The Lockpicking Corollary

In a game with optional lockpicking mechanics, designers must include chests and doors and such that contain treasure to justify the investment of (usually) finite skill points in an otherwise non-combat skill. This reward cannot be too generous however, as it otherwise moves lockpicking from being an “interesting choice” into becoming the only reasonable option.

If a player got midway through a game only to discover a plot-specific item or one-of-a-kind upgrade was behind a door they could not open, the player would be understandably upset. At the same time, without such incentives the opportunity cost of taking Lockpicking over other skills is usually pretty high.

In games with Lockpicking or Hacking, I almost always pour points into training these skills because the “what’s in the boooooooox” feeling is too strong, despite my inevitable disappointment that it’s just some ammo and currency of negligible value. But what else could the designers really do? It all seems like an inevitable Lose-Lose scenario the very moment you introduce the choice; I feel bad for leaving unopened containers behind, and am disappointed with what they contain.

Posted on April 18, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I remember an event in Fallout 3 (or was it New Vegas) where you help a group of people with a spaceship launch. My hacking skill was minimal so I didn’t have any other options at the time. I only later discovered that a skilled hacker could reroute the ship into the sun killing everyone. I hated missing out on that.


    • Yeah, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are two games in which I do not consider Lockpicking/Hacking to be optional. I mean, they technically are, but you end up missing out on entirely unique opportunities like you describe. Plus, New Vegas had a few named weapons/armor locked away behind 100-skill chests and the like.


  2. I don’t really like to take lockpicking in games, since I usually play a warrior type, but it always ends up being a big pain not to be able to open doors and such. One option is to always have a key lying around somewhere, so that you might have to search but you can get by without the skill. Another is to group lockpick with other “sneaky” skills into a single superskill, such that it is less necessary that lockpick in particular be a game changer. A more extreme version would be to just have premade classes and lockpick is only available to the thief/rogue type. However, there you still have the lockpick balance problem.

    I wonder if it is even possible to balance it? Let’s say that lockpick didn’t work on doors, but only on containers that only contained mundane items like health/ammo. Whether this would be a useful skill would then depend entirely on how useful you found extra health/ammo, which would in turn be dependent on difficulty, scarcity, and amounts in the pickable containers. In other words, I don’t think it is possible to get it “just right”, there’s too much variance among the players.

    On an unrelated note, I see you’ve deleted WoW from the currently playing list. Have you quit too? I’ve all but quit myself, only the dream of 11×90 is keeping me hanging by a thread.


    • Exactly. I could envision a balanced class-only scenario wherein a warrior would pass a door without ever knowing it was lockpickable (and it truly would not be in the warrior’s game) but the rogue would have to pick the lock to progress. Or maybe the locked chests only ever contain items useful for the rogue class. Or… something.

      As for WoW, I have indeed stopped playing. I hesistate to use the word “quit,” but I will likely unsubscribe soon. A post about that will be going up next week.


      • The classic Quest for Glory series had a similar system. Each puzzle in the game had a specific solution for each class. When faced with a locked door, a warrior would bash it, a thief would pick the lock, and a magic user would cast Open. Or, when trying to retrieve a ring from a magpie’s nest, a warrior would climb the tree, a thief would try to knock it down with a thrown rock, and a magic user would cast Fetch.

        You *could* use a different class’s method instead of your own, but you would be more likely to fail (unless you went out of your way to train cross-class skills and spells) and you’d get fewer points this way.


  3. World of Warcraft actually did this very well initially. There were locked chests and unlocked chests in most dungeons. So the party with no lock-picking options didn’t feel totally neglected but those with that skill had the extra bonus.

    The real genius was to add a variety of ways to bring the skill. Rogues could train the skill of course, or a character with the engineering profession could craft seeforium charges to blow the lock or another with blacksmithing could make skeleton keys to open the lock. So you had three different ways to do it, only one was tied to a specific class (although the rogue could do it the cheapest without needing to use precious crafting materials of course).

    DDO was very cool in it’s use of locked doors/chests etc – only rogues could pick locks but with the multi-classing system in place it was easy to find someone with one level (a ‘splash’) of rogue. There was also at least one magical spell to open locks (knock) and a magical item (chime of opening) to do that as well. So again, like in WoW, you had multiple ways for a party as a collective group to deal with these challenges.


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