Dungeon Master Assistance

Where anyone over 18 can share thoughts and ideas on RPGs.

D&D 5E – Picking Locks


How to Pick a Lock

There is some confusion on what the rules are for picking a lock. It all depends on whether or not you have a set of thieves tols and if you know how to use them. There are six different possibilities.

  1. You have Thieves’ Tools and are proficient with them. You can attempt to pick the lock and get to add your proficiency bonus to the (Dex) check.
  2. You have Thieves’ Tools and have expertise with Thieves’ Tools.  You can attempt to pick the lock and get to add twice your proficiency bonus the (Dex) check.
  3. You have Thieves’ Tools but you aren’t proficient with them. You can still attempt to pick the lock but you don’t get to add your proficiency bonus (since it’s a bonus you only get when you are proficient with something).
  4. You don’t have any Thieves’ Tools so you improvise some (with your DM’s approval) but you aren’t proficient with Thieves’ Tools. You can still attempt to pick the lock but with disadvantage.
  5. You have improvised tools and you have proficiency with Thieves’ Tools. You have disadvantage on picking the lock, but you do get to add your proficiency bonus.
  6. No Thieves’ Tools and no improvised tools. Take a strength check to throw the closest party member through the door or crowbar the lock. Basically, look for another way to get past it because you can’t pick it.



15 responses to “D&D 5E – Picking Locks

  1. Bruno Baère November 14, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    The 6th possibility is the most overlooked. Throwing a gnome at the door can be used to test traps and to create diversion for escaping from the guards.


  2. Jack Vinson November 15, 2016 at 10:27 am

    Where does this “expertise” come from in 5e? I haven’t noticed that mentioned before.


    • Ronny November 15, 2016 at 11:42 am

      It is a rogue feature.
      PHB p.96 “At 1st level, choose two of your skill proficiencies, or one of your skill proficiencies and your proficiency with thieves’ tools. Your proficiency bonus is doubled for any ability check you make that uses either of the chosen proficiencies.
      At 6th level, you can choose two more of your proficiencies (in skills or with thieves’ tools) to gain this benefit.”


  3. Chris Keif December 1, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    What if your name is McGeyver?


    • Ronny December 1, 2016 at 3:38 pm

      🙂 Then you improvise some thieves’ tools out of whatever is at hand. Assuming your world doesn’t have paper clips, he might use a hair pin or belt buckle.


  4. Cedric January 15, 2017 at 11:02 am

    I’m not sure about your rule summary. P. 103 of the DMG says about locked door : character can pick the lock with a successful dexterity check, doing so requires thieves’ tolls and proficiency in their use.
    So, for me, the 3rd and 4th possibility are not possible.
    (sorry for my bad english, which is not my natural language)


    • Ronny January 15, 2017 at 4:25 pm

      Hi Cedric,
      I just understand the rules differently.
      For most things, I would rather say “okay you can try” and give them some penalty to the check instead of “no, you can’t do it”.
      My list is consistent with other rules. You can try to use anything, even if you aren’t proficient with it, but you suffer some penalty for not being proficient. I treat thieves tools like I do weapons. You can use a weapon you are not proficient with but you don’t get to add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll.
      On page 154 of the PHB, under Thieves Tools, it says “Proficiency with these tools lets you add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks you make to disarm traps or open locks.” Note that it doesn’t say that you can’t use them if you aren’t proficient with them. This leads me to think that you could use these tools if you were not proficient with them, but you wouldn’t get to add your proficiency bonus.
      Improvised thieves tools aren’t in the rule books anywhere that I can find.
      If you want to rule that in your games you can’t possibly pick a lock if you aren’t proficient with thieves tools, that is okay with me. But, rather than that, I might allow them to try at a disadvantage.


  5. Thelebk August 30, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    Critical omission here: How long does does it take to pick a lock? Picking a lock is not listed as an “action” in combat, yet most people play you may make an attempt in a six second melee round. Typically there is no penalty for retries.


    • Ronny August 31, 2020 at 10:17 am

      Thanks for the comment.
      Perhaps I should have addressed the time it takes, but as you say there is no official rule regarding this. It therefore falls squarely on the DM to decide and I tend to decide this on the fly depending on things like: Is it being attempted during combat? How complicated is the lock? Can it be seen clearly?
      If the PCs aren’t rushed, then I typically say it takes one minute. If it is an especially complicated lock I may say that it takes 10 minutes. During combat it takes 1 action, but I may increase the DC or have them attempt it at disadvantage if the one picking the lock is being attacked.
      Because it varies each time, I have no particular rule. The ones you state would work just fine.


      • vorpalbullet January 6, 2022 at 10:11 pm

        The Fast Hands ability of the Thief rogue archetype allows the rogue to pick a lock with their Cunning Action bonus action. Since all the other Cunning Action options are normally an Action, I think it’s reasonable that picking a lock is an Action.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. jordanhitch February 10, 2021 at 9:58 am

    What about no improvised tools with thieves’ tools proficiency?


    • Ronny February 11, 2021 at 8:19 am

      Then number 6 “No Thieves’ Tools and no improvised tools.” would apply. Having proficiency with a tool is of no value if you don’t have said tool. You simply can’t pick a lock without anything to pick it with. If you use a “bobby pin” then you are using an improvised tool.


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