Lockpicking Lessons

Be Better at Burglary

If your roguish roustabouts seem bored while picking at yet another generic door lock, you need to up your GM game. Or, as a player who picks, you can use your few, precious moments at the keyhole to elevate your elucidation and really get into the descriptions of the art of the breach. Breaking through security should be a sustained spotlight for a story’s specialist – not a die roll and a “click!” Read on, my lock-minded friends, and let us make lockpicking legendary.


At its most basic level, a lock has some kind of bolt, bar, or shackle that prevents something from opening or coming loose. You un-stick this closure with some sort of key or mechanism (if you have one) or you circumvent that method with tricks or tools (if you’re a dirty, no-good, rule-breaker).

Locks as we know them have been around since ancient days, with our earliest examples dating from the time of the ancient Egyptians, who had a basic sort of gravity-driven pin and tumbler system made out of wood.  Homer’s Odyssey describes Penelope opening a lock with a silver hook to retrieve her husband’s bow, and some scholars speculate that this is how that might have worked.  From there, materials and intricacy improved until you get things like humongous iron locks and puzzle locks.

To thwart a lock without a key, one must either use tools to perform the same kinds of actions that the key does (pushing pins into position while applying turning pressure, usually), or one must attack other weaknesses of the lock (pushing an exposed bolt out of the way, reaching around to the unlocking mechanism on the other side, or some other exploit).

Modern-day locks stick to the same premise of their antiquated forebears, but raise the bar (see what I did there?) with additions of stronger materials, anti-picking countermeasures, electronics, bio-metrics, and ever-more sophisticated alarm systems. Futuristic games might also include advanced versions of all of these ideas, plus artificial intelligence that acts as a perpetual door guard, locks that adapt to attack methods, and traps forged on the cutting edge of cruelty. And if we’re talking about steam-machines, clockworks, or magic in a setting, you will be certain to have a load of variations for all manner of lock-boxes, gates, and treasure chests.


The first step in describing your locks and lockpicking attempts is to expand your vocabulary. This dictionary of lockpicking terms should help  – even if you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about it will sound like your character does, and that’s the most important part of showing off roleplaying.

If you find yourself or your players circumventing security often during the course of the campaign, you may start to run out of ways to say “her fingers move faster than your eye can see and the door clicks open.” So, here are a few real-world examples of other things you can do besides jiggling your picks.


  • Lift the latch or bar with a rod, wire, or shim.
  • Knock out the hinge-pins with an awl or nail and remove the door from the frame.
  • Drill through the door itself to access the lock.
  • Unfasten the entire lock set from the door because it was installed backwards / poorly.
  • Rub soot / lampblack / a wax bar on an insertable tool to help visualize the internal workings before picking.
  • Make a cloud of cold or hot air to fool the infrared sensor via smoke, a can of compressed air, or a mouthful of drink spewed through the gap in the door.
  • Wedge open the door with a small balloon in order to reach beyond it.
  • Launch a balloon through the gap in the door to trip the motion sensor that releases the lock for those wishing to egress.
  • Probe with a curved rod under the door to push the bar / latch.
  • Drop a string over the door-top to snag the bar / latch.
  • Slide the bolt with a credit card or other sturdy, thin implement.
  • Crack open one of the contractor lock-boxes near the door.
  • Produce a set of universal keys / janitor keys that always fit this brand of standard lock, elevator, filing cabinet, handcuff, police car, taxi, etc.
  • Lift a security card number with a sophisticated remote reader.
  • Install a code-sniffer on the back of the electrical panel to steal the opening code.
  • Deduce the entry code by examining the wear-and-tear on the keypad.
  • Tap the sweet spot to jostle the bar loose.
  • Wedge open a corner of the door to reach in and flip the latch.
  • Slide a magnet along the edge of the frame to push the locking mechanism to one side.
  • Heat up the metal components in the perfect place to force a spring to expand into position.
  • Slip an origami “popper” under the door to trick the motion sensor into thinking someone wants to leave.


Catwoman, Robin Hood, and James Bond would be far less interesting interlopers if their breaking-and-entering exploits were boiled down to nothing more than a die-roll and a binary response of success or fail. So, if spicing up your descriptions isn’t enough, you may have to pull out the Boss Key and unlock some mini-games. If you need examples of how to make mini-games out of opening doors, here are a few video game examples from an IGN article.

And here’s one that I made up that incorporates some of your other, non-picking players into the mix:


The GM should choose a number of players to be the “pins” in the lock that the lockpicking player must pick. The more “pins,” the more difficult the lock. A standard lock would have about three to five. Each “pin” rolls one, six-sided die secretly – that is their “tension number” that the lockpicker must try to guess.  If you don’t have enough players to be “pins,” some of them may have to act as more than one.

The mini-game begins when the lockpicker chooses a “pin” player and tries to guess their “tension number.” The “pin” may only respond to a guess by saying “too high,” “too low,” or “juuuuuust right” in a satisfied tone. Right or wrong, once the lockpicker has taken a single guess, they must choose another “pin” player and use a guess on them.

The difficulty of the game lies in the fact that the lockpicker may not take notes or otherwise record their progress – they have to memorize what they’ve done so far and try not to waste too many guesses. The GM is in charge of counting guesses. After every ten guesses, they may start to impose penalties, which may be any of the following:

  • One of the “pins” re-rolls their “tension number.”
  • The GM shouts out a bunch of random numbers to confuse the lockpicker.
  • One of the lockpicks in the set breaks (they now have nine guesses until the next penalty).
  • A trap or alarm goes off (if one is present).

Once all the “pins” have indicated that things feel “juuuuuuust right,” the lock opens. If the rogue runs out of lockpicks via penalties, their set is broken and the lock cannot be picked.

To incorporate skill checks into this mini-game, the lockpicker may make a roll to gain a number of hints – the nature of these hints can be adjudicated by the GM or left up to the “pins,” depending on how you’d like to play. Difficulty variations on this mini-game might include larger dice, fewer guesses, or “booby-trapped pins” that are required to lie through their teeth to confuse the lockpicker.

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