Most dungeons have some sort of locked door your players need to bypass. These are typically locked with keys, switches, or some sort of puzzle. Your players might expect these normal obstacles, but there are other ways you can let your players open doors that have interesting consequences and mechanics.
What is a Key Anyway?
We’ve talked about keys and doors before on the blog when making a 30 minute dungeon or in our post on Zelda as DnD inspiration. In both of these cases we abstracted the idea of a key as an item that is used to open a door.
In the traditional sense a single key can open only locks that are paired to it. In abstractions that you can see in a lot of video games, keys are destroyed when they open a door and can be used on any compatible door once. This flexibility has a variety of uses in DnD. It can help you with your dungeon design to prevent players from getting stuck while also removing the linear path of progression.
But what if we abstracted even further and took the requirement of “being a singular item” away from the key. Now you can open a door by expending any resource: Gold, HP, Spell Slots, anything’s fair game. By breaking some basic conceptions of the key-to-door pairing we now have additional tools to open doors and can create dungeons with even more interesting decisions for players to make as they travel through them.
Spending Resources to Open Doors
If you want to make players consider their options in any scenario, you need to make them weigh costs and benefits. With resources being used to open doors, there could be anything on the other side. They essentially are paying some resource for the chance of finding what’s behind door #1. Let’s look at a few examples.
In a combat heavy dungeon where you’ve controlled the pacing along the main path, consider introducing doors that can be opened with HP. A player is drained by the door to open a shortcut, skipping potentially dangerous sections of the dungeon. This option allows players to move forward, but they are still showing up to their next encounter weaker than they would have been with a traditional key. This system allows your players to weigh out risks while giving you a way to balance your dungeon as players move through it.
In treasure dungeons there is nothing more insidious than asking your players to spend the treasure they just found to open doors to more treasure. With this mechanic players may have to sacrifice a certain amount of gold to a magic door for the chance of greater riches behind it. This gamble makes for a nice thematic lesson about greed.
The idea can come to a head when players spend more and more gold to open progressively deeper doors in the dungeon that they’ve been told are filled with more riches. However, they can end up opening one that has nothing behind it, leaving them essentially no better than when they entered.
Spending Spell Slots
What about a door that is magically sealed? In these cases you can give your spellcasters the option to burn a spell slot to negate the magical seal on the door. This can be dressed up in all sorts of different ways, but the idea that a spell caster would give up potentially useful spell slots to gain access to another room can cause some serious player considerations.
What if the door takes a high level spell slot to open? What if different doors require different level spell slots and more powerful seals lead to greater rewards? This is all considering that any later combat or utility situation may need to be resolved without your casters magic. Better yet, you could even make the magic they spend power up the boss later in the dungeon, leading to your players thinking about the consequences of their actions in different ways.
Resources and Alternate Options
The best way to use these door opening mechanics is by giving your players a greater amount of choice. Let’s say a door can be opened with a key, or you can spend a resource on it. Your players get to weigh their options and decide if they need to press on quickly and spend resources, or take the time to find the key for the door.
If you’re using abstracted keys where they can be spent on any door once, then players may weigh out their supply of keys vs other resources they could spend. They might even plan out ways to get more keys to avoid using up other precious resources.
Ultimately this is about giving your players options to work through and letting them work out the best way forward. As a bonus, you’ve also prevented your players from getting stuck by giving them alternate ways forward that involve varying degrees of risk. The resources they spend add some weight to their decisions and the outcome feels more like it was a product of the choices that they made to progress.
A Simple Idea with a Lot of Uses
While the idea of spending resources as an alternate way to open locked doors is not revolutionary, it’s a great functional tool to keep in your DM tool kit. It might seem obvious, but if you hadn’t thought of it yet you might have missed great scenarios you could set up with this kind of door and lock mechanism.
How you end up using these resource-based doors comes down to how you want to run your sessions. They’re versatile, simple to use, and provide unique player interactions. Have fun with these simple resource gated doors and see what your players do.