This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Sixty Five on 12 May 2021.
Ryu: Aaaand done. Vault is open, all of the treasures are mine, I win again.
Lennon (sighing): Well so much for the vaunted house of Kundark. You’re fired, by the way.
(angry dwarf sounds)
Ryu: I do feel kind of bad; I hope it wasn’t too expensive to bring him in from Eberron?
Lennon: Oh what does it matter, you would have stolen the gold anyway. I just…I mean what’s the point of having a vault if you can just break into it so easily?
Ryu: I’m sorry, easily? How long have I been down here?
Lennon: So what? You can still get through the door.
Ryu: Yeah but the beholders are a pain.
Lennon: What beholders?
Ostron: The research beholders. I have one of them checking the vault every fifteen minutes to make sure Ryu isn’t breaking in.
Lennon: But…then why do we bother with the door and the fifty-seven locks?
Ryu and Ostron (together): Fifty seven and a half.
Lennon: Fine fifty seven…wait how do you have half a lock?
Ostron: The point is the door isn’t meant to be the be all and end all of the security. There are layers. It’s usually the best way to do it.
When DMs are dealing with dungeons and adventurers there is usually a common point of frustration that they have to deal with when the players encounter an obstacle. Let’s say there’s a whole section of the dungeon and a really cool monster that’s guarding a key the characters need to unlock a door leading to the next part of the dungeon. The lock is really complex and magical, so a basic sleight of hand check won’t cut it. You’re pulling up the stat block for the gelatinous cube made of sterno, all ready to go…when the wizard casts knock and just waves the party through the now-open door, and your cube is left to squelch around in its cavern.
The challenge with a lot of obstacles and limits put into place in dungeons is they often follow the pattern of ones in video games; doors that need specific keys before allowing progression, ledges or gaps that can’t be overcome without specific items, or exits from a dungeon that are convenient after the boss is dealt with but can’t be reached by any other route.
However, all of those are built with the limitations of the game in mind. D&D characters usually don’t have such limitations. A “back door” that’s only accessible after you reach the boss’ lair doesn’t exist in D&D; if it’s too high someone will climb it, if it’s locked someone will pick the lock or just break the door, and if it’s hidden someone will eventually perceive it, or interrogate the guard that knows about it. Then you have a party skipping the entire dungeon, nipping in the back door to assassinate the boss, and skipping out while all the legions of guards start checking their contracts for the severance package clauses.
There are a few ways to deal with this but all of them require a shift in thinking for them to work well. There are a few simple ways to create an impenetrable door; just make it immune to magic, constructed of lead-plated diamond, mounted in a diamond wall, and have the lock be displaced into another plane. The problem is that it will be very obvious to everyone involved that the DM has created the door only because they want to force the characters to go looking for the key. That’s usually called railroading and most players don’t appreciate that because it takes away the freedom of the characters for no real reason.
That approach can be valid in very specific circumstances. While we just said that video game examples are problematic, in this case some of them, most often several of the Zelda games, provide a good example. In many of the Zelda games, the story presents the players with an “impossible lock” very early, and outlines the solution. However that solution is a series of quests that have to be performed, taking up some twenty to thirty hours of gameplay (unless you’re a speed runner in which case it’s half an afternoon). Throwing up a door like that makes sense if it’s clear that the other side of it is some far off goal the characters need a lot of prep for. Throwing one of those halfway through a random dungeon is less believable and, as we already said, fairly obvious railroading.
That’s where shifts in thinking should come in. Barriers in video games are there to force players to spend longer playing the game. Very few groups want that in D&D, so doors, gates, and other obstacles have to serve a different purpose, and you as the DM need to figure out what that is. A few of the most common ones are descriptive ambiance, resource drains, and time sinks.
We’ll start with descriptive ambiance. In these cases the barriers and traps are there because of verisimilitude; the characters are wandering around in an ancient tomb of a paranoid prince. It would make sense that there are traps and locked doors everywhere because that fits with the theme of the dungeon. In cases like that, it’s likely and it’s even okay for the characters to simply bypass them, largely without consequence. As mentioned, the only reason the traps etc. are there is because the characters would expect them to be there. It makes sense that the characters can get through most of them without a problem because they’re heroes; better than average adventurers who aren’t going to have issues with mundane things meant to keep commoners out. So you as the DM shouldn’t be irked as they’re waltzing through locked doors and simply stepping to the side as the boulders roll past using nothing but skill checks.
Now let’s move on to the next type of obstacle; resource drains. These are challenges and obstacles that you as the DM are putting in place because you want the characters to do something strenuous or be at risk when trying to get past them. Doors with complex locks that force the characters to find a key, very large chasms that require searching for a hidden passageway to an intact bridge, things like that.
In most cases there are one or two methods to overcome the obstacle built into the dungeon, like we already hinted at; the door with the mega-lock has a key somewhere, the characters just have to find it. Usually the goal here is to force the characters to expend game resources such as HP, spell slots, or equipment to bypass the obstacle. The drain will be even worse if they try to just force the issue, for example if they try to just jump the chasm that’s 60 feet wide they’re going to miss, and that fall is going to hurt if not be totally fatal.
This is where a lot of the frustration comes in because of so-called “insta win” spells. Knock, Far Step, Find Traps, Gaseous Form, all of those spells are ones that usually cause the DM to immediately ask “when did you prepare that?!” when they’re cast because they’re about to invalidate a challenge the DM has put up. Locked door? Knock it open. Trapped hallway? Yeah you can find all those. Stone slab just drop down and seal off a hallway? Not to the people who turn into gas and seep through!
At first it seems like a whole bunch of prep work and complexity just gets sabotaged by these spells and the knee jerk reaction of many DMs is to either artificially punish the characters in reaction or somehow prevent the spell from being cast at all. We would suggest a different approach.
The reality is that most of the spells have built-in side effects that give you a clue about what consequences there should be for the use of the spell. Knock, for example, immediately unlocks a door, but it also produces a loud noise that can be heard up to 300 feet away. Remember Fellowship of the Ring? The fellowship was doing just fine on its way through Moria until Pippin decided to slam dunk a metal chain into a well. A sound that loud could alert guards, wake something up, or even shake something loose that will provide issues for the characters later, and it’s a logical consequence, not something you made up just to spite them.
The other thing to check on is how the spell actually works; you may not need to do anything extra because using the spell to solve the problem may have the effect you wanted anyway. Let’s say the characters are looking at that sixty foot chasm. “Never fear” says the bard, “our friend here knows Dimension Door!” as they put their arm around the wizard with a smile. Dimension Door, for reference, is a teleport with a range of 500 feet, and all you need to do is see the destination for it to work.
However, you also need a 4th level spell slot. And you can only take one other person with you. So if there’s a 5-person party, the wizard would have to teleport eight times to get everyone across. You know when wizards get access to eight fourth level spell slots? Level 15. And that’s not even really true because that’s just when they have enough fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth level spell slots to cast the spell again, because they only ever get three level four slots.
As mentioned, in that case it doesn’t really matter if they bypass whatever section of the dungeon they would have gone through to find the passage because the wizard just drained themselves of the ability to cast anything more powerful than a fireball. “But what if they just teleport the two people over with a rope and make a rope bridge?” Also fine, but that’s a lot of skill checks coming up for the rest of the party, most likely (and if you don’t think a two-rope bridge requires skill checks, please go find a ropes course). There are a few other methods that might work as well, particularly if you have a druid that can change into large flying things or an elephant that’s particularly accurate with its trunk, but in all of those cases the characters are still using resources to overcome the problem. They might not need as many resources compared to the detour through the caverns, but it still cost the characters something.
Also, remember that the characters came in, but they still have to get back out. Many DMs forget that D&D worlds can be dynamic and active off screen apart from where the characters are. If there’s a guard post in the lower level of a castle that the characters snuck past because the Ranger used “pass without trace,” they’re probably going to realize something’s up when the sorcerer king in the throne room starts unloading on the characters, and if there’s anything that makes a boss fight more challenging it’s extra minions showing up midway through in the back ranks. Or if you want you can make the consequences longer term. Did the party leave a bunch of kobolds unmolested when they went to kill that dragon? Okay, well now the kobolds think the village that used to be paying their master/god killed them instead, and now they’re going to wander down as a horde and get some payback.
The other reason to have obstacles around like this is to take up in-game time. This isn’t as common of a circumstance, but it can come into play if you’ve got a scenario like the characters having to locate a certain artifact before some cosmic confluence that night or find the hidden sorcerer’s lair before their army reaches whatever stronghold the characters are working for. Or it could be more immediate, like, figure out how to get the counterweight to move before the chamber the characters are in fills up with water.
In these cases the “insta-win” spells mentioned before can represent more of an obstacle because the main thing you’re trying to convey is that it takes time for the characters to solve the problem, and if you eliminate the amount of time it takes then there’s no real sense of danger or urgency. In those cases it’s a good idea to go with layering because the concern is no longer how many resources it takes but the amount of time that needs to be expended; the characters won’t balk at throwing anything necessary at solving the problem, so there needs to be multiple problems.
Ryu: Let’s take our very own vault door as an example. With all fifty-seven and a half locks in place it took me…what was my best time?
Lennon: Forty five minutes, and I still don’t understand the half?
Really? I’m slowing down. Anyway, forty five minutes to get the locks undone, and I don’t even need magic. Which would be fine if there wasn’t a beholder that wandered by every fifteen minutes to zap me or throw books at me and then tell Ostron to come reset all the locks. So I need some way to do it faster. Now, the vault has six key slots built in, and if you fit in the six keys all of the locks unlock and the door opens, so the fastest way to get through is to probably look for all the keys. Then again, if the whole party needs glasses to see past their own nose and you have three people with good sleight of hand skills and a wizard or two with knock available, it might be faster to have the whole crew work on breaking through the door. However, that wouldn’t be too much faster than looking for the keys, so you as the DM shouldn’t really see that solution as cheating anything.
But let’s say you’ve got some chemistry/physics major in the group who wants to deep freeze the door with cone of cold and then have the barbarian with a maul just hit it and shatter all the locks. That would be a lot faster than finding the keys, so if you need the time sink to remain, build in some contingencies. Say they froze and shattered all the locks. Good for them. Now they have a 6,000 pound metal door sitting there, and they just shattered the counterweight mechanism. How many people have strengths over 20?
One thing to remember however is the players shouldn’t be punished for coming up with an unorthodox or clever idea. A good rule of thumb is that if you have an obstacle like the vault door, come up with contingencies for a few of the most obvious alternate solutions. Breaking the locks and hinges might free the door, but then the door may fall forward and risk crushing some of the characters. Somehow mustering the strength or explosive energy to simply rip the door off may damage the structural integrity of the cave or building it’s in, causing a cave-in and dealing damage to everyone. But if the players come up with a solution whereby their druid turns into a mole and tunnels under it? That’s thinking decently far outside the box, so it might be worth letting them have that one.
Of course it’s always up to you what to let slide and what to counter. Many creative solutions players come up with involve applying so-called “real world logic” to a D&D problem. Usually there are some holes in the approach that you can use to stymie the progress, but be careful with that, too, as it can very quickly turn into a players vs GM argument.
The other way to mitigate that problem is what we mentioned before; layering the obstacle. Anyone who’s watched heist movies or shows knows that bank vaults have multiple security systems; getting past the door is problem 1. Then you have whatever sensors are inside the vault like pressure plates or lasers. And of course there’s whatever is forcing a time deadline on them. In modern bank heists it’s usually either guards that will come by in a certain amount of time, or there’s an alarm going off and a set amount of time before reinforcements arrive.
Many of those systems or something like them can be applied to D&D. Pressure plates and tripwires are key features of many traps, and runes and glyphs can serve as magic alarm and security systems. There can also be guard creatures of varying types to present different problems. Humanoid guards might be tricked or knocked out quickly, but an iron golem is not something you can easily distract or subdue and requires a completely different approach.
If you layer the obstacle, then it matters less if the characters zip through one aspect of it; they will have to pause and reconsider the next part, or it’s even possible quickly bypassing the first section will make the second one worse. Remember, Han Solo on the Death Star got a squad of stormtroopers running with his surprise attack, and then turned a corner and ran into an entire platoon of them.
However you want to play it, remember the key to obstacles and delays in D&D is not the same as in video games; you shouldn’t be forcing them to traverse a particular part of the dungeon when you want to, you want to give them the sense that they should be doing it of their own accord. If there was gold or treasure in the mansion and they just snuck into the basement, fireballed the foundation, and left? Well, all that treasure’s gone. And we already described the kobolds without a leader. Remember, just as the players can find creative ways to get around obstacles, you as the DM can use creative ways to get them back in, or make them deal with it later.
Lennon: So wait, I’m still confused.
Ostron: Okay, so part of the lock is constructed out of solidified ethereal matter and-
Lennon: No, no, not the half a lock thing I’m…I just don’t want to deal with that. But if Ryu needs 45 minutes to open the vault, and the beholders are checking every 15, how does she keep getting the hat out of there?
Ryu: Oh the hat’s never in the vault.
Lennon: What!? Yes it is, I put it in there all the time!
Ryu: And I manage to steal your coin purse…all the time. See where I’m going with this?
Lennon: I’m pretty sure I’d notice if I went to put the hat in the vault and it wasn’t there. I mean, it’s pretty unique.
Ryu: Really? It’s a Santa Hat with some embroidery on it. How hard do you think it is to get those?
Ostron: Okay, before we all have to go and rewrite procedures around handling cursed artifacts and verifying the correct items are being put in the vault, why don’t we go clear out the scrying pool.