Posted by : David Guyll May 13, 2014

I thought one of the selling points for 5th Edition was that magic items were not going to be an assumed part of the game, and that it would be entirely up to the Dungeon Master as to what, when, and where they are found. If that is still the case, then why does the Dungeon Master need another fictionally bankrupt "safeguard"?

At least, that is just one of the "big benefits" that Mike "the Spin-Man" Mearls tries to justify for magic item attunement, ie the poor man and/or lazy designer's artifact concordance. The other is...well, he says that it is also a big benefit "for DMs". Not sure how, but there ya go.

As a quick refresher—according to the latest public playtest packet—magic item attunement involves you spending 10 minutes dicking around with a magic item, after which you get to squeeze some more numbers out of it (or numbers at all in the case of the defender). According to the article, attuning to some items might allow it to try and compel you to do something, or maybe just fuck you over in certain circumstances.

From a narrative standpoint the rationalization is that the magic item's magic mingles with your life essence, and because it is somehow straining I guess you can only attune to three items at a time. Why three? No idea: your height, weight, gender, age, sexuality, shoe size, race, sub-race, medical history, allergies, stats, skills, or class have no impact on this number. Being attuned also causes no penalties at all: you do not have trouble eating, sleeping, pooping, you do not get tired faster, experience hallucinations, strange cravings, loss of appetite, or nausea, you do not see a reduced attunement effect from other stuff, it does not even interfere with other magic or magic items.

I would be surprised, but mechanics translating into the game's narrative has never exactly been a strong suit for Dungeons & Dragons (see spellcasting in general, various mastery feats, hit points, and advantage/disadvantage).

To put it bluntly the attunement cap makes no sense, and not just because they pulled a number out of their asses. There should be some way to determine your attunement cap and/or it should be affected by something else (race, alignment, feats, skills, etc), and if it strains you then it should have an impact. Legacy weapons from Weapons of Legacy had more thought put into them and not only even kind of fit the whole "soul-straining" bill, but also helped solve the problem of item-upgrading; given that it was a 3rd Edition book I am surprised they did not just crib that and call it a day.

What I would do is give each attunement property/power a point or slot cost. Your race and alignment could affect this cost (a holy weapon could cost less for a Good character, while a bow might cost less for an elf). You could also create feats that give you more (in addition to something else, since magic items are not assumed), and if classes were actually flexible I would have also gone that route, too. If you want to go above the limit, you could, but would be penalized in some way (not sure how: maybe reduced hit points, saving throw penalties, attacks, etc).

This would not only provide more balance (better properties/powers cost more), but would also support the whole soul-stress narrative: some weapons demand more of you, and if you push yourself too hard then you become mechanically weaker. Hell, this could even force the character to make a choice: maybe they really need a weapon's power, but are they willing to pay the cost? Yeah, it is more granular, but it is more interesting and makes more sense than the lazy, uninspiring "everyone gets three" model they are going with.

Of course they could have just stuck with 4th Edition's artifact concordance, as it has the benefits of both making sense and working better.

In 4th Edition all artifacts are sentient to some degree. When you do stuff they want you to do, you gain concordance, and when you do something they do not want you to do, you lose it. When you gain enough points the artifact grants you more powers, but if it gets too low it not only loses powers, but can sometimes penalize you. Eventually the artifact moves on, and how and when it does so depends on how well you satisfied it: if you did a good job it might leave you with a lesser, albeit still magical item in its stead, but if you do a bad job then it might leave you when you need it most.

So right away there is no bullshit limitation that is not supported in the game's narraritive in any way. In addition the player is given an incentive (similar to the one that was missing from last week's article on character personality): sometimes these goals are what the player wants to do anyway, which is fine, but sometimes they do not line up exactly, or even directly contradict what you want to do, which is even better because it forces the player to make, yet again, a meaningful choice.

On a somewhat more positive note I actually appreciate that they still allow you to identify what a magic item does during a short rest, especially after so many decades of tradition that for some reason either forced you to spend an hour and 100 gp to figure out what a single item does (yes, even potions), or run down a checklist of things to try in the hopes that the Dungeon Master divulges anything useful about it.

Not that they fully excised identify from the equation: if the item has attunement properties/powers, then simply experimenting with the item for some reason only reveals the normal stuff and that the item can be attuned, not what attuning does, so if the item has some sort of drawback built into its attunement then you are fucked. The kicker is that that is not even the part that bugs me: I am all for items having a curse or some sort of downside to handling them, what gets me is that it is so easy to figure out what it is, risk free.

Mikey McSpinmeister opens this section with the claim that "part of D&D's sense of wonder comes from the mystery that surrounds magic items", but then goes on to tell you how a 1st-level spell infallibly wipes away any questions, concerns, or doubts. A 1st-level spell, that always works, no matter what the item is. They even removed the 100 gp pearl (god I hate how gems have arbitrary gp values attached to them), so now the only cost is an hour of your time.

"You find an inky black sword. It deals +1 damage against living things and you can attune to it, but you will not know what additional powers it confers unt—."

"I cast identify on it."

"Okay, an hour later you discover [insert every single thing that the item does]."

Wow, so much wonder and mystery. I mean it is not like we the players have to sit there for an hour, and if for some reason there is an in-game time crunch? Eh, I can wait, especially since I can still use the item anyway. Big fucking deal.

I have mentioned before how I would handle magic item identification. Rather than look up the blog post I will just repeat myself, partially because it is incredibly simple, partially because I do not want to take the time to try and dig it up:
  • Properties/powers that can be automatically figured out during a short rest.
  • Properties/powers that can be automatically figured out during a long rest.
  • Properties/powers that require an Arcana/History check.
  • Properties/powers that require divination.

The Arcana check would receive a bonus if you use it during a long rest, representing that you have extra time to carefully examine the item, consult books, etc to figure it out. Divination could require a spell of sufficient power (meaning that an extremely basic spell that any wizard can learn before they finish wizard school), but it might also mean that someone/something specific has to tell you (an oracle, sphinx, cleric devoted to a god of knowledge/magic, a devil,e etc).

This could allow for layered discovery, which would actually convey the sense of mystery. They can figure out the obvious properties/powers, characters with an understanding of magic items have a better chance of learning more, and magic can help but is not infallible, meaning that the characters have no guaranteed method of knowing every single thing about an item with the simple use of a simple spell that frankly has no cost. Combine this with a system where items can "level up", and you have a recipe that by the rules keeps the players guessing.

{ 5 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I have made several campaign with magic items and without, any Dm were theresalt doesn't need a book to tell them what they can and can't do in their campaigns. imagination is what it's all about!

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  2. I'm glad you talked about the 4E artifacts and concordance -- the way they approached powerful magical weapons, giving them a form of sentience and a narrative that can play out inside each adventure, makes so much more sense than what they've got here.

    In a way, their efforts with "attunement" remind me a lot of the 3.5 epic class/4E Fighter Paragon Path Kensei. The Kensei attune to a specific weapon that becomes not just their trademark but a part of their being. They imbue part of themselves into the weapon and, in doing so, allow the blade to strike that much more deeply and true. It sounds like they are merely taking that concept and trying to emulate it on a grander scale which, while interesting, does not seem to be executed particularly well.

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  3. Weapons of Legacy better conveys the flavor of a kind of "soul-strain", or whatnot, by imposing penalties to your Base Attack Bonus, saving throws, and some other stuff. In the long run they could be worth the cost (I homebrewed a sword that would give you a Strength bonus, which made up for the attack penalty, but you only got it with that sword, so you were worse off with other things), but there was still a cost, and it showed.

    I mean that right there could solve the "problem" of giving players too many magic items, if for some reason the DM was compelled to just hand them out willy-nilly.

    I think that the game would be better served by using both Weapons of Legacy and 4th Edition's take on artifacts. Hell, some items could use both mechanics.

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  4. I see your point with rules vs. narrative, but when you start talking about slots and tying it to race or alignment, you're going backwards to 3rd and 4th edition... and to Orcus with balance!

    The rest / identify spell / arcana check all limit the mystery element. The amount of knowledge vs. mystery should be (and is) the Dungeon Master's domain.


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  5. @Venger: I am confused as to how saying that characters get "attunement slots" based on something, and some items take more than one slot is bad.

    I mean, what makes more sense from a game design and narrative stance: every character can attune to three items NO MATTER WHAT, or some items being more...demanding of your soul, or however they flavor it?

    It makes more sense to me that an elven bow would have an easier time attuning to an elf, and a harder time attuning to a dwarf. Same goes for a holy sword attuning to a good and evil character.

    Are you saying "to Orcus with balance" because you don't think balance matters, or...?

    I am also confused why you seem opposed to my rest/skill check/magic model. You seem to be all for making it so that the DM ultimately decides what the characters can learn, which is precisely why I suggested that model.

    Only want characters to be able to easily figure out that a sword is a +3 sword? Make that a rest/skill check property. Want them to be able to figure out its personality through intense research or communication with the item? Make that a very difficult skill check that is beyond their scope (or at least very unlikely).

    The idea is that you the DM determine what the characters can learn, as well as what they will probably learn. Some properties might require powerful magic or rituals to divine. It sounds a lot better than "cast a 1st-level divination spell that any wizard can start with by default".

    Anywho, I wish they would go back to 4th Edition: artifact concordance was miles above what they crapped out this time around for magic items. I mean, if they got someone that actually understood the game (ie, not Mearls) then we could have had something really great this time around that built upon the best parts of the previous edition, instead of recycling all the nonfunctional, antiquated shit, letting it fester for two years, and calling it a game.

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