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In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, the Magic Tattoo is introduced as a type of magic item with a number of different options.

Do magic tattoos exist in past editions of D&D? If so, which magic tattoos have direct comparables to the ones in the new sourcebook?

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Sort of, but in a different form

Create Magic Tattoo

Most of these magic tattoos are likely inspired by the Create Magic/Enchanted Tattoo spell from AD&D 2e, and D&D 3.x.

The AD&D 2e spell (from Spellbound) says:

Red Wizards often bear enchanted tattoos on their faces and shaved heads. This spell allows the creation of such tattoos...

A wizard of levels 3-6 can inscribe the following tattoos: + 1 to any one saving throw (vs. death magic, vs. wands, and so on); +1 to attack rolls; and -1 to AC. A wizard of levels 7-12 may inscribe all of the lower level tattoos, plus the following: +1 to all saving throws; one extra attack every two rounds; and one extra spell of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level (only one spell, and only one level, not one of each).

Wizards of level 13 and higher may inscribe all of the above tattoos plus the following: 5% magic resistance; +1 to any one attribute; and +1 level of casting ability...

The 3.xe version of the spell (from Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting) says basically the same thing, except:

  • the saving throw bonus are each a +2 resistance bonus instead of +1
  • the level 7-12 caster gets +2 to attack rolls rather than an extra attack every two round
  • the spells recalled from that tattoo are 0th-2nd level instead (matching the new spell system)
  • the spell resistance is numerical and scaling instead of a flat percentage

Overall, this spell thematically covers the following magic tattoos from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything:

  • Barrier tattoo is thematically represented by the AC bonus from the level 3-6 tattoo of the prior spells.
  • Absorbing tattoo is thematically represented by both the saving throw bonus and magic resistance bonus of the prior spells.

Tattoo of Power

Another magic-tattoo-creating spell that appears in AD&D 2e is the tattoo of power spell from Wizards Spell Compendium Volume Four, which says:

The tattoo of power is a method of implanting spells using the art of tattooing. The wizard casts the tattoo of power in conjunction with the spell to be implanted in the tattoo. The wizard then begins to tattoo the recipient of the spell. When finished, the tattoo contains the power of the spell, which can be released simply by touching the tattoo and uttering a command word. Once the spell is cast from the tattoo, the markings of the tattoo fade and disappear almost immediately.

This sort of effect makes an appearance in 3.xe with the Tattoo Magic feat for Wild Elves:

You can create a tattoo of any spell of 3rd level or lower that you know and that targets a creature or creatures. Creating a tattoo takes 1 hour, and it must be inked onto a creature with a corporeal body. When you create a tattoo, you set the caster level. The caster level must be sufficient to cast the spell in question and no higher than your own level. The base price of a tattoo is its spell level × its caster level × 50 gp.

These are both virtually identical to the spellwrought tattoo (with the exception that the 3.x variation is for 3rd level spells and lower).

Tattooed monk

Credit to Nullman in the comments for mentioning this class.

The tattooed monk from Complete Warrior in D&D 3.5 uses magic tattoos to provide various enhancements:

Tattooed monks gain their powers from the magic tattoos that eventually cover their bodies.

Of these tattoos, the following have thematically comparables in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything:

  • The Centipede and Crescent Moon tattoos are thematically similar to the ghost step tattoo:

Centipede: Once per week, a character with this tattoo can use a shadow walk effect. This ability allows the tattooed monk to cross great distances, but he must end his journey on the Material Plane...

and

Moon, Crescent: Once per day, a character with this tattoo can use ethereal jaunt as a spell-like ability...

  • The Crab and Phoenix tattoos are similar to the magic resistance tattoos from create magic tattoo, and therefore similar to the absorbing tattoo.

Crab: A character with this tattoo gains damage reduction 2/magic. This damage reduction improves by 2 for each additional tattoo he possesses.

and

Phoenix: A character with this tattoo gains spell resistance equal to his class level + 15.

The other Tattoos

I have not found any reference similar to the rest of the magic tattoos found in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything in any of the AD&D 2e sourcebooks or D&D 3.x sourcebooks that I have access to.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm always unsure of how to vote on answers where the answerer has said they haven't really done full research. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Dec 7 '20 at 18:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ While not canon, Planescape: Torment, which is based on 2nd edition AD&D, used magical tattoos throughout the game. Both in getting new tattoos and ripping them off from fallen enemies. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Dec 7 '20 at 18:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget the "tattooed monk" that was introduced in complete warrior (3.5) \$\endgroup\$ – Nullman Dec 8 '20 at 12:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nullman Thanks for the mention; it's added. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Dec 8 '20 at 14:20
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4th Edition has tattoos, but only one seems to be a direct reference

Adventurer's Vault 2 introduced the concept of magical tattoos to 4th Edition. Unlike previous editions (as described in David's answer), 4th edition tattoos provide a specific effect of their own rather than inheriting effect generically from a chosen spell. Most have reaction-based or triggered effects, rather than always-on passive effects. They are thematically grouped based on what kind of trigger they use, and also by where the tattoo is typically located, thematically representing where the magic of the tattoo interacts with the character:

  • Tattoos of Blood are "worn over important channels of life energy" (essentially, major blood vessels like wrists or the neck) and trigger in response to damage.
  • Tattoos of Bond are "worn in visible locations" like hands and provide different benefits to any allies who have the same tattoo when certain actions are taken.
  • Tattoos of Heart are "worn over the heart or the waist chakra" and provide additional benefits when using healing surges (4th edition's version of Hit Dice) or based on the number of surges currently expended.
  • Tattoos of Spirit are the most varied form, having no single thematic place that they're worn, but each granting additional effects when expending an Action Point (a mechanic in 4th edition that works very similarly to 5th edition's Fighter's Action Surge, but is available to all characters).

Given the highly combat-focused and structured mechanics of 4th edition, there are no tattoos here that have non-combat benefits. However, there is one tattoo in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything that is nearly an effect-for-effect copy of a 4th edition one:

Ghostwalk Tattoo (AV2 p.87) versus Ghost Step Tattoo (TCoE, p.128)

The Ghostwalk Tattoo from Adventurer's Value 2 is a Tattoo of Spirit that grants the Phasing and Insubstantial traits to a character until the end of their turn whenever they spend an Action Point. Phasing allows a creature to pass through obstacles and other creatures, and to ignore difficult terrain. Insubstantial causes a creature to take half damage.

These abilities are nearly identical to the Ghost Step Tattoo from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. It grants resistance (half damage) to only non-magical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage (rather than all damage types), the ability to move through creatures and solid objects, and the inability to be grappled or restrained.

Ignoring difficult terrain is not included in this version, and the abilities can be used only an explicit 3 times per day, which is a close similarity to "when you spend an Action Point" (Action Points can be regained throughout an adventuring day). However, the duration of an individual use is increased - Ghost Step lasts until the end of your next turn, but Ghostwalk lasts only for your current turn.

The Ghostwalk Tattoo is considered a "Level 26" magic item, where Level here is directly related to character level (which goes to 30 in 4th edition). Translating that level to 5th edition's scale would be "level" 17, which would suggest Legendary rarity according to the Magic Item Rarity table in the Dungeon Master's Guide, if not for the differences described here.

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