I realized, after writing my first thoughts on the identify spell, that I hadn’t really defined the rule for item identification through mundane means. In order to define a spell – to provide carefully considered and well-written rules for a power that changes the way things work – you have to first know how things work without the spell. This, I think, is what bothers me about spells like identify: there are no rules that cover the identification of magic items without the use of a spell. This is patently absurd. Take the anachronistic example of advanced technology in a period setting: it’s not only reasonable to assume that an intelligent, thinking, rational person can puzzle out the way a mechanical device would operate, it should be expected that, given enough time, a diligent person will figure it out.
Of course, we’re not talking about advanced tech, we’re talking about magic items. And I don’t know how common magic items should be. I know how common they shouldn’t be; beyond that, I have no expectation except that this is a game with certain conventions, and until such a time as I have a reason to question and rewrite those conventions, I will accept them and work with them. Therefore, magic items exist and they are common enough that adventurers will find them, NPCs will use them and there is no “trade” of magic items, because that’s just plain stupid.
But how, then, do we figure out how magic items function? AD&D seems to suggest – nay, it outright says it in a spell description – that even with the use of a spell, the player cannot know for certain the exact bonus / modifier to a magic sword. … wait, the fuck?
A fighter’s combat skill, THAC0, is representative of many things. Mainly, it represents knowledge of combat. The ability to fight goes hand-in-hand with KNOWING about fighting. It’s knowing how and where to stand; how to shift weight from one foot to the other without losing balance; how to read an opponent and anticipate a thrust; how to tell the difference between an attack and a feint; and a multitude of other things. Now give your fighter a +1 magical sword. What are the properties of this sword? Does it have better balance? Does the weight shift as you hold it, keeping it from pulling you off-balance from a bad swing? Does it hold an edge even against metal-on-metal; can you chop wood with it; does it cut through your opponent’s armor? Is it lighter, stronger, faster? And if the answer to any of these is ‘yes’… to what degree?
THAC0 represents a base skill set and the potential for progression (based on experience). Therefore, a fighter knows more about fighting than a priest at 1st level, even though they both have a THAC0 of 20, because the THAC0 progression is better for the fighter (1 point every level). Further, it stands to reason that a 2nd level fighter knows more about fighting than a 1st level, because his THAC0 has actually improved (as opposed to having the potential to improve). A 2nd level fighter thus knows what it means to have an effective +1 bonus to his attack roll. Likewise, a fighter who increases his Strength score – typically through magical means, but an ability score progression model like we find in 3rd Edition might also apply – will know what it feels like to have a Strength of 15 as opposed to a 14 (and therefore, a higher bonus to damage rolls). (A wizard has it the worst of the PC classes so it stands to reason that a wizard won’t know as much about magic arms and armor simply because he doesn’t know as much about combat and fighting. Wizards do know about magic, though, so they can recognize other signs in magic weapons. A fighter may not think much about the fact that his weapon has a faint odor of brimstone but to a wizard, that’s all he needs to recognize a flaming sword.)
Of course, let’s try to keep in mind that, in the end, this is a game so the things the player knows about the game should, for the practical purpose of maintaining our sanity, translate into things the character knows about the world.
From this, we may derive our first rule of magic item identification: a PC can learn innate, passive properties of an item simply by possessing and using the item.
Which brings me to a tangent concerning rule design: is it a good rule? Basic requirements include: does it accomplish the goal? Is it intuitive? Is it simple enough to be used in regular application? Does it apply to situations outside the initial examples; is it flexible or dynamic? Does it benefit the players? This last one is not always a hard-and-fast requirement; there are some combat rules (like stunning) that potentially harm the players more than help them, so let’s consider this question instead as, “Does the rule benefit the game?” with the caveat that the players are the game. A rule like stunning is a good rule – it is successful in that it benefits the game – because it adds a layer of complexity, tension and uncertainty – it helps create drama – which may harm the players in the moment but, overall and over many game sessions, benefits them by creating a better game.
So does my first rule of magic item identification fit these requirements? Well, it accomplishes the goal – that being to have a rule for identification. It is intuitive – my character carries a magic shield and uses it in battle, therefore I know that it is magical and has a +1 bonus. It’s simple – use the item, learn its power. It benefits the player – beyond the simplicity, the player doesn’t have to waste time or resources guessing at the item’s power. Obviously, then, all of this suggests that the rule is a huge benefit to players.
We can test that other criteria – flexible and dynamic – by applying the rule to another magic item. In this case, we started with magic weapons since players always find them (because DMs always give them out) and their powers are, by and large, innate and passive: they’re always on. Another item with an “always on” power – but which isn’t a weapon – is the ring of sustenance. This item has different rules in the different editions, but by and large it can be summed up as this:
Ring of Sustenance: This magic ring removes the need to eat or drink by providing the wearer with all the nourishment and sustenance he requires. Additionally, the character requires only two hours of sleep per 24-hour period (as opposed to the standard six to eight hours) in order to be fully rested. The ring requires a week to acclimate to a new wearer.
For my game, the description is a bit light, but for our purposes here this will suffice.
How, then, does the magic item identification rule apply to this item? All too easily: the character puts the ring on and notices nothing. As he has no means of detecting magical auras, he assumes it’s nothing more than a fancy ring – let’s say it’s a silver-ish band wrought in the shape of a grape vine. The character leaves the ring on for a week while traveling in the wilderness, not having the opportunity to evaluate it further or locate a buyer. At the end of the week, the character wakes up to find that he is not hungry or thirsty. Over the course of the day, he notices that the feeling does not go away – he does not grow hungry or thirsty, and his physical performance and mental acuity – attributes that can be affected by hunger – do not diminish. In other words, though the DM specifically tells the player that he is not hungry and the player specifically indicates that he does not eat, the character is not penalized (no stat penalties). Does the player realize that the ring is the source of his new ability? Possibly. Maybe not. There are other variables to consider; but for the sake of argument, let’s say that all other factors have been considered: there have been no significant changes to the character’s state except the acquisition of the ring. Should the DM tell the player unequivocally that the ring is magical and that it’s the source of this power?
Let’s ask a different question: how often have you worn a ring in real life and found yourself taking it off for just a moment? Perhaps to take a shower or work on the car. What if your ring was magical? How quickly would the magic fade, and how would you perceive that change? More to the point, what game are you playing where every moment of your character is tracked and recorded? You aren’t? Then you should assume that your character has the opportunity to examine his possessions at his leisure, to test them, to play around and observe their properties, and to compare them to things that he knows for certain are not magical.
Therefore… yes, this rule is dynamic and flexible enough in that it easily applies to similar magic items.
The first rule of magic item identification: a PC can learn innate, passive properties of an item simply by possessing and using the item. The exact time necessary will vary from item to item but should generally not exceed one week of continuous possession. (This last part we can leave to the DM to adjudicate based on circumstances.)