Picking Locks in DnD 5e: A Beginner’s Guide to Burglary

Picking locks has been a cornerstone of sneaky characters in D&D since all the way back in 1st edition (when the Thief class had a percentage-based chance of picking a lock using thieves’ tools, with a 99% likelihood of success at their highest level), and is definitely one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of rogues in 5e. 

There’s just something about the image of the cloaked adventurer, delicately turning, tapping, and probing a lock with their pocketful of mysterious tools – hoping for that single, decisive click before the palace guard passes by on their next patrol – that feels quintessentially D&D

Now, I was asked to look into lock picking by Rich after his weekly session ran into some issues over how exactly the process works.

After some digging through rulebooks, falling down a super satisfying rabbit hole of lockpicking videos, and booting up The Elder Scrolls for half an hour, I have reached the following conclusions… 

  1. Lockpicking is a frequently misunderstood part of 5e. 
  2. Lockpicking is frequently understood because the RAW are boring. 
  3. I think I have a better way. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Picking Locks

Lock Picking Tools in Leather Case

The ideal for picking a lock would be a high dexterity character, proficiency or expertise in thieves tools, with Guidance and Help (if allowed by your DM). It’s also up to your DM if you can try again on a failure.

Before I get into some wild theories about homebrewed lockpicking minigames, let’s break down how to pick locks using the RAW. 

Roll: Skill Check 

Ability: Dexterity (thieves’ tools)

Starting DC: 15 

How to Pick a Lock in 5e

Picking a lock requires a Dexterity skill check and the use of Thieves’ Tools. This typically has a standard DC of 15.

If your character is proficient with Thieves’ Tools, you add your proficiency bonus to the result of the Dexterity check. 

You cannot attempt to pick a lock without Thieves’ Tools, but a character that is not proficient in Thieves’ Tools can still try to use them to pick a lock. 

Personally, I would also allow characters to improvise a set of Thieves’ Tools (a small piece of metal or a hammer chisel might also do the job) or use an adjacent toolset (like Tinker’s Tools or Mason’s Tools) in order to attempt a lockpicking check at disadvantage. 

And… that’s about it. 

If you’re playing a high Dexterity character with Thieves’ Tools proficiency (either because you’re a rogue or artificer, because you took the Criminal, Urchin, and Urban Bounty Hunter backgrounds, took the Skilled feat, or your DM let you train to get proficiency in Thieves’ Tools during downtime) you’re pretty likely to be able to pick most standard locks. 

How many times can I attempt lock picking in 5e?

There are also no explicit restrictions in the RAW on how many times you can attempt to pick a lock, no penalties listed for what happens when you fail, and there’s no specific information on how long picking a lock takes – the assumption being, I think, that it requires an action. 

Can anyone Aid or Help me in lock picking?

There are no specific rules for helping pick a lock but your DM can allow you to use the Help action, which grants advantage. You can also get benefit from something like the Guidance spell, which grants you a bonus 1d4 on the check

Honestly, a lot of the complaints I have about traps in the 5e RAW also apply to lockpicking. It’s such an evocative, exciting action narratively that the fact picking a lock boils down to a single d20 roll feels like a disservice. 

This is also why I think a lot of players and DMs misunderstand how lock picking works. The rules underpinning the process are so simple that they give off the impression that you must be missing something. 

Let’s see if we can do better. 

A Better Way to Pick Locks? 

Here’s my idea for a lockpicking minigame which you might find more enjoyable than the rules presented in the base game. 

Just to quickly state our design objectives… 

  • We want lockpicking to feel tense and realistic. 
  • Consequences for a failed attempt. 
  • Rogues feel like masters of picking locks. 

So, first, let’s design our locks. We want the process to feel like a balancing act, something that requires precision and focus.

As such, each lock is going to have a DC range, rather than a single number. 

  • Easy Lock DC: 14-20
  • Medium Lock DC: 16-20
  • Hard Lock DC: 18-20 
  • “Unbreakable” Lock DC: 20

When the character trying to pick the lock rolls their dice, they’re trying to get a result that’s within the target DC. 

However, they won’t be rolling a d20, but rather (because I kind of want the process to feel more like Blackjack) a series of dice, the size of which is determined by a number of factors. 

  • No Thieves’ Tools Proficiency, Improvised Thieves Tools: d12
  • No Thieves’ Tools Proficiency, Thieves’ Tools: d10 
  • Thieves’ Tools Proficiency, Thieves’ Tools: d8 
  • Thieves’ Tools Expertise, Thieves’ Tools: d6

You could also maybe rule that a rogue with Thieves’ Tools expertise can assess a lock beforehand to determine its DC range. All other characters just have to blindly feel it out. 

Also, the DM should feel free to move the target range of numbers around, as long as an Easy lock still covers 6 numbers its DC range could be 8-14, 16-22, or even 2-8. 

When a character starts to pick a lock, they roll one die after another of their determined type, adding the results of subsequent rolls together. If their total lands within the DC range, the lock opens successfully.

If they go over the DC range, they fail and either roll a d4 on the table below or the DM chooses the most appropriate option. 

  1. Snap. Your Thieves’ Tools break off in the lock and are destroyed. 
  2. You damage the internal mechanism of the lock. Now, no one can pick it. 
  3. The process either takes longer than you expected, or makes more noise than you’d like. Either way, you run the risk of attracting attention. 
  4. You waste a few moments, but are otherwise ready to try again. 

If your character is proficient (or has Expertise) with thieves’ tools, they can reroll a number of dice equal to their proficiency bonus. 

Time: In combat, you can roll a number of lockpicking dice equal to your Dexterity modifier as an action. 

There, hopefully, this presents itself as an interesting alternative to the basic rules for lock picking. Now, get out there and steal some treasure.