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Does a character have to have thieves' tools (TT) in order to pick a lock? Not necessarily proficiency in the tool, but at least have the tool itself?

I'm confused about picking locks and whether or not it A) requires thieves tools to even attempt to open a lock (the description of the lock and manacles in the equipment section suggest they are), and B) if you need proficiency in TT to even use them (the "Working Together" section in PHB 175 suggestes you do). However the dexterity ability section on PHB 177 clearly lists "pick a lock" with no other qualifiers.

Clearly you can't pick a lock with just your fingers, so some type of tool is needed. I figure that improvising tools gives you disadvantage, while having the TT avoids that penalty. This allows my high dex characters to still attempt to open locks at any time (in a jail, stripped of their gear, etc) but obviously having the right equipment is a huge advantage.

So I ruled that picking a lock without TT is a dex roll with disadvantage, with TT (but not proficiency in them) is a normal DEX check, and proficiency lets you add your prof bonus to the roll (as the TT item entry seems to imply).

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The Short Answer (TL;DR)

You need Thieves' Tools to pick a lock but you don't need to be proficient with them.

The Long(er) Answer

You (usually) need Thieves' Tools to pick a lock or disarm a trap BUT you (probably) don't need to be proficient with them (maybe).

Exactly how you are meant to use Thieves' Tools isn't 100% explicitly and unequivocally covered by RAW (yet still) so this is my interpretation of those rules based on the rules I've found.

Part 1: Do you need Thieves' Tools to pick a lock?

This part of the question is easy: YES

Thieves' Tools are (surprisingly) a tool:

Tools

A tool helps you do something you couldn't otherwise do, such as craft or repair an item, forge a document, or pick a lock.

-PHB p.154/PBR p.50

This is pretty explicit and there aren't any contradictions to this general rule elsewhere. One potential problem is how to deal with improvised Thieves' Tools. The DMG has given us some good basic rules to deal with improvised Thieves' Tools under the Sample Traps section:

Collapsing Roof

This trap uses a trip wire... A successful DC 15 Dexterity check using thieves' tools disables the trip wire harmlessly. A character without thieves' tools can attempt this check with disadvantage using any edged weapon or edged tool. On a failed check, the trap triggers.

-DMG p.122

It's probably allowable to use improvised Thieves' Tools (in most situations) providing you have something sensible to make them from (at your DM's discretion). In addition, any lock picking or trap disarming check made with improvised Thieves' Tools should be made with disadvantage (if it's allowed at all).

Part 2: Do you need to be proficient with Thieves' Tools to use them?

This is the trickier part of the question as there are a few contradictions and unclear rules for this in the PHB/DMG. An important thing to note though, is that there isn't a section in the PHB/DMG that handles lock picking or trap disarming specifically. This means that a lot of it comes down to you and your DM's interpretation of any references to using Thieves' Tools.

There are a good number of references to Thieves' Tools in the PHB and DMG so let's look at the relevant ones and see what they say:

Equipment

The item descriptions for the Lock and Manacles both reference Thieves' Tools (though interestingly the Hunting Trap doesn't).

Lock. [...] A key is provided with the lock. Without the key, a creature proficient with thieves’ tools can pick this lock with a successful DC 15 Dexterity check.

-PHB p.152/PBR p.49

and

Manacles. [...] Each set of manacles comes with one key. Without the key, a creature proficient with thieves’ tools can pick the manacles’ lock with a successful DC 15 Dexterity check.

-PHB p.152/PBR p.50

Both of these listings could be interpreted to say you have to have proficiency to be able to pick the lock. However, as Cthos pointed out, a (fairly strict) reading doesn't actually exclude anyone who isn't proficient from making the check.

This could mean that a creature without proficiency in Thieves' Tools faces a DC 15 Dex check, a DC 15 Dex check with disadvantage, or even just a higher DC Dex check instead.

Tools

The general Tool rules and the Thieves' Tools description both point towards proficiency being non-mandatory:

Tools

[...] Proficiency with a tool allows you to add your proficiency bonus to any ability check you make using that tool.

-PHB p.154/PBR p.50/DMG p.239

Note: The DMG wording is infinitesimally different (and essentially identical) to the rules in the PHB/PBR

Since the phrasing of this is non-exclusive, like the equipment listings, it implies that you can take a non-proficient check with any tool.

Effectively, adding a proficiency bonus to a check (or not) is meant to simulate the "real world" impact of being proficient (or not) with whatever is involved in the ability check you're making.

Thieves' Tools. [...] Proficiency with these tools lets you add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks you make to disarm traps or open locks.

-PHB p.154/PBR v2 p.51

This description gives absolutely no indication that you need to be proficient to use Thieves' Tools, which I think is one of the strongest indicators that proficiency isn't required.

This is (quite surprisingly) the only main point of reference across the rule books. In addition, it also indirectly implies you can make a non-proficient check to disarm traps or open locks without getting your proficiency bonus and without disadvantage.

Ability Checks

Working Together Sometimes two or more characters team up to attempt a task. [...] A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone. For example, trying to open a lock requires proficiency with thieves’ tools, so a character who lacks that proficiency can’t help another character in that task.

-PHB p.175/PBR v2 p.59

This is the second strongest case for proficient use only - after all, it is explicitly stated that you need proficiency to open a lock. This is the only reference to outright state this though and it does contradict the implications of all previous rules.

It could be that in this case "specific beats general" and Thieves' Tools specifically need proficiency whereas other tools generally don't. However, this would make them the only tools to need proficiency.

I also think this could very well be errata, missed in the final edits, based purely on where it is (i.e. this isn't in the description for Thieves' Tools).

Other Dexterity Checks. The DM might call for a Dexterity check when you try to accomplish tasks like the following:

  • Control a heavily laden cart on a steep descent
  • Steer a chariot around a tight turn
  • Pick a lock
  • Disarm a trap
  • etc...

-PHB p.177/PBR p.60 (v3)

Again, this is a reference to taking a Dex check with no other qualifiers requiring proficiency (this was pointed out by Jason K in the question)

Mapping a Dungeon

Locked Doors

Characters who don't have the key for a locked door can pick the lock with a successful Dexterity check (doing so requires thieves' tools and proficiency in their use).

-DMG p.103

Ok, this provides the strongest argument for needing proficiency to use Thieves' Tools (and it's a strong argument one at that). This quote is pretty unflinching in terms of RAW and could be a deal breaker. However, as Jason K has pointed out, it is in a section that isn't about tools so could potentially be errata (and it isn't backed up by any other statements in the DMG.

Traps

If the adventurers detect a trap before triggering it, they might be able to disarm it, either permanently or long enough to move past it. You might call for an Intelligence (Investigation) check for a character to deduce what needs to be done, followed by a Dexterity check using thieves' tools to perform the necessary sabotage.

-DMG p.121

Here, again, is another reference to making a Dexterity check without explicitly requiring proficiency. This could have just been left out if it's already assumed you do require proficiency but that's not really stated as a normal assumption.

Twitter

Finally, for completeness, here's the tweet and reply between WaxEagle and Mike Mearls (co-lead designer of D&D 5e).

Important: I have stolen this directly from WaxEagles's answer purely for completeness. The effort on WaxEagle's part should be acknowledged here and I take no credit for this quote.

Conversation

WaxEagle: Could I get some clarity on thieves tools and lockpicking. Do you need the tools? Do you need proficiency?

Mike Mearls: anyone can use tools, prof bonus adds if proficient. No tools, DM can say no check or disadvantage.

Again, this is a pretty major point for allowing non-proficient lockpicking (or trap disarming) but I believe Mike has previously stated that Jeremy Crawford is the "rules guy" so it's not absolute (unfortunately).

Conclusion

After reading into the PHB and DMG, finding these rulings and taking them all together, my final assessment is still the same: I'd suggest that we can (and should) make the assumption that characters can attempt to use any tool they want.

Ultimately there is nothing physically preventing any character from picking up any tool, weapon, musical instrument, or set of armour they aren't proficient with and then trying to use it.

That said, a non-proficient character doesn't get their proficiency bonus and may also take an additional penalty, or have disadvantage (see non-proficiency with armour), so they're definitely less likely to achieve the outcome they want if they do try something unfamiliar.

If you're going for a "Gritty Realism" theme (DMG p. 267) to your campaign, then yeah, you could (house)rule that you need to be proficient and no amount of Dexterity is going to help without some kind of training or practice.

And that does kind of hold up in real life - ever tried to pick a lock before? However, I think a lot of people would agree that these guys, your characters, are heroes! I'd prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt, at least where RAW is concerned.

It would be great to see a definitive answer from the development team of 5e (Jeremy Crawford, Mike Mearls, & co.) but I'm not sure how likely that is. We shall see...

To restate my conclusion:

You do need Thieves' Tools to pick a lock but you don't need to be proficient with them.

Epilogue: How this works in practice

If you're still here and agree with my assessment, all this effectively means there are really only four scenarios you would come across when picking a lock:

  1. You have Thieves' Tools and are proficient with them. You can pick the lock and get to add your proficiency bonus to the (Dex) check.

  2. You have Thieves' Tools but you aren't proficient with them. You can still 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).

  3. You don't have any Thieves' Tools but you improvise some (with your DM's approval). You can still pick the lock but it's probably with disadvantage. If you have proficiency with the tools, add your bonus. If not, good luck with your roll!

  4. 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.

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @BraddSzonye You're absolutely right; Jason K and WaxEagle also both pointed out a few additional points that imply or state this in the PHB. However, IMO this could be an error due to changes in rules as 5e was being developed. WaxEagle's answer has Mike Mearles stance on it (via Twitter) and personally I think it makes the most sense this way, especially based on other tool use. Until the DMG comes out though, we're relying on conflicting interpretations of the PHB/Basic rules. Ultimately, using a consistent houserule is probably more important at this stage. \$\endgroup\$ – Tommy Nov 14 '14 at 13:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ FYI, Mearls stated that Crawford was the "official rules expert" in his reddit AMA. Great research on the answer! \$\endgroup\$ – sadaqah Jan 16 '15 at 5:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ We don't generally signal our edits in the answers, so I removed your two updates. Love how thorough this answer is. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 5 '18 at 13:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Jeremy Crawford clarified the specific "lock" mentioned in PHB p.152 in this tweet here: twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/700131015449128960. This confirms that tool proficiency is not required to use a tool, unless the item specifically mentions it. \$\endgroup\$ – ActiveNick Dec 14 '18 at 0:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ And here is an OFFICIAL answer from Jeremy Crafword in a tweet where I asked him directly: he confirms that proficiency isn't required to use a tool. twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/1073653310681362432 \$\endgroup\$ – ActiveNick Dec 14 '18 at 19:04
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You must both possess and be proficient with thieves' tools in order to use them to pick a lock:

a creature proficient with thieves’ tools can pick this lock with a successful DC 15 Dexterity check. (Player's D&D Basic Rules page 49).

To answer both questions:

  • A. Yes you need a thieves' tools to pick a lock
  • B. Yes, you need to be proficient with them in order to do so.

The "pick a lock" part of the Dex check seems to indicate that to use the tool is a Dex check, and then you'd need proficiency (per the definition of lock), and thus picking a lock is a Dex check plus your thieves' tool proficiency bonus.

So, ultimately, the conclusion is that you need the tools (though in a pinch you might not have them and could improvise, so good call on disadvantage).

It's worth noting that Mike Mearls, designer of D&D indicates that tools aren't required and neither is proficiency. It's worth noting that this is in contrast to the text (in the case of locks/manacles), so this may be cleaned up in teh DMG:

anyone can use tools, prof bonus adds if proficient. No tools, DM can say no check or disadvantage. Mearls

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi WaxEagle, I've just included your Tweet in my updated answer for utter completeness (since I've added every other quote I could find) and credited you in the answer as well. Hope that's alright? :) Just Tweeted Jeremy Crawford too to see what his stance is on it. \$\endgroup\$ – Tommy Jan 16 '15 at 0:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tommy just fine. \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Jan 16 '15 at 0:38
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Not in all cases

In the WoTC published Out of the Abyss campaign, there is a lock where the in game description says:

A character using thieves' tools can pick the lock with a successful DC 20 dexterity check. A character using makeshift tools can attempt the same check but has disadvantage.

I think it's clear: some locks can be picked without thieves' tools.

The full excerpt (contains Out of the Abyss spoilers):

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