Opening Locked Doors in Early D&D Systems (or, Not Every System is for Everyone)

While reading about Mythras Classic Fantasy (an updated version of the BRP monograph), I ran across this:

The door is locked. No, you are not a thief so you can’t pick the lock; do you have a Magic-User with the “Knock” spell? No? Oh, well you can’t open a locked door then.

“Doors are common in most dungeons. Many doors are locked, and most doors are stuck. If locked, a door cannot be opened until a thief unlocks it or until a magic-user casts a Knock spell upon it… If not locked, a stuck door can be forced open by any character.” – Dungeon Master Rulebook (BECMI), 1983, page 16.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this about Dungeons & Dragons… right up until there’s a locked door and our level 1 party doesn’t have a Thief. It’s a game more than it’s about reality – these oddities arise from the need to give Thieves a role and desire to keep away from a skill system. Remember: I’m running a BECMI game right now, and loving it!

Now, the Dungeon Masters Rulebook does say this in the “Procedures and Rules” section.  The Players Manual, on the other hand, in the “Adventuring Rules” section, says (on page 57):

Normal doors can often be forced or broken open, but a strong bar of wood mounted on the other side will prevent this.


To open a normal door, just tell your DM that you are doing so. The DM will assume that you are turning the handle, pulling the ring, or pushing on it gently. If it doesn’t open, you may tell the DM “I’ll force the door.” Your character is then using Strength to open it, which may be successful if the door is merely stuck quite (quite common in dungeons). If the door still does not open, it may be locked, barred, or closed magically; or your attempt might have simply been unsuccessful, based on a dice roll.  Try again!

While this section does not state clearly that you can force a locked door open, it implies it.  Of course, common sense says we should be able to break a lock by trying to force the door, hitting the lock with a hammer, or possibly chopping at it with an axe (if it’s wood).

This rule on locked doors in the Dungeon Master Book appears to be a BECMI-ism (and the books are not in exact agreement on the rule), because it doesn’t appear in any other early editions of the game.

Moldvay says:

Doors in a dungeon are usually closed, and are often stuck or locked.  A lock must usually be picked by a thief.

and Holmes says:

Doors are usually closed and often stuck or locked. They have to have the locks picked or be smashed open.

Neither explicitly states that locked doors must be picked to open, which is unsurprising if one considers the approach to the rules as a framework during the era.

OD&D is, unsurprisingly, silent on the issue, since thieves didn’t appear until Greyhawk. It seems unlikely that players of the era would just say, “Oh, the door’s locked. I guess we can’t go that way,” or go looking for a magic user with Knock – the description of which says that it “opens secret doors, held portals, doors locked by magic, barred or otherwise secured gates, etc.” – the spell appears to be intended to be used for bypassing doors that are heavily secured or for which the opening mechanism isn’t obvious.

(It’s interesting to note that the description of what’s later codified as the thief’s open locks ability in Greyhawk is “open locks by picking or foiling magical closures” – which implies the thief can use the ability to open magically locked items or doors.)

First edition AD&D actually explicitly states that you can open locked door by brute force (Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 97):

A roll of 1 or 2 typically indicates success, anything above indicates the door still remains unopened. (Cf. PLAYERS HANDBOOK, Character Abilities, Strength.) Very heavy doors  might reduce chances by half. Locked doors might only open if two or even  three simultaneous 1’s are rolled.

Of course, at this point you’re probably saying, “well, this guy is probably used to running 3.5 or Pathfinder, or some similar system where everything is explicitly laid out in the rules, and he didn’t stop to think about if the rule made sense.”  And that might be a reasonable assumption, except he also says this:

I didn’t miss skills checks. Nor did I miss critical hits and fumbles, special feats, or any of the other additional rules that 1st edition D&D led me to believe I needed… and which 3rd, 4th, and even 5th edition retained.

When the players searched a location, they simply described what they wanted to do and I used logic (and the notes) to respond. A couple of times, as directed by the adventure, they had to make a Saving Throw to avoid a potentially dangerous consequence of poking their noses into things… but we really didn’t need any skill checks. In fact, the to-and-fro of description and decision was as delicious as it was simple. We were roleplaying.

Last night I finally and deeply understood the value of “rulings not rules”. The game flowed and the story of the characters unfolded naturally. It was good fun! And I really don’t know if I feel the need to play with all those extra rules.

Certainly, with later editions there are lots of cool abilities and powers for players to explore and unleash on their opponents. Yet, as Dungeon Master, this older way of playing was more rewarding because it was much more deeply engaging. Instead of reducing the action to a die roll resolution, we roleplaying it through decision, description, and consequence.

Aside from the inaccurate reference to  “1st edition D&D” – he’s probably talking about first edition AD&D, which has no critical rules, no feats, and no skills until you add the nonweapon proficiencies system from Oriental Adventures Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide / Wilderness Survival Guide (which is a far-from-comprehensive system) – he mentions how he finally understands the value of “rulings not rules” and continues on to say he doesn’t know if he feels the need for a bunch of extra rules.

This is all mentioned in the context of a BRP-derived game that he wants to use to replace D&D, which is fine – play the game you want (and I tend toward skill-based systems,  myself) – but you can’t treat early D&D systems as simulationist.  There’s a lot of leeway in the rules, even in first edition AD&D, which was intended to be a comprehensive ruleset oriented toward tournament play.

I’m not sure the author quite got the “rulings, not rules” mindset as well as he thought he did.  The original article listed six points where he didn’t get along well with D&D, so it’s probably safe to say it’s just not the right system for his style of play.