n the D&D Next playtest, we introduced the idea of magic item attunement. Attunement is a big benefit for DMs and game balance, in that it limits the number of powerful magic items a character can use. When you attune an item, you allow its magic to mingle with your own life essence. You reveal your inner power to the item, and in return, it grants you greater power. Because of the strain involved in attuning, a character cannot attune more than three items at a time.
Simple magic items, including potions and scrolls, don't require attunement. Though they are magical in nature, these items are simply tools that don't require any special link to a character in order to function. Items that require attunement are more notable and powerful. They are the signature items that help define a character in the world. Think of Raistlin and the Staff of Magius,or Drizzt's link to the figurine of wondrous power that allows him to summon Guenhwyvar, his animal companion. More than just items, these are key parts of each character's story.
When you attune an item, you run the risk of falling under its thrall. Though not all items requiring attunement carry a drawback, one never knows the item's purpose or the intentions of its creator. A magic dwarven axe might compel a character to seek out a lost clan home and destroy the dragon that lairs there. A dagger used to carry out sacrifices to Asmodeus might promise great power in return for fealty to the Lord of the Nine Hells. A suit of armor crafted by duergar might repel all attacks, but freeze its wearer helplessly in place when facing the gray dwarves in battle.
Attunement poses something of a risk for a character. It shows that magic items are built for a purpose—but sometimes that purpose weighs more heavily on a character than the bonuses or special abilities provided by an item. As with many things we're designing for D&D, the drawbacks of attunement are another tool that DMs can make use of to encourage roleplaying and bring the campaign to life.
Though named artifacts such as the Hand of Vecna will come with specific attunement drawbacks, general magic items lack them. For example, the staff of defense requires attunement, but its entry lacks any drawbacks for attunement. Instead, the DM has the option to flesh out a specific staff's backstory and add options for a character who attunes to it. A stafffound in a dragon's hoard might have been crafted for the bodyguard of an ancient sorcerer queen. The character attuned to it gains knowledge of the lost city that the queen once ruled. But when the character meets the queen's distant ancestor, he has a sudden urge to follow her and protect her from harm. Thus does the staff continue to serve its role even after thousands of years.
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.
Part of D&D's sense of wonder comes from the mystery that surrounds magic items. With the system for attunement in mind, we went back and looked at the process of identifying the items your characters might find during an adventure.
Simply handling a normal magic item is enough to determine that it is imbued with mystical power. Detect magic is still useful to pinpoint magic items from a distance, or to detect auras from items that do not innately hint at their magical nature. You can spend a short rest studying a magic item to learn its abilities, during which time it's assumed that you experiment with the item and try to activate its magic. A character can inspect one item per short rest. (Potions are an exception to this rule. Simply sipping a potion reveals its properties.)
If an item requires attunement, you do not learn the risks and benefits of attuning after a short rest. You learn that you can attune to the item, but not what happens when you do so. Attuning to an item reveals its abilities. However, some of the benefits and drawbacks presented by an item might take time to reveal themselves.
If you are wary of attuning to an item, the identify spell reveals all of an item's properties and drawbacks. Though this spell is no longer necessary to learn an item's secrets, it does save you the risk of first attuning to an item and then learning what it does.
These changes were made to better match how we saw players handling items in their campaigns. Few DMs were enforcing use of the identify spell, and most characters simply attempted to use obviously beneficial items such as magic weapons and armor. We think these rules are clearer, simpler, and a better match for what players expect at the table.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.