A 5e Guide to Magic Tattoos: Becoming a Walking Spell Scroll

Magical tattoos are some of the most flavorful and personalizable magic items in D&D 5e.

They can add evocative physical details to your characters and create character-building decisions with lasting, mechanically impactful consequences.

How Do Magical Tattoos Work?

Magical tattoos work similarly to any other magic item, which makes them super simple to use in your games.

Tattoos can be found in the form of a tattoo needle, which you can attune to or unattune from in the same way as other magic items.

Applying a Magical Tattoo

Applying a magical tattoo is easy. In fact, some DMs might think it’s too easy.

You attune to a magical tattoo, and apply it to your skin by holding the tattoo needle against the area where you want it to appear for the duration of a short rest. The needle becomes the ink of the tattoo on your skin.

There are no requirements for a skilled tattoo artist to apply the tattoo or even for the needle to penetrate your skin at any point.

As a DM, you might wish to add these elements to make magical tattoos more unique among magic items.

If you want to include detailed descriptions of tattooing or scarification, then check with your players first!

It’s extremely common for people to be uncomfortable with descriptions of needles in particular.

Your players might not think to mention these as areas of discomfort because they might not associate them with the fantasy setting of your campaign.

Tattoos of different rarities cover different sized areas of skin on your character’s body. Page 118 of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has a useful guide for the area covered by each rarity of tattoo.

This table is intended as a rough guideline and primarily as an indicator of the area of skin covered. There’s a lot of flexibility regarding the exact locations of these tattoos.

The size of the tattoos works as a limiting factor for the purposes of balancing. If a character has both a Very Rare and a Legendary tattoo, then there’s no space on their skin for any more tattoos.

Removing a Magical Tattoo

The rules for removing tattoos are included in their individual item rules, so it’s possible that future tattoos could be introduced that are removed differently. That said, currently all magical tattoos can be removed in the same way.

Magical tattoos are removed when you unattune from them. You can unattune from them in the same way as any other magic item – by spending a short rest focused on the tattoo.

When you unattune from a tattoo, the tattoo is removed from your skin, and the needle reappears in your possession.

This is thematically really weird. Some DMs might prefer that magical tattoos work differently in their games – a major defining aspect of tattoos in the real world is their permanence, and some DMs might want to maintain that fantasy by making magical tattoos trickier to remove.

If you’re a DM and you want to make tattoos harder to remove, you should let your players know about your ruling before they attune to any magical tattoos!

You should also be aware that in making a player’s Very Rare back tattoo harder to remove, it becomes much harder for them to attune to a Legendary tattoo that covers the same area.

The Magical Tattoos in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

There are 11 tattoos in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything – we’ll cover the effects of a few of them here.

The appearance of these tattoos is left to the discretion of DMs and players, but the designs should have thematic links to the tattoos’ magical effects.

Absorbing Tattoo

An Absorbing Tattoo has two effects: the passive Damage Resistance and the active Damage Absorption. These are applied to a single damage type, which is determined by the tattoo’s most prominent color.

Damage Resistance gives you passive resistance to the damage type. Damage Absorption is a reaction that you can use when you would take damage of that type, giving you immunity to that instance of the damage and healing you for half of the damage you would otherwise have taken.

Damage Absorption can be used once each day and resets at dawn.

The DM determines the color and thus the damage type of the tattoo, but there are cases where it makes sense for the players to be given a choice – for example, if they’re paying customers at a tattoo parlor that offers multiple colors.

Barrier Tattoo

A Barrier Tattoo grants you a bonus to your AC depending on its rarity.

  • A common Barrier Tattoo gives you an AC of 12 plus your dexterity modifier, equivalent to a set of leather armor.
  • A rare tattoo gives 15 plus your dexterity modifier to a maximum of +2, equivalent to half-plate armor.
  • A very rare tattoo grants you a flat 18 AC, equivalent to full plate armor.

These tattoos may not make much mechanical difference to many groups who wear their armor to bed each night, but for groups who track the number of combat turns required to don armor, these tattoos are a great tool against nighttime ambushes.

The very rare variant also makes some builds that wouldn’t ordinarily have access to heavy armor, for example, strength-based ranger builds, much more viable.

Coiling Grasp Tattoo

The Coiling Grasp Tattoo is one of the cooler ones added in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.

This tattoo can be used on your action to send out “inky tendrils,” which have a range of 15 feet and force the target to make a DC14 Strength save. On a failed save, the target becomes grappled and takes 3d6 force damage.

This can be used any number of times per long rest and allows low-strength characters who prefer to stay outside of melee range, such as wizards and sorcerers, a much more viable way to use grappling.

Not only does the grappler’s strength not factor into the target’s required saving throw, but the 3d6 damage makes giving up your action for a grapple attempt much less unappealing for caster characters who don’t get multiple attacks per turn.

Eldritch Claw Tattoo

The Eldritch Claw Tattoo has the potential to be incredibly powerful, depending on the character build. It also has two effects, one passive and one active.

Magical Strikes means that all of your unarmed attacks have +1 to both attack and damage rolls and are considered magical attacks.

Eldritch Maul is a once-per-day bonus action that for one minute (or five rounds of combat) gives your melee weapon and unarmed attacks 15 feet of “inky tendril” range and an extra 1d6 of force damage per hit.

This tattoo makes a great reward for monks and other unarmed-focused characters, and other melee characters will also benefit from it.

Spellwrought Tattoo

Spellwrought tattoos work similarly to spell scrolls. They can be used to store a spell that can be cast once without material components, and then they disappear from your skin.

They can store spells of up to 5th level that have spellcasting modifiers and spell-save DCs dependent on the tattoo’s rarity.

Some DMs may choose to allow these tattoos to store higher-level spells. Spell scrolls can store spells up to 9th level, so this is unlikely to cause major balance problems.

Creating Your Own Magical Tattoos

As a DM, you can also create homebrew tattoos that your players have access to.

The easiest way to do this is to use the magical effects of existing magic items – these items’ rarity will also give you a good idea of how powerful the tattoo you’ve created is.

When creating magical tattoos in this way, bear in mind ways that the effect might become more powerful if the item doesn’t need to be held in a hand or worn.

Be Your Own Spellbook

One fairly common idea for a player character is the wizard whose “spellbook” is their own skin – a character who reads magical incantations from their tattoos.

There are plenty of interesting backstories to be created explaining why your character does this.

There are a few mechanical effects of a tattooed spellbook that players and DMs should be aware of.

It’s obviously much harder to deprive a wizard of access to their spellbook if their spellbook is tattooed on them, but simultaneously, it’s much harder for the wizard to erase their own spells or conceal which spells their spellbook contains.

None of these effects are sufficiently major to create balance issues, but it’s useful to be aware of them.

If nothing else, putting your wizard in a situation where their spellbook would have been confiscated were it not tattooed on them will make them feel like that character-creation decision has meaningfully impacted their story.

Tattoo Spell Scrolls

Tattooed spell scrolls and Spellwrought Tattoos that are consumed upon casting might sound useless initially, but they have the potential to create some cool story moments.

Spell scrolls given to the party can often be for spells at much higher levels than they’d ordinarily have access to, and this means using a spell scroll can often be a big deal.

A character might have a spell tattooed on their skin for years as a precaution for a moment when they really need it.

Even if the character never actually casts the spell, the presence of this one-off emergency measure on their skin adds a ton of flavor and mystery to them as a person.

The spell’s presence is a question to be answered. Why does the character have it? And, more pressingly, when will it be used?

Spells scrolls are also unintelligible to anyone without the correct class to cast the spell – there are tons of great story ideas for characters whose tattoos are secretly spells that they can’t even read!

Perhaps a tattoo parlor in your campaign is tattooing spells on their unwitting customers – there could be a thousand reasons why, but will your players ever uncover the truth?

This is one possible premise for a wackier adventure where your players have semi-random access to a vast array of overpowered spells depending on the tattoos of passers-by.

Tattooing Your Bad Guys

For DMs, magical tattoos are a fantastic way to make your recurring bad guys stand out. Players take note of how bad guys mechanically gain power to use against them.

One of these tattoos, particularly a tattoo that depicts an unusual or evocative subject, can be a great signifier that your players will recognize whenever they meet the bad guy bearing it.

If your players keep running into “a woman with an octopus tattoo on her shoulder,” they won’t need to be told that it’s the same woman every time.

Even if she looks different in every other respect, they might guess that she’s a changeling!

The subject of the tattoo, an octopus, also works to foreshadow that the tattoo is a Coiling Grasp Tattoo and that the woman is a member of the Kraken Society.

Dragonmarks

Dragonmarks are a mechanic that was introduced for the Eberron setting. These are similar to magical tattoos in that they are markings on your character’s skin that grant them magical power.

Unlike magical tattoos, which are a type of magic item, dragonmarks are hereditary birthmarks that are mechanically more similar to a character’s subrace.

If you want to create a character who draws on magical power from a unique marking on their skin and particularly if you’re playing in Eberron, a dragonmark might appeal to you over magical tattoos.

DMs are also more likely to allow you to begin the campaign with a hereditary dragonmark than a powerful magical tattoo, assuming that dragonmarks exist in their setting.