In Monteporte 44, the session began and ended with animated discussions on the rules for attunement to magical weapons. +Rob Conley had created a chart or an excel file listing all the weapons that required attunement from the DMG, and we played around with the concept a bit. We all, I think, liked the general concept of attunement, but were all equally bothered by some of the implications. In addition, since Monteporte was migrated over from a game with different assumptions than went into D&D5, there were many more magic items than seemed typical for a D&D5 party.

Attunement (DMG pp. 136-138)

The basic concept behind attunement is simple. To use a weapon with magical properties in a magical way, you have to spend a period of time – a short rest – bonding with the item in an appropriate way. If you don’t do so, the items functions like a normal, non-magical item of that type, but no nifty stuff can be generated from it. A Sword of Sharpness might act like a regular sword and would cut things just fine, but no other magical abilities would be present, and I’m not even sure it’d damage creatures that are only damaged by magical weapons – the text seems to suggest not. A suit of plate armor that requires attunement would still give you AC 18 for wearing it, but whatever powers it has would not be available to you until attunement is complete. A wand or ring, which otherwise serves no purpose than to give you certain powers, is basically useless. Maybe you could use it as a napkin holder or a stir stick?

Limits on items

The biggest thing that the DMG rules hit you with is that you cannot be attuned to more than three items at a time. Period, done . . . see you later. So you can’t (for example) wear ten Rings of Protection, one on each finger, and another couple on your toes. Firstly, you can’t usually wear multiple of any given item, but also, three is the limit, and the limit shall be  three. Not two, unless proceeding directly to three, etc.

This makes any given player decide what she wants to be equipped with, and since you can only detune-attune to an item with a short rest, you can’t just swap out inventory slots and always get the benefit of the good stuff. So you have to prepare. It’s not quite as restrictive as spell slots and long rests, but it’s there to make you think about what you’re doing.

What requires attunement

The magic item lists speak to what requires attunement – sometimes by a particular class – and what does not. There definitely seems to be a pattern to it, and some very useful stuff does not require attunement. 

Let’s start with some examples:

Basic Magical Weapons and Armor: Your basic +2 Mace or longsword, or +1 Chain Mail, or +3 half-plate does not require attunement. OK.

Mace of Disruption: Requires attunement. If you smack a fiend or the undead, you do extra radiant damage. If the critter has fewer than a certain number of HP, it must make a saving throw or be destroyed outright. The foes of the affected type are afraid of you. Also, the weapon glows if you hold it.

Mace of Smiting: +1 damage, more against constructs. If you roll a 20, you get extra damage, and can destroy constructs on a lucky roll. Does not require attunement.

Immovable Rod: Hey, the thing doesn’t move. Ever. Does not require attunement.

Gloves of Thievery: Provides a bonus to Sleight of Hand and DEX checks while wearing them. Does not require attunement.

Most any Cloak of X: Protection, Elvenkind, Invisibility. All of these require attunement, but . . . 

Cloak of the Manta Ray: Allows you to breathe underwater, and swim pretty fast. There’s another item like this that makes a bubble of air around your head. Neither require attunement.

What’s the Common Theme: The key bit here seems to be that if the item is magical because of itself, such as magic armor, it does not require attunement. If the item has powers that only affect the victim or the environment – that is, the magic is outwardly directed – it does not require attunement. But if the thing is basically casting a spell or giving its blessing to the user – something that if malign would be resisted by a saving throw – then you need to attune to it. 

It’s a fine line. The Cloak of Protection is just a cloak, it’s not particularly sturdy. But even it it is sturdy, the bonus to saving throws impacts the wearer as if it were a spell. That requires attunement. The Manta Ray cloak and the bubble-head charm (whatever it is) probably work their magic on the water and air around you, not you. They don’t bestow gills, they create a space of breatheable air.

I have no explanation for the Gloves of Thievery. I’d probably force you to attune to them, but perhaps the skill/DEX boost provided is actually a spell that impacts whatever you’re working on, not you. 

Basic magical swords are just magical. The Mace of Smiting is totally outwardly directed. The Mace of Disruption . . . seems like the mace of smiting, but makes creatures afraid of you (not the mace) and casts light. I suspect it’s the fear thing that turns the tables.

Armor that’s just magical is simply better made and enchanted. That’s inherent to the item. But if it also provides extra spell-like abilities, that requires attunement. 

Anything that requires conscious activation seems to require attunement.

House Rules?

Wouldn’t be a blog – specifically my blog – without the tinkering. So, here we go. What could we do to tweak out what’s basically a good concept?

More Awesome is More Awesome

The first one is easy. Allow the number of magical items to which you can attune vary by character level. Specifically, something like “you may attune to item equal to your proficiency bonus” would allow two items for beginners, but up to six at very high levels. Another would be you may attune to one item plus half your proficiency bonus. That’s still two items at low level, but four at high levels. 

In any case, items tend to grow with power at high levels, so another way might be a slot system. Each rank from Common through Legendary is given an effective number of slots: say 1 for Common, 5 for Legendary. You might get a number of slots equal to 1 plus your proficiency bonus, so slots vary from 3 to 7. So you can attune to seven Common items at very high level, or one Legenary item and two Common ones. Or two Uncommon and one Rare. Still limiting, but if you really want to wear seven common items instead of carrying around that Vorpal Sword . . . 

Partial Powers

Not attuning to an item having it behave as completely mundane seems off to me. Of course, that thought was started by Ken thinking that any item of +2 bonus or higher, including armor and weapons, requires attunement. I was thinking that in that particular case, the weapon or armor would still be magical, just provide no bonus. So not attuning to said Vorpal Sword would give you a magical longsword which could damage creatures that are only harmed by magical weapons (if such exist anymore in 5e), but would not suddenly decaptiate anyone.

Gotta Fight, for the Right . . . 

One thing that would be interesting for non-attuned weapons would be that yes, you can still use them, but you have to force the item to obey. You’d need to make some sort of saving throw, and I’m thinking INT, WIS, CHA rather than the physical stuff – basically willpower – in order to activate the item’s powers. 

In fact, one interesting thing would be to have attunement be a gradual process. Each short rest spent attuning would give you a bonus to the roll to master or attune to the item. You have to successfully use the item in order to claim your next bonus. Eventually, your roll will be high enough that you automatically beat the item’s DC. At that point, you’re attuned permanently unless you voluntarily switch it out – then you have to start again.

That would make it a bit of a process – and narratively interesting – to get to know a weapon or armor or magical device. If the process were intersting/onerous enough, there’s a barrier to switching out.

Naturally, you’d want the DC to go up with item power. So maybe if we use the level analogy above, the DC might be 10 plus twice the slots. So a Common magical item would be DC 12 for mastery, a Legendary one would be DC 20.

Parting Shot

Attunement brings a very cool dynamic to equipping magical items in D&D5. The core concept is very good, and it forces you to be choosy about what items and powers you can have. It keeps the focus, to some extent, on the character rather than the gear – though some of the Legendary items are truly badass, so there is always going to be a certain cache to having that Hammer of Thunderbolts paired with the Girdle of Giant Strength, which is also good.

Tuning the attunement rules also provides knobs for campaign-specific flavor. This is also good.

We’ll see what Ken decides to do with it, but I can certainly see options.

12 thoughts on “Attunement in D&D5e

  1. I'm really liking the ideas in your last option most – how would it be different for items whose effects are constant (light emanating from the mace of disruption) versus those that are instant (decapitation from your vorpal sword)?

    1. Gah. Lost my entire reply. Dammit.

      Short version: you have to decide if you can try per short rest, per combat, or even per hit. Each would need supporting mechanics to make this interesting.

      One could l also have partial attunement really be partial. A +3 sword might need, say, a DC 22 check to get the entire +3, but if you make a DC 14 check it's a +1, and DC 18 is +2. Abilities might also be variable. Something that cast light might just glow feebly with a bad attunement roll, but cast a 20' bright light and 20' dim light with a good one, and 10' bright and 10' dim with a mediocre one.

      That'd be another way to limit the power of items to that suitable to the character – you have to be able to roll high enough to claim the bonus!

  2. I like the proficiency-based cap.

    I also like the partial usage – you can use it, but not gain of its aspects. But either way attunement a) makes the old "pass around the Ring of Regeneration" trick not work, but b) means you can't pull the dragon slayer out of the dragon's horde and kill the dragon with it. Anything that splits the difference would help, I think.

    1. One thing about the dragon-slaying sword is if that magic is outward facing (like the Mace of Smiting) or has inward effects (like the Mace of Disruption). If the magic of the sword just freakin' kills dragons, it might not require attunement at all. The Dagger of Venom, for example, is clearly just a poison dagger with intrinsic effects, and doesn't require attunement.

      So (for example), if the dragon-slaying sword was +3 against dragons and also did an extra 3d12 vs dragons, both of those might be outward-facing effects that you have to master (see my answer to Jason above), or they could JUST WORK. However, the part of the dragonslaying sword that gives you protection against dragon breath? That's inwardly directed and requires attunement.

      One more thing would be to allow an attempt at instant bonding. You'd probably be at a disadvantage, and maybe even a high DC would be involved. So there's at least a possibility that the hero can grab the magic sword and it just instantly bonds to him.

    2. Still, it's kind of sucky if, yes, the dragon slayer's protection from dragon breath doesn't work against the dragon who guards it, just because you want to avoid a golfbag full of swords or a bunch of PCs hanging on to it. That's what I mean, basically – attunement is there to limit abuse, and inevitably limits some coolness by doing so. This is just one example, really, but if you need a short rest to use the Ring of Warmth (and you do, check the DMG), then I can't run up to a shivering-to-death friend and stick my ring on him to save him while I just tough it out.

      The old way was one of each type, or one ring for each hand, and you can see why you'd want some in-game way to cut down on that sort of accumulation. But there is a cost to doing so, no matter what you do to attunement to fine-tune that cost.

  3. Some thoughts (after further review):
    A. The DMG has additional info about Attunement in the DM Workshop chapter (pp. 284-285): For DM-created homebrew magic items, the two rules for Attunement are: (1) Require attunement if characters would pass the item around in a disruptive manner [e.g. Peter D's example of the Ring of Regeneration]; (2) If the item is redundant, require attunement so that characters do not collect them.

    So the goal, according this statement of the DMG, is to avoid min/max behavior. Taking these two rules out of context says that Attunement is aimed at reducing bad player behavior…it is not based on inherent properties of the items.

    2. We get a very different explanation from Mike Mearls, in his May 12, 2014 article on Attunement: "The story elements of attunement are meant to bring items to life as rare and mysterious objects, embedded in the history and cultures of the campaign. Used well, attunement can add a sense of wonder to the game and make magic items feel unique and exciting." []

    3. My take on this is that in determining which items listed in the DMG required Attunement, Mearls and his design team looked at a number of different factors: Power of the item, its rarity, the nature of its enchantment, the potential for interesting role-playing, and the likelihood/consequence of players min/maxing the crap out of an item.

    1. It is also interesting that the attunement rules create a second way to identify magic items (as noted in the DMG and in the article cited above by Mike Mearls).

  4. In terms of a house rule:
    1. Characters increase the limit of attuned items by level: Lvl 1-5=3 items; Lvl 6-10=4 items, and so on.
    2. Some items that require attunement will still have a feature available when unattuned. For example, a +1 sword that can shoot magic missiles would still be +1 even when unattuned, but the missiles would be unavailable.
    3. Some items could still be used unattuned but there could be the possibility of failure (some sort of success/failure roll) and something really bad could happen with a critical failure. There could be a crit failure table (ala GURPS) or each item could have a specific bad thing happen.

    I like this because it involves very little extra work on the player's part. I would have to create more detailed info when magic items are involved.

    1. You can just as easily go with AD&Dish rules here – two rings, one cloak, etc. and limit what stacks. It's not like it really matters if you have three magic swords, two rings, a cloak, a helm, etc. if everyone else can do the same.

      If you require attunement at all, just say it takes a short rest or a long rest before certain items start to work on you, and limit that to the annoying one-item-helps-the-whole-party kind of thing (rings of flying, rings of regeneration, necklace of adaptation) via attunement or some other delay before they start to work.

      It's a campaign setting more than a rule that underpins the game, after all.

  5. One thing that confuses me as that some items (ie Sword of Kas) list effects as “while on your person”, not “while attuned”. “On your person” makes it sound like you just have to be carrying the item, not necessarily attuned to it.

    1. According to the DMG, the Sword of Kas requires attunement, so I’d treat it as a both/and. While you’re attuned to the sword AND while it’s on your person, you get the effects.

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