Identify III

We’ve established that magic item identification should be possible through simple observation. This rule applies to constant items, those with “always on” powers or abilities. What of other items, those that require deliberate action to use?

Let’s start with the rules from 3rd Edition for magic item activation. I’ve found that, for all its faults, 3e did a few things right, one of them being how they classified magic items. Now, I apply a little more common sense to these rules and I’ve added one or two elements in order to make things more unique to my game. Regardless, the basics remain the same, which I’ll summarize here:

  • Constant Activation: These items are “always on.” A player can recognize the effect simply by using the item as normal and observing how it differs from similar mundane items. Examples include most arms and armor.
  • Spell Trigger: These items require a specific class feature, typically the ability to cast spells or prayers. A player can recognize these items by spending time studying them; they often “feel” magical, as though they possess an intense energy. The player cannot learn the items’ powers or effects by observation, but can guess at them. For example, a staff of illusions will have certain runes carved into its surface or will “behave” oddly when carried; its image may shimmer or displace, or it may smell faintly of lavender.
  • Spell Completion: These items require specialized knowledge of magic. Only wizards and priests can use them; the act of scribing a scroll involves casting the spell, in much the same way that a spell is memorized, without triggering it. The final steps necessary to complete the spell can only be known by someone who has studied and learned magic. (Most spell completion items are magic scrolls.)
  • Command Word: These items can be activated by deliberately speaking a word or phrase. A command word is chosen by the item’s creator. Often the only person who knows the command is the creator; unless he chooses to share it with other people, there’s no way to discern it.
  • Use-Activated: These items can be used by anyone but require a specific action to activate their magic. The act might be a common one, such as waving the item in the air, consuming the item (in the case of potions) or drawing a rune in the dirt; or it might be obscure, like reciting a verse from a poem. One example of a use-activated item is a necklace of fireballs; the item appears to be a normal fire opal necklace, perhaps extremely warm to the touch and smelling faintly of sulfur; the opals are easily removed and, when thrown, will explode violently.

And there we have it: the second (and so on) rules for magic item identification. You’ll note that we don’t mention the spell identify. That’s deliberate – we need to know how things work in the absence of magic spells because spells are tools that let us change the rules.

Now we can take a crack at the spell:


Level: 1
Range: Touch
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 hour
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: Special
Saving Throw: None

To identify an item’s properties, the mage must have it present for the whole casting time. The caster carefully manipulates each item in turn, uttering incantations while studying the item’s aura. At the end of the hour, the mage learns all the properties of a single item, to include its name (if it has one), its history and its creator; or he learns one property each from a group of items, up to one item per caster level (properties are chosen at random if an item has more than one; do not count non-mechanical details as properties). In all cases, the mage learns the means of activating the items’ powers, to include specific command words.

Reverse: This spell hides the properties of a magical item (up to one item per caster level) from discovery by mundane or magical means. This effect lasts for one day per caster level. The effect can be made permanent through standard means. A wizard four levels higher than the caster can use identify to overcome this effect.

One of the things we need consider when writing a spell is the impact of not selecting it. We can’t ask, “Is this is a good spell,” without comparing it to others which means, by adding it to your wizard’s repertoire, you’re denying yourself the use of every other spell. Economics 101. (Another example of a metagame, according to the proper definition. It’s one of the reasons some players don’t handle spellcasters very well.)

With these rules and this spell, we have options: players can learn the powers of some magic items by simply possessing and using the item. Others require the use of a spell. Not every wizard will have it, though; there are a lot of first level spells that are just as good (arguably better) because they provide combat benefits (necessary for adventurer wizards). But we reduced the casting time; removed the Constitution damage; and did away with material components; so it has utility for the adventurer, especially at higher levels when a treasure cache can be quickly identified in the middle of a dungeon delve. Or, if the player prefers, he can hire a wizard or two to travel with the party; or just wait until the loot can be hauled back to a town.

Now – going back to the impetus for this series – we can address the topic of cursed items.


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