Tool proficiencies are a staple of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons but with the prevalence of skills, where do they fit into the game? That’s exactly what we’re here to discuss in this new series of articles. Please note tool proficiencies and how to use them are less defined in the official rules than skills. As such the options and explanations presented here might differ from how your own Dungeon Master treats tools and tool proficiency. On top of this any DM can adjust rules to fit their own table at their discretion, so check with your DM if you have specific questions about how they deal with tools in their own games. And with all the necessary caveats out of the way, let’s dive into our topic!
5E D&D tool time — alchemist’s supplies
What’s that smell? Something’s brewing… Oh, wait! It’s a new article. Whether you’re trying to identify a newfound potion or concocting an acerbic chemical weapon, alchemist’s supplies are your go to tool proficiency. But before we delve too deeply let’s see what Xanathar’s Guide to Everything says are contained within a set of alchemist’s supplies.
“Alchemist’s supplies include two glass beakers, a metal frame to hold a beaker over an open flame, a glass stirring rod, a small mortar and pestle, and a pouch of common alchemical ingreedients, including salt, powdered iron, and purified water.”
Furthermore, XGtE tells us some common uses of alchemist’s supplies include creating a puff of thick smoke (I would interpret this as occupying roughly a 10-foot cube, personally), identifying a poison, identifying some other substance, starting a fire (chemically) and neutralizing acid. By the power of science!
Alchemist’s tools are really just a chemistry kit. Anime like Dr. Stone show how chemistry in a more primitive setting can be really interesting, whether building up a society to a more advanced stage or just inspiring a little razzle dazzle for a dramatic flair, science is straight up awesome and incorporating it into D&D can be a fun and even educational experience. For my science nerds out there, roleplaying with alchemist’s supplies is a fantastic way to share your love of science with your friends and possibly teach them a little something in the process.
From crafting black powder objects like guns, fireworks and the like to acid and even bombs, alchemist’s supplies allow for a breadth of options to circumvent even the most dastardly precautions devised by paranoid wizards everywhere. Move over, magic! Science is ready to step in a show another side to the benefit of Intelligence and a little research!
Magic, science, and psionics
One of my all time favorite genres of fiction is arcanepunk. The arcanepunk genre takes magic and technology and fuses them together. It feels like the equally cool steampunk genre but with a supernatural flair. Eberron is the premier example of an arcanepunk setting and it’s coincidentally one of my favorite premade settings in which to game.
In the worlds of D&D, magic is a part of the world much like oxygen and water. It simply exists naturally. Psionics (while technically magic adjacent according to lore from previous editions) are another facet of D&D worlds that simply exist as a fact of life. Now just picture for a moment: fusing magic and psionics with technology! The possibilities are limitless!
Maybe your character concocts a serum held within a cylindrical cell to can store magic or even psionic power? This could be plugged or otherwise inserted into a machine to devastating effect. Maybe the machine allows those without aptitude to access magic or psionic power? Perhaps the machine is then granted the ability to use those powers itself, despite its lack of sentience? Or maybe the machine might serve a more practical or even benevolent use, possibly assisting those with disabilities to overcome them?
Science is really the magic of our own world and it just fits in my mind that magic and science could be married in a setting to make some fascinating elements and enemies.
Because magic is an integral part of the setting, magic and science often meet by way of potions. If you haven’t yet feel free to check out our posts on Deep Magic: Alkemancy. This Kobold Press supplement really fleshes out potions and chemicals in 5E D&D and it’s an excellent springboard for your own ideas of how to treat alchemy in your setting.
While the base rules provide surprisingly little support for brewing potions, both magical and mundane, and how to use them, Deep Magic: Alkemancy really covers a broad swath of how to incorporate chemicals and potions into your games, outside the basic “throw, deal X damage.”
As with all of the tools, XGtE suggests a couple of skills related to alchemist’s supplies and how those might come into play.
Arcana. Firstly, having proficiency with alchemist’s supplies might offer additional insights when examining potions and chemicals with an Intelligence (Arcana) check.
Investigation. Secondly, we have another Intelligence based skill: Investigation. Proficiency with alchemist’s supplies might grant you additional insight into and chemicals or substances that might have affected an area or been used in an area.
Medicine. A third skill I personally think applies to alchemist’s supplies is Wisdom (Medicine). While an herbalism kit is canonically the tool set used for preparing medicines and salves I don’t see any reason why Medicine might not also be included in this skill list, particularly if a creature or area is afflicted with some sort of magical chemical or technological effect.
And then of course alchemist’s supplies allows your character to brew their own potions and alchemical weapons provided they have enough materials to equal up to half the value of the object. If these conditions are met a single character can produce a single dose of one of the aforementioned, no roll needed. A roll could be required if your character attempts to make more or something of exceptional quality but generally the tool proficiency is enough to simply let you do that.
Recipes & running a game for an alchemist
While it’s never explicitly stated in XGtE I often view alchemical recipes much like spells for wizards. To add some fun for my own alchemist players I allow them to have a recipe book containing their known concoctions and study notes.
As the alchemist adventures through the world they may come across rare potions, which I allow them to attempt an Intelligence roll with their alchemist’s supplies proficiency in order to recreate the potion, so long as they have sufficient materials to equal the total cost of the potion in addition to the potion itself. By spending a long rest examining the potion in question the alchemist is afforded the roll I mentioned and if they succeed (DC depending on the potion’s rarity) the alchemist then adds the potion recipe to their book. As a rarer occasion I might grant the alchemist a recipe as part of their loot, or I might allow a local shop to have a recipe for sale.
Incorporating ideas like this into your game can make a player’s tool proficiency feel like a genuinely meaningful choice and it can make the player feel special because you show you’re listening to them and care about the development of their character on their terms. Plus, adding a crafting system into a TTRPG just feels right, seeing as so many video games do it.
[NERDITOR’S NOTE: if you’re looking for extra inspiration on tool proficiencies in 5E D&D check out Taking Chances, which not only has new tool sets but new ways to use all of them including minigames and a short adventure for tool experts to shine. If you sign up for Nerdarchy the Newsletter you can get a special coupon for $9.99 and add this to your digital collection free so take a look here.]
What do you think?
Do you have a memorable character that made use of alchemist’s supplies? How do you make tools feel special in your own games? Whatever your thoughts, we want to hear from you in the comments, or leave us a message on our Facebook or Discord server. And make sure to return to Nerdarchy daily for more great content! Stay nerdy!