Identifying Magic Items in AD&D

Somewhere between "Identify doesn't exist" and "Identify is an easily accessible spell that is perfectly flawless," we have AD&D 1E. To which side of the spectrum does 1E lean? Let's have a glance at the spell:

All right, so unless a great set of ideal circumstances are in order, Identify can be filed under "Don't Bother." Those ideal circumstances are:

-You're high level.
-You have Remove Curse on standby.
-You're prepared to get bull@#$& answers, or none at all.
-You're ready to drink 100gp worth of a pearl.
-You have Identify memorized already when the item is found.
-You have more than 11 CON.

This is a steep price to pay. Further, there are procedural prices to pay as well. With this method as prescribed, the player never truly knows how many charges an item has. They will likely never know what their bonuses are. This means that the DM is left tracking which character is using which item to attack or defend, what their bonuses are, and checking off every charge that is used on every wand.

Logistically, it's kind of a nightmare. It creates a scenario where an excessive amount of tracking is placed on an already burdened DM.

The only hope the player has of activating a magic item that requires a word or phrase is to find written notes on a corpse, get the activation words from identification, or interrogate it out of the original wielder.

Activation words are another thing. Some items, such as the Wand of Illumination, have multiple functions. We can infer that this would require separate activation words or phrases. How else would the Magic-User be able to direct the wand to utilize the desired effect?

This means we would create individual activation words (or refer to them as Function #1/2/3/etc in order), record them, and track those so that the Magic-User can speak them, produce the effect, and we reduce the slotted charges accordingly.

That's a decent bit of work, and I can hardly fault DMs for simply saying "you got a Wand of Illumination, 90 charges. Have fun."

Scrolls, similarly, can be used by someone of the appropriate class, but aren't understandable for MU spells unless you use Read Magic. Gygax even encourages the DM to use coercion to lure players into reading cursed scrolls. AND! There's a decent chance (5 to 30%) that if a scroll isn't read immediately after discovery, it fades! So again, we have need of a spell memorized for the mere chance that we come across a magic item, and trying to do so can result in getting cursed!

Is the juice worth the squeeze for you? All of these mechanics are written into the game for two main reasons:

1. To add risk to the use of magic items.
2. To make magic items mysterious unless you take great pains to change that.

A DM who decrees "this is not worth the headache" and simply hands the player the name and function of the item the moment it is found will not get any grief from me, particularly if they're doing so with things that aren't potions or scrolls.  But here's where I land on these issues, and why:

For scrolls, I do not use the fading rule. I find it unnecessarily punitive. I do require Read Magic to decipher MU spells. The process of reading any scroll to figure out what it is or cast it both will run the risk of curses (which, by the way, I tend to use lighter curses than the ones described BtB).

For items that require a word to activate, they are often inscribed into the item, which a Read Magic spell can decipher. I do track charges and make up activation words, but when a function is used, I describe it such that the player understands what exactly the function does unless it's incredibly subtle. This is kind of my governing principle behind how I handle this information.

Is it likely you'd notice something's up? Do you seem to be doing better than you normally would? Does it produce an effect that you've seen before? Thus, if you have a Longsword that is obviously magical (subtle glow when unsheathed), perhaps you can tell that it swings excellently the first time you use it. I'd reveal it's a +1 when they make the first attack roll. Then, the moment you face a Lycanthrope, perhaps you notice that the blade seems to be extra effective, teaching you that this is a +3 vs Lycanthropes. I'd give the mechanics to the player when the eureka moment occurs, so that I can put the onus for tracking what the item does on them at that point.

It may be quite a long time before you encounter that Lycanthrope, and you may not even get to use your sword on it! That's when identify kicks in. With identify, I remove the time limit. Again, it just seems unnecessarily punitive, and makes Identify such a niche spell that it'll only see the light of day much later in the game.

This means that you can hire a higher level Magic-User to cast Identify. They can request to directly witness someone handling it to make sure it isn't cursed, and then they can learn what they can about the item. We keep the odds that the MU will fail to learn what the item is (requiring both a percentile roll AND Saving Throws, but we have eliminated the things preventing the spell from getting use.

I believe this is the best middle ground. Also, when you put on magic armor, you know the bonuses/penalties the moment you put it on (with rare exceptions). Because I ain't tracking that. I just want to ask what your AC is.


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