The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons tends to place less emphasis on magic items as an expected component of characters’ capabilities. Certainly, there are challenges—such as monsters vulnerable only to magical weapons—that call for such things, but even then there are workarounds in terms of class abilities, spells, and the like, reducing the reliance on an arsenal of arcane items in the party’s possession.
One way the edition trims down on magic items is through the concept of attunement: wherein some magic items require a mystical bond with their wielder. This bond takes some time and effort to forge, and characters can attune to a finite number of items, namely three. (As an aside, world creators can have fun exploring all manner of metaphysical trinities to provide an explanation for the question, “Why three?” but that’s a subject for a different article.)
So, it can be said, from a system perspective, that fifth edition D&D characters have essentially three “potential” magical advantages, which are realized by connecting them with items the characters acquire during their adventures—but what if that wasn’t the only option?
Now, the Dungeon Master’s Guide does talk about some other options, including supernatural gifts, marks of prestige, and epic boons, but none of them draw upon the notion that a maximum of three “magic advantages” is built-in to the characters. They’re all extras layered on top.
Perhaps in addition to magic items, D&D characters can “fill” those attunement slots with innate abilities of different sorts, essentially the equivalent of a magic item the character can’t easily lose, but also can’t easily swap out for another item. The attunement mechanic also works as a starting point for things like:
- Tattoos or markings, like Eberron’s dragonmarks or the spellscars from the Spellplague era of the Forgotten Realms.
- Birthrights that are inherent magical abilities, from gifts from the gods to strange abilities caused by magical “mutation” or an unusual heritage or bloodline, such as some of those from the Birthright setting.
- Gifts similar to the supernatural gifts from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but replicating a wider range of magic item abilities. These gifts might be granted by higher powers, magical rituals, or performing great deeds, to name a few.
Equivalence and Level. The magical ability should be about the equivalent of a magic item requiring attunement, with its level determined by the magic item’s rarity (as given on the Magic Item Rarity table in the DMG). So a magical ability equal to a ring of regeneration, for example, would be 11th level (for a very rare item).
Drawback. The ability may have a drawback that’s roughly equivalent to the potential of losing a magic item or having it taken away, since the ability is not so limited. For example, a magical ability equivalent to an amulet of the planes (let’s call it “planewalking,” shall we?) has, as an additional disadvantage, that when the Intelligence check made to activate it fails, the ability is also rendered unless until the character completes a long rest. On the other hand, the DM may decide that some magical abilities don’t need an additional drawback, such as the equivalent of boots of elvenkind, giving the character advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks to move silently at all times.
Acquisition. Acquiring the magical ability is largely at the Dungeon Master’s discretion and can be the result of any number of things, from a god’s blessing to the effects of drinking from an enchanted fountain. The ability may have prerequisites, including a minimum character level (based on item rarity) and class or race requirements similar to magic items. Generally, the character’s player should have the option of refusing the ability, in which case, nothing happens (save, perhaps, for offending a potential patron). If the character accepts, the ability “takes root” and fills one of the character’s attunement slots.
Divestment. Similarly, it’s up to the DM whether or not characters can shed or rid themselves of magical abilities. It should be difficult, since that is one of the primary drawbacks of abilities versus magic items, and might involve conditions similar to acquiring the ability, or the use of spells like remove curse to “uncouple” the ability and clear the attunement slot it occupies. Some abilities, like birthrights, might be things you cannot get rid of. Alternately, perhaps you can “overwrite” the ability by attuning a magic item and “filling” its slot, but the ability is no longer available (and might be lost permanently, even if you lose your attunement to the item that replaced it).
Leveling. It’s possibly for magical abilities to “level,” either along with the character, gaining the powers or properties of more effective items as the character grows in level, or filling additional attunement slots, essentially adding the benefits of additional items as the ability grows. This is particularly good for magic item abilities that have multiple levels of rarity and power.
Sample Magical Abilities
Here are just a few potential magical abilities using this concept.
Surrounded by an unseen arcane aegis of protection, you have resistance to force damage and immunity to damage from the magic missile spell. Prerequisite: None.
You can call upon powerful, chaotic, magical forces. Use an action to choose a target within 120 feet of you: a creature, object, or even a point in space. Roll d100 an consult the wand of wonder effect table to see what happens. The effect is otherwise like that of a wand of wonder. You can use this ability 1d6 times per day, but the DM rolls each day at dawn and you only know you have expended all of your daily uses when you attempt to invoke your chaos magic and nothing happens. Prerequisite: spellcaster, 5th level.
Any melee weapon you wield against a creature with the dragon type gains a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls and inflicts an extra 3d6 damage of the weapon’s type to the creature. However, true dragons can tell you have this ability by seeing or smelling you with a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check. Prerequisite: 5th level.
You can use an action to cast the disguise self spell at will. Prerequisite: None.
You can use an action to make a DC 15 Intelligence check. On a successful check, you cast the plane shift spell. On a failure, you and each creature within 15 feet of you travel to a random destination and you are unable to use this ability until you complete a long rest. Roll d100. On a 1–60, you travel to a random location on the plane you named. On a 61–100, you travel to a randomly determined plane of existence. Prerequisite: 11th level.
You have advantage on all saving throws against spells. Prerequisite: 5th level.
You can use a bonus action to activate this ability. When you do, double your walking speed, and any creature that makes an opportunity attack against you has disadvantage on the attack roll. When you have used this ability for a total of 10 minutes, you must complete a long rest in order to use it again. Prerequisite: 5th level.
Great article. It’s giving some ideas I’ll be able to drop right into my game. The examples are very helpful.
I love the lack of magical reliance in 5e. It’s one of the things 5th edition does really well.