Greatest Hits 2011: Make Magical Item Identification Harder

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 26, 2011

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2011. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

We all like getting stuff, whether it’s in real life or in game. If it’s new, it’s exciting. In the case of magical items they have the added benefit of being powerful; likely more powerful than the items you currently possess. But being able to discover everything about an item over the course of a short rest, a mere 5 minutes in game, is a lot like receiving a gift without wrapping paper. Where’s the surprise? Where’s the suspense? And more importantly where’s the joy that comes from finally discovering what’s actually beneath that disguised exterior?

By making magical identification harder you take something that was once a thrilling part of the game, and add the excitement back into getting something new. When you don’t know what the magic sword actually does (beyond providing a plus or two) it’s like looking at all the wrapped presents underneath a Christmas tree with your name on them. You know that eventually you’ll get to open those presents, but until then there’s the anticipation of what they might be? Is that box a new video game or a pair of dress socks? Does that small packable contain a gift card to your favourite store or is it a last minute bauble from a discount store?

By making magical identification harder you bring back anticipation. You make the PCs and the players live with the suspense of not knowing what that item will be. And when they finally do discover the item’s full potential it’s just like being a kid on Christmas morning and finally getting to open all those presents that you could see but not open in the day days and weeks leading up to Christmas.

From October 7, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Make Magical Item Identification Harder.

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 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Nicholas Manthey December 14, 2012 at 1:08 am

The bit I find funny about this is that the only other thing I know of which smells like almonds is cyanide. Which is definitely not healing.

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