The Designing with Style series breaks down the official 5th Edition style guide to help designers create content that’s well-written, polished, and precise. Using consistent language for rules and mechanics makes it easier for new players to understand the game and helps to avoid confusion that slows play. For example, the range of hold person is 60 feet, but the spell text still specifies that the target must be “a humanoid you can see within range.” Those limitations are important to ensure that the spell is balanced (it would be far more powerful if you could target non-humanoids like giants and dragons), that it makes sense in the context of the world (you must be able to see the target), and that it it is mechanically clear (the target of the spell must be within the given range).
Understanding the style guide is the key to creating content that’s usable, elegant, and professional. If you want to write quality content for 5th Edition, then it needs to sound like 5th Edition. It’s important to let your own voice shine through, but you have to know the rules before you can break them; writing is an art, and like any art, it’s important to learn the style conventions of your genre as you develop your own style.
Using Thieves’ Tools
Now that we’ve covered the style for ability checks and saving throws, we’ll gain proficiency in the wording for a specialized check: using thieves’ tools. And speaking of proficiency, let’s take a minute to check the style guide for the correct language:
Here are the rules of thumb for using the right preposition with the words “proficient” and “proficiency”:
• You are proficient, or have proficiency, in a skill, language, or other activity that is learnable and repeatable.
• You are proficient, or have proficiency, with a tool, weapon, type of armor, or other object.
So you are proficient in Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) checks but proficient with thieves’ tools.
First of all, thieves’ tools (note the placement of the apostrophe) are never capitalized, except at the beginning of a sentence. Mechanically speaking, there is no such thing as a “lockpicking kit” or a “lockpicking check.” These synonyms are fine to use in play if you like but would be unnecessarily confusing in a published module.
The most common way to call for a check using thieves’ tools is:
Option 1. “The door can be unlocked with a successful DC 15 Dexterity check using thieves’ tools.”
Sometimes, this will be written as:
Option 2. “The door is locked, but it can be picked by a character who uses thieves’ tools and makes a successful DC 15 Dexterity check.”
Personally, I prefer the first option because it more clearly implies that you can add your proficiency bonus with thieves’ tools, if any. However, you can pick the option that sounds best in context.
Thieves’ Tools versus Sleight of Hand
It’s also important to note that a check with thieves’ tools is not the same thing as a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check. A rogue can choose to have expertise in Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) separately from expertise with thieves’ tools. As described above, Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) is a skill while thieves’ tools are—obviously—a tool.
Really, it makes sense for these to be separate abilities since all the sleight of hand in the world isn’t going to let you stick your fingers in a lock to massage the tumblers into place. And since they are separate abilities, do not write “a successful DC 15 Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check using thieves’ tools.”
Questions? Treasure chests that just won’t open? Style conventions that just don’t make sense? Leave a note in the comments and suggest topics for future posts!