Oh is this your room? Funny how my key worked in your lock…

I have a small solo adventure that I am working on, one day I may finish it as well. It really is a fantasy mix and a spy movie and it got me to thinking as I was laying out secrets and locks to reveal clues how I should handle this during play. Now normally, the time it takes to pick a lock or find a secret door hasn’t been an issue as either there is no one around or they are and depending on whim there is an encounter.

“While Talaras is working on the lock, you hear the sound of footsteps approaching up the corridor”

However, in the adventure the character is required to report in/be seen at various points in time. Also, I started to think about how long do you spend searching a room or picking a lock if you are aware that someone might be in the room next door and how the tension of not knowing and gambling your time against the success of finding an item is actually an important part of the story in the Spy genre.

“Heart pounding, Talaras blinked the sweat from his eyes. He had been struggling with the lock for a minute. Soon the patrol would be returning, dare he continue?”

So I started thinking about the time it would take on average to pick a lock. Thankfully, the internet is full of boasts on how fast different locks can be picked and also, more helpfully, the range of time. In MERP and Rolemaster picking locks is usually handled in a static manouvre roll with success being at 110 and then two partial success categories and one excellent category. In the partial success you roll again and in excellent you do it quicker. Now in roleplay situations this sort of falls down with me as players who make a partial success roll choose if to continue with essentially the same odds as last time even if they nearly had it. This leads to repetitive rolling or not bothering. Really as a GM I want the player to spend as long as they dare on the lock before declaring it unopenable or searching a room before deciding there is nothing to find. After all how long is a piece of string.

Over on the Rolemaster blog there was a post on turning all rolls into 100+ successes and giving percentage success from this. The general thought was that this was not that feasible with the mechanics but there was a suggestion of using the MM table instead. I thought I would explore that option alongside the SM table and compare the results.

Armed with my knowledge of lock pick times and what would be reasonable and what would be difficult I set out on a comparison. I ran into a slight problem with the scaling of the difficulty to a time and so standardised routine to +30 and scaled from there up. This way the difficulty level and time are the same for both. I then went with a roll of 50 plus a nominal skill level to be successful at picking the lock and this would be the base time taken. There is also an argument for the player being able to roll 20 and picking the lock, as this would be statistically relevant in terms of the majority of attempts should be successful if slightly longer. A summary of the results are in the table below. I have left the Excel spreadsheet on the ICE forums for those who want to look at the data.

   SM method     MM method  
competenceskill bonushighest difficulaty locktime to pick (mins)time to pick (Routine (+30)time to pick medium (+0)highest difficulaty locktime to pick (mins)time to pick (Routine (+30)time to pick medium (+0)
Tyro-25Routine (+50)2E Hard800.25
Apprentice15Light104S Folly1000.22
Journeyman50E hard800.22Absurd350.21.1
Master75Absurd1400.21Absurd17.50.21
elite100Absurd70.11Absurd100.10.8

My assumptions were that locks were picked in best conditions; that the time would be the average time; and that absurd locks represented the peak of Dwarven and Elven technology without magic but these still would be short of the most secure locks. I also didn’t want to be playing a level 20 thief spending an hour picking a lock. As a result, the absurd time was set a 7 mins.

Comparing picking locks by SM and MM tables

At the routine level there was little difference in the times of the experts (Journeymen to Elite) with either method. However, at the Apprentice and Tyro levels MM tables allowed for rapid picking, whereas the SM table made it less likely.

A medium level lock (1 min is about the standard for an average modern lock) again the experts were comparable, although Journeymen had a similar time to Masters in the MM table. The unskilled levels could not pick the lock in the SM but were able to do so given 5 minutes on the MM table .

The maximum level of lock likely to be picked was very different for both methods. SM gave a range from a +50 Routine lock for a Tyro to Absurd for the Expert with a reasonable spread of difficulty versus skill level. In contrast with the MM table everyone could potentially pick a lock from Extremely Hard up given enough time.

It is worth noting the times taken for picking at maximum difficulty though. For unskilled these are the maximum times before a fail. Experts have a slightly different pattern. A Journey man is likely to pick an Exteremely hard lock in 80 mins using SM tables but a Sheer Folly lock in 100 mins using MM tables. At Absurd difficulty the SM method gives times for a Master is 140 mins which drops suddenly to 7 mins for an Expert. In contrast, using the MM method this is gradual moving from 17.5 minutes to 10 minutes.

Handling lockpicking

Which method you would prefer to use will depend entirely on how you wish to control your thieves in play. The SM table really does make it an only thieves environment with unskilled finding it difficult to open all but the most basic of locks. There is not difference between the Experts until you get to the most difficult locks. The MM table method gives a more graded response and does allow any player a reasonable chance of opening a lock, a thing that can be useful if you are in the habit of locking plot devices behind doors.

Looking at the difficulty levels as I have constructed them I can see now that most of my “secure” locks are going to start at medium and work up. Locks that even an unskilled person can pick in less than a minute represent the type found on a childs jewelry box and generally smashing the obstruction would work just as well, if a little more noisy.

When coming to pick a lock I can ask the player how long they intend to spend on the task and then after a roll tell them when they were successful or failed. Which would handle the resolution very quickly and neatly. Alternatively, I could reveal the elapsed time and through dialogue the player determines when to quit.

The dice roll can be handled either completely convertly so that the player’s involvement is only to tell the GM the skill bonus applied or they could do the basic roll and difficulty and penalties can be applied covertyly. The latter would give the player a sense of how successful they are being and might lead to gambling extra time because it might be nearly there.

For me I suspect that MM table method will work best for the solo adventure and certainly would quiten those of my players who tell me they opened a really simple lock using nothing but a paperclip. The only thing to do now is play test it to see if it unbalances the game. Now all the tables are ready I can also have a play with searching rooms and create some sensible times to search a room or look for traps from the obvious it is on the floor in front of you to the scrap of paper in the corner of a book.