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Identifying Magic Items (with Arcana)

Recently the DM of our group has been insisting on us using the spell identify before we can use the magic items that we’ve been finding on our dungeon crawls.

Frustrating as hell, but it kind of makes sense. Just because you’ve turned up a fancy-looking wand, ring or weapon in a treasure chest, doesn’t mean you should be able to seamlessly brandish it in your next battle as if you crafted it yourself. Hell, why should you even know it’s magical in the first place?

Anyway, given that there are quite a few magic items in our current campaign, and I’m now carting around at least two that I don’t have the foggiest about, I thought I’d do some research on what the official rules say, and maybe as well homebrew some rules about how Arcana checks could be used in the identification process (and see if my DM agrees!).

Official Rules

On page 136 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide it states:

The identify spell is the fastest way to reveal an item’s properties. Alternatively, a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest, while being in physical contact with the item. At the end of the rest, the character learns the item’s properties, as well as how to use them. Potions are an exception; a little taste is enough to tell the taster what the potion does.

Sometimes a magic item carries a clue to its properties. The command word to activate a ring might be etched in tiny letters inside it, or a feathered design might suggest it’s a ring of feather falling.

Wearing or experimenting with an item can also offer hints about its properties. For example, if a character puts on a ring of jumping, you could say, “Your steps feel strangely springy.” Perhaps the character then jumps up and down to see what happens. You then say the character jumps unexpectedly high.

VARIANT: MORE DIFFICULT IDENTIFICATION
If you prefer magic items to have have a greater mystique consider removing the ability to identify the properties of a magic item during a short rest, and require the identify spell, experimentation, or both to reveal what a magic item does.

So there you go… on the one hand the “a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest… At the end of the rest, the character learns the item’s properties, as well as how to use them” does seem all a bit too convenient. A cop out for lazy game play. Whilst on the other hand, the official variant rule seems a bit too restrictive. What if no one in the party has identify for example?

Arcana Checks

For me the chance to identify a magical object with a successful Arcana check is the best compromise between the official rules and the official variant. Everyone loves a dice roll, whilst having to rely on the wizard, bard or cleric of divination (the only three classes to have access to identify, that I can see) to cast a spell can be tedious.

Identify is a ritual at least, meaning the caster doesn’t need to spend a spell slot, so there’s no issue with managing spell casting resources, but the scenario of not having one of those three classes in your party (as we currently don’t) is frustrating to say the least.

Regarding the use of Arcana, the Player’s Handbook (p.177) has the following to say…

Your Intelligence (Arcana) check measures your ability to recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants for those planes.

So using this skill in these circumstances does seem a good fit.

arcana identify magic items

Finally, a freaking label…

How might this work in practice? First I would say that a PC has to spend at least a minute carefully examining an object, and then I’d have them roll an Arcana check, and have a sliding scale of difficulty. Generally speaking I’d use the following scale, with each DC checkpoint passed garnering more information about the item.

DC 10 – the PC is confident the item is magical, but is unable to ascertain its nature.

DC 15 – the PC is able to guess the rough properties of the item, and may attempt to use it. However it does not know how many charges it has, and may not necessarily be able to work out the command word just yet, if it has one. More likely he or she knows what will happen when the command word is uttered, but will need another Arcana roll (once per rest) to correctly guess what it is.

DC 20 – the PC recognises the item and after a short period of experimentation (a short rest) is able to use its full powers.

Natural 20 or DC 25 and above – the PC recognises the item and can use its full powers immediately. You may even rule they are able to attune to the item straight away.

I’ve seen a couple of more rigid tables online, in various forums, and in fact I was originally planning on making my own, but given that there are different factors involved in identifying an item, such as its rarity (I’d make it easier to recognise common and legendary items, than rare and very rare for example), whether it has a command word, whether it requires attunement etc. etc., overall I think this scenario is always going to need a DM’s interpretation rather than a table to consult.

One thing I would do is confer disadvantage on the roll to those who don’t have Arcana as a proficiency, according to my principle that Arcana should be considered ‘a technical proficiency‘.

Using this mechanic, I would describe the process of discovering a magic item, with no recourse to detect magic or identify, in these stages.

1. PCs discover an item.
2. DM describes item
3. Any PC in the party may examine item and make an Arcana check (with disadvantage if they are not proficient in Arcana).
4. DM reveals knowledge about item in proportion of success of check.
5. In the case that the full properties of the item are not revealed, the DM rules if further examination and experimentation (backed up with further Arcana checks) can reveal more info, or if the PCs must wait until they can cast identify or find a NPC to do so for them, in order to make full use of the item.

What do you guys think? How are you handling this in your game at the moment?

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3 Comments

  1. henry komansky

    Looks interesting. We just found a trove of 49 magic items. I’m playing a bladesinger and I don’t have identify. Ill be bringing this to the DM’s attention today. I think he already has a plan, but this idea cant hurt!

  2. henry komansky

    got a bag of holding. Yes.

    However, most of the items we cant use, ther is a fair bit of armor, and our party has 2 monks, me (Belcadiz bladesinger), a tortle paladin, dwarf cleric and a human ranger. We are in Mystara, the hollow world and apparently these items will be trade goods when we get to The Milenian Empire.

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