One of my recent rules clarification questions was:
17. How do I identify magic items?
This is one of the questions that in hindsight I wish I had asked in a more detailed way. Specifically, how do the PCs know something is magical at all
? Never mind what it does or how it is used. Mass-market fantasy now often portrays magic items as glowing or otherwise visually marked. Games like Diablo color items based on their rarity and power. This is not totally without precedent in the foundational literature (Bilbo’s Sting did glow blue in the presence of orcs, though this is less like an identifying mark and more like a power). Did Excalibur glow? I don’t think so. What about the hide of the Nemean Lion? Characters knew that these items were powerful because they were singular and legendary within the story as well as outside of it.
Is every richly embroidered robe and jeweled sword possibly a magic item? Because of practical game considerations, probably not. The most common solution to this problem is to allow PCs to just sense magic in some way or another. That is fine and workmanlike, but robs magic items of a sense of mystery and a need for background. This is one of the many reasons that D&D magic can often feel mundane and commonplace.
Assume for the moment that the first hurdle has been cleared. The item is known to be enchanted. How do the PCs discover what it does and how to use it? The most common answer I have seen to this question is to experiment. What does experimentation mean? For a potion, the convention is to take a small taste (enough, perhaps, to trigger a poison potion). But what about other kinds of items? Is it enough to pick up a wand and wiggle it? Is it enough to say “I experiment” in much the same way that, in some games, it is enough to say “I search for traps” without further detail? And, if so, how is the result determined? Must there be a diegetic aspect to the activation such as a control word that the players must discover by interacting with the campaign world? A diegetic method would be very engaging if you have such details prepared (or a method for generating them
on the fly).
In my current game
, I use a simplified version of the arcana skill (4E PHB page 181) for detection of non-obvious enchantment. Generally, I just make this a DC 15 arcana check available to characters that are trained in the skill. Sometimes I adjust the DC if there is some reason that someone might have been trying to conceal the magic (such as a trap), and sometimes I just assume that arcane classes can “pick up the vibes” (or whatever).
If I were starting a new B/X game, I would be sorely tempted to not give away which items are enchanted. It would make detect magic a more valuable spell. And it would give sages more play, as adventurers would need to get their loot examined to make sure that they were not accidentally selling some ancient artifact as a simple piece of jewelry. Even if you generate treasure by the book, I think this would result in fewer magic items in the campaign, which would make the items that were discovered that much more special.