Black and white photo of a hand pressing something into a lock
5e: How to Use Thieves Tools

Written by Ethan

Ethan is a storyteller, GM, and all-around nerd. He spends his time introducing all of his friends to D&D and creating hard magic systems for upcoming novels.

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Ever been exploring a dungeon only to be stopped by a locked door? Spot a tripwire along the floor of a dungeon only to be stumped about how to disarm it? Stuck in a jail cell for crimes you may have committed? In 5e, thieves’ tools are what you’re after—but how do you use them, and what else can they be used for?

Thieves’ tools are a small set of tools that any character in D&D can acquire and become proficient in (requiring 2000 hours or 250 days of training from a teacher, 1gp per day). They are primarily used for picking locks, arming/disarming/making traps, and each tool can be used creatively.

Want to know just how to get the most out of them? Let’s dive in.

What are Thieves’ Tools?

In the Player’s Handbook (PHB) (pg 154), they cost 25gp, weigh 1lb, and include the following: 

  • A small file
  • A set of lock picks
  • A small mirror mounted on a metal handle
  • A set of narrow-bladed scissors
  • A pair of pliers

Proficiency in thieves’ tools lets you add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks to disarm traps or open doors.

This appears to be straight-forward enough. Any character can buy and use thieves’ tools, and anyone proficient in them can add that bonus to the check, right? Well, maybe.

Earlier in the same chapter in the PHB (pg 152), there is a list of adventuring gear, including locks and manacles. In these items’ descriptions, it is specified that a creature proficient with thieves’ tools can pick the locks with a successful Dexterity check—the implication is you only need the proficiency, not the tools themselves.

Furthermore, the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) (pg 103) dictates that you must have thieves’ tools and proficiency in their use to pick a locked door.

What Can You Do If You Lack Proficiency?

Can you still attempt to use them if you’re unskilled? And if so, what benefit would that give?

I have never picked a lock before. However, I have attempted to emulate the action heroes I’ve seen in movies by sticking some metal in a lock and moving it around some. Surprise: I didn’t get far.

As it turns out, picking a lock is not just sticking a piece of wire into a lock and fiddling around with it—you have to know what you’re doing, which is what proficiency represents in D&D. 

Therefore, I would suggest ruling that one must be proficient in thieves’ tools to pick a lock.

I would not, however, suggest ruling the same for disarming traps. Most traps that are detailed in the DMG, the PHB, and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE) are simple setups that, if discovered, are obvious in how they work. 

If the trap is complicated, a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check might be necessary, but you could get creative by using proficiency in a Tinker’s Tools or a relevant background to give advantage.

Therefore, if a character successfully discovers the trap, they should be able to disarm it using thieves’ tools without needing proficiency in them. If the creature does not have thieves’ tools, they can make the check with disadvantage using any edged weapon or tool.

Ultimately, this is a decision for your Dungeon Master (DM) to make. Ask them how they would decide these situations so that you know what to expect.


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Proficiency with Thieves’ Tools

Proficiency with thieves’ tools can be gained in several ways. Keep in mind that thieves’ tools do not count as a type of artisan’s tools, as is the requirement for some class proficiencies. These classes, backgrounds, and other modes can get you proficiency:

Using the customizable origin rules found in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE)(pg 7-8), you can swap out certain proficiencies if they are a result of your race or subrace. 

Thieves’ tools can be gained by swapping out proficiency with armor, a martial weapon, or a different tool. Tools, in this case, include anything in the table found on page 154 of the PHB.

To gain proficiency through training, you must have a willing teacher and spend 250 days, 8 hours a day (2000 hours in total) to train under them, and the standard rate is 1gp per day. Your DM may decide to tweak that up or down, depending on circumstances. 

I allow teammates to teach each other their tool proficiencies during downtime, but every DM is different.

Expanded Usefulness

XGE gives additional benefits to being proficient in thieves’ tools. They are:

  • History: Your knowledge of traps grants you insight when answering questions about locations that are renowned for their traps.
  • Investigation and Perception: You gain additional insight when looking for traps because you have learned a variety of common signs that betray their presence.
  • Set a trap: Just as you can disable traps, you can set them. As part of a short rest, you can create a trap using items you have on hand. The total of your check becomes the DC for someone else’s attempt to discover or disable the trap. The trap deals damage appropriate to the materials used in crafting it (such as poison or a weapon) or damage equal to half the total of your check, whichever the DM deems appropriate.

The first two abilities don’t specify how that extra insight benefits you. Your DM might rule that it means you have advantage on your checks to search for traps. As for setting and creating traps, the ruling is somewhat vague. Your DM can decide which ability score is relevant, though Dexterity seems the most relevant.


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What Else Can I Use Thieves’ Tools For?

While thieves’ tools are primarily used for picking locks and disarming traps, there are other potential uses for them.

The File

The file included is small, so it might not be able to take down large objects, but consider using it to file through ropes, cut a piece of chain jewelry off someone, give someone a manicure, or mess up fine machinery. Sometimes it’s a matter of small force applied to a weak spot.

It could be used to weaken objects so that they are liable to break under pressure, such as a shoe’s heel, a chair’s leg, a chain – though these would all require time and might be better served if you had a saw. Still, it might be harder to detect these interventions.

The Mirror

The mirror could be used to fight a medusa, reflect light into someone’s eyes or at a vampire, signal at a distance (maybe with Morse code), and perform a bit of dentistry.

I recommend using it to help with stealth by examining under doors, through cracks, over walls, or around corners. Just think of all the uses if you have spells that allow you to target a spot “you can see within range.”  One of my favorites is Create Bonfire to trigger a scene of pure confusion.

The Scissors

The scissors could be used to cut pieces of cloth, escape from being garroted, trim cuticles and nose hairs, or stab someone’s eye. Given their size, these are much more likely to be secreted on your person than daggers or other weapons should you run into trouble.

The Pliers

The pliers could be used for many means of unsavory things to a captured enemy, removing a gemstone from its place, bending wire, and even cracking nuts. If you specify at the start that they’re needle-nose pliers with wire-cutting function, then I’m sure you could find even more uses for them.

Extra uses of these tools are only limited by your creativity, but it’s only possible when you remember the specific tools included in the toolset.

Summary

Thieves’ tools are one of the most used tools in the game, and while they can be bought and sold by anyone, your DM might rule that you need to be proficient with them in order to use them.

  • Proficiency with thieves’ tools is needed for lockpicking but not for disarming traps (but this is just my opinion, not Rules-as-Written (RAW)).
  • Proficiency with thieves’ tools can be acquired through multiple classes, backgrounds, a feat, and the customizable origin in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (pg 7-8).
  • Proficiency can also be gained by finding a willing teacher and spending 8 hours a day for 250 days (or 2000 hours broken up) for 1gp per day. I recommend letting teammates tutor each other, but bear in mind that they cannot share training for the same hours in parallel.
  • You gain additional insight in looking for traps and knowing about them, as well as creating them with materials on-hand during a short rest. You can set them the same as you would do anything else outside of combat. In-combat, I suppose you could arm/set one as an action.
  • Since thieves’ tools are a set of specific tools, you can use the individual tools to accomplish other tasks. They are particularly good for hiding on your person if your weapons are taken away from you, looking/casting spells around corners, and making mischief.

Overall, the main takeaway is that you can use the components of the kit as independent items, that you can gain some insight into things related to locks and traps, but also that you can make and set up traps yourself.

Now get out there and make some mischief!

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  2. 5E Guide: How to Multiclass — Make a Skill Check - […] the rogue list, with Expertise (double proficiency mod) on two of them, as well as proficiency with thieves’ tools.…
  3. 5e Support Class Builds: Carrying The Party — Make a Skill Check - […] Thief’s Tools: Get past locks, disarm traps; most rogue’s bread and butter. More on them in this post. […]
  4. D&D Exploration Pillar: How To Get It Right — Make a Skill Check - […] Proficiencies (and their uses, which XGE expanded on), pgs 78 to 85. (our post on thieves’ tools and alchemist…
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  6. 5e: How to Homebrew Everything — Make a Skill Check - […] pick a lock any good. That’s what proficiency in thieves’ tools is for (our post on those tools here).…
  7. D&D Exploration Pillar: How To Get It Right — Make a Skill Check - […] Proficiencies (and their uses, which XGE expanded on), pgs 78 to 85. (our post on thieves’ tools and alchemist…
  8. 5e: How to Homebrew Everything — Make a Skill Check - […] a lock any good. That’s what proficiency in thieves’ tools is for (our post on those tools here). Conversely,…