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Angry Rants: The Identify Spell

You know what really pisses me off? The f$&%ing identify spell. That’s right, people, we’re talking magic items in Dungeons & Dragons this week. Actually, we’re talking about the weird horses$%& that orbits around magic items.

Every edition of D&D insists on doing this identify bulls$&%. D&D 3.5 (and Pathfinder by extension) had this whole byzantine process, for example. You find an item, cast detect magic to determine if it’s magical, if it is, maybe you can see the aura of the item with a good Spellcraft skill check and make a guess as to what the item is. And then, maybe you can use the Use Magic Device skill to trick the item into activating. Or, if it’s a scroll, you can use read magic to determine what spell it is. And potions can be identified by a little taste and a good Spellcraft check. And if all of that fails, you can buy a pearl for a hundred gold coins, crush it into wine, stir it with an owl feather, and cast identify to finally just find out what the f$&% the item is. At least, you learn ONE of its functions. You really need the legend lore spell to be sure you learn everything. Of course, a bard might recognize the damned thing too with his Bardic Lore. F$&% me running, what a mess.


Now, D&D 5th Edition does away with part of that process. Or, at least, it seems to. Full disclosure, we still don’t know what is in the actual Dungeon Masters Guide, so we’ve got to guess that the stuff in the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Dungeon Masters Basic Rules is close to what the actual rules are. And it seems like they decided to streamline the whole thing. The moment you touch a magic item, it tingles or something, and you know it is magical. No detect magic needed. Sure, the detect magic spell still exists for… reasons. But touch a thing and know it is magical.

But we still have the bulls$&% of actually identifying the magic item. Here’s the deal: once you know an item is magic, you can sit and fondle the item for an hour straight (during, say, a short rest) and you’ll learn its properties and whether it has to be attuned (don’t ask) and how to make it work. Cool, right? But, if you’re not into blowing an entire hour on it, the quicker version is to prepare the identify spell, eating up one of your prepared spells for the day. Then, all you have to do is destroy one hundred gold coins, expend a first-level spell slot, take one full minute to cast the spell, and whammo, you identify the item and get all the info. Or, if you don’t want to expend the spell slot, spend ten minutes (and a hundred gold coins) casting the spell as a ritual (but you still have to have it prepared) and you get the same info.

Now, look, it is nice to have options. But, here’s the thing: sitting around for an hour groping a wand in the hopes of figuring out whether it is actually useful is either a trivial choice (because the DM doesn’t put any sort of urgency on you or you’re not in a dangerous situation and can just sit still for an hour) or it’s not worth it. There’s no actual middle of the road. If the party isn’t sure whether or not it can safely sit still for an hour, the possibility that the wand they picked up might be amazingly fantastic just isn’t worth the risk. Whatever the risk. It never will be. And the resources needed for the identify spell are a crappy trade. I can either pay one hundred gold pieces and lose a spell slot every single day or just wait until I have a safe, free hour to rub down any wayward swords I find that tingle in a funny way when I touch them. It’s a crap choice.

In fact, the choice will be what it always has been. It’s standard dungeon exploration operating procedure: toss all the treasure in a sack, wait until you’re back in town or camping for the night or you’ve finished the adventure, identify all the stuff, hand out whatever is useful, toss all the potions and scrolls and consumables in a bag to be forgotten until just after they actually would have been useful, and sell whatever is left. Standard operating procedure. Does the fun ever f$&%ing stop?!

Delayed Gratification is Diminished Gratification

Look, the topic of what magic items are and how they serve the game is one that deserves an entire rant of its own. And it will get it. I promise. But this whole issue about identifying magic items is a problem by itself. Whatever you think magic items are and whatever you think they are for, the whole identification bulls$&% ruins it. It ruins it. Why? Because the players don’t know enough about the payoff (what is the magic item) to know whether the costs (the risk of sitting for an hour and the hundred gold or whatever) are worth paying to have that magic item available right then and there. So, the item goes in a sack to wait until the risks and costs can be diminished. And thanks to the omnipresent trope of cursed items and the fact that many items are useless unless you know what they do and how to make them do it, it is rarely even worth it to just use the magic item before you identify it.

The thing is, whether you consider a magic item a reward, an advancement, an empowerment, a plot hook, or a mystery (all valid ideas of what magic items can be), you’re taking that payoff and removing it from the moment of discovery.

Imagine this: imagine you and your party just killed a dragon against impossible odds. It was a rough fight. You’re nearly dead. And there’s a big old treasure chest that the dragon was guarding. Which you deserve, right? You earned it. And the dungeon master suddenly says “I’ll tell you what’s in the chest in a week. Meanwhile, you continue to explore the caves. Let’s move on.” There is no good reason for the DM to do that. Moreover, it simply removes the payoff from the action. When the DM finally makes good on that promise, it doesn’t feel like a reward for killing a dragon anymore. It feels like the DM making good on a promise.

And that is exactly what the “stuff it in a sack and stroke it later” system does. It delays the gratification. It delays the payoff.

The Air of Mystery

Now, on the other hand, it is kind of cool that magic items have this aura of mystery around them. Right? You find a sword marked with glowing runes, obviously magical, what could it be? Not knowing what a magic item is right away has a level of mystique to it. It feels exciting. Because in that moment, before you know what the item is, it COULD be anything. Wow. And mysteries are fun. Mysteries are opportunities to discover. And discovery feels good.

And I agree with you. The sense of mystery, the sense of mystique, and the sense of eventual discovery is something worth trying to capture. I don’t deny that. In fact, I love that s$&%. It’s just that this system doesn’t f$&%ing do that.

Why not? Imagine this scenario: you and your fellow heroes have been hired to solve a mysterious murder. And a diviner approaches you and says “I know what happened. I saw it all through my crystal ball. Come by my shop tonight and I will tell you everything. Who did it. Why they did it. How they did it. I have all of the information.” What do you do now? Obviously, you wait until nightfall and go visit the diviner. And you get the answer. Done and done. Sure, you could investigate through the day. You could keep questioning and searching and doing all the mystery solving things, but you know there’s an answer waiting for you and it takes almost no effort to get it. It’s just sitting there. Is there a mystery anymore? And have you solved anything? Discovered anything? No. Not in the least. It sucks.

The Worst of Both Worlds

The identify system that has plagued D&D and games like it for years is a compromise. And it’s one of those s$&%ty compromises that just hurts both sides. You don’t want put a barrier between people and their rewards, but you don’t want to just give everything away in the moment. You want people to get their prize but you want it to feel mystical and mysterious. This is one of those rare moments where the middle ground is pretty much worse than any extreme. But fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Here comes the part where I give you my brilliant advice for how to fix it…

My Brilliant Advice for How to Fix It

Do almost anything else.

Seriously. That is my advice here. Reject this whole bulls$&% affair about identify spells and detecting magic and meditating for an hour and casting spells. Throw it away and don’t look back. And I don’t care what you do instead. It doesn’t really matter. Anything is an improvement. Do anything else.

Maybe you decide that the moment someone touches a magic item, they know how it works and what it does and what it is and how to make it work. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re just deciding that magic items are the rewards for a job well done. And there’s a lot of benefits to doing it that way. You can design situations in your dungeon that allow people to use the magic items they discover in other rooms to solve problems. Is it realistic? Who the f$&% cares? It’s magic anyway. And it serves the game well. And there’s no logical reason why it can’t work that way anyway. BECAUSE IT’S F$&%ING MAGIC!

Or maybe you decide that there is no identify spell. Maybe there is no EASY way to identify an item. Maybe you just have to use the item and tease out what it does. Maybe you never ever know what the actual bonus on the magic sword you are lugging around is. You just have a sense that it is better because the DM describes it that way. Or maybe, identify takes weeks to cast. Or it’s a very high level spell. Or wizards in wizard labs can do all sorts of non-spell-related experiments like magical spectro-thaumoscopy and, over a period of days, determine what the item is. Or a week of research in an old library can tell you that the ring you found is that one ring. That makes it so prohibitive to identify all but the most difficult of items that it is almost always worth it just to experiment on the item by using it. In other words, the answer isn’t easy and the easiest way to get the answer is just to risk using the item. Of course, you have to figure out how to handle items that require specific actions or words to use. But maybe they don’t need that $&%. Maybe you just point the wand and think really hard. Whatever. You have to work out the details, obviously.

The key to deciding how to handle magic items is to really sit and think about what role magic items fill in your world AND in the game. Both. Because they can fill a lot of roles and the folks who wrote D&D seem to have decided “all of the above” which is how you end up with a system for identifying items that doesn’t know what the hell to emphasize. The D&D identification system is one of those things that is ruined by trying to make it all things to all people. Customize the s$&% out of it.

Now, all we need is someone on hand to rant about the various purposes of magical items. Say, a week from now. Hypothetically.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Maybe you love the s$&% system of identify spells and want to tell me how wrong you are. Maybe you have a novel solution to the problem. Leave a comment and let me know and I swear I’ll pretend to be interested.

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  1. Identify | Crossing the 'Verse on Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    […] 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 given that 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 g….” […]

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