Thieves’ Tools in DnD 5e – A Guide To Picking Locks and More

Last Updated on January 22, 2023

You may have seen thieves’ tools listed as one of your proficiencies from a background or class or even one of your starting items. But you might not be clear on what thieves’ tools are, exactly.

What are Thieves’ Tools?

The Basic Rules for DnD 5e describe thieves’ tools as follows:  

This set of tools includes a small file, a set of lock picks, a small mirror mounted on a metal handle, a set of narrow-bladed scissors, and a pair of pliers. Proficiency with these tools lets you add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks you make to disarm traps or open locks.

Essentially, thieves’ tools are a few specific items that can be used in a variety of ways, and proficiency with the toolset lets you add your proficiency bonus to their intended use of opening locks and disarming traps that can be disarmed non-magically. 

While they don’t specify, it’s probably best to assume that your lock picks are sufficient for the majority of locks and that you have a wide variety. 

Thieves’ Tools and Proficiency

While mechanically we all know that having proficiency with a set of tools allows you to add a bonus to your roll when using those tools, it can be less clear what this bonus represents in-world. You might wonder if you need proficiency to be able to use thieves’ tools at all, for example.

Any character with thieves’ tools can try to pick a lock or disarm a trap.

However, I recommend that if the lock is complex or the trap is advanced, that without proficiency it will be impossible, even with thieves’ tools, to open the lock or disarm the trap.

If you know the general theory behind lockpicking, it can be surprisingly easy to accomplish on simple or standard locks. I’ve done it myself, and while it sometimes takes me up to ten minutes I can usually open most ordinary locks with no training or expertise. 

However, advanced locks are all but impossible to open for me, and those who are experts in lockpicking can often open even advanced locks in about the same amount of time it takes to use a key. 

A character who is proficient with thieves’ tools should therefore be considered one of those experts. They can pick locks and disarm traps that someone lacking proficiency in thieves’ tools could tinker with all day and never accomplish anything.

They can also do so much faster than most people. So while you may decide that the Wizard can pick the lock to the mansion door, it’ll take them 10x as long as the Rogue.

And of course, without thieves’ tools, only true masters can get a lock open without the key. 

How to Gain Proficiency With Thieves’ Tools

Proficiency with thieves’ tools can be gained in a number of ways. 

  • You can start out with a proficiency in the tools via your class. Both the Rogue and the Artificer class gain proficiency in thieves’ tools by default.
  • You can select a background which grants this proficiency. The Criminal, Urchin, and Urban Bounty Hunter backgrounds all grant this proficiency. 
  • You can select the Skilled feat whenever you gain a feat in order to gain proficiency with thieves’ tools. 
  • Lastly, if your DM allows it, you can train to gain proficiency in thieves’ tools. 

According to the Player’s Handbook, you can gain this proficiency by spending 250 days and 1 gp per day training.

At the end of the training period, you gain proficiency in a tool. To be able to train this way you need to be able to find a trainer willing to spend time teaching you the new proficiency.

This trainer may be difficult to find, depending on your DM, and should be proficient in thieves’ tools. 

Alternatively, according to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, you can spend 10 workweeks and 25 gp per week to gain proficiency with thieves’ tools. This method also requires a trainer but takes significantly less time.

You can also reduce the time necessary by a number of workweeks equal to your Intelligence modifier (though having a negative Intelligence modifier won’t increase the amount of time necessary to learn the skill). 

Both methods of training to gain a tool proficiency are optional rules, so you should check with your DM to ensure that this is an option. 

And, while there are many ways to gain proficiency with thieves’ tools, these proficiencies don’t stack. Multiple sources of proficiency in thieve’s tools don’t grant expertise or any additional bonuses, so if you have proficiency from your class you should pick a background that grants an alternative proficiency in order to optimize your character. 

How To Use Thieves’ Tools

While the standard uses for thieves’ tools are simply lockpicking and trap disarming, you can often do more with the set of tools than these tasks. Plus, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything suggests additional advantages that being proficient in thieves’ tools can offer.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything Optional Thieves’ Tools Rules

This sourcebook claims that in addition to being able to use the tools with proficiency, having proficiency in a tool should grant special advantages, though this is an optional rule. 

For thieves’ tools there are three additional abilities that proficiency grants.

Firstly, you gain knowledge of traps. While Xanathar’s Guide doesn’t specify precisely how this knowledge benefits you mechanically, it seems clear that you should be able to apply your proficiency in thieves’ tools to any checks made to understand or know about traps or areas famous for their traps.

Alternatively, if you would already be adding your proficiency bonus to such a check, you may wish to ask your DM if your proficiency with thieves’ tools can grant you advantage on the roll.

Your thieve’s tool proficiency also allows you additional insight into the process of searching for traps. You know how traps are put together, so you’ve learned to recognize their telltale signs, such as what the floor looks like when it’s on springs or how to listen for the ticking of clockwork.

Again, Xanathar’s Guide doesn’t specify the mechanical benefit, but just like above I recommend being able to add proficiency, or possibly gain advantage on the check.

Lastly, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything grants characters that have proficiency in thieves’ tools the ability to set traps in addition to disabling them. When you short rest, you can create a trap with items you have with you. After making an ability check with your thieves’ tools your roll becomes the DC that someone else has to beat to be able to discover or disarm your trap.

The trap’s damage is determined by the materials you had when crafting the trap. If you use a poison or a particular weapon then that will determine the damage. Alternatively, the trap might deal damage equal to half your earlier ability check. It’s up to the DM either way. 

A trap that simply drops a heavy object on someone’s head might deal damage equal to half your check, while a hidden crossbow that fires when someone opens a door might simply do damage equal to its normal weapon damage.

Additional Uses for the File

A small metal file, in addition to its use in disarming traps, can be used to weaken or break metal structures such as jail bars, the axles of wagons and other carts, metal railings on balconies, and staircases, or the hinges of a door/trapdoor.

You can therefore use a file to commit small and subtle acts of sabotage that if done with magic or brute force would be much more easily detectable. 

Additional Uses for the Lockpicks

Lockpicks are pretty much only useful for picking locks. However, you could also use your lockpicks to jam a lock by intentionally breaking the pick off while it’s inside. This may require the metal file, or your DM may rule that you can use brute force.

This can be handy as it makes the lock unopenable, and unpickable, forcing anyone who wants to get through the door to noisly break it down (which may take a few rounds depending on the door).  

Additional Uses for the Mirror

While you may be tempted to use a mirror to bypass the Medusa’s gaze, in truth you’re better off buying a dedicated and large mirror for this.

You may also want to reflect sunlight to attack a vampire, but reflecting light like this is often more difficult than it sounds, and will only ever possibly be helpful when you are fighting a vampire inside a building when it’s daytime outside, and sunny, and are already close to a window or the outside. There will probably be easier ways then a small mirror in those scenarios. 

The thieves’ tools mirror, mounted on its metal handle, is best for subtly peeking around corners, or through windows. It can also be, in rare cases, used to grant the magic user of the party line of sight to their target. 

Additional Uses for the Scissors

The scissors are simply scissors. While situations where you can use them creatively may appear, it’s unlikely that they will be the best solution to an obstacle. Combined with Mage Hand, your DM may allow you to use them to cut small ropes at range, which could disarm or set off an extremely simple trap.

Anything more complex than this would require being an Arcane Trickster; they can use their specialized Mage Hand to fully use the thieves’ tools to disarm traps and pick locks. 

Common Questions About Thieves’ Tools

What stat do thieves’ tools use 5e?

Most uses of thieve’s tools, to pick locks or disarm traps, use a simple Dexterity check to which you can add your proficiency bonus if you are proficient.

If you use the expanded thieves’ tools rules from XTGE you may use Intelligence or Wisdom for certain rolls; though this is not exactly the same as using thieves’ tools it will use your proficiency. 

Can thieves’ tools break 5e?

While all objects in DnD 5e have hit points and AC, and can therefore break, it’s unlikely that thieves’ tools will. Someone would have to deliberately try to break your tools for this to happen.

Lockpicks, for example, never break while using them to pick a lock unless that lock was magically enchanted with destructive spells. It’s true, Skyrim has lied to you about how easily lockpicks break! 

Can you buy thieves’ tools 5e?

Thieves’ tools can be bought in DnD 5e. They are not very expensive either, consisting of simple common tools.

Some DMs may rule that acquiring lockpicks specifically can be difficult if the city you’re in restricts their use, but locksmiths are common and therefore lockpicks will still never be as rare as even the most common magical item. 

Do you need thieves’ tools 5e?

It can be difficult to say that you need anything in DnD 5e. Thieves’ tools are useful ways of bypassing locked doors or dealing with traps. Obviously, if your campaign doesn’t feature these obstacles you are unlikely to use thieves’ tools.

However, even if it does there are likely other ways to bypass these obstacles, like breaking the door down or simply taking the trap damage. While not necessary, they can be helpful. 

Are Thieves’ Tools Useful? 

Sometimes it’s not enough to simply know how to use a mechanic in DnD 5e. For these players, the question arises: Is this useful? 

Thieves’ tools are undoubtedly useful in most campaigns. The ability to move stealthily through locked doors and disarm trap-filled dungeons can allow the party to proceed with plans or explore areas that would otherwise not be accessible to them.

Of course, it is possible that your campaign might not have a lot of stealth or locked doors, or even trap-filled dungeons! In these cases, you might find yourself not using your proficiency very often. 

I consider thieves’ tools to be some of the more useful tool types in the game. But at the end of the day usefulness will be determined by your campaign world and your DM.

If you’re interested in using thieves’ tools and playing the kind of character that can break in anywhere, consider looking for opportunities to use your skills.

Maybe you can bribe someone to get the information you need, but you could also try breaking into the nobleman’s mansion!

I consider thieves’ tools useful not because of the likelihood you’ll encounter scenarios that require thieves’ tools to solve (as that will be up to the DM), but the ability to come up with solutions to problems that utilize the abilities of thieves’ tools, both as individual items and as the full toolset. 

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