Mapping the Road to Adventure | Tool Time with Cartographer’s Tools in 5E D&D
In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons tool proficiencies are kind of the proverbial odd man out, slotting into the game alongside the much more prevalent mechanic of skill proficiencies. That’s what we’re talking about in this 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 — cartographer’s tools
Ever been lost? Like, not just on the wrong side of town but actually lost? It’s pretty terrifying having no idea where you are or how to return to a familiar area. My first experience in the Mall of America comes to mind and I remember very distinctly my sheer relief at finding the map pillar near an unknown doorway.
Maps are guides and a reliable map is invaluable to any adventurer. There’s a reason most video game RPGs include a world map or other map function. So long as we’re oriented to our relative position we tend to feel safe, even if we’re trekking into an unknown fey enchanted forest. With maps being so valuable just imagine the potential that comes from cartography!
A cartographer character makes a wonderful adventurer, as they need little motivation beyond mapping an area. I’m really surprised more people don’t play up a proficiency in cartographer’s tools in 5E D&D. There’s no telling the messes and mayhem a cartographer might venture into, possibly even knowingly, if only to be able to add just a little bit extra to their map. Mapping a region (especially a dangerous one) makes an excellent adventure prompt! And with Google Maps and Ways very pointedly not existing as we know them in the fantasy world that map’s gonna get you where you need to go. So today let’s discuss cartographer’s tools.
“Cartographer’s tools contain a quill, ink, parchment, a pair of compasses (to ensure that both read true), calipers (a relative distance-measuring tool), and a ruler.”
Cartography and skills
Let’s talk about related skills to cartography. Obviously knowing about locations and rumors of locations comes with the territory, as well as knowledge about whether this place is significant historically, magically or otherwise special to a particular religion. You might know if a location has changed significantly. This is a fairly common occurrence in places like the Forgotten Realms, which are perpetually under threat of destruction it seems. You might know if a map is current or older, when a map was made or how. You might be able to discern a map’s quality or accuracy and if the map is especially lavish you would likely be able to appraise it.
Investigation. This is where things get interesting. Anyone remember the old movie National Treasure? It was all about maps and codes and intrigue. How about the scene in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood where they discovered the flip over map of Amestris? I knew you would! Incorporating secret codes, ciphers and hidden maps within maps is exciting! This can be augmented by props.
Normally I don’t use a lot of props in my games but let’s say a magic light or detect magic or something similar could reveal secrets hidden within a map. Invisible ink is literally one of the easiest things to make though you have to have an artist’s hand to be able to execute it well. Still, just imagine the moment you pull out a real map (possibly printed from online) and allow the players to actually examine it when you’ve prepared a hidden message in invisible ink! I know — cool, right?
Nature. This really seems like an obvious thing to me but if you are proficient in cartographer’s tools you likely know about natural features and locations as well as the relative distance of landmarks to one another. You would also be able to read cartography shorthand, especially as it pertains to key environmental features, and you would be able to spot inconsistencies with a map and a location at present.
Survival. Another fairly obvious application of this tool proficiency in relation to skills. A lot of survival as a skill is navigation and tracking, and while it might prove a hair more difficult than if you were using navigator’s tools, having a good map is invaluable. I think unfortunately, Survival is more or less presumed when it comes to having a map and dMs often ignore special circumstances that would come from having a map. Possibly there could be notes of treasures or other rarities only readable by a skilled cartographer.
I feel like this goes without saying but when it comes to cartographer’s tools you can make maps, period. It’s literally what cartographers do.
That being said this doesn’t mean every map is accurate or even legitimate. Proficiency in these tools would be able to tell you if you had a misleading or fake map, if the map contained glaring inaccuracies or if it was just generally poor quality. Also, distances on maps translate to much larger distances. With your cartographer’s tools you could more easily estimate the distance from one location on the map to the other. Whether you’re making maps or examining them, cartographer’s tools are invaluable to adventurers everywhere!
What do you think?
Have you ever made a cartographer character or one with proficiency in cartographer’s tools? Have you ever given your players a faulty map or done another interesting thing like use invisible ink with your players? We want to know what you say in the comments!
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