The Power of Three: Innate Magical Abilities

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.

Arcane Aegis

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.

Chaos Magic

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.

Dragon Slayer

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.

Illusory Guise

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.

Spell Resistance

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.

D&D: Narrative Equipment

Here’s a new one you can add to the already substantial “Dungeon Master’s Workshop” in chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, further simplifying even the starting class and background equipment packages of the game:

Narrative Equipment

Rather than tracking weapons, armor, and other equipment, adventurers are simply assumed to be adequately equipped, and armed and armored according to their capabilities, as follows:

  • Simple Weapon Proficiency: When armed, you do 1d6 damage. If you choose to make a two-handed attack, you do 1d8 damage. Use your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier for the attack and damage rolls. You must use the same modifier for both rolls. Choose bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage based on the weapon and type of attack.
  • Martial Weapon Proficiency: When armed, you do 1d8 damage. If you choose to make a two-handed attack, you do 1d10 damage. Use your Strength for the attack and damage rolls of melee attacks and Dexterity for the attack and damage rolls of ranged attacks. Choose bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage based on the weapon and type of attack.
  • Light Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 12 + your Dexterity modifier.
  • Medium Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 14 + your Dexterity modifier (to a maximum of +2). Under this system, druids should be limited to light armor proficiency for simplicity.
  • Heavy Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 15 + your Strength modifier (to a maximum of +3).
  • Shield Proficiency: You gain a +2 bonus to your Armor Class, but have only one free hand and cannot make two-handed attacks.

Characters can choose to use “lower” proficiencies, if they wish. For example, a character proficient in both simple and martial weapons may choose to use simple weapons for the benefit of finesse, while a character proficient in heavy armor may choose to use medium or light armor for the Dexterity bonus, and characters proficient with shields can choose to use or not use one.

Otherwise, characters are assumed to have all of the tools and other items with which they are proficient and necessary personal, survival, and adventuring gear. If it ever becomes a question as to whether or not a character has a particular item, roll a DC 10 Wisdom check, adding the character’s proficiency bonus if the item is appropriate to the character’s class or background. On a success, the character happens to have that item. Players can spend inspiration to have advantage on this check.

The Dungeon Master can create circumstances where characters are unarmed, unarmored, or do not have access to their usual equipment. In these cases, characters regain the benefits of their equipment once they are able to recover it, or take a rest in an area where they can conceivably re-equip themselves, such as a settlement.

ICONS: Innate Damage Resistance

This is an expansion/modification of the Innate Invulnerability damage variant on the ICONS Wiki. In essence, all characters get Damage Resistance equal to half their Strength level (rounded down) but that resistance applies only to bashing and blasting damage, slashing and shooting damage is unaffected. This reflects the greater resistance sheer Strength grants when it comes to taking a beating, without necessarily making the character more physically impervious to harm. Regular Damage Resistance, granted by powers, protects against all types of attacks, unless the power has a specific Limit, and the higher of the two levels applies.

Example: The Mighty Saguaro has Strength 9 but no Damage Resistance power. He still gets Damage Resistance 4 (9 divided by 2 = 4.5, rounded down to 4) against bashing and blasting damage, but slashing and shooting attacks do their full damage against him. His only benefit from Strength there is his higher Stamina total. On the other hand, All-Star has Strength 10 and Damage Resistance 8, so he gets no extra benefit; his powers grant him more Damage Resistance than half his Strength level. If, for some reason, his Damage Resistance was nullified, but not his Strength, All-Star would still have Damage Resistance 5 (half of 10) against bashing and blasting damage.

ICONS: Pay-to-Play Determination

In the ICONS rules, starting Determination value is figured from a base of 6, minus 1 per power the character has, with abilities above level 6 counting as powers. So a hero with three powers and an ability of 8 (for example), has a starting Determination of 2. This is intended to benefit those heroes who have fewer powers and superhuman abilities, giving them the options inherent in more starting Determination.

In this variant, rather than paying “up-front” for the value of powers and high-level abilities, all characters start each story with the same amount of Determination—the base 6 points—which they can spend as desired, but players have to spend a point of Determination the first time they use a particular power or ability with a level higher than 6 in each story. This Determination has no benefit other than “activating” that ability and making it accessible. Thus the characters “pay” for the capabilities they use, but are not “charged” for the ones that they do not. This may encourage players to be more conservative about their heroes’ powers, which can suit a “secret powers” series, for example.

In a Super-Teen series, the characters are all high schoolers who keep their amazing powers secret for various reasons. The GM institutes the “pay-to-play” rule for Determination, meaning all of the heroes have the same starting Determination, but they have to pay 1 point for the first use of each power or super-level ability in each adventure. So when Gwen uses her Super-Speed or Tommy teleports for the first time, that costs a point of Determination. Gwen’s Coordination 5 and Acrobatics Expert, however, doesn’t cost Determination because it’s not a power and her ability level is not above 6. If the young heroes choose not to exercise their powers, they have more Determination on-hand for other things.

Poll: Best ICONS Options

What’s your favorite new rules option for ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying? I’ve posted a number of ideas and optional rules on this blog, and I’m looking for you to vote for your favorite.

I’ve also opened up comments for discussion and mentioning your favorite ICONS variations from elsewhere, whether it’s ICONS Team-Up, third-party products, your own series, or elsewhere on the ‘net. What are your favorite ICONS options and hacks? Let’s hear ’em!

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FAE: Shifting Approaches

This is more of a post-let than a detailed post, but it was an idea that occurred to me and I wanted to get it out there for anyone who might benefit from it or do something interesting with it (which, by the way, is carte blanche for you to do so, if you feel so motivated).

In Fate Accelerated Edition, characters use different Approaches to perform actions, choosing from Careful, Flashy, Forceful, etc. (or whatever other names the Approaches are given).

One classic element of fictional conflicts is encouraging, forcing, or tricking an opponent or rival into using an Approach that puts them at a disadvantage: get a normally careful foe angry enough to attack with abandon, make a somewhat dim-witted rival overestimate his own cleverness, put a forceful, flashy character in a situation where being sneaky and subtle is called for (or vice versa).

This is essentially Creating an Advantage except, rather than sussing out or creating an aspect, you’re shifting the conflict to a different approach. So, on a tie or success, you get a sense of the opponent’s weakest approach and get to shift the conflict there for one exchange. If you succeed with style, you keep it there for two exchanges and, at the GM’s option, can spend a fate point to keep it there for an additional exchange.

Example: Two sword-fighters  are facing-off, and it quickly becomes clear they’re evenly matched in the Quick and Flashy department, so one tries to taunt her opponent with a Flashy maneuver to get him angry enough to try a Forceful attack. On a tie or success, she goads her foe into taking a Forceful approach for the next exchange, perhaps giving her an opening for a Quick attack. If she succeeds with style, her foe is so unhinged, he goes Forceful for the next two exchanges at least.

Addendum: Why is this any better than just creating an advantage or getting a bonus? Apart from the flavor of it, shifting approaches can have a more variable bonus (depending on the spread between the subject’s best and worst approaches applicable to the situation) plus it can potentially deny the target access to stunts based on a particular approach: If your foe’s best stunt is based on being Flashy, for example, and you force him into a situation where he has to be Sneaky, then that stunt is likely off the table for the moment, giving you an added advantage.

ICONS: Knacks

iconsknacksKnacks are a new type of trait for ICONS, neither ability, specialty, nor power. A knack can have one of the following effects, chosen when the knack is created and acquired:

  • Substitutes one ability level for another in relation to a specific kind of test or usage. Examples include swapping Strength for Willpower for intimidating (“My might is intimidating!”) or Intellect for Coordination for Dodging (“Totally saw that one coming.”).
  • Provides a +2 bonus for a specific type of test in the form: “Because I [something unique about the character] I get a bonus when I [particular situation or test].” For example, “Because I once belonged to the criminal underworld, I get a bonus when I interact with criminals on their own terms.”
  • Provides the effects of a power at a level equal to a “linked” ability. Note that this does not count as the “Ability-Linked” limit for powers that feature it (see the Great Power sourcebook for details).
  • Provides a declared benefit the player can bring into play based on a specific Specialty, reflecting the character’s knowledge, experience, or resources. For example, “As a Business Expert, I know a lot of people in this field. One of them should be able to help us out.” This follows the same guidelines as a retcon (ICONS, p. 80).

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