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A player in my group wants to use a tattoo on his hand as his arcane focus. His inspiration the the anime Fullmetal Alchemist.

Personally I think this is a nice idea but I'm worried about the mechanical ramification.

I have read in another question here that you cannot simply draw an arcane focus on a shield and by letting him tattoo his arcane focus on his hand and hold a shield in the same hand the is basically the same thing.

Essentially this boils done to 2 questions

1) What does the RAW say about using a tattoo as an arcane focus ?

2) Would allowing this be overpowered mechanically ?

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For those interested in tattoos for spell casters, check out "Dragonmarks" in this article: media.wizards.com/2015/downloads/dnd/UA_Eberron_v1.1.pdf – timster May 13 at 3:27

The RAW answer: no. Here's why:

Arcane Focus. An arcane focus is a special item — an orb, a crystal, a rod, a specially constructed staff, a wand-like length of wood, or some similar item — designed to channel the power of arcane spells. A sorcerer, warlock, or wizard can use such an item as a spellcasting focus. (5e SRD, pg 66-67)

This does not say that it can be a worn item, or a tattoo, or anything else, and a tattoo is not similar to any of the items listed. Still, that's not really a very strong argument. 5e is the "ask your DM" edition so it's your call beyond this. Note that casting an arcane spell requires that you have a free hand to hold the material components or the arcane focus in one hand, so he could not also wield a shield because the tattoo would need a free hand to use. If he took the Warcaster feat, this restriction would be lifted and he could hold a shield in the same hand.

Is it overpowered? Maybe.

Because the arcane focus would be on his hand, and therefore can't really be lost or taken away (short of cutting off his hand), he doesn't have an opportunity to lose his spellcasting for spells that have material components. This could make it difficult for story-related reasons to take away his spellcasting (if, for example, he is captured and his captors want to prevent him from using magic to escape). This may, in fact, be the reason he wants it to be a tattoo, and if so you should have a discussion with him about other possibilities. Make it clear that you may need to cut off his hand for story reasons (with the chance to get it back, of course, sans tattoo).

On the other hand (no pun intended), if I were the DM and I couldn't convince him to use a "normal" focus (and let's be honest, the tattoo idea is pretty cool), I would tell him that he can't hold a shield in the hand that has the focus tattoo ("the shield interferes with the magic focused in your palm and your spell fizzles"), because if he was holding a regular focus he wouldn't be able to hold a shield in that hand, either. If his reason for having the tattoo is to skirt around the rules then it's probably wise to come up with some other restrictions or have an honest discussion with him about his intentions.

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If the captors want to prevent his spellcasting, wouldn't they just tie a shield to his hand? – Benubird Feb 25 at 15:11
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An arcane focus isn't the only kind of spellcasting focus. A spellcasting focus explicitly requires a free hand, too, so your suggestion to disable the focus if he wears a shield is RAW. – markovchain Feb 25 at 15:19
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@markovchain Good point, but a paladin or a cleric could reasonably use a shield as their holy symbol. – LegendaryDude Feb 25 at 15:45
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@Benubird True. They could even just bind his hand with rope or tie a bag around it. I thought cutting off the hand would really send the right message, though. XD – LegendaryDude Feb 25 at 15:48
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@LegendaryDude that is a benefit of the cleric or paladin class that is not available to other classes, because their focus is a holy symbol which explicitly allows that. The other casters have to get the War Caster feat to cast with a shield in their hand first. – markovchain Feb 25 at 15:58

Arcane Focus =/= Spellcasting Focus

First off, I'd like to differentiate an arcane focus from a spellcasting focus. The former is a type of spellcasting focus specific to wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks. There are other types of spellcasting foci and those are specific to other classes.

PHB, page 151.

Arcane Focus. An arcane focus is a special item - an orb, a crystal, a rod, a specially constructed staff, a wand-like length of wood, or some similar item - designed to channel the power of arcane spells. A sorcerer, warlock, or wizard can use such an item as a spellcasting focus, as described in Chapter 10.

Druidic Focus. A druidic focus might be a sprig of mistletoe or holly, a wand or scepter made of yew or another special wood, a staff drawn out of a living tree, or a totem object incorporating feathers, furs, bones, and teeth from sacred animals. A druid can use such an object as a spellcasting focus, as described in Chapter 10.

Holy Symbol. A holy symbol is a representation of a god or pantheon. It might be an amulet depicting a symbol representing a deity, the same symbol carefully engraved or inlaid as an emblem of a shield, or a tiny box holding a fragment or a sacred relic. A cleric or paladin can use a holy symbol as a spellcasting focus, as described in Chapter 10. To use the symbol this way, the caster must hold it in hand, wear it visibly, or bear it on a shield.

PHB, page 154.

Musical Instrument. A bard can use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus. Each type of musical instrument requires a separate proficiency.

What does the RAW say about using a tattoo as a spellcasting focus?

Wizard. If you truly need an arcane focus, then this depends on if you consider a tattoo as an item similar to orbs, crystals, rods, staffs, or wands.

I would personally say, RAW, it is debatable. On the one hand, no, because tattoos are nothing like orbs, crystals, rods, staffs, or wands. They are gem-like or staff-like, and none of them are engraved into anything. Furthermore, tattoos are not "items" in the same sense as orbs or wands are items.

On the other hand, orbs, crystals, rods, staffs, and wands are nothing alike. The idea is that it has to be a focus designed to channel the power of arcane spells. As long as the tattoo was designed with that in mind, then yes, it can be a focus.

Druid. If you need a druidic focus, no. The rules explicitly list all the items you can use as a druidic focus.

Cleric. As a holy symbol, I would say yes. Note that as a holy symbol, if tattooed to their hand, then they cannot wear a glove on that hand because for it to work, it must be held (you can't do that for a tattoo), worn visibly (which a glove will cover up), or bear it on a shield.

Bard. No, it has to be an instrument.

It is not hard to turn the tattoo into a disadvantage

If you wanted to disable him by removing the spellcasting focus, you would have to cut off his hand. But that's not the only way to give him disadvantage. An arcane tattoo cannot be removed, so the guy wearing it must be you.

As DM, you can make the character instantly recognizable due to the weird tattoo. Also, if other casters get a glimpse of it, you can make it so they can now divine the whereabouts of your character any time they want.

Balance Discussion

PHB, page 203

MATERIAL (M)

Casting some spells require particular objects, specified in parentheses in the component entry. A character can use a component pouch or a spellcasting focus in place of the components for a specified spell. But if a cost is indicated for the component, a character must have that specific component before he or she can cast a spell.

If the spell states that a material component is consumed by the spell, the caster must provide this component for each casting of the spell.

A spellcaster must have a hand free to access these components, but it can be the same hand that he or she uses to perform somatic components.

They will not be able to use the tattooed hand as a spellcasting focus if that same hand is wielding a shield, weapon, or any other object, because it will not be considered a free hand. Therefore, it will not work any differently than a regular spellcasting focus.

The difference is they won't be able to lose it/it can't be stolen. At the same time, they will not be able to hide it. As a fun story, you can make it a plot point that everyone who sees your player's tattoos will be able to identify this character and immediately assume friendly/hostile reactions as they will be instantly identifiable.

I would say though, wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks do not have to keep the focus visible, so they can hide it under a glove. Clerics are the only class that have the restriction that their holy symbol must be visible.

Also, losing the spellcasting focus only disables spells with material components. Your caster can still cast spells with verbal and/or somatic-only components, so removing a caster's focus is not an effective way to disable their spellcasting. So if your main concern was that they would never be disarmed, keep in mind that they will not be totally disabled if they had a regular focus and lost it.

And, even with a spellcasting focus, you still can't cast a spell if the material component is consumed or has a gold value anyway, if you didn't have that material component at hand (and then you wouldn't need a focus for that spell).

It is not overpowered

All this to say, it is not that big of a deal. They gain something minor and extra -- their focus is bounded to their skin -- but it has its own minor and extra drawbacks. I would say they balance out.

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The drawback is they become easy to ID by their strange tattoo. If you can never lose your focus, then the guy wearing that focus must be you. I imagine a DM can use that as an interesting hurdle for the character in place of the drawback that you can never lose it. For example, enemy wizards can now divine your character if they've seen your tattoo before. Also, a cleric can't wear a glove over that hand, so no magic gloves for them. – markovchain Feb 25 at 15:53
    
the character is a sorcerer 3 cleric 1 so if i have understood your answer correctly then his tattoo can be the holy symbol but not the arcane focus meaning it can only be used to cast cleric spells – Skeith Feb 25 at 15:56
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@Skeith I'd also suggest his tattoo should be only either an arcane focus, or a holy symbol, but not both. He should have two tattoos, one for each class. That's not RAW, but it makes sense that class-specific foci cannot be merged. Clerics cannot use wands, mages cannot use holy symbols. The component pouch can be used across all classes because it's stated to have all spell-casting components that don't have gold value. The tattoo doesn't have that same benefit. – markovchain Feb 25 at 16:16
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@skeith Regardless of the ruling you make with regards to the tattoo, the holy symbol and the arcane focus need to be separate items. – LegendaryDude Feb 25 at 16:21
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@Skeith It's actually RAW that the tattoo can't be both a holy symbol and arcane focus. PHB, page 164: a spellcasting focus, such as a holy symbol, can only be used for the spells from the class associated with that focus, so you need to have two. – markovchain Feb 25 at 18:22

RAW don't say, but they guide.

A specially-constructed item can be used as an arcane focus, and we have the following examples: staff, crystal, orb, rod, or wand-like length of wood. (PHB p.151) It's not clear that this list is intended to be exhaustive, but it certainly is suggestive of the properties it should have.

Your tattoo could certainly meet the "specially-constructed" criterion, and I think that's a neat bit of flavor.

"Item," on the other hand, is where things get tricky. All of the foci listed are items of which a character could routinely be deprived. Your character's hand falls into a different category.

Would allowing this be overpowered?

I think the question here is whether you intend it to be as easy to remove your character's tattoo as it is to disarm any other caster of their focus. If Expelliarmus works to stymie the tattoo then you're probably fine. If it's harder to take away your character's focus than any others, you're overpowered.

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You could consider the tattoo to be a magic item that prevents the use of other magic gloves/gauntlets. Some magic items attach to the body so there's no RAW problem there.

But an "undroppable arcane focus" is a pretty wimpy magic item to take up the hand slot. So you could give the tattoo some additional power, or leave open the opportunity to add powers to the tattoo.

When you've got a player into the storytelling aspect, you definitely want to encourage that. (And that's RAW, PH p.6.)

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+1 for that last sentence – LegendaryDude Feb 29 at 15:42

Rather than looking at the rules I would like to look at the setting. Is he the first one to think about such an useful way to get a focus ? Probably not. So why isn't it a common practice when it is so handy ?

  • Do you need some special ink ?
  • Are there after effects ?
  • Is it taboo ?
  • Etc

Maybe the ink has to be made from shattered glass imbued with magical properties making the process lengthy and unbearably painful. Making anyone who tempts it more than slightly mad.

Maybe you act as a constant antenna, capting magical waves constantly, losing your sleep, having interferences rendering your spells useless at random times. Or like some people making you sensitive to waves and unable to stay or go in some places.

Maybe it is forbidden by a cult or the magical authority. Everyone who does it is killed on sight for some reason. Or it was done by really evil people in the past, by doing so you are somewhat showing your allegiance to their ideas.

There are many cool possibilities that make for a lot of plot hooks.

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