Without a doubt, my favorite trope in fantasy RPGs is the cult of the Key and Lock.
This is my name for it, but you all know what I mean: it’s the conceit that the Chosen One, the Dragonslayer, the Bringer Of Destiny who shall Destroy Evil and Restore Peace to The Land, Before Whom None Can Stand…
…cannot break locks, doors, or chests.
I can’t count how many times my quests have been interrupted by the simple presence of a locked chest or a locked door. I can slay dragons, assume a phantom form, produce fire at will, and forge steel all day. But simple wooden planks and iron bars and locks stand in my way as an immovable barrier.
I can just about bet that someone’s going to say it anyway, but just in case it prevents condescending comments: YES, I am aware that game designers have to have a way (or it is most expedient to have a way) to keep players out of, to take just one example, the quests that are led to by other quests. It’s easy to break a game if, for example, you have a player just stumble upon the Elder Scroll before ever learning of the Elder Scroll’s existence. I realize that is a difficult problem to deal with.
The problem isn’t that the barriers exist. The problem is that the barriers take the forms of mundane barriers, when those barriers should be very special, because they guard the way to special places. I can think of any number of ways around this that wouldn’t carry such an overt stench of Because The DM Said So.
- Chests and Doors that absolutely needed to stay locked until Quest Time could be made of a magical substance, such as adamantium, utterly resistant to magical/physical damage.
- Locks on such Chests and Doors could function only with enchanted keys. You’d really only need to change the dialogue box for this. Many times, I have come across “This lock can only be opened with a key.” Or “This lock is not pickable.” Replace that with “This lock requires the enchanted key.”
- Doors that absolutely must stay locked could function similarly to the Doors Of Moria in The Lord Of The Rings. Until you know the right enchantment or Questing Words, they won’t even appear. Or they will be magical gates. Break them, and you just face a wall.
- Chests that need to stay locked could function this way, too: They are invisible until you have discovered how to make them visible. Or appear from the Otherworld. Or they are disguised by a powerful illusion spell as a fire, or a bookcase, or something else that doesn’t look like a chest.
- Attempting to break such chests or doors might be known to trigger a one-shot kill, if you’re feeling particularly nasty.
- For less game-breaking events, like say, high-power items that you want to delay access to, but aren’t game essential, you could make breaking the chest containing them carry a high chance of destroying the contents.
I realize that to a lot of people, these are nitpicks, and in terms of mechanics, they are. But what makes RPGs great is their immersion. And “You Can’t Because The DM Said So” always breaks immersion. You can’t get away with such things in stories, and you shouldn’t get away with them in games. Not when you don’t have to.