Picking a lock: Limited effect on binary outcomes

Greetings community.

I’m getting ready to DM my first game of Blades and setting up experimental situations to see if I can translate them to the Blades rules. I’ve found one thing particularly tricky: Limited Effect on something that I would consider to be a binary outcome.

For instance, picking a lock. If you have Standard Effect and roll 4-6, the door opens. If you have Zero Effect, the door won’t open unless you roll a crit or manage to boost effect some other way. But how do you express Limited Effect on picking a door? The lock either opens or it doesn’t.

I’ve considered the following options:

Firstly, doing whatever it takes to make the outcome nonbinary instead. In our example, I could say something like “you’ve gotten all the pins in the correct place, but halfway through rotating the tumbler it gets stuck,” and let the players do an additional Finesse roll to get the tumbler all the way rotated without resetting the pins. I see two problems with this approach: It seems to maybe violate the principle of not making the players roll twice for the same thing. Additionally, I might have to think up some really convoluted reasons (in the heat of the moment) how I can add an extra halfway-there outcome. Thinking up convoluted unlikely outcomes seems to go againt the idea of fiction-first gaming.

Secondly, avoiding these kinds of sitations at all. Any lock the players encounter will have their Tier adjusted so that the effect is Standard or Zero, whichever makes more sense for the place they’re invading. Doing enough prep that for any category of obstacle that would be too easy (because it got adjusted down), there’s an additional obstacle revealed. In case of our example, after picking the lock and trying to open the door the players would find out it’s also secured by a deadbolt. This option seems like it would feel fairer towards the players, because their success doesn’t get negated, the road to the prize was just a bit longer than anticipated. It would mean more work for me as a GM in terms of preparation, and BitD is designed to be low-prep.

There might be other ways to address this that I haven’t considered. What do you think I should do? How do experienced GMs deal with this?

Limiting the effect of an action or forcing a re-roll can be very dramatic in a narrative. It’s important not to think of these rolls as purely transactional and limited to the singular act that the player is trying to do. A player rolling two finesse rolls to pick a lock is boring, but a player rolling two finesse rolls because he’s under surveillance and trying to dodge the cops is interesting. Limiting the effect of a roll is an opportunity to add new dangers and complications to a scene and make a heist fraught with tension. For example:

  • Player rolls a 4 on her finesse attempt for limited effect. “You’re making progress on the lock, but it’s taking longer than expected and it’s more finicky than you’d like. You’ll need to roll again to finish picking it. Also, this means you’ve been out in this hallway for a while, I’m not marking the clock, but I’m going to show you that detection’s a real possibility, especially if you get less than a 6.”

  • A Player rolls a 4 on her finesse attempt for limited effect. “You’re making progress on the lock, but the mechanism is rusty. If you want to complete it, it may make loud noises when you finish. You’ll need to roll again in the risky/desperate position. Or you can try another approach.”

  • A player rolls a 4 on his finesse attempt for limited effect. “This lock honestly isn’t that difficult, but it’s taking longer than you’d expected because it’s a non-standard size. You can hear the approach of a night watchmen coming from down another hallway. You can make another finesse attempt, you’re pretty sure you’ll be able to open it before he comes. But if you fail…”


Funny, I was just thinking about this thing. There are several options, and I think the two you’ve presented are both great choices. I’ve got a few things to add.

I think your first option is totally legit, and one I’ve used myself. Remember that Limited effect specifically tells you to ask the quesiton “what else remains to be done?” Saying that the pins need some extra Finessing, or you’re got to tinker with a bit of extra mechanical business is perfectly reasonable, and a great way of mechanically reinforcing that this lock is of a high quality - it’s got failsafes and redundancies and such. I think this is most effective when the second step implies using a different action, or requires a different character to act: Finesse the tumbler, then Wreck the deadbolt; Study the mechnisms, then Tinker with the lock to diassassemble it.

To reframe your second option: instead of saying that you’re “adjusting the Tier of the lock down”, remember, there are always three factors to consider when assessing effect: Quality (/Tier), Potency and Scale. And in any given action, you do not need to weigh those factors evenly - one can override the others. In the lockpicking situation, we’re usually talking about the difficulty of wrangling with Quality - you want to say that this high Tier faction has really sweet locks, but that gets us into the Limited effect conundrum. Your option of toning down the quality of the locks is basically saying “There are no extremely high quality locks in the setting,” which is fair. Another way of thinking of it is to saw “Lockpicking is so potent against any lock, that it overrides the quality of the lock.” Both say interesting things about the fiction.

I’ll offer two other options:

Time: Limited effect could just mean that the lockpicking takes longer. You can tick an Alert clock to represent this (always a useful thing to have during an infiltration score), or simply describe the patrols rounding the corner, or the people on the other side of the door preparing for intrusion, or whatever. This is sort of a reverse-Setup action: the Limited effect manifests in increasing the tension for whatever the next action will be.

Speaking of Setup actions, you can avoid the Limited efffect problem entirely by offering setup actions. If the Lurk is going to be at Limited effect for the lockpicking because of their rusty, ill-fitting picks, you can say “But the Leech can Study the lock to increase your effect.” Maybe even a Flashback works!

Another good piece of advice I saw once: when a player declares their goal with an action, by default assume they want Standard effect, and adjust Position accordingly. So when the player says “I want to pick the lock to open the door to get to the other side”, instead of saying “Your tools are too poor quality - that’s Controlled/Limited,” just assume their going to take whatever risks they need to in order to get Standard effect and say “Your picks are poorly quality, so you’re going to need to jimmy things a lot, risking a lot of noise - Risky/Standard”. This is the same as trading Position for Effect, you’re just doing it preemptively.


So another thing to think about is the goal. Presumably, picking the lock is just a means to an end. So think about the effectiveness of achieving that goal; so you may open the lock but not achieve the goal.

  • increased scale: there’s more than one locked door
  • Increased potency: there’s another security measure to overcome; electrical trap, ghost possession, guard
  • Increased quality: you thought it was a Catch Vault Double Wheel, but it’s actually a cleverly disguised Grated Shield Triple Bolt.

In addition to all of the prior suggestions, I’d like to recommend “Getting some, but not all, of your intent” as an option.

The task of “open the door” may be complete, but the intent of “enter silently” may not be. The heavy bolt is free but it’ll take a moment of slow, careful work to avoid the THUNK it makes as it slides into its setting.

In many cases, of course, I’ll simply offer my players a position-effect trade, if they haven’t already requested one themselves. “You can make sure you open and clear the lock in one go, naturally - but you’re going to chance leaving signs of your passing in the mechanism that will bring you Heat when they’re found later. And if the guards spot you, you’re going to be in the open, kneeling in front of the lock, with a hard time selling any excuses. Do you want to move from risky-limited to desperate-standard at those stakes?”

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I’m seeing so many good responses here, thanks everyone! I was clearly thinking too small in scope in how to address Limited Effect on the lock. Considering it as Limited Effect on the larger goal of covert entry opens up many possibilities that are very much in line with the concrete examples that you all suggested.

Pre-emptively suggesting a Position-for-Effect trade also sounds like a good way to marry the rules to the fiction. I reckon my new players may forget that’s even a thing, so I’ll make myself a note to regularly remind them/suggest it when appropriate.

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All answers are excellent and I can’t add to them much. But I’ll make a remark that is maybe not true. Are you maybe in part confusing Limited and Reduced effect?

I say this because what you describe in your “First solution”, sounds very much more like what the GM would say in the event of choosing a “reduced effect consequence”, than what he would have said for explaining a “Limited effect” (which is a level of effect chosen before the roll). But what’s good is that you don’t have to choose this consequence, so don’t choose it if you don’t know how you would explain it in the fiction, or if the explanation seems far-fetched.

Also: “If you have Standard Effect and roll 4-6, the door opens”. Well, not always. Beecause of the possibility of choosing the consequence Reduced Effect, that would bring the final effect from Standard to Limited. And also because a Standard effect does not always mean that an obstacle is over. I don’t recommend it for locks, specifically, but an obstacle could be a clock and a standard effect would only tick two segments on it.

If the difference in Tier has you thinking you should declare the effect f the lock-picking a Limited effect, that’s in fact a call-up to the players to use their ressources: set-up, push, trade for effect, and so on. My take on it is it’s anti-fictional for any player to accept that their action has a limited effect, especially if the obstacle looks like it’s binary affair. So that in practice, you should never have to describe something that seems unfair or far-fetched.


Like many things in this game, I think there are multiple right answers to this question, and the one you choose at any given moment will depend on the situation you’re trying to represent in your story.
Using limited/reduced effect means that to succeed, the players will likely have to spend resources and/or fill a clock. You’re saying the obstacle is complex, and there’s a real question about how long it will take – and about whether the characters will be able to hang in long enough to do it.
Your can decide at any point that there’s no time pressure, or an obstacle like a lock isn’t the opposing faction’s top quality gear. You can choose not to use the reduced effect consequence. You can even decide that a lock in a given situation doesn’t even merit an action roll.
I would posit though, that while a lock is either open or closed, the time it takes to change between those two states is an engine for a story.
A locked door can be (in the right circumstances) the perfect example of what clocks are good for.
If there’s a pressing threat, or a need to be done with the task quickly, a clock is great – like when an escaping rival slams a locked door between you. Can you get through to open before she’s gotten clean away? Or if there’s poison gas filling the room, can you get the door open and get out before you’re overcome?
If you start a clock, variable effect is a natural part of this. If the door/lock’s quality is a dominant factor, a success gives fewer ticks on the clock, meaning tension grows as the characters struggle to open the door before the threat comes to pass. If the reduced effect consequence is chosen, a similar situational shift occurs.
“Don’t roll for the same thing twice” means that all actions should change the story, whether they succeed or fail. Continuing an action under the pressure of time and growing consequences isn’t “rolling for the same thing,” as the story is changing around the rolls. Resources are potentially being spent, consequences are looming or manifesting, and work is being done toward the goal. Getting 2 ticks on an 8-clock locked door by tinkering with the lock means you’re making progress (you can feel the internal mechanism lining up, but it’s complicated and sweat is dripping into your eyes) but that you’re still working on the problem and there’s danger in the continued attempt. Every roll can bring consequences (the Alarm clock on the table gets ticked, the door you’re working on opens and 2 guards look down on you squatting there with your lock picks, you took too long and your quarry is gone, a trap is set off, etc., etc.).
All of these tools can be used in different ways to set up scenes, bringing focus where you want it or surprising you and taking the story in a new direction.
The trick is looking at the moment you’re setting up and choosing which way to represent it mechanically. The fun is that you’d be hard pressed to pick a way that’s truly “wrong.”

When you’re using a progress clock, an action at standard effect fills in 2 ticks, and an action at limited effect fills in 1 tick. The book tells you to use progress clocks for complex obstacles that should require multiple actions to resolve, and the smallest clock ever mentioned is a 4-clock, but the underlying logic works all the way down. You can think of a “normal” obstacle as being a 2-clock. You don’t usually bother to draw the clock, because the whole thing will often get filled in in one roll anyway. If a PC has limited effect, their first roll will fill in 1 tick, and then they can roll again to fill in another tick. You can add all kinds of narrative bells and whistles or mechanical tweaks to pretty it up, but at the end of the day I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong about making two very similar rolls in a row. A PC with standard effect can fill a 4-clock with two rolls, and sometimes those rolls will be the same. Sometimes you draw a 4-clock for “sneak into the target’s office” and the Lurk decides to Prowl halfway there and then Prowl the rest of the way there. That isn’t inherently more interesting than using limited effect to Finesse half a lock and then Finesse the other half, it’s exactly the same. If the PC gets a 6 on their first roll the result may not feel very interesting, but that’s because rolling 6s in Blades is usually not very interesting. If they don’t roll a 6, then there will be some kind of complication. The narrative develops, their situation has changed at least slightly, and so they’re not actually “rolling for the same thing twice” after all.

Also, think about the effect/position matrix. In my experience, controlled position/limited effect is a great tool for a lot of situations. Risky/Limited is brutally punishing to starting characters, and Controlled/Standard can feel like too much of a pushover unless the players really earned it. When mapping out a score in my head, if I know that the players are likely to have only limited effect on an obstacle, I will make sure to think about ways they could improve their position. If I think it’s likely they could get a controlled position, I am more likely to throw in high-tier opposition that might reduce their effect.

Lockpicking, specifically, is one of my favorite tasks to handle this way. If a burglary is well-planned, then the PCs will often have lots of time to pick the lock and low risk of detection, so they’ll be in a controlled position. If it’s a high-tier lock, they’ll have limited effect. If they roll a 4-5, I usually choose “risky position” for the complication. They’re halfway through picking the lock, but now they hear someone approaching, and now they risk detection if they’re not quick enough.