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DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Fast Hands

Last Updated: July 9th, 2021

Disclaimer

RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.

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The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

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Introduction

Fast Hands is an exciting ability which encourages the player to explore 5e's items and look for treasures to turn into surprising combat options. The full length of breadth of 5e's published items are available to you, but to truly understand Fast Hands we also need to understand how it works and what items work with it.

While Fast Hands does more than just allow you to Use an Object quickly, this article will focus primarily on that aspect of the feature. The rest of the function of Fast Hands is easy enough to understand that smart people like you don't need me to spell it out for you. Instead, this article will do the grunt work of figuring out the Use an Object portion of the feature and determining which items are both allowed and worthwhile.

With a better understanding of how Fast Hands works and with a well-stocked set of items, the Thief is a terrifying threat. Fast Hands allows the Thief to do things normally reserved for area control casters, and to turn their Bonus Action into a consistent and reliable source of damage output on top of the Rogue's already impressive Sneak Attack damage.

How Does it Work?

Let's start with the SRD text for Fast Hands:

Starting at 3rd level, you can use the bonus action granted by your Cunning Action to make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, use your thieves' tools to disarm a trap or open a lock, or take the Use an Object action.

That all seems fairly straightforward, but there is a bit more rules text that we care about which has been conveniently hidden away in the Activating an Item text 140 pages later in the SRD (more in the Player's Handbook):

If an item requires an action to activate, that action isn't a function of the Use an Item action, so a feature such as the rogue's Fast Hands can't be used to activate the item.

At this point the rules are clear as mud. We now know of the Use an Object action and the Activate an Item action, both of which are discrete actions that are named entirely using synonyms. This was a linguistic failure which Wizards of the Coast took years to clarify in the Sage Advice Compendium:

Can a thief use the Fast Hands feature to activate a magic item? No. One of the benefits of Fast Hands is being able to take the Use an Object action as a bonus action, but using a magic item doesn’t fall under Use an Object, as explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p. 141). In contrast, using a nonmagical item, such as a healer’s kit, is in the domain of Use an Object.

This answer clarifies some big points. First, Use an Object and Activate an Item are intentionally different actions rather than just a textual error. Second, Use an Item is intended for magic items, despite deliberately and repeatedly omitting the word magic from the name. Third, it clarifies that any mundane items which specify that they can be activated with an Action qualify for Fast Hands.

Let's check the SRD text for the Use an Object action for reference:

You normally interact with an object while doing something else, such as when you draw a sword as part of an attack. When an object requires your action for its use, you take the Use an Object action. This action is also useful when you want to interact with more than one object on your turn.

With all of the above information, we can very clearly detemine which items work with the "Use an Object" action: Any non-magic item that specifies that you must use an Action to use the item, but which doesn't specify what that action is. For example: A bag of caltrops specifies that it takes your Action to use, so it qualifies.

It's also helpful to remember that some things can be done with items without spending an action of any kind. The "Other Activity on Your Turn" section describes things which you can do once per turn without spending an Action, including examples like drawing a weapon or handing an item to another character. If you need to do two of these things in a turn, they're not covered by the Use an Object action for some reason, so Fast Hands doesn't apply.

The non-action described in "Other Activity on your turn" is frequently described as your "free item interaction". It's important to understand this non-actioin as a part of your action economy because you will frequently need to use your free item interaction to draw an item before you can use it with Fast Hands.

Can I use a Potion of Healing?

No, unfortunately. The Player's Handbook and the SRD both list a Potion of Healing alongside mundane items, but potions are magic items, so using them takes the Activate an Item action.

This is a point of frustration if you want to use Potions of Healing with any sort of frequency, but consider what it would do the game if a thief could stock up on cheap potions of healing and heal themselves for 2d4+4 every single round.

Items That Work With Fast Hands

To recap the section above: items must be non-magical and must specify that they take an Action to use. Other mundane items which don't specify can generally be activate using your free item interaction, and magic items use the Activate and Item action which isn't covered by Fast Hands.

  • Acid: 2d6+dex damage. Also see Fast Hands and "Grenade-like" Items, below.
  • Alchemist's Fire: 1d4+dex damage on the first hit, then 1d4 after that unless the target wastes an Action to try to remove the damage. This is extremely powerful, but it's also twice as costly as a vial of acid. Once you get it running on a target, consider throwing oil on them on later rounds. Also see Fast Hands and "Grenade-like" Items, below.
  • Ball Bearings: This effectively creates a square of difficult terrain. Creatures might run through it and attempt the save, but many creatures have poor dexterity saves so there's some risk to that. Fortunately, you're a rogue, so Dexterity saves are easy and running through your own ball bearings will be guaranteed safe for much of your career. All of that sounds fine, but for the same gp cost you can get caltrops, which cost the same amount, have a higher DC to avoid, and can apply a lasting speed penalty. Unless you and your allies need to move through the square, caltrops are a much better choice.
  • Caltrops: Effectively a square of difficult terrain, but creatures who risk running through the area might suffer a lasting speed penalty which will put you and your allies at a tactical advantage until the creature heals (which most creatures can't do during an encounter). The DC 15 save DC may not sound high, but many high-level creatures aren't proficient in Dexterity saves, so even at high levels this remains useful against creatures that can't fly.
  • Climber's Kit: You can use a climber's kit to anchor yourself, and thanks to Fast Hands the Thief can do that as a Bonus Action. That's helpful if you're climbing in combat, but that's the only case where I see this mattering.
  • Healer's Kit: Jeremy Crawford confirmed that this works. You can use a Healer's Kit to stabilize creatures by default, and if you add the Healer feat you can also restore hit points as a Bonus Action. The primary use case is to stabilize allies, and sometimes stabilizing a dying ally is enough to buy time for some to cast Healing Word for the rest of the party to finish an encounter. Don't forget that a Healer's Kit only works ten times, so you'll need to replace yours periodically.
  • Holy Water: Since it only works on fiends and undead, Holy Water is only situaitonally useful by design. It costs just as much as acid, so the only reason to carry holy water is to get past acid resistance, which many fiends have. Also see Fast Hands and "Grenade-like" Items, below.
  • Hunting Trap: Unlike ball bearings and caltrops, the Hunting Trap does not allow creatures to move slowly to avoid the effect. The DC is slightly lower than that of caltrops, but still enough for many creatures. Fastening a creature in place is a huge asset, and forcing them to spend an Action to attempt to break free is a massive advantage for you and your allies. The DC to break out is low, but it's a check rather than a save, so even very strong creatures have a decent chance of failure. A single huntrip trap costs 5 times as much as ball bearings or caltrops, but I suspect that DMs will be more willing to let you recover a hunting trap than to recover ball bearings and caltrops which creatures have been scattering all over the place during an encounter.
  • Oil: At just one silver piece, oil is the cheapest item that you can use with Fast Hands. If your party likes fire damage, 1 silver piece for 5 damage is a pittance for some easy damage. Also see Fast Hands and "Grenade-like" Items, below.
  • Poison, Basic: This is a terrible item, and using it faster doesn't help. The DC 10 save is laughably low, and enemies can pass the save more than 50% of the time right from level 1. Even if they do fail the save, it's only 1d4 poison damage, and poison damage is commonly resisted. With all of those problems, a single dose costs 100 gold pieces. Inexplicable.
  • Shield: This is a weird one, but according to Jeremy Crawford you can use Fast Hands to don/doff a sheild as a Bonus Action.
  • Tinderbox: You can only use this with Fast Hands to light torches or things with "abundant, exposed fuel". That leaves room for your DM to interpet exactly what they consider "abundant", but I suspect that you could use this to quickly light oil which has been spilled on a surface, which you can also do as a Bonus Action.

Fast Hands and "Grenade-like" Items

The rules include four items which work similarly: acid, alchemist's fire, holy water, and oil. In previous editions (3.x mostly) these items have been described as "grenade-like weapons" because they're thrown, burst open, and frequently have a splash effect. We'll call them "grenade-like items" here because oil isn't a weapon.

There are some unique and exciting rules interactions which here which make these items powerful and dangerous when used in combination with Fast Hands.

When using one of these items, you use the Use and Object action, which we can perform as a Bonus Action thanks to Fast Hands. As part of using one of these items, you make a ranged weapon attack.

Because this attack is not made using the rules for two-weapon fighting, we face none of the same restrictions. If you want to use a two-handed weapon like a bow or a greatsword, you can still use Fast Hands to throw a vial of acid.

Grenade-like item are treated as an improvised weapon. This means that you're not proficient with the attack (unless you have the Tavern Brawler feat or some other source of proficiency in improvised weapons), and you add your Dexterity modifier to the damage roll. This means that when you throw acid on a creature for 2d6+Dex damage rather than just the flat 2d6 which you might expect, dramatically improving the damage output of these items.

Alchemist's fire is a notable edge case: it doesn't deal damage on impact, instead dealing damage at the beginning of the creature's turn. According to Jeremy Crawford, your Dexterity modifier still applies to the damage roll, but the damage roll is delayed. It's not clear how this works if the creature takes damage for more than one round, but I think the intent is that the Dexterity bonus only applies on your first attack roll.

Oil is another edge case: since it doesn't deal damage on its own, your Dexterity modifier doesn't apply. But oil is also only one silver piece compared to 50gp for a single alchemist's fire, so you get what you pay for.

At this point you likely having ambitious dreams of sneak atttacking with alchemist's fire and racking up massive piles of damage with Fast Hands, but sadly that's not an option. Because grenade-like items are improvised weapons, they're not ranged weapons and they certainly don't have the finesse property to qualify for Sneak Attack. Sadly, you'll need to settle for the base damage and your Dexterity Modifier (and not even that for oil).

Feats

Several feats interact with Fast Hands in ways which might not be immediately obviuous.

HealerPHB

This is normally a terrible feat, but Fast Hands might be enough to make it worthwile. The first bullet allows you repeatedly bring dying allies back into a fight at 1 hp, which normally requires more limited resources like spell slots spent on Healing Word. The second bullet allows you restore a few hit points but it's not especially impressive, especially compared to magical healing options. I would consider this if you have allies who get knocked unconscious frequently, but otherwise leave hit point restoration to your party's spellcasters.

PoisonerTCoE

Fast Hands has no significant interaction with the Poisoner feat because Poisoner already allows you to apply poison as a Bonus Action. It's a much better way to use poison than using Basic Poison, but only I'm mentioning it here mostly to clarify the interactions between Fast Hands, the Poisoner feat, and poison in general.

Tavern BrawlerPHB

Proficiency with improvised weapons is a huge asset if you're enjoying grenade-like items. Most of the rest of the feat will be wasted on most thieves, but you can still get a Constitution increase so it may be easier to fit this into your build than most feats.