It’s been awhile since I’ve written about Dungeons & Dragons, so I thought I’d jump back in with some thoughts about one of the most underused aspects of the game–tools and kits.
**I’m still a rookie Dungeon Master (DM) and player, so this is intended for those like myself. But, of course, I’d love to hear input from more experienced players.**
Tools of the Trade
I think every player has given far to much thought to their tool/kit proficiency in comparison to how often they actually use them or even get to in their campaign(s). However, I’m certain the vagueness surrounding the utility of tools/kits in the game was meant to give players and DM something to make almost entirely their own. To that end, here are some ways to make these more vital in game.
Now, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything fleshed out tool and kit usage, and it’s a wonderful place to start. There are a certainly a slew of homebrew options available for anyone wanting to do a deep dive. I rather like the idea of using tools/kits not just as a means to solve an in-game obstacle but also to grant characters more depth and motivation.
I’ve seen several DMs rule on using tools/kits in various ways. The most common two being only allowing Player Characters (PCs) to use a tool/kit if proficient or giving advantage/disadvantage depending on proficiency. There’s clear reasoning behind these approaches. I’m of the opinion anyone can use a tool or a kit. What determines your success is the combination of what you are attempting (Difficulty Class, DC), the manner in which you are attempting it, and your proficiency. It’s a fairly straight-forward and common method.
I also believing in allowing players to become proficient through use. Any attempt at using a tool/kit ought to increase your familiarity with it. Thus, even a failure should count towards becoming proficient. Before I begin a campaign, I set a number for each tool/kit which when reached will grant proficiency. This changes campaign to campaign, but for argument’s sake, let’s just say 10. A success on a trifling attempt (meaning one with a DC lower than 10) grants half a point, a middling attempt (DC between 10-15) grants 1 point, and a success on a difficult attempt (DC 16 or higher) grants 2 points. Even failures, though, ought to give players something. Therefore, a failed attempt at any DC will grant half a point. With failed attempts, I tend to not let the player know they’ve progressed by half a point. I simply mark it down so that when they do eventually get to the proficiency stage, it’s a bit of a surprise.
The manner in which a player is attempting to use a tool/kit is important. I think certain tools and kits when used together ought to bring down the DC of an attempt. For example, making a poison when one isn’t proficient with or doesn’t have a Poisoner’s Kit. A combination of using an Herbalism Kit and Cook’s Utensils could lower the DC to make a poison. Similarly, using an Alchemist’s Kit with an Herbalism Kit and/or Cook’s Utensils could do the same. Would using these sister items lower the DC to what it would be if one was proficient with a Poisoner’s Kit? Perhaps not, but it could certainly give players another option in a pinch while slightly increasing their proficiency with each.
As you can imagine, I consider Herbalism Kit, Cook’s Utensils, and Alchemist Kit to be sibling items. Similarly, Navigator’s and Cartographer’s Tools are sibling items as are the Forgery Kit and Calligrapher’s Supplies. Thus, using these items in tandem or having proficiency in one to supplement/replace using another ought to factor into setting the DC. Approaching the tools/kits this way allows for players to get creative and make for more of a dynamic interchange between DM and PCs.
A PC might attempt to use their Painter’s Supplies which they are proficient with to Disguise themselves, someone else, or some thing or attempt to forge a letter by employing their Calligraphy skills. In each case, the DC might not be lowered but it certainly ought to be affected. It gives the game a moment of ‘Holy shit! That worked!’ or “Well, what did you expect to happen?’ and such moments enliven game sessions.
As mentioned above, I believe familiarity gained through use ought to factor into establishing proficiency. I’m not a big fan of proficiency with items being granted by level increase but it happens in a very limited manner so it’s not worth quibbling. I also think PC’s ought to be allowed to gather proficiency across all tools/kits. Some might argue this is overpowering. I like to think of it as a path a weak character can follow to become useful.
If you roll up a character and its stats are garbage, then you either start over or fudge the numbers. Even though I’ve done it, I’m not a fan of the latter and starting over feels like needless abandonment. Although such characters often get turned into Non-Player Characters (NPCs), if you don’t plan on DM-ing, then it feels like a waste. Why not embrace those weird and wildly unbalanced characters by having them become someone who has a real good chance of passing of their forged painting (Forgery Kit, Painter’s Supplies), can immediately create a map of the lands or dungeon the party is in (Navigator’s and Cartographer’s Tools), loves to bedazzle armor to not just increase its value but maybe its stats (Jeweler’s with Leatherworker’s, Weaver’s, or Blacksmith’s Tools), or any other combination?
I think granting this kind of progressive proficiency gives PCs more avenues to grow and more impetus to explore, collect, trade, and interact. It also provides DMs with another means to create narrative moments around skills and fresh obstacles for PCs to engage.
Twists of the Trade
I think every DM needs to make a list of materials needed in order to create poisons, potions, and whatnot. This might seem obvious, but I don’t think enough of us do it. Players love looting corpses of beasts, abominations, aberrations, and fiends. Therefore, they ought to be able to make something from the magical lens of a Nothic’s eye, the shell of a Chuul, a Rust Monster’s ichor, etc. Similarly, what herbs need to be collected to make ink (a vital wizarding component)?
What items can Alchemist Supplies create and, therefore, what are the recipes? As a PC, I might know how to brew but I would need more than just Brewer’s Supplies to create a gallon or more of beer. I would likely need proficiency with Tinker’s Tools, Carpenter’s Tools, an Herbalism Kit, and perhaps even Glassblower’s Tools. Getting these skills could be an ancillary part of quests building upon each other into the wider campaign arc. In terms of the gaming experience, for players who prize roleplay over combat this is a means to infuse action (the roll of the dice) into what would ordinarily be simple narrative play. Players to favor combat over roleplay can also get more out of tools/kits as it can be way to increase the value of their discoveries.
You can see how taking tools/kits can only further enrich gameplay. Overall, I think we can get more out of tools and kits than we are. In some ways, I think they should be as common as skill checks. I’ve always been a lover of crafting within games and spending the time to infuse tools and kits with more import is a great way to feel as both a DM and a PC that you’re building something. It’s one of the great things about D&D.