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

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.

I'm pretty sure that this isn't specifically about increasing "fun," in the way that, say, a player would say, "Oh my, Rust Monsters are fun," or, "Geez, you know what's fun, the fact that when you run out of hit points, you die."

Instead, I was only noting that the surplus of magic items that people note in AD&D (and other versions) can somewhat be explained by the fact that, at times, those items could end up toast.

It was a balancing mechanism similar to the way that we later see with 5e's attunement system. For example, the difference between the OD&D method (item save on death) and the AD&D method (unclear, but assumedly item save on failed save or big event from parsing the text and cross-referencing the fireball spell) is that the OD&D manual was written specifically when there was so-called "troupe" play- it was common for players to loot the corpse of their fallen character, and the OD&D method was a (slight) check on magic item accumulation over time.

This method of play was less common by the time of the 1e DMG.


I killed my first Mind Flayer with the item save rule. I hit him with a lightning bolt and he failed his save but lived. However he had a string of beads of force. A bunch of saves later there was a bit of a death spiral chain reaction as some were triggered and he took more damage, was pinned inside a bubble of force, then had to make more saves for the remaining beads, which triggered another round of saves on the remaining beads. I was quite content with losing its personal loot to not have to face the mind blast and brain extracting death tentacles.


In addition to the item save rule there were also a dozen and one monsters in AD&D that could destroy your items in other ways.

Rust Monsters.

Various oozes and slimes and jellies and puddings and such.


Caryatid Column.

Not to mention the pickpocket skill of thieves.

There could be huge boom bust variations.


Attunement is not the same as item saving throws, it's more akin to the "only one ring on each hand" rule from AD&D, or 3e's body slots which grew out of the ring rule. Another aspect of attunement is that it makes clear who can use the item. Older versions of the game at least occasionally stated that items could only be used by their owners, but it could also be vague or unclear as to just whom was an owner. Attunement makes things quite clear as to magic item ownership, and I would definitely backport that aspect of attunement into earlier editions of the game.

In addition to the item save rule there were also a dozen and one monsters in AD&D that could destroy your items in other ways.

Rust Monsters.

Various oozes and slimes and jellies and puddings and such.


Caryatid Column.

Not to mention the pickpocket skill of thieves.

There could be huge boom bust variations.
Don't forget the fun that leprechauns could bring -- they could steal your magic items, turn invisible, run away, and then magically transform your items into something else.


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?
So my 1e players lost magic items regularly. Once in 1E Ravenloft a character lost ALL his magic items. The same player again lost ALL his magic items at around 13th level in another module. This meant players used items a lot. Find a wand of fireballs with 80 charges and you use it every single fight, because chances are it will be lost or destroyed before you run out.

The saving throw table you mention on page 80 is the one thing I brought forward from 1E when I DM. Now to be clear I do not roll it every time a player is hit with a "crushing blow" or "fireball". but I do use it on occasion, particularly for mundane objects on the ground or if a player decides the best way to destroy a statue is to beat it with his sword (potentially rolling for both the statue and the sword).

That is the only thing I think I carried forward when we moved from 1e to 5e.

To be honest in 5E my players don't get enough magic to worry about destroying any (or attuning for that matter). I rarely have a chaacter with 4 attunement items, either as a player or a DM.


Dances with Gnolls
I like taking that extra fiddling out of the game. No more rolling for whether things broke after, or during, or whether the rogue using this wand actually blows his own hand off instead of casting the spell.

I will also state though, that older versions of D&D have slowly pushed me closer to low-magic worlds, so the worry about having too many magic items isn't as much as a worry any longer.


So in theory item saving rules can help address the “party death magic inflation” problem that you saw in earlier editions.

the issue is that a party member dies, and his loot is split amongst the party. Then a new character comes in with their own...and the party’s overall magic goes way up.

now a dm can say the new character starts with less magic, with the expectation that the party gives the néw guy a share...but flavor wise that doesn’t always make sense to do.

destroying the item due to the death makes more “sense” in the narrative.

now I think the mechanic is incredible clunky and so ineffective...but I can at least appreciate the attempt to solve that problem

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