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D&D General How AD&D Handled 'Attunement': The Magic of the Item Saving Throw Table

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Whether you love it, or hate it, everyone is familiar with how 5e has decided to deal with prior editions' proliferation of magic items. That's right- in the past, D&D was like Oprah .... "YOU GET A MAGIC ITEM ... AND YOU GET A MAGIC ITEM ... AND YOU ... YES ... YOU GET A MAGIC ITEM!" But then 5e came along and went all Soup Nazi with the attunement system ....

"You want to use a fourth magic item? NO ATTUNEMENT FOR YOU!"

This has led many people to remember the halcyon days of prior editions, such as AD&D (1e), when it was always summertime and the livin's easy, and people would complain about the poor paladin and his ten maximum magic item limit. Poor paladin, only able to have one suit of magic armor and, um, four magic weapons.

And, for the most part, that was true. Going through the treasure tables, or the published modules at the time, shows that in 1e, characters were supposed to have magic items. Perhaps not growing on trees or as abundant as candy in Willy Wonka's factory, but there was a veritable plethora of longswords +1, and other stuff as well.

However, for all of the abundance, 1e did have a method of culling those items from the unwary. The foolhardy player's worst nightmare- the ITEM SAVING THROW TABLE.

Definition: Item Saving Throws are like the saving throws 5e players are familiar with, except for items. So, for example, if you shiny shield (or potion, or wand, or whatever) is hit by a fireball, will it survive?


1. A brief history of the use of item saving throws in TSR-era D&D (OD&D and 2e).


Before getting into the specific use of item saving throws in AD&D (1e), a brief detour into the question that perplexed many a table at the time- when, exactly, do you have to check to see if the items are required to make saving throws? I mean, as I write later, it says that a fall of even 5' can break stuff ... so every little glancing blow or fall? Well, the answer is simple-
Evil DM Voice: You roll for it whenever the party has too much stuff.

Ahem, no, Let's look at what other editions had to say. The first appearance of the rule goes all the way back to OD&D, Monsters & Treasure (Book 2). On page 38, it has a heading called MAGICAL ITEMS' SAVING THROWS. Within it, the following is stated:
Magical items will, during the course of play, be struck by various forms of weapons. For the sake of simplicity it is generally easier to assume they survive unharmed if their wearer/user is not killed (exception, Helms). If the wearer is killed, or the items are alone, throw for them on the following table if struck by Fire (Dragon or Ball) or Lightning (Dragon or Bolt). Those items not listed should be assumed automatically destroyed.

That's interesting; also weird that magic helmets are an exception! But this rule is the simple version- if you die, the stuff might get destroyed as well, except your helmet, which might get destroyed at any time ... because simplicity is good, except when it's not. When Holmes codified the rules in OD&D in Holmes Basic, there was no mention of this.

The table discussed below was slightly modified and used in 2e as well (2e DMG 38-39). Notably, the restriction in 2e was explicit that:
The item saving throw should be used only when the item is not being carried by a character or when a character fails his saving throw against the same attack. A character who successfully saves against the blast of a fireball need not make separate saving throws for his potions. The character who failed the same save failed to protect himself adequately and must therefore check for his potions (and probably his scrolls, too). Not all items need make a save in every instance. It is perfectly reasonable to ignore the save for a character's sword and armor in the same fireball situation described above, since there is so little chance that these will be affected.


2. The (in)famous 1e table.

Most of page 80 in the DMG is taken up by the table/matrix for magic and non-magic item saving throws, along with the explanation. The actual categories ... kinda make sense. If you don't think too hard about it.
The item types are: bone/ivory, ceramic, cloth, crystal/vial, glass, leather/book, liquid, metal (hard), metal (soft or jewelry), mirror, parchment/paper, stone (small or gem), wood or rope (thin), and wood or rope (thick).
The attack forms are: acid, crushing blow, normal blow, disintegrate, fall, fireball, magical fire, normal fire, fyre festival (just seeing if you're reading!), frost, lightning, and electricity.

Here's the thing- there's not a lot of guidance (none really) about when to employ the item saving throws. Obviously, if you had to roll for every item, every time the character dropped 5' (or got hit by an ogre- a crushing blow!), then items would be getting destroyed all the time. On the other hand, what little text that is that surrounds it makes it obvious that the intent is that these things are checked more frequently than just when the character dies; for instance:
These saving throws are self-explanatory in general. It is a case of either saving or failing. Potions and liquids which do not make their saving throws should be noted secretly by you - unless the player concerned has his or her character check to determine if the fluid was harmed. Such failure will not otherwise be notable without examination and testing.
DMG 81.

It seems that in this case, "unless the player concerned" (the one carrying the potion who was affected) checks- which seems to indicate it's not just a "death" thing. This is also reinforced by the language in other areas, such as this description of the fireball, from the PHB:
Items exposed to the {fireball's} effects must be rolled for to determine if they are affected. Items with a creature which makes its saving throw are considered as unaffected.

As such, it seems clear that the intended purpose of the 1e table was the same as the 2e table, although perhaps less restricted.

In personal experience (which, again, this being 1e can vary wildly from table to table), the item saving throw table was used for big events in two ways-
First, if a party was of the habit of dropping ye olde fireball on the big bad, then they had better be prepared to see some of the treasure to go (channeling Cheech and Chong) up in smoke.
Second, if a character was subject to an extreme event- falling a large distance, hit by dragon breath, taking his morning swim in the lake o' acid, then the character's items would have to save.

Both things tended to keep the curse of too many items ... well, down a little, and without the need for attunement.


3. Conclusion- why blowin' stuff might not have been the best method of magic item control.

I started this post with the general idea that older versions of D&D (and 1e specifically) dealt with the influx of magic items in a slightly different way than the 5e method of attunement. Which, if you have players used to that, is great.

However, I was also very familiar with the terrible boom/bust cycle of the Jekyll & Hyde, Monty Haul/Evil DM. Which would basically work like this:
Day 1: D&D is lots of fun! Give the party all the gold and magic items!
Day 2: You can't unbalance the campaign; time for the dragon breath.
Day 3: D&D is lots of fun! Give the party all the gold and magic items!
Day 4: You can't unbalance the campaign; time for the acid pit.
Rinse repeat.

The thing is, having something, and then getting it taken away from you? That's worse than not having it. And having that cycle repeat over and over again? Just terrible. When used as an intrinsic part of the game, the system worked well; when used by DMs to "clean up" their own exuberance ... it was absolutely the worst.

Anyway, just throwing out this for general discussion. Item saving throw- do you love them? Hate them? Wish they were in 5e?
 

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I suggest a rule house: you can wear so many magic item as "chakras" or body slots, but only four will can be activated. You need a turn to reactivate and reconfigure what magic items are active.

And we should remember the potential abuse of the single-use magic item (scrolls, potions, runes, tatoos, talismans..).
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Also, when charges ran out back then, they ran out by and large. They did not recharge every day at dawn, or whatever. When you allow easy recharges, you're effectively increasing the amount of magic items available because they are retained. so in that sense, 5e give more magic items than 1e.
 

Stalker0

Legend
I think the attunement concept is a great one in 5e. For a few reasons:
  • Dirt simple: so easy to understand, no corner rules no weirdness, and you handle it outside of encounters so nothing to slow the game down when it matters.
  • Easy to adjust: 3 is the base but it’s very easy for a dm to tailor. Dm could say when your 10th it becomes 4, or you get one as a boon, or you gain a cool sword but part of the interesting thing is it doesn’t need attunement
 

Stormonu

Legend
Items Saving Throws were one of those "fun for the DM, not so much for the players" sort of things. It did engender a bit of caution in that if you used them players weren't so quick to subject themselves to things like willingly jump off cliffs (because they had enough hit points, but not rope) or risk running into a dragon's breath "because they could take it."

As magic item control, it simply did not work - believe me, I tried.
 

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
I think the attunement concept is a great one in 5e. For a few reasons:
  • Dirt simple: so easy to understand, no corner rules no weirdness, and you handle it outside of encounters so nothing to slow the game down when it matters.
  • Easy to adjust: 3 is the base but it’s very easy for a dm to tailor. Dm could say when your 10th it becomes 4, or you get one as a boon, or you gain a cool sword but part of the interesting thing is it doesn’t need attunement
I'm with you on both points. There are also plenty of magical items that don't require attunement so it isn't even that restrictive. A perfect fit for 5e.

I was a kid when I had my only run-in with Item Saving Throws. I don't remember all the particulars since this was the late 90's but everybody lost a ton of stuff when a dragon nuked us into oblivion and the DM decided to follow that up with a dragon breath that destroyed just about everything we were carrying. We did not use that rule in the future.
 

toucanbuzz

Legend
May sound weird, but my AD&D players intentionally broke their items from time to time based on a homebrew rule that destroyed magical items triggered a "wild surge" (from a customized 1000 effects, half good, half bad, ranging from inane to summoning an avatar of your deity). Of course, magical items were much more common and it was no big deal to "bust a +1 sword." After awhile, you've probably got a stash.

BUT, the day I pulled out a Mordenkainen's Disjunction was the day my players about killed me... So, item saving throws, not going back.
 

Lord Shark

Explorer
People actually used those rules? My group back in the day found them arbitrary and tiresome -- do you really want to have to stop and roll a save for every single piece of gear every time you get hit with a lightning bolt or dragon breath? -- and never bothered with them.
 

Stormdale

Explorer
We used them (mainly for saves vs spells or really, really long falls) and found them a good way to cull the players magic item hoard out over time.

Two reason not to cast a 1e fireball indoors.
  • Likelihood of engulfing the whole party- how many 10x10 squares was that again?
  • Any magic items on the group you are fireball would need a save on the chart- and often for that reaosn other players told magic users NOT to use fireball.
Magic items became fun while you had them and you moved on once they were destroyed.

3e kept it too if I recall but only on a 1 and only a few items?

Stormdale
 

They created a weird situation in my college 2E game. After many lower level adventures, we entered the ruins of Myth Dranor, which is surrounded by mythal (magical field) with... interesting effects. One was the potential destruction of magic items caused by a wild surge (triggered in various ways) which required a save against disintegration. It was a cumulative effect, so when an item was destroyed in this way, it triggered a subsequent mini-surge (only 5 ft range). In practice this would destroy almost every single magic item during the first surge, as each potion, scroll, and other minor magic items triggered more and more surges. However, due to dumb luck one of our most powerful items survived: a Ring of Multiple Wishes, with 1 remaining wish.

It was at that point the DM reluctantly pointed out that each time an item survived a surge, it doubled its number of charges (if any), allowing above the normal maximum. The DM ruled that the maximum "doubling" was the normal maximum number of charges, so this ring went from a single charge to 76 wishes! Needless to say, we beat a quick retreat out of the mythal before anything bad happened to it! Our mage placed it in a Lemound's Tiny Hut, then we returned to the adventure (nothing else we recovered was anything near as valuable as that was).


People actually used those rules? My group back in the day found them arbitrary and tiresome -- do you really want to have to stop and roll a save for every single piece of gear every time you get hit with a lightning bolt or dragon breath? -- and never bothered with them.
When it occurred in combat, we'd simply note that we'd been hit by the effect and move on. After the combat, we'd make the necessary rolls to find out what we lost. If a player wanted to use an item during the combat, they made the rolls for that item immediately.
 

Anyway, just throwing out this for general discussion. Item saving throw- do you love them? Hate them? Wish they were in 5e?
We used the magic item save rule, but sparingly. It was at the DMs discretion when they were needed but it was usually at a pivotal moment in the game that added to the tension, excitement and made the game better. Though it worked both ways, npcs/monsters were subject to the rule too. I remember using it more during fights in monster lairs where treasure was just laying around and spells were being thrown around. Id prefer if they were in 5E but there's no reason I cant add them if I want to. Since playing 5E though I haven't given out nearly as many magic items as I used to so it really hasn't come up. If I did re-instate it I would probably use it on something such as a player rolls a 1 on a save with disadvantage making it a rare occurrence, and Id probably roll or pick an item randomly with common sense prevailing.
 

Going by how many 'solutions' we see pop up for magic existing and players getting the have it, and how martials always get to suffer man at the gym syndrome, I wonder how many DMs basically hate Fantasy, but don't want to admit they'd be happier with Historical Fiction / Alternate History / General Otherworld Fiction where no magic or supernatural or over the top action can or is expected to happen or maybe genres where magic is explicitly in NPC hands like Sword and X often is.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
May sound weird, but my AD&D players intentionally broke their items from time to time based on a homebrew rule that destroyed magical items triggered a "wild surge" (from a customized 1000 effects, half good, half bad, ranging from inane to summoning an avatar of your deity). Of course, magical items were much more common and it was no big deal to "bust a +1 sword." After awhile, you've probably got a stash.
We have it that if any magic item gets broken - or if a spell gets interrupted - the sudden release of magical energy can generate a wild magic surge. My surge table's only about 300 items long but it's the same idea: about 1/3 of the results are generally (and sometimes extremely!) bad, about 1/3 are innocuous or simply humourous, and about 1/3 are generally (and sometimes extremely!) beneficial.
 


Going by how many 'solutions' we see pop up for magic existing and players getting the have it, and how martials always get to suffer man at the gym syndrome, I wonder how many DMs basically hate Fantasy, but don't want to admit they'd be happier with Historical Fiction / Alternate History / General Otherworld Fiction where no magic or supernatural or over the top action can or is expected to happen or maybe genres where magic is explicitly in NPC hands like Sword and X often is.

Yes, those genres are generally more fun and exciting than a Weird Wizard Show where characters can solve all of their problems with the wave of a magic wand.
 

Whether you love it, or hate it, everyone is familiar with how 5e has decided to deal with prior editions' proliferation of magic items. That's right- in the past, D&D was like Oprah .... "YOU GET A MAGIC ITEM ... AND YOU GET A MAGIC ITEM ... AND YOU ... YES ... YOU GET A MAGIC ITEM!" But then 5e came along and went all Soup Nazi with the attunement system ....

"You want to use a fourth magic item? NO ATTUNEMENT FOR YOU!"

This has led many people to remember the halcyon days of prior editions, such as AD&D (1e), when it was always summertime and the livin's easy, and people would complain about the poor paladin and his ten maximum magic item limit. Poor paladin, only able to have one suit of magic armor and, um, four magic weapons.

And, for the most part, that was true. Going through the treasure tables, or the published modules at the time, shows that in 1e, characters were supposed to have magic items. Perhaps not growing on trees or as abundant as candy in Willy Wonka's factory, but there was a veritable plethora of longswords +1, and other stuff as well.

However, for all of the abundance, 1e did have a method of culling those items from the unwary. The foolhardy player's worst nightmare- the ITEM SAVING THROW TABLE.

Definition: Item Saving Throws are like the saving throws 5e players are familiar with, except for items. So, for example, if you shiny shield (or potion, or wand, or whatever) is hit by a fireball, will it survive?


1. A brief history of the use of item saving throws in TSR-era D&D (OD&D and 2e).


Before getting into the specific use of item saving throws in AD&D (1e), a brief detour into the question that perplexed many a table at the time- when, exactly, do you have to check to see if the items are required to make saving throws? I mean, as I write later, it says that a fall of even 5' can break stuff ... so every little glancing blow or fall? Well, the answer is simple-
Evil DM Voice: You roll for it whenever the party has too much stuff.

Ahem, no, Let's look at what other editions had to say. The first appearance of the rule goes all the way back to OD&D, Monsters & Treasure (Book 2). On page 38, it has a heading called MAGICAL ITEMS' SAVING THROWS. Within it, the following is stated:
Magical items will, during the course of play, be struck by various forms of weapons. For the sake of simplicity it is generally easier to assume they survive unharmed if their wearer/user is not killed (exception, Helms). If the wearer is killed, or the items are alone, throw for them on the following table if struck by Fire (Dragon or Ball) or Lightning (Dragon or Bolt). Those items not listed should be assumed automatically destroyed.

That's interesting; also weird that magic helmets are an exception! But this rule is the simple version- if you die, the stuff might get destroyed as well, except your helmet, which might get destroyed at any time ... because simplicity is good, except when it's not. When Holmes codified the rules in OD&D in Holmes Basic, there was no mention of this.

The table discussed below was slightly modified and used in 2e as well (2e DMG 38-39). Notably, the restriction in 2e was explicit that:
The item saving throw should be used only when the item is not being carried by a character or when a character fails his saving throw against the same attack. A character who successfully saves against the blast of a fireball need not make separate saving throws for his potions. The character who failed the same save failed to protect himself adequately and must therefore check for his potions (and probably his scrolls, too). Not all items need make a save in every instance. It is perfectly reasonable to ignore the save for a character's sword and armor in the same fireball situation described above, since there is so little chance that these will be affected.


2. The (in)famous 1e table.

Most of page 80 in the DMG is taken up by the table/matrix for magic and non-magic item saving throws, along with the explanation. The actual categories ... kinda make sense. If you don't think too hard about it.
The item types are: bone/ivory, ceramic, cloth, crystal/vial, glass, leather/book, liquid, metal (hard), metal (soft or jewelry), mirror, parchment/paper, stone (small or gem), wood or rope (thin), and wood or rope (thick).
The attack forms are: acid, crushing blow, normal blow, disintegrate, fall, fireball, magical fire, normal fire, fyre festival (just seeing if you're reading!), frost, lightning, and electricity.

Here's the thing- there's not a lot of guidance (none really) about when to employ the item saving throws. Obviously, if you had to roll for every item, every time the character dropped 5' (or got hit by an ogre- a crushing blow!), then items would be getting destroyed all the time. On the other hand, what little text that is that surrounds it makes it obvious that the intent is that these things are checked more frequently than just when the character dies; for instance:
These saving throws are self-explanatory in general. It is a case of either saving or failing. Potions and liquids which do not make their saving throws should be noted secretly by you - unless the player concerned has his or her character check to determine if the fluid was harmed. Such failure will not otherwise be notable without examination and testing.
DMG 81.

It seems that in this case, "unless the player concerned" (the one carrying the potion who was affected) checks- which seems to indicate it's not just a "death" thing. This is also reinforced by the language in other areas, such as this description of the fireball, from the PHB:
Items exposed to the {fireball's} effects must be rolled for to determine if they are affected. Items with a creature which makes its saving throw are considered as unaffected.

As such, it seems clear that the intended purpose of the 1e table was the same as the 2e table, although perhaps less restricted.

In personal experience (which, again, this being 1e can vary wildly from table to table), the item saving throw table was used for big events in two ways-
First, if a party was of the habit of dropping ye olde fireball on the big bad, then they had better be prepared to see some of the treasure to go (channeling Cheech and Chong) up in smoke.
Second, if a character was subject to an extreme event- falling a large distance, hit by dragon breath, taking his morning swim in the lake o' acid, then the character's items would have to save.

Both things tended to keep the curse of too many items ... well, down a little, and without the need for attunement.


3. Conclusion- why blowin' stuff might not have been the best method of magic item control.

I started this post with the general idea that older versions of D&D (and 1e specifically) dealt with the influx of magic items in a slightly different way than the 5e method of attunement. Which, if you have players used to that, is great.

However, I was also very familiar with the terrible boom/bust cycle of the Jekyll & Hyde, Monty Haul/Evil DM. Which would basically work like this:
Day 1: D&D is lots of fun! Give the party all the gold and magic items!
Day 2: You can't unbalance the campaign; time for the dragon breath.
Day 3: D&D is lots of fun! Give the party all the gold and magic items!
Day 4: You can't unbalance the campaign; time for the acid pit.
Rinse repeat.

The thing is, having something, and then getting it taken away from you? That's worse than not having it. And having that cycle repeat over and over again? Just terrible. When used as an intrinsic part of the game, the system worked well; when used by DMs to "clean up" their own exuberance ... it was absolutely the worst.

Anyway, just throwing out this for general discussion. Item saving throw- do you love them? Hate them? Wish they were in 5e?
This is a good summary of the way 2e handled magic item churn, 3.x still had a system though. Instead of the dreaded magic item saving throws 3.5 had the body slots (dmg288/phb whatever) & a treadmill where creatures were designed so players would continually need to replace that +1 with a +2 & so on for weapon & attribute bonuses to keep up in order to move away from the fun killing item saving throws. I mostly skipped 4e but think that took the 3.5 method up a notch. It's 5e alone that takes pains to ensure any magic item is always good enough & equally good at every level rather than "newer editions" after 2e.

WRT your question at the end, adding them to 5e would be an epic disaster that would make the pants wetting terror a 3.5 gm could invoke by uttering the words "casts disjunction" look like a carnival ride. I say that because of two reasons really, assumed permanence as well as how many of 5e's magic items often wind up looking like something that would be right at home in the epic level handbook. I think the 3.5 method could be somehow bolted onto 5e with significant effort & player pushback by:
  • Make some headroom across the board by dramatically lower the starting array to something like 12, 12, 12, 11, 10, 9 or less
  • introduce the need for 3.5 style churn by raising monster proficiency bonus on attacks & spell saves by around 150-200%& add the same value to their saves/AC/spell DC
  • Provide churnable magic items by getting rid of attrib=19 stuff & replacing it with attrib +2/+4/+6 items that use body slots with their own slot affinities(also 3.5 dmg288)
  • Attunement can stay for oddball items that sidestep slots like broom of flying pearl of power & so on but it's just too limited to support 3.x style churn.
Unfortunately there is the issues of "you are an evil gm making us weaker so we can buy our power back with magic items!", "how do I do that on dndbeyond?", "the need to rework most every magic item to some degree so they don't thwart the goal of churn ", and "whatever unforeseen hurdles that could present themselves". The lack of a 5e wealth by level system & bonkers price range by rarity system might be an eventual frustration as well but 3.5's might at least give a ballpark starting point estimate for WBL & pricing.

@Lord Shark I remember my group using the item saving throws sometimes but they were a poor method of introducing item churn as they were both too wide of a net & too random for providing any meaningful pressure to replace them
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
This is a good summary of the way 2e handled magic item churn, 3.x still had a system though. Instead of the dreaded magic item saving throws 3.5 had the body slots (dmg288/phb whatever)

Well, there were magic item saving throws in 3.5 also. Page 214 of the DMG talks about them:

DAMAGING MAGIC ITEMS

A magic item doesn’t need to make a saving throw unless it is unattended, it is specifically targeted by the effect, or its wielder rolls a natural 1 on his save. Magic items should always get a saving throw against spells that might deal damage to them—even against attacks from which a nonmagical item would normally get no chance to save. Magic items use the same saving throw bonus for all saves, no matter what the type (Fortitude, Reflex, or Will). A magic item’s saving throw bonus equals 2 + one-half its caster level (round down). For example, a lantern of revealing, with a caster level of 5th, has a Reflex save bonus of +4 if it is caught in a fireball, and a Fortitude save bonus of +4 if someone attempts to disintegrate it. The only exceptions to this are intelligent magic items, which make Will saves based on their own Wisdom scores.

Magic items, unless otherwise noted, take damage as nonmagical items of the same sort. A damaged magic item continues to function, but if it is destroyed, all its magical power is lost.


& a treadmill where creatures were designed so players would continually need to replace that +1 with a +2 & so on for weapon & attribute bonuses to keep up in order to move away from the fun killing item saving throws.

I always saw the system as subtly encouraging players to add new functionality onto magic items rather than necessarily trading them away. Like, if you had a cloak of resistance +2, you could just wait until you had the necessary gp to have someone upgrade it into a cloak of resistance +3 rather than waiting until you found or purchased one. Of course, that led to issues of the "Big Six" and Wealth By Level, which the Magic Item Compendium (for all its errata) tried to address by not only adjusting the prices of a lot of non-DMG magic items, but also changing the costs for building "Big Six" effects into existing magic items. It's a shame that they did all that near the end of the game's life-cycle (and didn't add it to the SRD), resulting in it being missed by a lot of people.
 
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Sithlord

Adventurer
I have never known any players that thought item saving throws increased fun at the table. Generally I think they found it frustrating and annoying at best as well as very disappointing and anticlimactic.
 

Coroc

Hero
That is one of the things i tend to kind of handweave, as it is not the absolute number of magic items per char, but what they are and how they improve a char.

Also it depends if i want to dm a campaign with loads of magic items or little to none. I will balance it out with other factors, like what mobs are encountered etc.
 

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