Building Alternate Rules for Tools in 5E D&D
You heard me say it many times before — Tools are treated poorly in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Before you tool enthusiasts write me off, let me share some ideas for how to make the problem better. I’ve never been much for complaints without solutions. Recently Nerdarchists Dave and Ted touched on the tendency for us to hold onto legacy ideas as 5E D&D players. We do certain things simply because it’s how they’ve always be done.
Streamlining 5E D&D tools
This hacking 5E D&D series has been all about asking questions like this about fundamental aspects of 5E D&D’s core mechanics. I’ve introduced alternate ability scores to streamline multiclassing, alternate saving throws to streamline saves, and then promptly posted about needing more crunch in the skills department, which might seem antithetical to the whole streamlining bit except it was a necessary part of streamlining tools — the focus of this post.
Do away with tool checks
Tool checks have always felt weird and nebulous to me. The rogue’s Expertise feature implies a tool check is separate yet extremely similar to a skill check. This feels like it clashes. With my streamlining series I’m completely doing away with tool checks. Yep, that’s right — no more tool checks. If you make an ability check with tools you’re making a skill check.
You might be asking how this works or if I’m doing away with tools, to which I would emphasize no, I’m absolutely not saying trash tools as a mechanic altogether. In fact I propose a more concrete rules set to make tools more intuitive.
How tool checks affect skills
With this new system of tool checks I treat it as though a tool set unlocks new capabilities within a skill. For example cook’s utensils allow for making things not made from only raw ingredients or by simply throwing something on a fire. Soups, risottos, bread and more can all be made using cook’s utensils but sushi, a vegetable tray and even a piece of fish broiled over open flame would all be examples of things that could be cooked with the skill proficiency without having cook’s tools. Likewise, Thievery would allow for pickpocketing, navigating traps and the like while thieves’ tools would enable a character to pick a lock or disarm a trap.
In short having the tools for a job unlocks new capabilities for allowing a skill check but just because you have the right tools and a skill proficiency doesn’t mean you are free and clear. You have to actually be proficient with the tools you’re trying to use.
New rule for tools
If you have a tool proficiency you can use a tool set without penalty. However if you don’t possess proficiency with a tool kit you’re trying to use you automatically have disadvantage on the check. Even if you’re proficient with the applicable skill you’re still suffering from disadvantage. Likewise if you’re not proficient with a chosen skill but you do have proficiency with a tool kit you can still attempt the check. You just aren’t adding your proficiency bonus to the roll.
This new rule eliminates the feeling of redundancy when it comes to having a skill proficiency and a tool proficiency. If you have proficiency in an applicable skill and proficiency with the chosen tool you’ll make a normal skill check — a skill check you couldn’t have made without having the proper tools at your disposal.
This system allows for some overlap regarding natural intuition thanks to training in a skill as well as the necessary familiarity with a tool set. In order to get the most benefit you need both. Hopefully this last bit of hacking 5E D&D helps streamline many of your own games and offers a fresh perspective on a familiar system.
What do you think?
*Featured image — Characters can discover new and different games to engage with and test their 5E D&D tools and skills in Taking Chances. [Illustration by Askhan Ghanbari]