Save My Game 11/25/2005

Identifying Magic Items

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Believable Magic Item Identification

What's a DM to do when the PCs constantly put the game on hold until they can have all their new magic items identified? This installment of Save My Game examines ways to make in-game identification of magic items convenient enough that PCs won't wait for their next visit to town to divvy up and try out their treasures.

Problem: "You Find a +1 Sword. . . ."

What can be done about the disconnect between DM and players when it comes to identifying treasure? As DM, you know exactly what a magic item does, but how can you convey this information to players (or teach them how to make the right investigations) within the context of the game? -- Monty B. from Wizards of the Coast

Identifying magic has always caused DMs to hem and haw between "realism" and convenience. On one hand, the game becomes a lot simpler if PCs can identify items more or less immediately, primarily because they don't feel the need to wait until they go back to town to try out their finds. Furthermore, such knowledge tends to make treasure division a lot easier, especially if not everyone in your group plays every session (as is the case with most groups). If magic items are found one week and not identified until three weeks later, numerous issues can crop up to delay final disbursement. The players may want to establish who was there for the session during which the item was found, which characters who were not present should get a share anyway, and who will remember to tell/call/email Mike and Sully about the items their characters got. Perhaps treasure division shouldn't be that difficult to sort out, but it usually is.

At the same time, it seems a little silly for PCs to just instantly recognize every item they come across, as if it had a label and a list of contents. So let's look at a few ways that you might balance the realism and the convenience factors.

Solution 1: What Problem?

Analyze Dweomer (Brd 6, Sor/Wiz 6): You discern all spells and magical properties present in a number of creatures or objects. Each round, you may examine a single creature or object that you can see as a free action. In the case of a magic item, you learn its functions, how to activate its functions (if appropriate), and how many charges are left (if it has charges). In the case of an object or creature with active spells cast upon it, you learn each spell, its effect, and its caster level.

Identify (Brd 1, Magic 2, Sor/Wiz 1): The spell determines all magic properties of a single magic item, including , how to activate those functions (if appropriate), and how many charges are left (if any).

The endlessly useful spells identify and analyze dweomer are readily available to arcane casters. However, a few issues prevent their regular use during game sessions.

Identify costs money -- a lot of money, relatively speaking, for low-level adventurers (100 gp). More importantly, it takes an entire hour to cast. Analyze dweomer can be used on multiple items simultaneously and is quick to cast, but also costs a 1500 gp gemstone to cast. Furthermore, analyze dweomer is a 6th-level spell, so gaining access to it can be both difficult and expensive -- after all, not all towns have 11th-level wizards for hire. A higher-level PC wizard could carry it around prepared, but doing so requires sacrificing a high-level spell. PCs could also purchase it on a scroll, but the party must have a caster capable of using it to make such an investment pay off.

Despite these issues, both identify and analyze dweomer are useful in-game ways to let PCs discover what magic items they have found. If these options are fine with you, then you can ignore the rest of this column. If you would like some other alternatives, read on.

Solution 2: Spellcraft

The Spellcraft skill already allows characters to identify potions (DC 25) and scroll spells (DC 20 + spell level), so why not broaden it to include other magic items as well? Using Spellcraft, a character can identify a scroll in 1 round or a potion in 1 minute. You as DM must decide the time required for any other item, but most if not all should fall into one of those two timeframes. If you want to make it simple, just rule that a scroll takes 1 round and any other item takes 1 minute. That way, characters still can't identify most items in the middle of a battle, but they can do so as soon as the battle is over and then move on.

As a guide to setting Spellcraft DCs, you could use the prerequisite level for the relevant item creation feat. Potions (based on Brew Potion, minimum caster level 3rd) are DC 25 and scrolls (based on Scribe Scroll, minimum caster level 1st) begin at DC 20. By that logic, arms and armor and wands (minimum caster level 5th) should be DC 30, rods (minimum caster level 9th) should be DC 35, and rings and staffs (minimum caster level 12th) should be DC 40. Wondrous items (minimum caster level 3rd) should be relatively easy to identify (DC 25, the same as potions), but I suggest setting the DC at 25 for minor wondrous items, 30 for medium items, and 40 for major items.

If you want to make identifying magic purely a Spellcraft-based mechanic, you could change the identify and analyze dweomer spells so that instead of just identifying items, they provide bonuses to the caster's Spellcraft checks for identifying magic. Perhaps identify gives a +20 bonus on one check, and analyze dweomer gives a +20 bonus on every check made for the duration of the spell. You might also think about giving a character with the relevant item creation feat a +2 circumstance bonus (if not more) on checks to identify magic. That technique gives a character with Craft Wands a better chance to identify a wand than someone without the feat.

Solution 3: Appraise

Okay, the Appraise skill may seem like an odd choice of mechanics for identifying magic, though obviously it makes sense for assessing the sale value of magic items already identified. However, you could establish a house rule that rogues (and perhaps bards as well) can use Appraise to identify magic items in the same way as a spellcaster would use Spellcraft. You could either make it a class ability (like a rogue's trapfinding), or add it to the list of bonus special abilities from which rogues can choose beginning at 10th level.

If you didn't want to restrict the mechanic to rogues and bards, you could just make the ability a feat that any character can take. The Appraise Magic Value feat in Complete Adventurer accomplishes the same purpose, though it takes 8 hours to use and costs money each time. If you're looking for a quick identification method based on the Spellcraft mechanic, try the following version.

Appraise Magic [General]

You are skilled at evaluating magic items and discovering their secrets.

Prerequisite: Appraise 3 ranks.

Benefit: You can use the Appraise skill in place of the Spellcraft skill to identify magic items. Appraise is always a class skill for you.

Solution 4: Bardic Knowledge and Other Lore Abilities

Because bards have access to obscure information, the bardic knowledge class feature is a natural avenue for identifying magic items. You could simply substitute a bardic knowledge check for a Spellcraft check using the mechanic described above. However, since a bard is a spellcaster with a respectable number of skill points, his Spellcraft modifier may be higher than his bardic knowledge modifier, rendering this option superfluous.

A better option might be to add the character's bard level to any Spellcraft check (or Appraise check, if you're using Solution 3) he makes to identify magic items. This increase represents the bard's special familiarity with all manner of magical secrets. Logically, the same bonus could apply to any Appraise check the bard makes to assess the monetary value of a magic item.

Other lore-based abilities, such as a loremaster's lore, could work the same way.

Solution 5: Dealing with Cursed Items

The cursed magic item was a standard of the hobby back in the old days, and its existence soon taught many groups never to use any magic item until it had been properly identified, for fear of getting a necklace of strangulation or a cloak of poisonousness. Nowadays, cursed items are rarely seen in D&D. But if you want to keep that possibility in play, you could use the Spellcraft, Appraise, or lore techniques described above and add +10 modifier to the DC to discern that an item is in fact cursed, since most cursed items appear as beneficial ones to normal identification.


Identification of magic items in a D&D game sometimes threatens to upset the delicate balance between realism and convenience. Allowing PCs to know what they have immediately makes the game more playable on many levels, but it doesn't feel realistic. The identify and analyze dweomer spells provide an in-game solution, but the limitations of casting time, expense, and spell level make them less than convenient. One possible solution is a house rule allowing characters to use Spellcraft (or even Appraise or bardic knowledge) checks to identify items. Cursed items are no longer seen in play as much as they once were, but you can retain the concept by simply increasing the required check DC to detect a curse.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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