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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.

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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  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.

  3. Steve

    I’ll be using this in my own game. I don’t think just fondling an item for a short rest should reveal its properties.

    Do you think Detect Magic should be downgraded to a cantrip?

    • duncan

      Oops Steve, seems like I never replied. I think the fact that it’s a ritual spell is probably enough, but you could make a case for making it a cantrip.

  4. Ironfist

    There is no natural 20 in skill checks.

    • duncan

      If we’re going to be pedantic then there is a natural 20 in skills checks. It just doesn’t confer any advantage or automatic success, so in that sense you’re right.

      Anyhow this post is a deviation from RAW, as advertised.

  5. Reward

    I’ll just steal this 😀
    Probably what I’ll do is have one person be able to check one item per short rest (two items per person or two people per item for long rest). That way you don’t have people passing around every item every time you find a couple of interesting things.

    • duncan

      Yes, you could use the RAW idea of spending a short rest with an item, but instead of an automatic success combine that with the table I posted. I think that would work well!

      Ultimately it’s down to how easy or hard you want it to be for your players… I would also totally understand the DM who just wants to tell the players what the item does so they can move on to thinking about the next thing! But I prefer to stretch the players a little, and also players who took Arcana proficiency will enjoy finding a good use for it.

      • lewarcher

        I agree with Duncan, in that it’s down to how easy or hard you want to make it for your players. I’m going to stick with the true definition of Arcana, though: it measures your ability to recall _lore_ about spells, magic items, etc.

        This implies that if you already know what a magic item is, then you know a story about its history, or some context of rarity, and so on, rather than being able to identify what it is.

        It makes the fact that there is a lot of magic in the universe, and that different characters throughout history can prepare things in different ways, lead to the conclusion that someone can’t just recognize a potion from its look, or a ring from its shape/setting. It makes it more risky to use something without having significant care and experience to be able to identify it, specifically through the identify spell. Potentially magic items should be handled with care by a professional, not, for example, by a 1st level warrior who happens to roll well.

        • duncan

          Certainly this approach makes sense if your goal is to create more mystique around magical items!

        • Harahoshi

          It would make sense to me to identify an item through lore. If say…. there’s a story heard in town about a legendary hero of old who brandished a short sword who had a rose gold hilt and a Phoenix emblazoned upon it and a blade bathed in flame, or something oddly specific. I think an arcana check would suffice to identify it. Popular or campaign specific items at the least. But for the most part I’ve had my players get help in the larger towns if no one was able to identify it. Cost a bit… even prepared some scrolls with identify if they could cast and had no access.

  6. MN

    I like this a lot; thanks. I’m going to add one thing: if they roll a 0, critical fail on the check and they are convinced it is an item that it’s not…. Will be fun to see them aim what they think is a Wand of Flying at their friend, when it’s really a Wand of Magic Missiles. For example.

    • duncan

      Could be fun… you might need to roll their checks behind your screen, for them not to suspect!


    This is all pretty good stuff; hard to punish a group for lacking Identify, but short rest arcanaganzas always bugged me. This seems like a good compromise. It would be nice, however, for these rolls to be in secret so that low rolls can reveal false information. I dont know why adventurers wouldnt be susceptible to bad conclusions when relying on non-magical means like Arcana checks …

    • duncan

      Agreed in principle, but I try to only take away player rolls for insight checks – It would actually make sense for them never to roll, but players love rolling dice!

      A good compromise, would be rolling all their mental/knowledge checks in secret. And maybe the odd saving throw where the effects of failing are not immediately apparent.

  8. Seems quite a legit compromise to me as well. Besides the DC according to the rarity of the object, I’d evaluate the previous experience of the PC as well: I mean if he is an experienced one he’d identify it more easily than a fresh apprentice probably at his first adventure.

  9. Cedzou

    Arcana check : i totally agree.
    DC : depending on the rarety (common DC5, uncommon DC10, etc)
    Arcana as a technical proficiency ? I guess that depends on your setting. In a standard D&D world, I think magic is common and everyone knows a little about it (that’s why there are “common” magic items, almost all classes can cast spells and any simple gobelin can have a magic item according to random treasure table). I would compare it to computer in our world. We all know more or less how it works but I’m not abble to use any Apple OS or Linux, nor can I program or hack something.

  10. Mario

    Perfect. This encourages players to less used skills as proficiencies and solves the “no wizard or bard” in the party problem.
    In regards to flavoring a game magical items should always have a bit of mysticism and risk about them.
    I will absolutely be using this.

  11. Rick Coen

    I have a complicated chart for the Identify spell, giving reasons to upcast it – overcome rarity, learn more powers, etc. So if I have obscured magic items when you are actually using the spell, making a simple skill check is too easy.

    Having said that… there are no wizards in the current party, and the bard doesn’t have Identify. So this is probably a better compromise, with Identify being “the big guns” if they choose to pay for it.

    I would impose the following modifiers (because I just can’t leave a simple rule simple!):
    * Not proficient = disadvantage
    * Potion = add 5 to your roll (or reduce DC by 5)
    * Complete understanding of a similar item = advantage
    * Item powers are obscured in some way (i.e. Nystul’s Magic Aura) = disadvantage
    * Rarity
    —- Rare = disadvantage
    —- Very Rare = disadvantage, and it takes a long rest (not short)
    —- Legendary = disadvantage, and -5, and it takes a long rest

    Maybe, have Identify step into this structure, as “grants advantage and +5, and shortens time frame 1 step”.

    So on an uncommon longsword +1, you’re rolling Arcana straight up, or using identify and getting advantage and only DC 10 to have full understanding (it has no powers).

    On a Staff of Defense (rare, 1 property, 2 powers, charged, attunement), your skill check is at disadvantage. DC 15 tells you “+1 AC when wielded, requires attunement, charged, other powers”; DC 20 tells you “2 activated powers, both defensive” or “how to activate power 1”, or “how many charges in the staff”. With Identify, the roll is straight up with a +5, so a 10 gets you the basics, 15 tells you 2 defensive powers, and a 20 tells you how to activate both.

    Even with Identify, though, the legendary Defender will take some hours of study!

    • CoolKarateMan

      Rick, thank you so much for this! 😀 This is balanced and makes sense, while also not ruining the gameplay in terms of having fun. As a first-time DM, I greatly appreciate the thought you’ve put into this mechanic and its usefulness. May your tankard never empty, and your wit never run dry!

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