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So the scenario is that I have a barbarian who's just picked up a Berserker Axe, without knowing what it is. They have NOT attuned to it. From my reading, they get the +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls. They do NOT get the max hp increase. Now, because they haven't attuned to it, the curse is not extended to them... however, the next paragraph states that whenever a hostile creature damages them while the axe is in their possession (even if it's in their backpack?) then they have to succeed on a DC 15 Wis save or go berserk.

So, assume they take damage... when their berserk state ends... are they cursed or not? They still haven't attuned to it, so I don't think they're cursed. This is how I am reading it, but this seems counter to my understanding of how cursed items generally work. It almost needs another sentence like "Going berserk as a result of being damaged in this manner counts as attunement."

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When a magic item requires attunement, you must attune to get the magical benefits.

The rules for attunement are unambiguous:

Without becoming attuned to an item that requires attunement, a creature gains only its nonmagical benefits, unless its description states otherwise.

When a magical feature of a magic item does not require attunement, the attunement rules tell us that the feature will explicitly tell you that it doesn't require attunement. These attunement rules can be summarized, "if a magic item requires attunement, all of its magical features require attunement, unless a particular feature says it does not require attunement." Without attuning to the berserker axe, it functions as a mundane axe, since none of its magical features state that they function while not attuned. You do not get a bonus to attack and damage rolls, you do not go berserk, and the curse does not affect you.

As an example of a weapon that grants a bonus without attunement, consider the Hazirawn:

Even if you aren’t attuned to the sword, you gain a +1 bonus on attack rolls and damage rolls made with this weapon. If you aren't attuned to Hazirawn, you deal an extra 1d6 necrotic damage when you hit with the weapon.

-Hoard of the Dragon Queen

To address the possible objection that the bonus to attack and damage rolls is not a magical property of the axe, the Sage Advice Compendium gives clear guidance:

Determining whether a game feature is magical is straightforward. Ask yourself these questions about the feature:

  • Is it a magic item?

  • [other bullets with more questions]

If your answer to any of those questions is yes, the feature is magical.

Since it is a magic item, any property of the Berserker Axe that is not also a property of a mundane axe is a magical property.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Would you then say that "In addition, while you are attuned to this weapon," is a strictly unnecessary, perhaps even unhelpful phrase? In particular there is this answer and this answer which mention the Berserker Axe, though feel free to simply ignore them \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 Maybe. However, the attunement rules are unambiguous and even take care to tell us that when there are exceptions, they will be explicitly stated. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 14:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would assume the "additional" section is to be clear that the max HP gain isn't permanent after you end your attunement, to preclude the reading "when I attune my max HP goes up but it doesn't say I lose that when I stop being attuned". But it may well be one of the unhelpful 'helpful reminders' that J.Crawford has previously expressed regret over including in the original 5e core books. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 15:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TigerGuy No, it does not explicitly say anything about any effects while unattuned. When a magic item has a feature that functions while unattuned, it says “this works while unattuned”. The attunement rules say it will do that, and I gave an example of a magic item that does that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 15:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TigerGuy The attunement rules tell us plainly how to apply "specific beats general" in this case: "unless its description states otherwise." The rules for attunement explicitly say that an exception to the rule will say that the feature does not require attunement. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 16:11
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Attunement with +1 weapon

From the DMG Page 136f:

Some magic items require a creature to form a bond with them before their magical Properties can be used. This bond is called attunement [...] Without becoming attuned to an item that requires attunement, a creature gains only its nonmagical benefits, unless its description states otherwise.

With the highlighted part meaning in this context: You can only use the Berserker's Axe as a normal axe, since the +1 part of the weapon is magical and Berserker' Axe requires attunement and can therefore only be used by attuning.

Curse without Attunement?

The prerequisite for the curse is (DMG Page 155):

This axe is cursed, and becoming attuned to it extends the curse to you.

So you only get cursed if you attune to it. For clarification: The curse is not going "Berserk". The curse is only being unable to part with the axe and the disadvantage with other weapons.

So after they go "Berserk" they are still not cursed and will only get cursed if they attune to it. They can still go "Berserk" when they get damaged while they have the axe however, exactly as it happened in your case.

Going Berserk from Possession is specifically stated

From Jeremy Crawfords Twitter:

If a magic item requires attunement, none of its magical properties function without attunement, unless its description says otherwise.

Since the description states that possession is enough for the Wisdom saving throw for taking damage, altough it is a magical property, it can still function without attunement.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How can you go berserk without being attuned? Normal axes dont let you go berserk, so going berserk must be a magical property of the axe. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 15:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is a magical property, but since the description gives us a specifically stated reason (getting damaged while carrying it) it overwrites the requirement for attunement in this case. "Whenever a Hostile creature damages you while the axe is in your possession[...]" \$\endgroup\$
    – Leifjacket
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 15:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ A property that functions while unattuned must explicitly state that it functions while unattuned, as in the Hazirawn Sword, which says: "Even if you aren’t attuned to the sword, you gain a +1 bonus on attack rolls and damage rolls made with this weapon. If you aren't attuned to Hazirawn, you deal an extra 1d6 necrotic damage when you hit with the weapon." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ That whole paragraph about damage while the axe is in your possession is under the "Curse." paragraph, which could be read as meaning that it only applies if you're under the curse. Could really go either way, though, seems ambiguous enough that it's up to a DM how they want such an axe to work in their campaign world, with either one being justifiable. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 3:05
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It takes some assumptions to make a ruling here.

First, what does the curse do?

Curse. This axe is cursed, and becoming attuned to it extends the curse to you. As long as you remain cursed, you are unwilling to part with the axe, keeping it within reach at all times. You also have disadvantage on attack rolls with weapons other than this one, unless no foe is within 60 feet of you that you can see or hear.

This seems fairly straightforward, but the next paragraphs seems to be a follow-on as much as a new feature.

Whenever a hostile creature damages you while the axe is in your possession, you must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or go berserk...

Certainly this seems to be the bulk of the curse. I would rule that this really is the curse, and that the stuff in the 1st curse paragraph is just a detrimental feature. I could understand a ruling that took this paragraph as a separate feature not connected to attunement or the curse in general, but that doesn't feel right. It's the berserking thing that is the curse (it's in the name, right?).

Second, what can we do with the Axe if not attuned?

Other answers posit that because the general rule for magic items state the if not attuned, a character gains none of the magical benefits.

Some magic items require a creature to form a bond with them before their magical Properties can be used. This bond is called attunement [...] Without becoming attuned to an item that requires attunement, a creature gains only its nonmagical benefits, unless its description states otherwise.

I argue, however, that the description over-rides this general rule:

You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon. In addition, while you are attuned to this weapon, your hit point maximum increases by 1 for each level you have attained.

The description specifically calls out extra features that happen if you are attuned. This infers that if you are not attuned, it functions as a +1 weapon. It's not the clearest explanation, but my ruling would be that this is a case of the specific over-riding the general.

So, all that said, based on my above rulings and assumptions,

If you are not attuned, you have a +1 Axe, and getting hit while holding it does nothing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "The description specifically calls out extra features that happen if you are not attuned." Where? I see nothing in the description about not being attuned. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov yes, corrected. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiger Guy
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 20:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don’t see that you made a revision. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov thanks, apparently you have to actually hit the save button. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiger Guy
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 20:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I see now, and that's a little better. I'll brief outline my trouble with that argument and then I'll leave it alone. You seem to argue that something that is definitively not an exception to the rules creates an exception to the rules. The statement "while attuned you have this benefit" is not itself an exception to any rule, it is just restating the rule about attunement. You then infer that the intent of this restatement is to designate that the previous statement creates an exception to the attunement, despite the fact that the previous statement does not itself do so. (1/2) ... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 20:23

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