If you read the title then you already know the quintessential question: what’s the point of tool proficiencies in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons? Let’s not beat around the bush with this one, because this take is so hot the bush is libel to catch fire!
Rule of tool in 5E D&D
Skills are a thing, right?
We’ve already covered the myriad skills in 5E D&D in depth and when you look into them it seems skills really cover a lot of the bases for exploration and roleplay interactions. While it’s true there are some niche tools that might not fit neatly into a skill to determine if you can perform a task with them, generally speaking you could argue any tool proficiency check could be made easily with a skill check instead. After all the skill proficiencies cover a broad enough spectrum and are generalized enough that I could see how tool proficiencies might fall by the wayside.
An example of this might be a character wanting to use alchemist’s supplies to concoct a potion of giant’s strength. I could absolutely see how a Dungeon Master might call for an Intelligence (Arcana) check or possibly do a skill test (an optional rule I discovered from Matt Colville’s channel) requiring Arcana, Nature and Medicine.
Because skills are so prevalent in D&D it might make tool proficiencies feel redundant. So where do tool proficiencies fit in? How can we use them effectively and keep them from feeling superfluous or cheap?
Xanathar to the rescue!
Okay, so a blue beholder thief lord is not actually rescuing us here but the book with his namesake is! Two proposed solutions for how to incorporate skills and tools together are to grant advantage on a skill check because a character possesses a tool proficiency or give an additional benefit due to a tool proficiency.
In the first case, we could just grant advantage on a skill check due to a character possessing a certain tool proficiency. In fact knowing about stone architecture is offered as an option for mason’s tool proficiency in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. I get where this is coming from here, but there’s a problem with this logic (and I’ll explain in detail when I say it): dwarves’ racial abilities become redundant.
I know dwarves are the oft forgotten race when it comes to fantasy and worldbuilding but when you look at what they gain in their racial traits you’ll see they get an even better ability than just getting advantage on a stonecraft knowledge check in the form of Stonecunning. Additionally they can gain mason’s tool proficiency from their racial traits. This immediately leads me to believe this is not how this is supposed to work since that would make their racial features redundant. I’m not saying you’re outright wrong if you choose to go the advantage route with tool proficiencies (after all, it is suggested in official material), but I am saying that it doesn’t quite line up, lore wise.
Our second option then is to grant an additional benefit, such as an automatic success on a skill check. The example given in the book relates to finding a secret door in a stone passage as a result of mason’s tools followed by an added benefit in knowing how to open the door as a result of the same proficiency.
This is better than the former option to me, but it still doesn’t quite have enough oomph. It’s good for keeping the pace of your game up. I could especially see this benefiting a larger group where excessive dice rolls are usually something to avoid, but it doesn’t pack the same punch and players generally like rolling dice more often as it adds an element of chance for failure or success, and thus tension, to your narrative.
Ideas for using tool proficiency
If you expected me to gripe about the vagueness of instruction when it comes to tool proficiencies, you’re only half right. I’ve listed my grievances but now it’s time for solutions!
Continuing looking through XGtE we can read a list of tools as well as specific skills and DCs for a variety of checks specifically related to the tools in question. This is an invaluable resource for players and DMs alike and it offers some much needed insight into how to describe and handle tools in 5E D&D.
I’ve got a few ideas for how to make tools even more special and narratively interesting. The first proposal I want to make actually relates to a penalty (something I rarely advocate in my games). Rather than granting advantage or automatic success I like the idea of imposing disadvantage for checks related specifically to how a tool set is meant to be used, especially when it comes to crafting. I think this allows for greater narrative flavor.
Let me explain. People can have skill with tools, as well as talent, right? Right. And flukes of talent are bound to happen. I think by imposing disadvantage on checks related to a tool’s direct usefulness as opposed to the indirect usefulness we mentioned with the hidden door in the stone passage it adds a degree of realism when it comes to flukes of talent and mistakes. A character with proficiency in mason’s tools is going to be much more skilled than one who isn’t at making something from stone, hence a lack of disadvantage. But it is still possible for someone to naturally pick up the craft or accidentally do something really well.
Giving nonproficient characters disadvantage manifests this potential well. Technically it is possible for a nonproficient character to outperform a proficient character at their own craft, but it’s highly unlikely.
Additionally, while I do like the automatic success aspect of additional benefit in certain regards making such a sweeping generalization when it comes to success is dangerous for a few reasons, narratively speaking. We’ll dive more into the specifics of those in future articles.
Speaking of future articles, this topic is far too vast to cover in only a single article. So in the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at each tool proficiency in more detail and even more ways beyond XGtE tools can be used in your games. So be sure to continue checking back! [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Taking Chances over at Nerdarchy the Store is a celebration of tools in 5E D&D! There’s new tools and new ways to use existing tools including two minigames for characters to engage with and an entire adventure where your tools — not your spells and weapons — are integral to solving a mystery. Sign up for Nerdarchy the Newsletter in the sidebar right here on this page and you can get a special promo code for $9.99 off your cart. So yes, that means you can get it straight up free right now. You’re welcome, world.]
What do you think?
How do you use tools in your games? What are some favorite stories you have from D&D where tools came into play? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments! Also, make sure to return to Nerdarchy.com daily for more great articles about D&D and other TTRPGs!