Clockwork Wonders11/06/2006

The Universal Key
Part 4 of 14

"That's the last of the wine," said Guildmaster Markell. "I think we found it at the House Cannith standing."
"Well, I'm thirsty," said Thondred, prying off the stopper. He upended the bottle over his goblet and the whistling began, the sound of metal under arcane stress…

The universal key is a mechanical swarm device that unlocks, unbelts, unstoppers, and unbuckles everything nearby when activated. It is often found sealed into potion bottles or even in kegs. Some sages believe that the universal key is only a construct in a technical sense, and that it is really the collected waters of a gear fountain (see "The Clockwork Fortress" in Dungeon magazine #114) enchanted with a simple knock spell. In this case, its magic comes from extraplanar sources.


To look at it, a universal key is a mass of tiny devices, called the "teeth" of the key. Each is about the size of a marble and capable of moving using a single main spring-powered friction wheel. Each tooth of the swarm can squeeze through a pin hole, can reshape itself almost fluidly and spring back to its original shape, and can grip and hold surfaces using five fingers covered with wiry hair.

In practice, though, no one ever sees a universal key in this level of detail. Instead, it always appears as a swarm filling one or more 5 ft. squares and coating every surface in that area. The statistics below describe a 5 ft. universal key; for larger ones use multiples of the 5 ft. one.

Use and Powers

When the container holding the tiny elements of the universal key is opened, they rush out faster than water, with an air-like whistle and begins its work: to unlock, unfasten, unbolt, unscrew, unnail, unbuckle, untie, unstopper, and unglue any objects or items held together in the area of the swarm. It cannot, however, reduce masonry into its component bricks (buildings are simply too big for it, and it seems that the universal key will misidentify them as natural terrain).

The key does not affect living matter, but does affect inert items held by a living creature (such as shields, belts, potion bottles, armor buckles, shoelaces, buttons, etc). In particular, a universal key is known for disconnecting each and every ring in a suit of chain from all other rings, a rather spectacular sight as months of smithwork are literally unraveled in a single round. Creatures in its area are entitled to a Reflex save to avoid the affect entirely. This is not a magical effect, however.

The universal key cannot open any magically sealed lock, but it can undo the physical aspect of whatever is affected by the magic. For example, if a universal key encountered a door with arcane lock cast on it, the key could not unlock the door. It would, however, remove the hinges from the door and possibly detach the lock itself from the door if that were possible.

While a universal key cannot be ordered to fight, it can be ordered to move in a certain direction. Any creature making a successful Charisma check (DC 14) can order the key to move in a particular direction, but not against a particular foe. If the check is successful, the key moves in that direction immediately and cannot be commanded again until it has spent a round unlocking or unbinding objects in the first square in that direction where it finds such things (even if that is not the square that the commander wanted the key to reach). It unbinds all objects in a total of four of its spaces, and then it seeks a small container to hibernate in, closing the stopper behind itself until released again. It can be activated once per day.

CL: 5th; Craft Construct, knock, heat metal; Price 2,400 gp; Cost 1,200 gp + 96 XP.

Universal Key CR 2
Always N Fine Construct (Swarm)
Init +5; Senses blindsense 30 ft.
Languages None

AC 23, touch 23, flat-footed 18
(+5 Dex, +8 size)
hp 16 (4 HD)
Immune mind-affecting effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, disease, death effects, necromantic effects, critical hits, flanking, nonlethal damage, ability damage, ability drain, fatigue, exhaustion, energy drain, any effect that requires a Fort save (unless it affects objects), weapon damage, spells or effects that target creatures, cannot be tripped or grappled or bull rushed
Fort +1, Ref +6, Will +0
Weakness vulnerable to area effect spells and effects, cannot grapple

Speed 20 ft. (4 squares), climb 10 ft.
Space 5 ft.; Reach 0 ft.
Base Atk +3; Grp -
Special Actions Unbind

Abilities Str 1, Dex 20, Con --, Int --, Wis 10, Cha 2
SQ construct traits, swarm traits
Feats Combat Expertise, Dodge

Unbind (Ex) When released, a universal key immediately fills its space and proceeds to unlock, unravel, and otherwise take apart every composite object not made of masonry in the square. If there are none, it seeks such objects in adjacent squares until it finds some. Objects are rendered into piles of their separate components. Unbinding objects is a full-round action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity. A successful Reflex save (DC 12) allows creatures and their carried equipment to avoid the effect by moving immediately to an adjacent clear square (if there are no clear adjacent squares, the creature cannot avoid the effect).

Campaign Hooks

A universal key might be part of a trap encounter, or it might be something that the guildmaster of a Thieves Guild asks the party to obtain from a magewright or artificer's workshop.

About the Author

Wolfgang Baur is the author of far too many RPG supplements. He discusses adventure design and writes tailored modules for patrons of the Open Design blog. His morbid streak is usually kept under control but his evil DM laughter is an all too familiar sound around the gaming table.

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