I have a small dungeon in my campaign, a temple, that is a significant location for the broader story of my world. The players might very well enter this temple pretty early on in their adventuring. There is a door in this temple, however, that must remain securely locked from to all intruders until a much later date - this temple, particularly what lies inside the locked door, will come back as an important location in the future. Ideally, for now this door will evoke mystery and intrigue for my players. However, I am worried that my players will be convinced that the locked door is some type of puzzle. How do I effectively communicate that this door is 100% locked to them, something to be revisited at a later date? How do I stop my players from wasting excessive time guessing passwords and looking for keys?

This is a question that probably fits many tabletop rpgs, but if it matters, we are playing D&D 5e in an pretty standard medieval fantasy setting.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

16 Answers 16

up vote 125 down vote accepted

Show them the missing key

The unwritten assumption about doors in an RPG is that they are meant to be opened. As long as the players think that there is a hidden way to open that door, they will either try to find it, or come up with alternative solutions (usually involving pickaxes and/or explosives).

The solution: Show them that hidden way - and then show them why they can't open it right now. There might be a helpful (or hostile) NPC telling them, a magic mouth in the door, notes hidden nearby, an inscription, a puzzle,... Anything that allows them to “solve“ the puzzle of that door, even if the solution does not result in an open door.

Thus you turn one RPG trope (“Find a way to open that door“) into another one (“Fetch the missing MacGuffin“), which has less of an expectation of immediacy and can easily be demonstrated to be currently out of their reach.

Example: The door has an obvious slot to place a certain amulet. It should be immediately clear that doing so will open the door. Inscriptions nearby show that amulet in possession of the queen of the frost giants. This is usually understood to mean two things:

  • This is a new quest, and not something to resolve right now.

  • We are meant to open the door after dealing with the frost giants, thus whatever is behind it is probably at least as dangerous/challenging as those.

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    I played a game once with a similarly locked door that had inscriptions carved into the hallway that the door was at the end of, with the very end completely covered in soot. The inscription said something like, "DOOR MAKES FIRE WHEN ATTACKED". this was used in conjunction with a relatively soot-free spot where a specific token that we'd seen -- but didn't have -- would fit perfectly. I liked the idea of using inscriptions because it shows (a) the world has existed before the characters got there, and (b) it tells information that's difficult to get across otherwise. – Nic Hartley Aug 13 at 19:40

As you've noticed, pretty much the entire history of gaming has taught players that a locked door is a puzzle and there will be a solution available somewhere nearby - maybe not immediately, but in the fairly near future. (Sometimes that solution is "find the key". Sometimes it's "come back with an adamantium pickaxe and a wagon-load of explosives".)

So you're changing the rules of the game here. It doesn't matter much that the rule you're changing is an unwritten one; the consequences and solutions are much the same.

IME, the best way to handle rules changes usually involves doing it explicitly and out of character. In this case you might tell your players something along these lines:

Out of character: your characters don't have what they need to open the door at this time. We can assume that you spend a couple of hours searching for keys and so on, but you're not going to find anything yet. You'll have a chance to come back here later.

The characters can still get tired and frustrated, but their players don't have to be.

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    Yes, to this. Your last two paragraphs are the best. Separating the characters and players is very good, and especially noting that the characters can get tired and frustrated but the players can move on. – Jack Aug 13 at 2:11
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    Absolutely, this is the answer. Use 1 minute of game time to tell them the characters have wasted a day of world time, and some of them never want to see that stupid door again. – Harper Aug 13 at 2:33
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    There are a bunch of great ideas below, and if it were me, I'd probably pick one of those, but: they still might not work. Your players might see the amulet slot, read about the ice queen and guess that must be a clue for where the amulet is hidden nearby. Then they begin to obsess, and therefore ignore the ruckus going on down a nearby corridor. By the time they've focused that much on the door... at least have this one up your sleeve; it's the key solution. It's ok for your players to know stuff their characters don't. – Isaac Reefman Aug 13 at 7:30
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    Agreed. Something I sometimes use is the "obtrusive narrator" just because going fully out of character feels off to me. I might say something like: "as your party examines the door, you feel a certainty deep in your hearts that now is not the time to attempt this door. But maybe someday..." – Hugh Meyers Aug 13 at 11:24
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    I think I'll use one of the solutions below, but keep this in mind as a last resort. – Pink Sweetener Aug 13 at 12:16

It's not a bad idea to put an inscription on it, but my personal favorite is a talking face, then you can roleplay telling them to piss-off. If they attack the door, have it scream, and do psychic damage to them.

Honestly, it's just a terrible idea to put anything in front of your players that you don't want them to interact with. You don't have to. You can just let it be a wall, a perfectly seamless wall. (Note: Do not describe the wall). Then later, when you want them to return, have them discover a map, or have a mysterious figure send them a note. Or better yet, plant a note on one of their enemies, so they feel like they won this new, secret information.

Disclaimer about sending mixed messages to players

Building up intrigue about the door, so that it has a payoff later in the story, works in many game and storytelling contexts. But it doesn't always work well in TTRPGs, when players are naturally curious and tend to manipulate their world as much as possible.

In general, when the DM draws attention to something in the players' environment, they are effectively communicating to the players that the thing is important and deserves their current focus. By making the players curious about the door, they will want to investigate it and know what's behind it.

Trying to tell your players "This thing is really interesting, but don't investigate it too much" is a mixed message that may confuse and frustrate your players, or make them feel like you are teasing them. Sure, you the DM intend for the door to become relevant later on. But this is a problematic assumption. First, it's possible that the player actions may derail the campaign from the story you planned. Second, the players don't know your future plans, so they will likely try to open it now.

Recommendation: Draw attention away from the door.

D&D players will gravitate toward the most interesting thing in their environment. If the most interesting thing is the door, then they will focus on the door and how to open it. If the most interesting thing is not the door, then they will stop focusing on the door.

Distract the players with something else of a higher priority, thereby drawing focus away from the door. Considering that you intend for the door to become relevant later, you probably want the players to go somewhere else first; find a way to draw the players in that direction. If the players spend too much time poking at the door, you could have some event, NPC, or other plot device that encourages the players toward where you want them to go next.

Some example distractions:

  • A fight starts outside the temple, and someone cries for help.

  • A messenger arrives, and tells the PCs that the mayor needs to speak with them right away.

  • A temple priest tells the PCs to stop disturbing the area.

  • The PCs find another temple area (possibly another door) that gets their attention.

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    +1 for the insight that the GM needs to provide some other direction for the party to go. The longer you let them stare at this unopenable door, the more they'll obsess over it. – Mark Wells Aug 13 at 2:14
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    This is a great piece of advice. As it so happens, the players are in this abandoned temple seeking a backdoor entrance to an antagonist's layer. This door is something they will see in passing, on their way to their primary objective. But with this advice, I will do more to design the dungeon such that their primary path is very prominent, to make clear that this door is ancillary to their main quest. – Pink Sweetener Aug 13 at 14:30
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    @PinkSweetener: The party is going to check every. single. door. that they come across. (I sure would!) – Codes with Hammer Aug 15 at 15:11

Give them very few ways to interact with it.

First, make it a sliding door. It's much harder to imagine brute-forcing a sliding door open. Even more so if it descends vertically into a groove in the floor, like a portcullis but it's a solid slab. Hmm, must be some kind of emergency blast door. I wonder what the emergency was.

Second, make a point of saying that there's no handle or keyhole on this side. They shouldn't go looking for a key for the nonexistent keyhole, and this should convey the point that the door wasn't designed to open from this side.

This should be obvious, but if there are any markings on the door they should say something like "Section G2" or "By Order of the Waterdeep Fire Marshal--Do Not Enter", not some riddle that invites guessing passwords.

If they try to open it with magic, such as casting Knock, now they're spending resources, and it's frustrating as a player to spend resources and get zero result, so you might need to offer them a bone. So, they hear a loud BANG as the magic reverberates through the walls, and then a series of clicks and a creaking sound as some other door unlocks. That door can be a shortcut to another area in the temple, or a locked cabinet or closet with some minor treasure.

(Also, casting Knock is really loud and anyone else in the temple will hear them.)

I recently had to deal with this exact situation, and describing the door as having no keyhole and no handle was enough to get my players to leave it alone.

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    Love these tips! It sounds like a challenge to design something that gives players no hook at all. Example: Door: "By Order of the Waterdeep Fire Marshal--Do Not Enter" Players: Hmm, so it's a Fire marshall from the town of Waterdeep. Maybe we need to use the other two elements, Wind and Earth, to open the door? – Pink Sweetener Aug 13 at 14:33
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    I run a naturalistic kind of fantasy where, in a major city like Waterdeep, there is probably a guy with a clipboard who checks whether the portal to Hell in your basement is properly grounded and has a safety railing. In a more high-fantasy idiom, doors have prophecies or riddles written on them, and a door that's unopenable should probably have no inscription. (Compare this door from Lord of the Rings.) – Mark Wells Aug 13 at 16:24

The door opens, quite easily (there was a simple lock and trap that any competent thief of your party's level could deal with) onto a dusty empty quite normal chamber.

Well, not quite empty.

There is an inscription implying that on the correct date under the correct conditions the room is... Something else.

The players spend just a minute or two of game time exploring the room, and now they have a new quest, figuring out when to come back and what items they need to bring to trigger the special version of the room.

Bonus points for having the thief re-lock the door and reset the trap.

  • This is a really superb suggestion that unfortunately does not fit with my lore needs, but I'll definitely make a note of this for another time! – Pink Sweetener Aug 13 at 17:23

The right door needs the right key.

If you feel like it's pulling back the curtain too much to outright tell the PCs they don't know how to open a door and should come back later, then just being coy about what they should do next might lead to them deciding that the real puzzle here is how to tear down the wall.

In that case, something that's well worth borrowing from Planescape is the idea of portals keyed to certain... activators. Walk through a door, and if you have a stone marked with a dwarven rune of passage, or a bent copper wire, or three pebbles of different colors, or you're whistling the right tune, it takes you somewhere else.

So if there's something sealed up in the temple, you can seal it behind just such a portal. It can even be a locked door with a room behind it! Just not the room you actually want to hide. The "decoy room" can have some interesting things in it, and probably should, to stay memorable when you do the big reveal.

  • I love this idea. It doesn't even have to be a portal. It could be mechanical--the door opens to a treasure closet one way, but if you do it right, part of the floor of the closet turns into a ramp leading down to a different area. There doesn't have to be any indication of this to the players the first time around. Later they discover some secret that clues them in on how to get to the different path. – called2voyage Aug 13 at 14:45

I had a very similar door in a game I was running a few years ago.

I had the door locked and barred on this side.

The build up to finding the door had scary stuff happening as a consequence of whatever was behind it and all the defenses were clearly designed to stop things coming out of the door, not keep outsiders away. There were a number of other similar clues as well.

Once they reached the door one of the party magic users did detect magic on it. They discovered defensive magic far above their current level with tendrils of necromantic magic trying to push through from the far side and straining against the defenses.

They were also able to see that the defensive magic was failing, but failing slowly. They had a few years before it would do so.

This changed the whole narrative. This was a door they could open basically whenever they wanted (I vaguely remember that from the outside it was something like a DC20 disable device combined with a dispel magic needed) - but there was clearly something very powerful and very nasty trapped inside.

It also set up a timeline - they had a few years before it could escape. This also showed that it wasn't an urgent problem - which along with the power level sets up the expectation that this is something they should look to come back to when they are ready. They would also possibly be able to go and do research and see if they could find out what is behind the door.

Their response?

They left very quickly and arranged to have the cave walled up to prevent anyone interfering with it. Ever since it was there lingering as a threat waiting to be dealt with.

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    Unfortunately, this doesn't work for my needs, but I am 100% going to find another use for this. This is such a great idea. – Pink Sweetener Aug 16 at 13:00

I recommend against doing this. If you do, be prepared to explain why they can't do things such as dig around it or use spells to get to the other side. I once had a group spend a month's worth of game sessions trying to get through a sealed passage. Players can be determined! So unless you want to take away player agency by declaring "You just can't", avoid painting yourself into a corner like this.

If you really want a door there, may I instead recommend having a normal (or wizard) locked door open into a blank wall. Then have whatever is supposed to appear do so at the appointed time. This way no matter what they do, you don't have to justify why they couldn't get into the new corridors.

Basically, what you want to do as a GM is maintain the illusion that the players are in control of their own fate, rather than making them feel like you are railroading them in a particular direction. Make them feel like its their decision to move on from the door.

  • I'm not trying to railroad them into one direction, I'm just trying to railroad them away from this one direction. It's a door in a prominent location that they will see on their way to somewhere else. The door was constructed by a powerful wizard, so having it heavily warded as you suggest is very feasible. If the players tried to take the time to dig their way through, they would be interrupted by friendly NPCs that do not want them in that room either. – Pink Sweetener Aug 13 at 17:05
  • @MarkWells Comments aren't for arguing with an answer. You may wish to contribute to What is 'railroading', and what are its pros and cons? instead. – SevenSidedDie Aug 13 at 17:32
  • @SevenSidedDie I think you tagged the wrong person, but point taken. – Pink Sweetener Aug 14 at 2:47
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    @Pink I got the right person, no worries! Their comment was removed at the same time, is all. (You’re explaining something about your situation you think the answer doesn't account for, which is usually constructive. The other was just objecting to a point, which is rarely done constructively.) – SevenSidedDie Aug 14 at 8:20
  • Expanding on paragraph 2: Have many doors. Some could open into closets, some could be purely decorative, just hide this needle in a stack of needles. – Codes with Hammer Aug 15 at 15:17

Yes, the door is interesting... but later!

Another tack would be making time of an essence. Common tropes would be either trying to deny the players the time to investigate and route them on a different path, or making time part of the riddle.

As with the following examples:

  • The whole platoon of guards approaching simply forbids any lengthy or indepth research in itself. If you don't have any guards handy, make it another horror. The subterranean complex is near a lake? Perhaps a sound of rushing water will get them moving...
  • Make time itself part of the key of the door. As in, the door simply cannot be opened before a specified point in time - which may be arbitrarily far (but not too far) into the future. For example, a stonehenge like complex would have the sun shine on the door right on a solstice, and then, and only then, the players would hear a faint 'click'...

I'm playing in a game which held a similar issue. A door was presented to us and as the Barbarian with a portable battering ram, I perceive that every door can be opened with an appropriate strength check.

The mystery door was heavily warded and only an extraordinary strength check coupled with some magical buffing was going to get me through. However, the DM would have permitted this, but the consequences would be very serious.

To convey this, our DM allowed us means to peer through the door using ethereal magic effect and see the insurmountable undead hoarde within. This dovetailed extremely well with a prophecy we heard earlier in the game. So in the interest of not accidentally fulfilling the world-ending prophecy, we opted to not open the door.

I'm not sure what your game will entail, but this worked well for us. We were able to reveal some of the mystery behind the door and recognize in-game that it would be very unwise to open this door at this time. We still only had 1/4 of the answers we were searching for at the time, which meant a lot of the mystery and intrigue was still in play. This drove us to start exploring other story leads that had been dropped for us so that we could figure out a better, safer way to open the door holding back a crazy number of undead.

I agree with GrandmasterB's answer in that you shouldn't make it impossible to open. That's not the same as there being a way for the PC's to open it though.

Now I find that stopping players from trying to get to the places they shouldn't be is to teach them there are such places in your world. If your level 2 adventuring party goes to the dark forest that all the NPCs told them not to go to since it's dangerous, only to find it populated by 4 goblins and 2 kobolds, they won't learn. But if, as they enter, they notice a troll raiding party with a raid leader and spellcasting shaman, they will probably think twice next time.

In other words, if this door is the only door they ever encounter that can't be opened for some reason, it will stand out like a sore thumb and they are bound to try to open it. If there are more doors/obstacles like that, they will be much more willing to say, "Sod it, we can't open it now; let's see if after the fighter gains 4 more points of Strength or the green moon rises or whatever that riddle is supposed to mean happens it won't open easier. Maybe we would just get eaten by a grue if we went in anyway."

  • Are you recommending that I add more impossible to open doors, or are you recommending that I make opening the door possible? Can "possible" include a DC of 30? – Pink Sweetener Aug 14 at 11:37
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    I'm recommending that the world behave like the normal one does. That is many doors can't be opened and most of them lead to janitorial closets or warehouses where breaking in means jail time. Adventurer's are different of course, in that they love breaking in. But quite often the door should be hardish to break down and the harder it is to break down, the more likely there's a nasty monster they can't handle. – DRF Aug 14 at 12:26

You could inform them by way of map/inscription/riddle that the door will open at a certain time. This could be specific like the map inscription in The Hobbit that tells them that the door is open on a specific evening. Or it could be vague like Harry Potter's 'I will open at the close'.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Vague answers or riddles most probably just incite players to continue searching for a solution rather than deter them. The GM should be clear in his wish to convey to them that they simply cannot do anything at the moment and have to move on. – Anonymous Aug 14 at 10:28

My former GM would have one or more of the PCs have a prophetic dream. EX: Our group was passing through the door while snow was falling on the barren winter tree branches, then he'd have us do a PER check and point out it was the middle of summer.

Or he would place a temple oracle at the temple entrance who would tell the group the 1stime you try to pass, you'll be sorely disappointed. Take comfort knowing your return will prove as fruitful as a harvest cornucopia. Again a PER check, there were only spring fruits at the bazaar stands.

Or whilst at the local Inn we overheard a table of NPCs that were very obviously higher level than we currently were, complaining to the good natured Inn Keeper, over their failure to gain entrance to a nearby dungeon questioning him as to why he didn't warn them. The Inn Keepers Wife pointed to a sign on the wall that warned parties not to try entering that specific dungeon without a blessing from the local priest (who was currently on a pilgramage. We learned later he coincidentally had the only key.) She then held her hand out and collected money from the Local Patrons, who always made a bet that new travellers would ignore the warning.

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    Did that work with your players? Did this work when you were a player? – KorvinStarmast Aug 17 at 14:39

There is an old computer game called Evil Genius in which you build your evil lair. Now periodically the good guys turn up to investigate and the good guys are attracted to doors.

Now you have to have a doorway attaching your underground base to the outside so I would have two doorways. One doorway was a simple boring unlocked door which linked to my base and the other was a grade three steel locked door with security linked to an inescapable deathtrap. Naturally the good guys were attracted to the locked door and would spend all their time trying to break in only to end up dead and as a result, left my base alone.

A locked door attracts adventurers. They will try and pick the lock, dissolve the hinges with acid, cast cone of cold on it and hit it with hammers or just bash it down with axes if all else fails. If you present them with a locked door, they will try and open it by any means necessary.

If you don't want them to open it, they either need to not find it (hidden by illusion) or they are being chased by something that will eat them and they know they don't have the time to try and open it.

Anything else and they will keep going until they get in.

Chekov's Gun, don't put superfluous things in your campaign that aren't explicitly atmosphere building.

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

It sounds like a cool thing trying to emulate a videogame but dnd is a pseudo-literary experience, and putting a door in that isn't going to be opened in relative short order is just bad writing.

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    This is a Chekhov's gun. It's going to be fired eventually. The problem is justifying to the players why they can't take it off the wall and fire it right now. – Mark Wells Aug 13 at 2:58
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    "A much later date" does not imply chapter 2 or 3. – Coldsu Aug 13 at 3:10
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    This doesn't quite answer the question. If your intent is to say "don't include the door", you should say that explicitly... and perhaps explain what the asker should do instead if they plan to have such a door be opened later anyway. – V2Blast Aug 13 at 3:26

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