Identifying Magic Items


I continue to maintain a sort of obsession regarding "content locks", and a thread on reddit got me writing.

B/X: What would you require for a PC to “identify” a magic item

Suppose an MU wanted to be able to safely assess what a potion is under the “other magical research” rule. What would you require from them in time, materials and gold?

My gut says, generally, nothing. What's the point of locking a toy behind something that is effectively a "tax"? Hasn't the journey to discover the thing been sufficient in itself to grant the players access to the thing? And isn't it more interesting to let the players know what the thing is so that they can then begin using it and thus have to deal with the consequences of their actions/choices?

Importantly, identifying a magic item will not reveal if it's cursed, and that, to me, is the meat of the "risk" in choosing to use that magic sword you just pulled out of a sarcophagus. Consumables, like potions are tricky because they could be poison, or because they could be a "gotcha trap" like a sroll that makes you insane or explodes if you open it. Those deserve a post of their own. This will only be about magic items.

Here are the rules from 1983: "The only way to identify exactly what an item does is by testing it (trying on the ring, sipping the potion, etc.). If a retainer does this testing, the retainer will expect to keep the item. A high level NPC magic-user may be asked to identify an item, but will want money or a service in advance and may take several weeks (game time, not real time) to do it." 

At first glance it seems pretty good. Especially the bit about retainers expecting to keep the item if they're the ones risking their skin to figure it out. Some straightforward, or general magic items like a Girdle of Giant Strength are easy to work with, and you can have a nice reveal next time the user is doing anything physical. They put on the girdle, nothing really feels different, but then their pack feels lighter when they pick it up, or when they strike the next enemy in combat you juice up the description to reveal the additional points of strength the character has gained.

But what about specialized items, like a Ring of Feather Fall, or a Ring of Waterbreathing? Is player skill here to simply come up with a list of item testing macros? I've found a new ring, I don't know what it does, so now I will:

  1. Jump off a step
  2. Put my head into a bucket of water
  3. Put my hand in the campfire quickly
  4. Attempt to stand on water in a bucket
  5. etc, etc

That feels like a waste of time.

A quick potential solution is for the DM to provide "descriptive" hints. The gold Ring of Feather Fall is engraved with feathers, or when you put it on you "feel lighter" or something vague. Do we really need to play a game of read between the lines? And what if you give too much description and lead the player to the wrong conclusion without realizing it? 

  • "Why did you jump off that cliff?" 
  • "You said the ring made me feel lighter."
  • "Yeah, but I also said you felt like you could move easier. It was a Ring of Free Action, not Feather Fall."
  • "Wtf?"

To slip into video games for a moment, the Diablo series relies heavily on the identification of magic items. However, this works well becasue ultimately Diablo is a game of inventory management. The player is constantly needing to make the choice of "is this trash and I should drop it? Or should I take the time to go back to town?" It's also a mostly effortless process (with the scrolls) and can add a sort of "scratch off lottery ticket" element to the game. This enhances things because so much of the goal with magic items is to find the best piece of a specific piece of gear. As you play, you begin to recognize the special pieces of gear, so you know you've just found Tal Rasha's Lidless Eye, and you know what it does, but the question is: Does this one have good stats? Or is it garbage?

Identification can also make sense in the mythical open table D&D of yore. You know you're going to return to town at the end of the session. You know you'll have time to identify the item in a safe area, or pay a sage to perform the identification. So in the dungeon, in the moment, if you think you've found something really good maybe it's worth "paying the tax" of time or a spell to figure it out before you progress any futher. At least it provides more of a meaninful choice. The players are confident that they're going to learn what the thing is, and now it's a "do I want to pay extra to know now, or can I wait?"

In 5e, and maybe it's just my table, we can go weeks of real time with no long rest, and a month plus without ever leaving a single dungeon or coming to a place of civilization. We've actually forgotten about minor magic item "baubles" that we've found because they weren't equipment, and the player who could cast identify was out for the session, so the thing's languished in backpacks. 

I think the most important element is this: If you have a dungeon, and the dungeon contains magic items that open up alternative solutions to the problems in the dungeon, you should tell the players what the magic item is/does. For example, if there's a 100' central shaft in the dungeon that goes through several layers, and the players find a Ring of Feather Fall: tell them what the ring does. Let them come up with all manner of shenanigans based on that. Don't put it together for them, or even attach them "Hey, remember that 100' pit? Now you have a ring of feather fall and...." I'm not advocating for that. But if they find a toy, that's going to let them play, I say, tell 'em what they've found to play with.