While I really like the assortment of magic tattoos introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, they failed to meet some of my basic expectations on how arcane ink might work in D&D. Wary perhaps of allowing players to shop for powerful customised buffs, instead of offering us rules for getting inked at some kind of arcane parlour, the designers moulded tattoo mechanics to make them just another type of treasure, to be found in the dusty depths of dungeons, or within a dragon’s horde etc.
(Side note: Given that D&D is in turmoil right now, I’ve added a small note on the OGL debacle at the foot of this post).
The whole ‘produced by a special needle’ spiel, along with ‘the needle turns into the ink that becomes the tattoo’, strikes me as very convenient design mechanism that enabled Wizards to lump tattoos into the magic items category, without having to give them too much extra thought. However, for me, getting a tattoo should be all about a player making a choice on how to personalise their character’s appearance and powers, rather than making a chance discovery in a treasure chest – we already have plenty of items that offer us that type of reward.
When designing DRAGONBOWL (have I ever mentioned I designed an epic underground fighting festival, full of exploration, intrigue and side quests?), I knew I wanted to give players the opportunity to do just that, and so I invented a pop-up tattoo parlour where characters can proactively select their own body art.
Mystic Ink is run by a wood elf warlock called Lisveth (a girl with a dragon tattoo on her back… one of the less subtle pop references I wove into DRAGONBOWL!), and, upon arrival in her wigwam, she presents players with a tattoo book with 16 different designs she is able to ink, thus enabling them to pick up something either thematic with their character, or perhaps help them grab an ability they can’t usually access. For example, a Totem of the Wolf barbarian might like a magic wolf tattoo, to double down on their ‘brand’, while a rogue could grab an uncommon owl tattoo and enjoy the ability to wild shape into a talking nocturnal raptor once between rests. (I also included a chance to increase each of the six D&D ability scores by 1, so players can round up those pesky odd numbers, like Constitution 13).
By coincidence, it was around the time I was designing my own tattoos that Wizards released the original Unearthed Arcana featuring the first versions of the tattoos that were to later become official 5e content in the pages of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
One thing I liked was how the rarity of the tattoo dictated its size, as it makes sense that a tattoo with legendary powers would be much bigger than one that granted you the ability to cast a cantrip. And I believe I can say that I managed to incorporate this detail in a way that is more interesting than Wizards managed (they left the mechanic as merely a superficial detail), by having larger versions of the same designs on offer, with increasing and cumulative powers.
Example. A common dragon tattoo (which fits on a hand or foot) offers you Draconic Resilience:
“When you take damage of the type associated with your depicted dragon (determined by the colour of the tattoo’s ink), you can use your reaction to reduce that damage by 1d4 times your Proficiency bonus.”
Whereas a legendary dragon tattoo (two limbs and the torso), offers a player the Dragonmorph ability:
“You may use an action to polymorph into a dragon, the colour of which is determined by the ink colour, and the age of which is determined by your level. At levels 0-7 you can polymorph into a wyrmling, levels 8-14 a young dragon, levels 15-19 an adult dragon, at level 20 an ancient dragon. You can remain in dragon form for up to 24 hours, or until you are reduced to 0 hit points. Once used, you cannot use this ability again until 30 days have passed.”
Such a huge legendary tattoo also gets all the powers that a small (common), medium (uncommon), large (rare) or very large (very rare) dragon tattoo confers… which makes sense to me at least, and makes these tattoos all the more appealing to players.
The size of the tattoo also dictates the amount of time and energy it takes the artist to ink it on a player’s body, and therefore the cost as well. Naturally, given how powerful they are, Mystic Ink tattoos cost a small fortune, which works particularly well for DRAGONBOWL, given that is a kind of unofficial sequel to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and players are likely to have heavy pockets if they did well in that adventure (check the link for my guide and remix!). If not, DRAGONBOWL is full of shady folk who might be willing to sponsor the party, as part of the challenge of this adventure is finding ways to buff themselves, or otherwise stack the odds in their favour, before ending the deadly Dragonbowl Arena.
Anyway, since Mystic Ink is a portable location, and its principles could easily be reskinned to create one’s own arcane tattoo parlours, I figured it was worth de-coupling from DRAGONBOWL and publishing the location, and tattoos, as its own separate product.
So if you do fancy offering your players a menu of body art options, this could be two dollars well spent… and, yes, you’ll be supporting the blog as well! (If you’re apoplectic with rage with WOTC atm, I’ve added a small note to the bottom of this post).
Your Tattoo Thoughts?
As always, I’m interested to hear my readers’ own experiences with tattoos, and how they ran them, especially if they experimented with something outside the rules as written. There’s been some great discussions on each of my recent posts, and I will try to find time to answer some of the latest comments soon (as soon as real life permits basically!).
A Note on the OGL Debacle
I don’t think I can face writing a full post on the depressing OGL controversy that has engulfed the D&D community in the last couple of weeks, but suffice to say, that as a creator I fully support the concept of #OpenDnD and hope that Wizards see sense and continue to allow 3rd party publishers to contribute to the game we all love in the same way they’ve been allowed to do so for the last 20 years. It’s impossible to measure in any concrete way of course, but it seems face-slappingly obvious to me that WOTC are the ones who have benefitted most from the OGL, and it’s actually been incredibly sad to see them burn so much goodwill and cause so much distress in the community, just to damage their own brand (and drive folks into developing their own systems!).
Will I be burning my books and switching to a new system? While I admire those calling out WOTC’s underhand tactics and disingenuous statements, and making a principled stand, I don’t see me stopping playing or writing about D&D anytime soon. I’ve invested hundreds of dollars in books, old and new, thousands of hours in blog posts, and maybe even longer in publishing products under the DMs Guild Community Content Agreement (which will not be affected by any changes to the OGL that transpire); and the truth is I’m excited to play more D&D with my friends… and if there are some short-sighted and greedy execs at the top of the game’s tree then I am mostly able to compartmentalise that and not let it affect my enjoyment of my favourite hobby.
That said, this saga has left a sour taste in the tonsils and is likely to change my relationship with the game somewhat in the very least. It’s likely that in time I’ll widen the remit of this blog to talk about other RPGs, and perhaps focus my future blog posts more around story-telling, adventure design and world building (i.e. ideas relevant to any games master, in any system), and less on D&D mechanics.