Are Tool Proficiencies Worthless in 5E D&D?
Whenever I see tool proficiencies in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons come up in online conversations, I make a point to participate. Tool proficiencies, along with backgrounds, are one of my favorite things about 5E D&D. To me they represent a character’s hobby or vocation and add a significant lens for a character to view the world through. When we choose tools for our live chat and newsletter topic recently, it was a real joy to engage with the audience in the live chat and later share my own thoughts. We incorporated tools into our October Patreon rewards, and in a few days our November rewards build on those concepts. And today we took a closer look on the YouTube channel with a follow-up here to discuss if 5E D&D tools are worthless.
Rule of tool > rule of cool
I’m happy to say the headline for this post follows Betteridge’s law of headlines. In other words, tool proficiencies in 5E D&D are absolutely not worthless! Whether we’re looking at 5E D&D tools from a mechnanical standpoint or a story perspective, they are an important part of your character.
“A tool helps you to do something you couldn’t otherwise do, such as craft or repair an item, forge a document, or pick a lock. Your race, class, background, or feats give you proficiency with certain tools. Proficiency with a tool allows you to add your proficiency bonus to any ability check you make using that tool. Tool use is not tied to a single ability, since proficiency with a tool represents broader knowledge of its use. For example, the DM might ask you to make a Dexterity check to carve a fine detail with your woodcarver’s tools, or a Strength check to make something out of particularly hard wood.” — From the fifth edition D&D Player’s Handbook
Mechanically, tool proficiencies are similar to any other attributes on your character sheet. This is important to note from a player perspective. Like your spells, features and other abilities, your Dungeon Master more than likely does not have comprehensive knowledge of all your character can do. When I am a player, and I’ve observed this from many other players as well, I very often glance over my character sheet to see how I might contribute to any given situation. Is there a spell I can cast, a skill I might use, a class feature to employ to be helpful? Tools are just as much a part of this process.
A lot of tool proficiencies come from a character’s background. And like Nerdarchist Dave points out in the video, this can represent what your character did for a living before embarking on the road to adventure. Think about your own life, and the skills and tools proficiencies you’ve acquired. They become a big part of your life, right? For people who learn a trade, master a craft, play an instrument or even play lots of games, tool proficiencies are important. Where would I be right now without proficiency with gaming sets, right? It’s my profession now!
From this perspective your character’s tool proficiencies offer a lens to look at the world around them. A painter, a carpenter, a jeweler and a smith will have opinions and outlooks informed by their tools. They suggest you have a viewpoint, particularly about your area of expertise. A painter might be an art aficionado, a carpenter critical of architecture, a jeweler attracted to shiny gems and a smith notices shoddy workmanship. Tool proficiencies can influence a character’s appearance too. Splattered in paint, covered in sawdust, a jeweler carrying the odor of solvents and compounds, a smith covered in soot.
Mechanical and storytelling benefits of 5E D&D tools are wrapped up together too. Aside from personal interest in the whatever focus your tools grant, they can be important for adventuring. Whenever a DM describes a new scene — a location, an NPC or whatever — you have an opportunity to employ your tool proficiencies. People from all walks of life enjoy and appreciate art, so whether your character is inside an NPC’s country cottage, a rowdy tavern or a noble’s mansion, there’s a greater than zero chance there’s some art on the wall. This can be a great conversation starter for your character with painter’s supplies. Maybe they know the artist, of know of them. Is the painting in that cottage extremely rare? Why does this rural commoner have it hanging on their wall?
While helping the frontier people of Anytown on the fringes of civilization with the grave threat nearby, your character with carpenter’s tools might notice a few simple fixes to the local architecture to make them more sturdy, and a jeweler fawning over a noble’s accoutrements could go a long way towards endearing the party to this potential ally. Characters with smith’s tools likewise will take interest in worked metal objects, perhaps knowing the history and details about the crafter and items themselves. Great icebreaker topics for social interaction with an NPC!
But 5E D&D tools are useful in the dungeon and other adventures too. Magical characters often like to use their Arcana skill to try and identify items and ancient runes, right? What’s stopping your character from contributing their knowledge and aptitude with tools to exploration challenges? Tool proficiences mean your character is skilled in a process, but think about the skills you know and what you learned along the way. During the time they acquired their tool proficiency, did they learn about the masters of their craft? Do they keep up with current events and developments of their vocation? Thinking about these sorts of things can give you insights into being a more engaging player. The wizard in the party might be confounded by the mysterious sword and the strange markings on the blade. The character with smith’s tools on the other hand might recognize this as a blade from the forge of an accomplished smith. If the sword was in the hands of an enemy, perhaps the party stumbled on a secret and this master smith is making weapons for a nation your party’s homeland is at war with. Way to go, character with smith’s tools proficiency!
Tools are a DM’s friend too
There’s certainly an onus on players to make use of their tool proficiencies. They might not be helpful in every situation, and there’s a risk of going overboard and wanting to use your tools for everything. So it’s dependent on a DM to be considerate but not overindulge. In the same way an Arcana check doesn’t take the place of detect magic or identify, your character’s glassblowers tools aren’t ubiquitously useful. But if you reward players who inquire about their tools and wish to make them a more important part of their character, the encouragement will more than likely result in more use from the group.
While the onus in on players to employ their tools, just like they do all their other abilities, it’s not their sole responsibility. As a DM it’s a good idea to know at least a little bit about the adventurers in the party and what they can do. This way you can directly engage players. A lot of roleplaying mileage and moving action forward can come when a DM spotlights individual characters, and tools are a great way to do this.
“Georgie, with your proficiency in weaver’s tools you notice something unusual about the tapestry hanging on the far wall of the chamber.”
One particular area to do this is by considering a character’s tool proficiencies when doing other tasks, like searching a room. Let’s say the party is deep in a dungeon and finds momentary solace in the private sanctum of an evil cleric they defeated. The trappings of the room include fine art, gold, jewels and some magic items. Woo! While the characters search around the room, you ask for Perception or Investigation checks, and one of the characters has tool proficiency with weaver’s tools so you say they can make their check with advantage.
The weaver succeeds, and they spot a single thread of a tapestry on the wall is unusual. They examine it closer and tug the loose thread free. Looking even closer they find an encoded message on the thread, linking the evil cleric to a notable NPC in town. Congratulations! Your weaver’s supplies just proved crucial in uncovering a nefarious plot!
Whether you are a player or a DM, I strongly urge you to give more consideration to tool proficiencies in 5E D&D. For players they offer wonderful opportunities to develop your character and their personality. For DMs they are a great way to engage players directly and introduce new elements into your campaign. For everyone at the table, 5E D&D tools are an excellent way to build immersion and increase verisimilitude.
What are some of your favorite uses for tool proficiencies? Do you have any amazing 5E D&D tales of tool use? I’d love to hear about them below! Also if we’ve got you excited for tools, head over to our Patreon. We post our monthly rewards right on the page itself, and supporters at the $2 level and above have instant access to our past monthly rewards. In October we sent out Rolling Bones, collection of games of skill and chance exploring gaming sets and a few other tools. And for November we’re building on that with a fantastic location focused on tools, plus some new items, NPCs and an adventure characters can solve using their tool proficiencies.