Hipsters & Dragons

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Tag: magic items

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?

Review: Elminster’s Guide to Magic

If you’ve heard of the DMs Guild (an online marketplace for Dungeons & Dragons adventures, sourcebooks and supplements, written by everyone from Matt Mercer to yours truly), then you’ve probably heard of Elminster’s Guide to Magic. It’s been one of the best-selling products on the marketplace for some time now, with average review rating of over 4.5/5 at the time of publishing this post.

Having leafed through a copy recently I have to say I am not surprised in the slightest.

It’s a hefty tome (178 pages) of useful goodies, written by an experienced team of D&D creators, that includes:

  • 350+ new spells, including for bards, clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, sorcerers, warlocks and wizards (so for every spellcasting class basically!).
  • 50+ new magic items
  • A long list of magical trinkets
  • Lore about the magical factions of the Forgotten Realms
  • 8 new character archetypes.

That’s a lot of material right there, and exactly what many players, bored of casting thunderwave, haste and fireball are looking for.

The book is written in the voice of the sorcerer Ashemmon of Rhymanthiin, with the famous Elminster serving as a kind of editor, dropping in to make the odd droll remark or observation. Whilst it’s not written with quite the sparse craft and precision of a Wizards of the Coast official product, the prose is certainly better than you would expect of most community content and indeed rather funny at times. The formatting and artwork is also of high quality, giving the product a professional feel.

The best selling product on the DMs Guild is one to own

But let’s get to the meat already…

The New Spells

This book is all about the spells for me. As a player, learning the same old familiar incantations every day can get rather dull, whilst as a DM I want to be able to throw spells at PCs that they’ve never encountered before, thus bringing back some of the mystique and fear of enemy spellcasters back into the game. To this end I found plenty of new spells I would bring to my table. Ball lightning is a fun new way of blasting people (I think they actually converted it from an earlier edition of D&D), and one that carries on round after round, as your arcane artillery bounces around the battlefield. The spell freeze is so simple and brilliant that one wonders why it didn’t exist beforehand, abolish shadows is like light on steroids, and I like the cleric spell celestial fist – a damage dealing restrainer – a lot (although the saving throw once restrained should be Strength not Dexterity it seems to me!). Meanwhile spells like leaf into dagger and animal spy are hardly game changers, but have their charm (and uses).

Creating a spell is a tricky balancing business. It’s easy to get carried away and overpower them, whilst on the other hand, if the spell is any worse than those available who is going to bother to learn it? And by extension why bother create it? What is needed of course is new functionalities and subtle variations, operating at the same level of power as existing spells (at least those that are not grossly overpowered. I’m looking at you hypnotic pattern). If anything, my first impressions are that the publishers have erred on the side of caution and made their own creations a bit less powerful than the best available in the Player’s Handbook, rendering some of them redundant (to PCs at least. NPCs not driven to pick the optimal option every time could be perfect proponents of such spells, as per my comments above about throwing unfamiliar powers at parties). However I did as well find spells which seemed a little too powerful (at a glance at least). A few spells put me off by seeming too wordy and complicated, and there were many where, as a point of preference, I just didn’t like aesthetics of the spell’s effects (I could say the same of many in the Player’s Handbook as well!). A few could have been more accurately named.

If anything, rather than such a rich supply, I personally would have preferred a smaller tighter selection of spells that had been playtested to death. A bit like an album by your favourite artist, you’d prefer just the 5 or 6 great tracks to those same tracks, plus another half dozen that don’t stand out. Of course you can always discard what you don’t like… it’s just you need a bit more time to evaluate what’s hot and what’s not. Anyway considering the difficulty of pitching spells powers I think the publishers have done very well overall, with nothing falling too far either side of the mark (under vs overpowered) and plenty to get the creative juices flowing. It’s also worth noting that what I like and will use might be completely different to what someone else likes, so maybe we’ll forgive the publishers for opting for a high quantity product – it’s a more surefire way of providing something for everyone.

Magic Items (and trinkets)

I pretty much hate magic items as a rule. Not only do I dislike the high fantasy aesthetic, with players owning dozens of powerful arcane tools (give me a gritty Westerosi style setting instead please!), but they also unbalance play and detract from the much more satisfactory sensation of powering up via achieving new levels and experience-based abilities. But anyway, so as not to be a completely miserable bastard I took a look at what Elminster’s Guide to Magic has to offer on this front and found a few I really liked. Cat’s Eye Marble, conferring dark vision of 60ft is a lovely fix for the human in the party who has to lug a torch around every time they go underground, Leaf of Falling stops you having to learn feather fall every day (annoying use of a limited pool of prepared spells!), but a clear favourite is the Golden Tongue: This charm is the shape of a small golden tongue. It grants you advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks—however you are required to make your argument in rhyming couplets. If you fail to speak in rhyme when making the check, you take 1d8 psychic damage. Brilliant, that’s going in my next adventure for sure!

These were all labelled Wondrous Items, but there’s actually a list of Magical Trinkets that I like even more. Little treasures like a malachite figurine carved in the shape of a dragonfly, which flies around and kills any flies or mosquitoes in your presence and a crystal goldfish. When held, it enables you to hold your breath for 2 minutes longer can add fun and flavour to the game without any worry of unbalancing it. If nothing else they inspire the imagination!

Factions & Archetypes

I haven’t had time to go through all the factions and I’m not sure how many of them have been homebrewed vs. already alive in Realm’s lore (having taken up D&D again after a 20 years break, I’m seriously behind on my lore!), but anyway I do see some good material there for DMs to delve into for their campaigns. As for the new archetypes… it seems like homebrewing these are more or less an obsession for all DMs Guild creators, but they are almost always amongst the content I’m least likely to use. For one thing there are so many cool archetypes I haven’t had a chance to play in the Player’s Handbook and now in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything that there doesn’t strike me as any need for any more. The other is that these really do need more playtesting than a few rogue authors, no matter how experienced, can manage alone. WoTC have a massive team and vast community to draw on, and I don’t see myself playing anything other than their tried and tested archetypes, well ever, really. But maybe you’re different?

Other Stuff

There’s a few other bits and bobs in this supplement, such as a library of arcane texts (just for flavour), potential names of wizard towers, something about verbal components (turning the geek level right up to 11), and a pretty useful ‘Advice for Young Wizards’ section that most beginner to mid-level player can learn a few valuable lessons from.

Hipsters’ Conclusion

Elminster’s Guide to Magic is not perfect (although I suppose neither are the official WoTC products!) and you’re going to have do some sifting to separate the bits you like from the bits you don’t, and I sense a bit of tinkering here and there too, but given the depth and breadth of the content, for 15 dollars it has to be one of the best value-for-money products on the DMs Guild – if not the best. Every type of spellcaster is going to benefit from having a copy in their library, not just in terms of powering up, but in terms of unveiling exciting new possibilities. Meanwhile DMs who enjoy pitting their parties against nefarious evil spellcasters will love the looks of surprises on their PCs’ faces as they unveil new trick after new trick from up their baggy black sleeves. What’s more the material has a near infinite shelf life and is going to remain useful to you adventure after adventure, campaign after campaign. (Obviously when you buy an adventure you tend to only play it once!).

Buy It

You can buy Elminster’s Guide to Magic via the DMs Guild.

Finally, before you go, I have also homebrewed a few of my very own 5e spells for wizards which you can check out on this here blog. They will form part of a published adventure coming to the DMs Guild very soon!

Disclosure: I was gifted a free copy of this supplement. 

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