Make Magical Item Identification Harder

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 7, 2011

In its attempt to simplify things and keep the game and the players focused on the important details, identifying magical items in 4e is something any PC can do during a short rest. I think it’s time for this to change. This is something that they had right in previous editions of D&D.

In this week’s Legends & Lore column Magic and Mystery, Monte Cook talked about the wonder of magical items. He focused mainly on the idea of magic being too commonplace in most campaigns, but he also brushed on the idea that some magical items should have hidden properties that are only revealed when certain conditions are met. This really got me thinking about the whole mechanic of magic item identification.

Based on the current rules all a PC has to do to identity an item is spend time handling and examine it during a short rest. After the five minutes are up they know that the sword is a +2 Frost Weapon or that the boots are Goblin Stompers. They know the exact nature and properties of the item. I realize that this makes things simpler but it also makes things boring.

What happened to the mystery? What happened to the fear? What happened to the sense of wonder upon discovering that your magical staff was actually so much more than a glorified walking stick? It’s gone in order to keep things simple. Well I think it’s time to bring back some of the mystery and wonder in magic items and the simplest way to do that is to stop revealing everything about a magic item just because a PC played with it between fights.

Once upon a time there were only two ways to figure out what your magic item actually did: magical identification or trial and error. Magical identification usually involved time and material resources. Since these were not always available the trial and error method was a lot more common. Once a magical aura was detected the PCs would just start using it and hope for the best.

In the case of weapons or armor the DM wouldn’t reveal the enchantment bonus until it was actually discovered. Until then the DM would add the requisite amount to attack and damage rolls for weapons and defenses for armor. It meant more work for the DM but it made the game a lot more exciting and fun.

In the case of less obvious magical items, basically anything not a weapon or armor, the PCs just put it on and when the conditions were met it would activate. Once the power kicked in the DM would incorporate that into the narrative and the player would be able to record the actual item’s power on his character sheet. Again, it was a little bit more bookkeeping for the DM but it was a lot more fun for the players.

The 4e DMG flat out contradicts the idea of withholding this information. In fact it says “It’s not fun to use a magic item without knowing its capabilities. Tell the players at least any numerical bonus the item gives. You don’t want to hear ‘I hit AC 31… plus whatever this sword’s bonus is,’ for hours or weeks on end.”

I don’t know if I agree with this statement. Some of my fondest memories of D&D involve using (or not using) magic items that the party has not identified. When a party finds an item they have to decide if they should identify the item now or leave it for later. Unless time and money are in vast supply the usual decision is to wait. Most players will risk using an enchanted item rather than stowing it until it can be identified. Unless the DM has a propensity to use cursed items in his game, there are very few down sides to using an unidentified magical item. In some cases the party discovers the items powers before they have time to identify it and they end up saving themselves time and money.

I remember numerous occasions when I was the DM and the party was using various unidentified items. I often created encounters that would intentionally give the PCs opportunities to meet the conditions required to activate their items. The players knew I often did this and they looked forward to it. It didn’t always work out as I intended but it was always a lot of fun. When a PC had boots that allowed him to jump greater distances or a Ring of Feather Falling I had a lot of pits and wide ledges that the players could jump across. When a PC had a weapon that was really a fire weapon or armor that provided resistance to cold I had them fight cold-based monsters. You get the idea.

In the case of magical weapons and armor the PCs usually figured out the enchantment bonuses by the end of one gaming session. If not I usually revealed it to them for the exact reason stated in the DMG.

Tracking the true properties of every unidentified magical item certainly put more work on the DM’s shoulders but it was often well worth it. The players felt every item was special because they often had no idea that they only had a +1 long bow. All they knew was that it was magical and that was good enough. When the party had some down time, usually between adventures or during a long journey, the Wizard or other character with suitable skills or spells to identify the loot would do so.

By making the magical identification process something that actually expends resources it allows players to choose whether or not identifying items is something they want to excel. Players could tailor their PC by taking powers, feats, and rituals that allowed them to identify items faster and easier. The down side is that they had to sacrifice other options that might give them bonuses to attack and defenses. It all depended on the kind of character the player was interested in running.

If magical item identification was introduced into 4e this is how I’d do it. A check from a PC trained in Arcana or Religion could sense a magical aura. Alternatively a History check might reveal some unique marking on the item that revealed it’s creator or its previous owner. Finally a Perception check could reveal superior craftsmanship since almost all magical items are masterwork quality.

Once the PCs know or suspect that an item is magical they can try to identify it. I’d create ritual to meet this need. However any ritual to identify items would need to scale (in level and component costs) or else it would be nothing more than annoying once the PCs found a few gp. Perhaps the level 1 ritual would only reveal heroic tier enchantments, the level 11 ritual would reveal paragon and heroic tier enchantments, and the level 21 ritual would reveal everything. This would stop really high level PCs from continuing to cast the level 1 ritual. If they did all they’d be able to confirm is that the weapon was at least +2 enchantment, even if it was really a +5 Holy Avenger. For that they’d need to perform the level 21 ritual since +5 items are in the epic tier.

Potions and other minor consumables are a whole different case. Any ritual to identify items would likely cost as much or more than the value of the potion itself. I’d rule that one ritual casting could identify multiple potions keeping in mind the scaling. Or maybe there could be another ritual that was a flat price and was only good for identifying potions.

Although potions are magical I’ve always assumed that similar potions are generally made from the same base materials. This means that PC may be able to identify potions by smell or taste. In my games I’ve always said that healing potions smells like almonds (I’m sure I borrowed this from a fantasy novel but I can’t remember where the idea came from originally). This allows heroes in my game to identify common potions with a successful Perception checks. They’re not right 100% of the time but 19/20 is still a pretty good ratio.

The uncertainty that comes from an unidentified vial makes for a lot of great role-playing. During a fight when you’re low on hit points do you drink the potion that smells like almonds hoping that it will restore hit points or do you hold off fearing that it might actually be poison?

I’ve played and run more than a few games in which a PC has quaffed a potion that smelled like almonds hoping for a healing potion but discovering the hard way that it was something more exciting and certainly unexpected. A few of the best examples were when the potion turned out to be a Potion of Dragon Breath, a Flying Potion and a Potion of Invisibility. On a few very rare occasions it was poison. However, more often than not it was exactly what the PC thought it was. After all why would the dead adventure you took it from have kept it on his body in the fist place if it wasn’t beneficial? If he had three identical potions it makes more sense that they’re healing potions and not three other different potions that just happen to look and smell the same.

The rules as written do say that PCs can easily and quickly identify magical enchantments. This is the way 4e has worked since its beginning and there’s been very little outrage. If this is working in your game then keep doing it. But if you’re like me and have played a lot of D&D then perhaps you’re looking for a way to add a spark to you next game. I think that withholding a magical item’s properties for a little while will make for a lot of really fun encounters and some unexpected role-playing. Suddenly the hack and slash guy wants to visit the Wizards’ Guild so that they can tell him if his new magical hammer is more than just a +2 hammer. I think that the quote from the DMG I referenced above certainly has merit, but I don’t think it’s true for all gamers who play D&D. I know that I for one will be changing the way magic is identify in my games moving forward.

What are your thoughts on identifying magical items? Is the current mechanic working? Do you think there’s value in withholding such information? Do you think players will enjoy the possibility of using trial and error to identify their newly gotten gains or will they just be annoyed? What are some of your best D&D memories that involve situations where a PC used an unidentified item?

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1 Eric Paquette October 7, 2011 at 9:55 am

I disagree about making it harder to identify magical items. I think they should make identifying magical items more interesting. The old identify spell and the current short are both easy means but they are boring.

They should make it so identifying the magic item is involved and failure at the attempt has a temporary negative effect and success has a temporary positive effect. Also, it shouldn’t be generic. Each item should be different.

When you embark on identifying the item, you get the result of what it is in the end but it should be uncertain if knowing that is good or bad.

2 Kenneth McNay October 7, 2011 at 10:13 am

I’m like you in this sense. I do wish that the identification of items were a more engaging portion of a narrative or even a subplot related to greater things.

I’m starting a new campaign soon and intend to use inherent bonuses to reduce the reliance on and presence of magic items, but now I might also tinker with a few mechanics of identifying items to add some engagement.

3 Snarls-at-Fleas October 7, 2011 at 10:24 am

I think we should just through away numerical bonuses and then we can make magic item identification hard again without making DMs job harder. Yep, you sense magic, it’s a magical sword, maybe it even electrical or burning, but how to make it throw fire bolts that’s only research can tell you.

4 Chris P October 7, 2011 at 11:46 am

Great article. I’ve just been thinking of this myself. In my game this weekend, I plan on dropping in a helmet of seven deaths (has gems that trap up to 7 souls in it and the souls can be expended to heal or maximize damamge). I was thinking of letting them know or make an arcana check to know that the gems trap souls, but the use for the souls would have to be discovered.

5 Sentack October 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Honestly, I had that “I rolled a 16 plus the bonus on the sword” moment in a 3.5 game I was playing in and HATED it. So I don’t mind giving away the enchantment bonus right away, but I can get behind the idea of withholding the properties.

All that being said. Since I’ve used the official 4e ‘drop rates’ of magic items, magic items aren’t that special to my players and are just ‘missing pieces of their builds’. So for my table, I would need to reduce the magic item total by 75% and drop wish lists before I think that withholding the amount of magic items in a game actually made the unknown about them all that special.

6 Wolfgrim October 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I agree with Ameron. I started playing 3.5 and quickly moved on to 4th edition. After a few years of tweaking I’ve been able to perfect 4th edition via houserules, but magical items always felt really lame. In the last five campaign’s I’ve run that I have given out magic item’s I would simply tell them what it is that they found. Player’s would write that down on their character sheet and move on. There was no excitement, no wonder of any kind. The reaction was almost like that of receiving a rusty, broken sword. In a few casses my player’s opted for basic +1 or +2 magic items because they became frustrated with the vast array of minor details and powers magical items (in 4th edition) bestow. I can fondly look back to recent second edition games where the DM would never tell you what the magical item was. In one case our group had found a chest full of vials. The DM then asked, “would anyone like to drink one”. Me and another player both shot our hands up and scrambled to be the first to drink the potion. I backed down and allowed the other player to drink from one of the vials. When he did he grew gills and died, he had just taken a sip of a “potion of water breathing”. The shock on that players face was awesome. Everyone became supersticious of the vials. In a later session the largest member of our party decided he’d take the risk and drink one of the potions, he then started to levetate. He managed to save the entire group from iminent death by trolls. The wonder that came from not knowing made the game that much more fun.

7 Jordan Quackenbush October 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Five weeks ago, my Friday night group last met. We’re playing through the 4e Red Box, as we’re all relatively new. I’ve played the most from the group and DM it. I’m modifying the campaign a bit to make it fit from the beginning with all of the players (rather than the “create a character solo campaign”), and thus we all had the chance to play the entrance to the goblin caves together. When all the fighting was said and done, they looked around the map, and discovered a dead body with a huge shiny sword – something I had missed from before. Of course they wanted it, so I had to make up some stats on the fly.

I’m looking forward to tonight, because though I gave them the normal stats (extra attack, damage, etc), the player who took it seems to be notorious for rolling 1’s. I have yet to make my list, but I’m going to have a bunch of surprises with this sword (affectionately named “Sward”) wherein he’ll have to roll a d4 or d6 if certain conditions are met (nat 1, multiple of 5, even/odd? so many choices) and each number on the d4/d6 does something different. Kind of what Snarls said: let the numbers go, but the effects are trial-and-error. And I know the group will love it.

8 iserith October 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm

As things currently stand, I skip the foreplay. I don’t need any extra work as DM and the reward for that extra work is one minute of wonder on the party of the players, if that. I wouldn’t want to spend precious tabletime playing 20 questions on every item they come across. I focus on ACTION.

I am very much against the trend of needing magic items to stay in line with the game’s math. That’s just poor design and for that reason, I use inherent bonuses for all campaigns. I also don’t think static bonuses to hit or damage should apply to magic items. They should have powers, bonuses to skills, or maybe *situational* bonuses to hit or damage (against a specific creature or damage type, etc.) based upon the history or lore of the item.

As long as those mechanical aspects jive with a paragraph of history on the item, there’s your sense of wonder right there… you’re holding a piece of history that can do special things based upon that history. Arcana, History, Religion or other knowledge skills can be used to suss it out on the spot without all the preamble, “secret” record-keeping, or additional burden placed upon the DM. If you can figure out the lore, you can use the item. Otherwise, you can’t (or it’s just a normal sword for now). This also increases the value of taking those skills and using feats to bump the modifiers.

9 Camelot October 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I’m actually designing a dungeon crawl adventure for a 4e game and I want exactly that feeling of uncertainty. I’m going to use (probably overuse) curses, so that the players will eventually be faced with the choice of using the item to discover its powers (but maybe getting stuck using a cursed item), spending resources to identify the item, or just not using the item and being at a slight disadvantage if they don’t find more.

However, in a normal game, I’d say allow the player’s to automatically identify common items that are up to no more than 5 levels higher than theirs. They’ve probably encountered them before or heard of them, and PCs with Brew Potion or Enchant Magic Item automatically know how to create them, so they should be easily recognizable. Uncommon and especially rare items require that choice to be made. I’d even create my own uncommon and rare potions to confuse players: is it a greater potion of healing, or is it a vial of liquid fire? Only one way to find out.

10 Sunyaku October 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm

I really like the passages from Mordenkaiden in Mordenkaiden’s Magical Emporium. The flavor text really makes it feel like the process of identifying the properties of magic items is difficult and dangerous, even for the greatest of archmages… and I very much agree that this is the way that it should be.

When players don’t know all of the details of the items they wield, then the DM has an added type of theatrical effect that can be spontaneously added to the game — magic effects going off inadvertently, for better or worse.

11 Jess October 7, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I recently finished running a game in which I scaled down the presence of magic items (though I did play up the existence of consumable magic items, notably potions and alchemy). I used the Inherent Item Bonus from the DMG2, but ruled that normal weapons wouldn’t confer this bonus, only those that were of unique and superior craftsmanship. It was mostly an attempt to bring back the Masterwork Weapons and Armor of old (though I still employed 4E’s versions of those as well). Ultimately it allowed characters to hold on to their weapons far longer than previously, and not even necessarily need one with inherent powers. The Paladin was able to actually form a bond with his weapon, emotionally-charged and powerful, which made it more dramatic when he chose to sacrifice his sword in order to slay an acid-spewing demon.
Identifying magic items also became harder, requiring much of what’s been written here, but I made only a single ritual and said that players could automatically identify anything lower level than they were, but needed to roll in order to identify something of equal or higher level (with the DC set by the level of the weapon: Common = Easy, Uncommon = Moderate, Rare = Hard). This was purely for the purpose of figuring out powers for the items, and I allowed for partial successes, giving only a portion of the information, especially for Rare items.
Beyond this though, in reducing the number of magical items in the settings (and making them harder to create) there were fewer to go around and present in the setting. Any master craftsman could make a Masterwork item (though perhaps only a couple in their lifetime unless they were a prodigy), thus granting a bonus to the characters, but truly magical items became heirlooms and pieces that the players collected, for their own nostalgia as well as for the story of the weapon itself. Legends, histories and arcane/religious lore would give the characters an idea of what the weapon was, what it might do, where it had come from and who had previously possessed it. It added something to the game that I found lacking from other campaigns. It gave magical items a sense of place and connection to the world, rather than just a stat line and notation on the character sheet.

12 Kilsek October 7, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Harder, or rather more *exciting* magic item identification would help the balance some more wonder into the mechanics of magic items.

That is, all you have to do now is fit in the already dull, very mechanical, but expected short rest. Everyone handles each item for a few minutes while they catch their breath, dress their wounds, check their gear, and so forth. And that’s it… not very exciting.

I’m not sure creating an Identify Magic Item ritual is the best answer, but it definitely a solution that could be fun. It’s just rituals already feel so underused, burdensome and/or forgotten already, so I’m not sure they can save the wonder of magic items.

Great food for thought though – without question, there’s a great opportunity here for balanced flavor-crunch solutions here, similar to the wondrous balance struck between magic item lore, description and mechanics found throughout Mord’s Magnificent Emporium.

Hmmm… now you’ve really got me thinking about the possibilities!

13 Anaxeto October 8, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Yep. Seems those of us running our 3rd or 4th campaigns are seeing the same cracks in the paint of 4E. Rituals are still the most under used resource in my campaign. Potions with smells/tastes awesome. There is a print dragon mag article with potion descriptions and unless my memory has gone squishy includes the almond reference. If not we have read the same book, as I always get a laugh when I describe the almond taste and a new player atnthe table groans and says “cyanide?”

Another great article, Cheers!

14 david October 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I also find that the “new” rules for identifying magic items boring as well and I don’t mind the extra added record keeping involved if players are using various magic items haven’t formally identified them.

What I ended up doing is making a combination of 1st ed identify spell and a combo spellcraft skill check. The identify spell will identify if items are indeed magical and possibly what “aura” but for the most part thats it, then the wizard/sage/etc examines the item (so if a cursed item they will be affected, no getting around it as to determine things you must touch, pull, prod, recite possible command words, etc.) and then a skill check is made, the higher the skill check the more about the item that is revealed. A lowly +1 sword might need only a 15 or higher on a skill check, while a +5 Wand of Goblin Slaying, Might require 20-25, and a multi effect staff or artifact might require either multiple checks or if a certain check fails only “some” knowledge is gained. One thing I did do was instead of requiring multiple spell components as in first edition or a sole specific one like in 2nd or 3rd edtion I made it so you could use 4 items to cast the initial identify spell. I also made eschew spell components a skill so that you can put ranks into it and you’re able to ignore more and more spell components and values rather than just a take this once and you can ignore pretty much everything for the rest of the game.

What wizard would need a dungeon delve done for him if all he had to do was take the echew feat eh? Many of adventurers would be out of jobs! hehe.

-david – My Gaming/RPG/Battletech Blog

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