm traps, open new pathways, and get valuable information (say, from reading a locked-away journal or freeing a captive). Just as keys need to be creatively hidden, rewards should, at least sometimes, be more substantial than additional health kits and ammo.

When lockpicking is nothing more than the skill to get more resources, it loses its archetypal personality, becoming bland and unspecialized.

Putting the Lock On It

These seven Picker’s Problems all extend from a core issue in RPGs: how can you effectively reward players who invest in a skill while not penalizing players who don’t invest in that skill? The answer lies in applying general best-practices to lockpicking mechanics and obstacle design. Here are the seven heuristics that designers can use to alleviate Picker’s Problems:

  1. Reassure the player of what they’re missing and let them determine whether or not it’s worth taking note of (Schrodinger’s Content).
  2. Don’t let characters pick locks without investment (Lockpick Metagaming).
  3. Don’t restrict lockpicking to “can” or “cannot” (Hard Limits).
  4. Give sub-optimal alternatives to lockpicking (One Way Locks).
  5. Make keys more useful, and hide them behind interesting interactions, conversations, and circumstances (The Lucky Key).
  6. Be mindful of your penalties and who will receive them (Misjudged Penalties).
  7. Make lockpicking offer more that just loot and lore (Limited Scope).

I would say this is all easier said than done, but part of me can’t shake the feeling that lockpicking is considered “good enough” and therefore needs no improvement.

“But how would you do it?”

I get it: it’s easier to call out bad design than create good design. Using Fallout 3‘s lockpicking mechanics as a base, here’s how I’d implement these heuristics.

First, design locks with two skill levels: a “minimum” and “instant” requirement. Tell the player neither value. The “minimum” is the lowest lockpick skill level a character can have while still being able to attempt to pick the lock. Any lower than this and they’re too inept to try (providing them with a “you’re too dumb for that” type message, like in Morrowind). The “instant” skill requirement, considerably higher than the minimum, is the skill rating a character needs to instantly open the lock without playing the minigame. If a character’s skill is between the minimum value and the instant value, they would always go through the minigame.

The lockpicking minigame remains the same “twist-n-spin” system, but it doesn’t freeze time. If I were to guess, I’d say part of the time-freeze is out of necessity, but let’s pretend that’s not the case. With each failed attempt, the player wastes more time, increasing the chance that others might catch them in the act.

Now, for added risk, better lock jamming. Each failed attempt risks jamming the lock, and the chance of jamming is based on how far the player’s skill is from the instant unlock value. If anyone uses a key on a jammed lock, it unjams. Additionally, if the player meets the instant requirement, they can unjam that lock instantly.

Finally, add expensive lockpicks with limited durability that give the player a bonus. Such lockpicks would have a set number of successful uses before breaking so that the player would be more concerned about jamming the lock than losing the pick.  Then, of course, add alternatives. Throw down landmines and blast open a door. Convince a guard that your father lived in the abandoned house, so he should open it for you. Flirt with the librarian to get the key to the off-limits area.

After all of this, make the rewards varied. Learn that the mayor is embezzling, or when the cult plans to do a ritual, or find a vantage point over a villain’s throne room, or unlock an escape route for a prisoner to peacefully resolve a quest… The possibilities are endless.

To make the lockpicking mechanics in RPGs better, we need to take our fingers out of our noses and start pointing out Picker’s Problems.

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