Short and Sweet Overview: If an Attunement limit in 5th edition seems arbitrary, one solution might be to tie a character’s number of attunements to the already existing mechanic of proficiency. You would then be able to attune to a number of items equal to your proficiency bonus. Both for flavor and to balance against possible abuses, consider making attunement a more interesting process in which characters use specialized rituals or achievements to gain access to an item’s additional abilities.
One of the more laudable achievements of 5th edition is its success in making the game more scalable and playable at higher levels. Finally, we have a version of the game that doesn’t tend to spiral out of control into a power-fueled slogfest of headache-inducing number-crunching, yet still feels like the game we all know and love. In tandem with this shift in design philosophy, the role of magic items in the game has been toned down significantly, as have the prevalence and power of the items in general.
While I think this is a good design decision overall, one part of the whole magic item approach really bothers me, and that is attunement. I don’t hate the idea of attunement; in fact, I like it quite a bit. But the implementation of it in the game is, in a word, inelegant.
That’s a shame, because I think attunement could have been a fantastic new feature of the game rather than just an arbitrary power cap. Let me put it this way. As a GM I never want to be in the following situation:
GM: “You find a bright golden ring on the rapidly cooling finger of the orcish champion. It is engraved with subtle designs that seem to represent shields and castle walls.”
Player: “Cool, I’ll bet it’s a ring of protection! I could use the AC boost. I put it on.”
GM: “Uh, don’t you already have three attuned items on you?”
Player: “Well, yeah, I guess so. But all I have are my boots, my armor, and my sword. Why can’t I wear the ring?”
GM: “Because you can only attune to three items and all three of those items you already have require attunement.”
Player: “But why three items?”
GM: “Uh, well, I guess it’s a balance thing.”
Player: “But what’s it based on? Is there any way to get more attunements? Is that even a word?”
GM: “Well, it’s just a rule. And no, not really. And finally, I think so, but I’m not sure.”
The first problem here is that the number of attunements is not connected to anything other than itself. It is an absolutely arbitrary, artificial limitation with no discernible rationale outside of game balance.
And that’s unfortunate — because it doesn’t have to be arbitrary at all.
An Elegant Solution
Inelegance can often be cured by connecting the new rule to some other, already existing core mechanic–in this case the proficiency bonus, which is also a new mechanic, but which already makes a kind of intuitive sense. Under such a house rule, a character would be able to attune a number of magic items equal to his or her bonus to proficiency. This means attunement scales with level: As you become more experienced, you become better able to handle the power of magic items in your possession, getting more out of them.
We might think of this sort of attunement as similar to magic item Ego from earlier editions, similar to the “will” that the One Ring of in Lord of the Rings appears to have: The ring wants to be found by particular people. Similarly, earlier editions of the game have made the point that divine power tends to be attracted to human beings who take the greatest risks, which is why adventuring clerics are more likely to wield that power than the typical cloistered cleric is.
Echoing that logic, the attuned item might have a kind of will of its own–a reluctance to display its full potential unless it decides that the wearer or wielder is suitable.
The proficiency mechanic offers a simple “program” or rule for achieving this effect, one similar in a way to natural selection: Weak characters won’t be likely to fully awaken the items they have and may not really know what they can do, and because of this fact (and their weakness), they won’t hold onto those items for very long. Meanwhile, powerful characters will tend to keep and fully utilize such items once they find them.
Digression: Many discussion post threads have proposed other possible benchmarks for attunement, most notably tying it to a character’s bonus to the Charisma score. Originally, I had thought to tie it to whatever the character’s highest mental stat (Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma) was, but a player who often plays fighter types made an equally convincing case for Constitution and pointed out the fact that the mental stat bias negatively affected a number of classes. Graham Scott suggested the proficiency option and it immediately struck me as a much better idea.
For the early levels, players will only be able to attune 2 items, so this approach can reduce the danger of early magic-item bloat. I am tempted to argue here that magic items are more unbalancing at the lower levels than at the higher ones in 5th edition, but that would be its own article. The bonus peaks at 6 attunements at 17th level. (However, at that point in the game I don’t think I mind the possibility of that many items being used–and I’m going to show you ways you can reabsorb some of those slots, in some cases ensuring multiple slots are used on one item.)
Players can easily grasp the logic of this attunement cap as it follows the progression of their characters and their generally increasing level of ability. It makes sense as a rule, and that matters, too: As counter-intuitive as it may seem, internal logic improves a fantasy role-playing game.
But let’s keep going. In addition to giving attunement a kind of logic, let’s use attunement to make magical items more exciting. And while we’re at it, let’s also take a look at the attunement rituals, which are in serious need of a flavor boost.
Better Magic Items
Many magic items have been, for lack of a better term, nerfed in the new edition. That’s a good impulse, as the general trend toward simplification should also help alleviate unintended and weird synergies, like the old dart fighter of early editions. Even more welcome is the general reduction of pluses. Most weapons and armor are now simply +1 items, which significantly alleviates the credibility- and market-straining equipment upgrade cycle that was such a part of earlier editions. Higher-level items still exist, but mostly peak at +3. The previous gamut of pluses has been replaced with mostly interesting minor, and sometimes major, powers. Some items give resistance to a type of damage, or do an extra bit of damage. More interesting ones give a special ability or advantage.
This development is fine, but I still think an opportunity has been lost to make attunement something really interesting and exciting rather than just an arbitrary and flavorless cap.
Here is my proposition. In general, all magic items that have a “plus,” like most weapons and armor, are just +1 until they are attuned. This, of course, doesn’t work for all the odd items that have only a special use or ability, but it does work for a lot of armor, weapons, and a surprising number of other goodies. The catch is, many of these items also have an attunement ritual that unlocks their extra power. If you don’t attune the item, it just stays a boring old +1 whatever. But if you do attune it, then it becomes something special and interesting.
The Attunement Ritual
Currently, the process of attuning to an item consists of sitting around for a nice rest and — staring at it.
It is hard to imagine a more boring scene to role-play.
The dullness of the attunement scene is quite surprising for a game based on fantasy literature that is bursting with tropes and scenes involving magical rituals that awaken the power of magical artifacts. Attuning items should require more than napping in their general proximity. To attune an item, a character should have to do something cool, like
take it to the peak of a nearby mountain (perhaps one that’s teeming with ferocious yetis),
defeat an enemy in single combat (it’s a staple of the genre),
or perform the rite of Shil-Ben-Nur while juggling flaming torches and riding on an unbroken stallion (start rolling those skill checks!).
The attunement ritual should make sense in the context of the item’s powers and provenance, and it should involve some sort of challenge that has to be overcome. This is, after all, a game of heroic fantasy.
There is an even more significant reason to use this form of attunement from a game-design perspective: Attunement rituals are the perfect MacGuffin, enabling the GM to channel PCs toward particular parts of the story while still allowing them agency. Attunement rituals can be used as brief interludes in an ongoing plot, or they can become the focus of a major storyline all on their own.
Why wouldn’t I want to use story-oriented attunement rituals as a GM?
If you are creating your own magic items or new attunement powers for existing magic items, you can use the ritual as inspiration for the kind of power you want to ascribe to the item, or you can flip that, using the power for inspiration for the ritual.
- A suit of +1 studded leather taken from the tomb of an ancient wight grants advantage on Stealth checks against the undead and evil clerics. But it only does this after the character slays another undead creature with a CR of at least 3 and sprinkles its ashes on the armor.
- A +1 sword might become a +1 flametongue after being bathed in the exhalations of a red dragon. When the blade is exposed to the flames, it catches fire and glowing words in Draconic appear on the metal. If those words are read aloud by the wielder of the weapon, the flames extinguish–but the blade can be reignited when the words are spoken again.
- A +1 short sword wielded by the party’s rogue is designed to attune after being used to kill a shambling mound. The rogue, upon learning this (see below), tries to find out where shambling mounds might be and thus heads right into the very swamp the DM wants him to enter. Once the weapon is attuned, it grants the wielder the ability to tree stride once per long rest and cast entangle once per short rest.
- A ring of protection might offer a more limited benefit until attuned, and that benefit would be retained after attunement. Perhaps for one turn per rest its wearer is treated as though he or she is wearing a shield, with proficiency, as long as the wearer doesn’t already have a shield. After the wearer returns a relic of a god of protection to the god’s temple, it gains its +1 protection property in addition to the shield property.
Having some sort of brief adventure to activate an item will certainly make it less mundane, but it does run the risk of becoming annoying if overused. I believe the attunement ritual option will work best with items that are significantly more powerful when attuned, but are still useful if not, as is the case especially with weapons and armor.
Identify at Last
I have one last point here that I think is worthwhile to mention. Using attunement rituals could also be a great boon for the much maligned and underutilized identify spell. It seems that this spell is rarely actually used to identify the qualities of an item, as it’s a bit of a pain and often not necessary for items with fairly obvious descriptors. However, it you do use attunement rituals, then the identify spell should be the key to finding out what is required to make the item into something truly extraordinary. If you want to keep some investigative mystery, the spell could at least reveal the item’s potential power and indicate where the ritual can be found or researched.†