Thieve's Tools
rating: 0+x

Basic Information

Thieve's tools is a generalism used (mainly in RPGs) to describe those tools which are useful for breaking and entering, opening or forcing locks and disarming traps and other security devices. The most basic of these is probably the lock-pick (also known as a picklock).

The low tech - usually fantasy - version of these will generally consist of a series of bizarrely shaped metal probes and picks designed to aid in bypassing the levers of locks. More advanced sets may include magnifying glasses, mirrors to reflect light into a mechanism and more destructive items such as acids, files, drills, saws and pry-bars. An extremely comprehensive set of tools may be required to get the full benefit of a high skill in lock picking, although most thieves may well be able to improvise a tool from virtually anything. Where appropriate one or more skeleton keys may also be included.

This sort of thing is - unsurprisingly - quite hard to lay hands on. A locksmith may have the same (or at least similar) tools but the only other source is probably the Thieve's Guild1. A master with the right craft skills may perhaps be able to make his own … he may even insist on doing so.

Higher tech tools might include diamond tipped compasses for cutting glass (in real life these only work from the "wrong" side of the glass as far as a thief is concerned), stethoscopes (to listen for lock tumblers moving) and flashlights for illumination. Into the modern era, the primary concern is likely to be devices, often attached to a computer, that can "pick" an electronic lock although the "lockpick gun" - a mechanical lock-picking device capable of bouncing open the tumblers of a lock - is also a common tool in the "right" hands. Truly advanced kits may include "smart" lockpicks which reconfigure themselves into the correct shape, but this tends to drift into the category of super-science.

Fantasy also includes at least the outside chance of enchanted thieves' tools … although these seem to be rarer than might be expected.

The dark lantern probably also counts as a thief's tool, given that it's primary purpose is to provide an easily concealed light source … although with the creation of the flashlight, this becomes less of an issue.

According to the account of Mayhew and Binny's The Criminal Prisons of London (1862)2 a well equipped Victorian "cracksman"3 might be equipped with the following:

  • A stout knife or chisel
  • A "jemmy" (crowbar)
  • An "America auger" (a brace and bit cutter) with an assortment of blades and drills
  • Rope
  • A jack - ideally a rack and pinion type.
  • A dark lantern4
  • A set of "bettys" (picklocks)
  • An "outsider" (fine nosed pliers modified to grip and turn a key in a lock)

Another popular tool was a "blank" uncut or partially cut key, coated with soot or similar material which could be pushed into the lock and moved against the wards so that they left a mark in the coating. The blank was then withdrawn, the marked areas filed down and the key re-coated and tried again. In reality this process could take days, cinematically it can be sped up considerably.

Where a thief had access to the key, but not the lock, an impression of the key could be taken in wax and a duplicate made for later use.

It is also worth noting that, before the days of precision engineered locks, it was entirely possible for some other key to be "close enough" to the correct shape to open a specific lock - and so patience and a large collection of keys could yield dividends. Of course, in that era, possession of a large assortment of keys without good excuse could attract suspicion in its own right. Frankly, the era of the "good enough" key (or failing that, the key which can be quickly altered to be good enough) continues into the modern day in very low tier locks.


The Victorian Underworld Kellow Chesney - source of the Mayhew and Binny reference above.

1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • The Thief probably needs these to use his skills to full potential.
  • A high spec, or even enchanted set of these is likely to make good treasure in a fantasy campaign.
  • Possession of thieves' tools is quite frequently a crime in and of itself, unless you are a locksmith or something else similar.
    • This can make buying or replacing such things interesting.
  • In most, if not all, cRPGs, lockpicks are assembled from bobby pins/safety pins and some other tool such as a screwdriver.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License