Making Tools Useful in 5e: Cartographer's Tools

Making Tools Useful in 5e: Cartographer's Tools

Other tools: Alchemist’s Supplies, Mason’s Tools, Gaming Sets, Tinker’s Tools, Healer’s Kit, Brewer’s Supplies, Smith’s Tools & Cooking Utensils.

Well, well, well… here we are. After doing the cool and sexy tools like Alchemist’s Supplies or Gaming Sets we are getting to closer to the less cool, but still very useful, tools like Cobbler’s Tools or Potter’s Kit… but today, we are going to talk about our 9th tool, Cartographer’s Tools!

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Cartographer’s Tools

First, let’s review what Xanathar’s Guide to Everything on page 80 has to say, then we’ll talk about the new and improved Cartographer’s Tools:

Cartographer’s Tools

Using cartographer's tools, you can create accurate maps to make travel easier for yourself and those who come after you. These maps can range from large-scale depictions of mountain ranges to diagrams that show the layout of a dungeon level.
Components. Cartographer's tools consist of a quill, ink, parchment, a pair of compasses, calipers, and a ruler.
Arcana, History, Religion. You can use your knowledge of maps and locations to unearth more detailed information when you use these skills. For instance, you might spot hidden messages in a map, identify when the map was made to determine if geographical features have changed since then, and so forth.
Nature. Your familiarity with physical geography makes it easier for you to answer questions or solve issues relating to the terrain around you.
Survival. Your understanding of geography makes it easier to find paths to civilization, to predict areas where villages or towns might be found, and to avoid becoming lost. You have studied so many maps that common patterns, such as how trade routes evolve and where settlements a rise in relation to geographic locations, are familiar to you.
Craft a Map. While traveling, you can draw a map as you go in addition to engaging in other activity.

As always, its pretty basic what Xanathar’s has to say, and none of it is especially revolutionary… but you know what, not every tool needs to allow you to build a huge battle mech and create the most deadly poisons known to man. Some tools are going to be pretty simple, and I am happy to do that. I’m sure what they did was go through the list of skills you have and if they could think of a use for it, they threw it in there… which is exactly what they did. Kind of feels like a cop out as all it does is give the barest abilities to a tool, but then I wouldn’t have anything to talk about today so that makes my life easy!

Making Maps

Our first step with Cartographer’s Tools is to provide the person proficient with them the ability to draw maps. Now, originally I was thinking there should be a, albeit small, DC to draw a map… and then I realized someone was going to have to track where the would-be Cartographer fucked up and rolled a 1. And then take that into account when determining the effectiveness of a map and frankly… that sounds awful. So drawing a map, for someone with proficiency in Cartographer’s Tools, requires no check. They just do it.

Which is pretty nice and gives them a few bits of RPing out of their tool when they start exploring their world. But RPing-only is never good enough for me, fluff just doesn’t do it for me… I need substance and that is where we start getting into Exploration.


Traveling can be difficult. You gotta go up some hills, down some mountains or swim across the ocean to get to your next destination… and if there is one thing I dislike more than the spell Animate Objects it’s my players getting lost every day, day after day because they all decided to only roll 1s for this session.

With a Cartographer in your party, your chances of successfully exploring are going to increase. If we look at Tomb of Annihilation the DC of the jungle terrain is DC 15. That’s rough for characters just starting out and might mean that your party is lost more than not. Even I am making an adventure where the party is in uncharted oceans and the DC is 15… I recognize that players are going to get lost and while that can be a good thing, sometimes it just slows down the game. Getting lost over and over isn’t usually what DMs plan for.

Back to the Cartographer, by having one of those in your party, they can help out your Navigator and help the party travel faster and more reliably. At the beginning of every day, and the Cartographer has their tools and maps on them, they can plan out the approach and inform the Navigator, even if it is themselves, on how best to traverse across the upcoming land to increase their pace. The DC for this check is 10 + half the number of people in the party, this takes into account that it takes more time to get a larger group of people through a given area than a smaller group. With larger groups, you have to worry about excessive bathroom breaks and that one rickety bridge holding together for everyone to pass, while smaller groups can more easily flit through the forest.

By making this check, they can increase the speed that the group travels in while still maintaining the benefits of the original speed. So if a party is moving at a Slow Pace for that +5 to Navigation checks, the Cartographer can make a check at the beginning of the day to speed up that progress. They roll against the DC (10 + half the number of people traveling) and if they succeed, the party travels at a Normal Pace while still getting that +5 to the Navigation check. Same goes for if they want to travel at a Normal Pace, the Cartographer rolls against the DC and on a success the party moves as if they are doing a Fast Pace, but there is no negative to the Navigation check.

Becoming Lost

Another use your Cartographer has is to help you get unlost at the end of the day. Looking back at the Tomb of Annihilation DC 15 Navigation check, you are going to get lost, especially at those lower levels when your proficiency is only +2 and your Wisdom might be +4 at the most. When you become lost, the Cartographer can consult the maps they are working on and they make their own check to determine where the party is.

Now, ToA specifies that the DM should roll the navigation check behind their screen and not inform the party if they are lost, if that is the case than the DM can roll this check behind their screen as well at the end of every day that the party is lost and inform the Cartographer on a success, that they are lost and show them on the map where they are.


And finally a passive effect that our Cartographer can give to our Navigator. While traveling, the Navigator has advantage on their Navigation checks. This helps ensure that that DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) check can actually be accomplished and that party can actually get to the real adventure instead of traveling in a circle… though random encounters can be a very useful tool to help guide your players through the wilderness.

Planar Travel

Traveling through the planes may prove too weird or different than the normal understanding of Cartographers and thus you are unable to use the Cartographer’s abilities until a certain amount of time passes, per the DM’s discretion. Though, some planes, like the Feywild or Shadowfell are representations of the Material Plane and, if the DM allows it, you could still use your tools on that plane… Planes are sometimes extremely weird and it’s pry safest to just stay on the Material plane where you aren’t going to accidentally wander onto the rose garden of some powerful god while minding your own business.

Cartographing… Cartographying… Cartographening?

Our brand new Cartographer’s Tools are done. This is a pretty simple tool that can really help out your party if there is a big focus on exploration and travel in your campaign. There is only so much getting lost can be fun for your table, as most of the time they just want to get where they are going and don’t care that Hill #34’s slopes are slightly slopier than the slopey slopes of Hill #47.

One last note, traveling can be seen as boring and repetitive. There are people at my own table that think that way, even though I try to add in surprises and other things along the way. Some mentalities are just hard to break. If you struggle with traveling or want to try something new, you should check out my system for traveling: Making Travel Worth It!

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Art Credit: Northern Faerûn; Sword Coast’s Adventurers Guide by WotC

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