Justin Alexander has a number of excellent articles on gaming, for a variety of genres and games. Specifically, it’s this one that caught my eye recently. It got me to thinking about the process by which the DM shares information with the players.
Let’s address the bottom line up front: cursed items are bullshit. They’re the tool of a dickhead DM who wants to screw around with the players. Honestly, I can’t even begin to fathom the motivation behind cursed items because, even when I was a shitty DM, I never used them.
Think about how this is supposed to play out: the players defeat a bunch of monsters in a dungeon and start going through the hoard. They’re handing out items and dividing the treasure when…
DM: Atop the pile of coins and assorted gem stones is a curved sword with black runes.
Player: Wait, was that there a second ago?
DM: None of you saw it until just now.
Mage: Yeah, screw that. I cast identify on it.
Thief: We don’t have that kind of time. Let’s just wrap it up and add it to the wagon.
Mage: I’m not touching it. Or the gold. It’s probably cursed.
Fighter: I try to nudge it off the pile with my staff.
DM: Make a saving throw.
DM: Yeah… you go to move the sword but drop the staff, bend over and pick up the sword instead. It begins to weep a thick, red liquid. Your eyes are filled with rage and you turn on your friends, raising the weapon high…
Thief: Well, fuck me…
Now this example is highly simplified – I’ve left out a lot of details on purpose, because those details don’t matter; it doesn’t make a lick of difference if the player had expressed caution beforehand, or if the DM was dropping super subtle hints, or whatever; what matters is that the player knows to be cautious, and since cursed items aren’t required to have clues about their identity, invariably, given enough time, every player will be extremely cautious, using every resource at their disposal to the point where the pacing of the game itself is hindered. It’s the same as the “search everything” dilemma, only instead it’s “cast identify on every piece of junk we find, oh, and by the way, make sure you’re wearing a glove when you touch it.” Because, if they don’t, they end up with the exchange above every. Single. Time.
Cursed items don’t add any value to the game.
But that’s not something I’m interested in fixing right now. I’m more concerned about the identify spell. More accurately, I’m concerned about how players interact with magic items and how the DM conveys information about magic items. First, though, I think we should look at identify because its description implies a certain mentality when it comes to that very question. (Honestly, given the excellent work by Delta in the Spells Through the Ages series, I’m surprised he hasn’t tackled this one yet. So here goes…)
Keep in mind, this first entry is from the AD&D game, written and published by Gary Gygax in 1978 (my copy was printed in 1980).
“When an identify spell is cast, one item may be touched and handled by the magic-user in order that he or she may possibly find what dweomer it possesses. The item in question must be held or worn as would be normal for any such obiect, i.e. a bracelet must be placed on the spell caster’s wrist, a helm on his or her head, boots on the feet, a cloak worn, a dagger held, and so on. Note that any consequences of this use of the item fall fully upon the magic-user [emphasis mine], although any saving throw normally allowed is still the privilege of the magic-user. For each segment the spell is in force, it is 15% + 5% per level of the magic-user probable that 1 property of the object touched can become known – possibly that the item has no properties and is merely a ruse (the presence of Nystul’s Magic Aura or a magic mouth being detected). Each time a property can be known, the referee will secretly roll to see if the magic-user made his or her saving throw versus magic. If the save was successful, the property is known; if it is 1 point short, a false power will be revealed; and if it is lower than 1 under the required score no information will be gained. The item will never reveal its exact plusses to hit or its damage bonuses, although the fact that it has few or many such plusses can be discovered. If it has charges, the oject will never reveal the exact number, but it will give information which is +/-25% of actual, i.e. a wand with 40 charges could feel as if it had 30, or 50, or any number in between. The item to be identified must be examined by the magic-user within 1 hour per level of experience of the examiner after it has been discovered, or all readable impressions will have been blended into those of the characters who have possessed it since. After casting the spell and determining what can be learned from it, the magic-user loses 8 points of constitution. He or she must rest for 6 turns per 1 point in order to regain them. If the 8 point loss drops the spell caster below a constitution of 3, he or she will fall unconscious, and consciousness will not be regained until full constitution is restored 24 hours later. The material components of this spell are a pearl (of at least 100 g.p. value) and an owl feather steeped in wine, with the infusion drunk and a live miniature carp swallowed whole prior to spell casting. If a luckstone is powdered and added to the infusion, probability increases 25% and all saving throws are made at +4.”
Well, fuck. Guess we know where that bullshit comes from, don’t we?
What sort of false power should be revealed? Do I just make something up? Should there be any kind of relationship to the item’s actual powers?
What’s with the saving throw and the percentage success rate? Does one trump the other? If so, why are both mentioned? How is the wizard’s saving throw relevant to determining the properties/powers of a magic item?
Why can I not know the exact numerical bonus of a weapon or suit of armor? Are players meant to be kept in the dark about such things? If so, does that mean I have to keep track of their bonuses for them?
Why can’t the players know how many charges the item has? Is the DM supposed to hold their character sheets for them, too?
Why does the caster lose Constitution? So, as a player, I have to make a literal sacrifice? And there’s a… what, a time limit of some kind? So I have to cast this spell when I’m in the dungeon still? Why would I do ever that? How is this spell useful at all?
And what’s with this time limit for possession and identification? Seriously, what the fuck? So, as a wizard, if I’m ever going to identify items I come across, I have to have the spell prepared, like, all the damn time and I have to use it pretty much right away or… what, the magical properties bleed into the environment? It mixes with the auras from my other magic items? What if I possess no magic items during that time period? What if I have my henchmen hold my magic items so I can keep the magical impressions from blending? What if…?
Wow… I haven’t had a violent reaction to a written work since I studied philosophy in college. This is quite possibly the most asinine thing I’ve come across in a long time, and that’s saying something.
Still… it certainly stirs the mind. I won’t bother to reprint the 2nd Edition version here. The only major change is that it replaces the time limit and weird “magical aura blending” thing with an eight-hour casting time, which at least makes some sort of sense, but the spell is still limited in that it doesn’t actually tell the player anything.
DM: You learn that it’s a magical sword. No other special properties.
Mage: Well, at least it gets a bonus to attack and damage. I’ll give it to the fighter. What’s the modifier.
DM: You don’t know.
Mage: … Excuse me?
DM: The spell doesn’t tell you what the bonus is, only that it’s magical. It has a better balance and holds a good edge.
Mage: (starts tossing dice, ready to throw at the DM)
Now, I don’t believe there’s a single DM who actually plays it this way. But I have to wonder how people actually use the spell. I’ve mostly played 3rd Edition, so this is the version I used:
“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).
Identify does not function when used on an artifact.
Arcane Material Component
A pearl of at least 100 gp value, crushed and stirred into wine with an owl feather; the infusion must be drunk prior to spellcasting.”
Well, that’s an improvement at least.
The problem with identify is not the spell itself. The problem lies with the means by which the DM conveys information to the players. Consider this example: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks featured an alien spaceship with advanced technology. The players can find energy weapons, for example, and it presents an interesting thought experiment. How can the DM explain this object in terms that the characters would understand without giving away too much information to the players? But setting that aside, it’s basically an example of what happens every time a PC finds a magic item. Give a handgun to hoplite from Ancient Greece. He probably doesn’t have the proper knowledge of mechanics to recognize it as a machine but he knows it’s made of metal, probably a type of metal he’s never seen before. Let’s assume he knows a bit about blacksmithing or weapon crafting; he’s likely to deduce that it’s meant to be a weapon; it can certainly hurt someone if used to strike the head or body. But let’s say the weapon is loaded and the safety is off; at some point, our hypothetical blacksmith-turned-soldier will accidentally apply pressure to the trigger. And, speaking as a Soldier myself, I know this will happen – there’s a reason you’re supposed to keep your finger off the trigger at all times, unless you mean to use the weapon. So the first time that finger slips and the weapon goes off, the hoplite will immediately realize that it’s a weapon, though he may not be able to discern exactly how it’s supposed to function or what he’s supposed to do to use it again. Given the shape of the handle and the trigger, I’d reason that an attentive warrior would, after the first discharge, if he didn’t accidentally shoot himself, figure out that he needs to point the weapon at something and pull the trigger, at which point he knows everything he needs to know to actively use the item.
Why should this be any different for a magic item?
Now that this is the basis for magic item interaction and discovery, we can move on to define how identify should work and whether or not we can introduce cursed items without fucking over the players.