Identifying Magic Items in Pathfinder

A dude from the '70s holding a sparkle of light with the caption "IT'S MAGICAL"
I’m trying to get better with attributions…but I have no fuckin’ idea where this came from.

All the way back in April, I declared that I was fed up with the way magic items are identified in Pathfinder. Furthermore, I said that I was going to fix it. I’ve been lazy, but I’m going to work on not being lazy anymore. So lets get to work. Forgive me if this post is a little more brusk than my writing normally is.

There are two steps to identifying a magical item. The first step is to determine whether the item is magical at all. In some cases this may be obvious, such as in the case of a glowing sword. But not every magical item will be obviously magical. And some items which seem as though they should be magical might not be. A jewel encrusted shield might just be a fragile display piece, good for selling, but not for using. Once it has been determined that an item is magical, the second step is to figure out what the item actually does, and how a character can make the item do that thing. Depending on how the game works, a +1 mace might always be a little more accurate and deal a little more damage, but something less obvious could require some know-how in order to use. Such as an activation word for a wand.

Before I go further, I’d like to review precisely how Pathfinder’s item identification works according to the core rule book. That way we’re clear on where we’re starting from. Relevant parts of the system are described in a number of places. First, from the “Spellcraft” skill description.

“This skill is also used to identify the properties of magic items in your possession through the use of spells such as detect magic and identify.“, “Attempting to ascertain the properties of a magic item takes 3 rounds per item to be identified and you must be able to thoroughly examine the object”, “When using detect magic or Identify to learn the properties of magic items, you can only attempt to ascertain the properties of an individual item once per day. Additional attempts reveal the same result.”, “Identify the properties of a magic item using detect magic: 15 + item’s caster level.”

The spell description for Detect Magiccan be found on page 267 of the PFCRB, but essentially all the spell allows you to do is identify that magic auras are present, and help you determine the school of said aura, and which specific items or persons they are emanating from. The spellcraft skill can then be used as described above (DC 15 + item’s caster level) to determine the item’s specific use and activation word, etc. The spell description for Identify can be found on page 299 of the PFCRB, but it pretty much only says “+10 to spellcraft checks made to identify magic items.”

 I don’t like this system because:

  • I hate it when spells are neutered so that they can fit within the broken skills system. Identify should not be a +10 to your identification ability.
  • I don’t see the point in having a failure chance for identifying magical items. At least not a completely random failure chance. It could be interesting to construct the rules so that players could miss magical items through poor play.
  • I’ve recorded game sessions in the past. I like to listen to them and judge what works and what doesn’t as an outside observer. Here’s what the discovery of a magic item sounds like:

ME: You find 100 gold pieces and a sword with a silver blade and a dragon’s head carved into the wooden handle.
Players: Check to see if it’s magical.
Sorcerer/Wizard/Whatever: I roll to see if it’s magical.
[Success]Me: It is a +2 sword.
[Success]Players: Yay! Who needs it?
[Failure]Me: It does not appear to be magical to you.
[Failure]Players: It was a low roll. Lets keep it and try again tomorrow!

This conversation is boring. It is pointless. And it is a waste of everyone’s time.

Here is my proposal for Pathfinder magic item identification. I haven’t playtested this yet, but I’ll implementing it in my game, and hopefully it will be an improvement over the way the system currently works.

Magic Users–Wizards, Sorcerers, Clerics, etc.–can identify whether an item is or is not magical by focusing on it for about five minutes. Characters who cannot cast spells are unable to do this. If the party does not wish to spend the time necessary to determine whether an item is magical, the spell Detect Magic can be used to immediately identify all magical items within the caster’s field of vision. When using this spell, the items will glow a particular color, corresponding to the school of magic which the item is most strongly associated with. Only the caster is able to see these auras, and they do not provide any more information than the fact that the item is magical, and what school it is associated with.

Each magical item in Pathfinder has a “Caster Level.” If the caster level of an item is equal to or lower than the caster level of a magic user, then that magic user may determine the item’s function and method of activation by studying it for 5 minutes. If the players do not wish to spend this amount of time, or if the items in question are too high level to be identified, then the caster may use the Identify spell. This spell must be cast individually for each item which needs to be identified, but works instantaneously. Also, using the Identify spell, a caster may determine the properties of a magic item up to 3 caster levels above their own.

If no magic user is available, or if an item is too high level to be identified by the party’s magic user, then the party may seek out and consult a sage. Sages are very learned, and often have magical powers of their own to call upon. For a fee (200gp * Item’s Caster Level) the Sage will identify it for the party. It will require at least one week’s worth of time. For particularly powerful magic items, or artifacts, the sage may require additional funds and time, or may be entirely unable to identify the item at all. In that case, the sage would likely know of another sage which the party could consult, and offer them at least a partial refund.

What do you think? I’m open to criticism here.

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5 thoughts on “Identifying Magic Items in Pathfinder”

  1. I agree that rolling once per day to identify is rather silly, but you’ve essentially reduced identification to taking ten on spellcraft checks (or more like taking 7 since most identifiers will have spellcraft as a well invested class skill). So now, any time they find a magic item, either they know exactly what it is, or they have to shell out cash to identify it. And if the sage can’t identify it, they have to go on a quest, *then* shell out cash to find out what it is. A spell caster with enough time under the original rules could potentially identify many items much higher than their caster levels.

    I almost think identification needs a more fundamental overhaul. What if magic items are easy to identify, but it takes an effort to “unlock” them. And maybe certain properties remain a mystery until others are unlocked. You could almost use this s a way to level up equipment along with players.

    Let us say the party finds a sword. At its full potential, it is a +3 demonbane sword which can cast “daylight” once per day. However, due to being lost for centuries, it’s powers are now dormant. These powers come in bundles, however. When the party wizard attempts to identify the item, his spellcraft result determines how many of these bundles are identified. He will always identify one basic bundle, but if he rolls poorly, he cannot identify anything further about this item until he gains a rank in spellcraft. So if our wizard botches the check, he learns:

    1) the sword can regain a +1 enhancement bonus with some minor attention from a spell caster. A successful spellcraft check, taking five minutes, restores this enhancement. A particularly bad check might cause the cater to take some minor damage as the item’s power rebounds back on him. However, the wizard senses this is not the full extent of the item’s power.

    The second tier might require a DC 15 spellcraft check to identify.
    2) A further +1 enhancement and a once per day daylight spell can be unlocked with either a DC 25 spellcraft check, or by immersing the blade in the waters of a certain shrine consecrated to the Sun.

    The first tier is probably quite accessible to a low level party, but the second tier might be too much for them. If the wizard cannot unlock the weapon’s powers, then the party might choose to go on a quest to unlock the power, or save that hook for later. But by the time they accomplish it, they’ll probably have reached a level commensurate with the item’s power.

    3) This might require an even heftier spellcraft check. A further +1 and the demonbane power can be unlocked by a DC30 spell craft check or by slaying ten demons in single combat.

    The nifty thing about this one, is that the player might activate a power without actually knowing the sword had at power. Or perhaps the player can identify the necessary conditions to unlock a power, without knowing what that power is.

    If players are really unwary, they might actually activate something catastrophic by accident. Maybe instead of demonbane, killing ten demons awakens a chaotic evil intelligence in the blade. Suddenly that trusty sword takes on a whole new feel, and the players might actually have to try and destroy it.

    Of course, when everyone is carting around a veritable fashion show of fantastic items, the number of activation quests might get out of hand. Treasure hordes might have themed items. Items found in the keep of an ancient order of Paladins might all have similar requirements. And if these items are scaling with the characters, it might cut down on the number of items you have to hand out in the first place.

    It’s also a lot to keep track of, though…

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have time to read your entire comment at the moment, as I am at my day job. However, reading the first line, it seems as though you’ve misunderstood something. (Not surprising, I am not very happy with this post.)

      “you’ve essentially reduced identification to taking ten on spellcraft checks”

      There are no spellcraft checks involved in this system. Depending on the power of the item, one of these three identification methods need to be used:

      1) The caster can identify an item just by handling it.
      2) The caster must cast “Detect Magic” to identify an item.
      3) A sage or powerful caster must be consulted to identify the item.

  2. I actually like both of these ideas. In fact, I’m gonna mash both of them together and use them in my game. I’ll use the rules as follows;

    Detect Magic: Used as per normal, except instead of just telling the spell caster who detected the item that it is magical, I will only tell them the strength and colour of the aura. It’ll be up to them to figure out what colour corresponds to what school (with a Knowledge Arcana check to help them out).

    Spellcraft: It’ll take 10 minutes of study (in keeping with Local Time) to identify the properties of a magical item. A PC is required to have a Spellcraft score equal to or greater than the CL of the item. Power’s of magical items will be “bundled” at different CL’s.

    i.e – A +1 Keen Scimitar would require Spellcraft score of 1 to identify it as a +1 Scimitar, and an 11 to identify it as a +1 Keen Scimitar. Makes the Identify spell actually matter.

    I propose that the identification DC’s stack, but discovering “bundles” would lower the DC. For example; a +1 Keen Flaming Scimitar would be DC 21. +1 for enhancement, +10 for CL of Keen, and +10 for CL of Flaming.

    After 10 minutes of study a PC would know it to be a +1 Scimitar. That would lower the total DC to 20, because they already know it’s +1. Further study, assuming they could meet the 20 DC, would reveal one more of it’s powers (randomly rolled which one), which would reduce it to DC 10. So, one more study session and meeting DC 10 would reveal the full potential of the weapon. Reasoning behind this is that the further they study the item the more familiar they are with the magical energies of said item and have an easier time unlocking identifying it’s potential. I will also use the idea of randomly unlocking abilities through use for some items.

    I know you might be saying “Well that’s kinda harsh, what if they just Spellcraft it once then move on? How will they know about the additional abilities?” Well my friends, that’s where Detect Magic comes into play.

    According to Pathfinder rules, if you spend three rounds studying an object with Detect Magic you learn; 1) What is magical, 2) The exact number of magical things, and the potency of the strongest aura, 3) The exact strength and location of each magical item. You can make a Knowledge Arcana check at this point to determine the school of magic. I would merely tell them what colour it is and they’d have to learn which colour corresponds to which school. Although for a high Knowledge check I’d give them a “feeling” about the aura, i.e. “Angry” for Evocation(fire) or “Numb and Distant” for Necromancy.

    The potential is all there in the rules, it’s just up to the GM to flavour it up and don’t let your PC’s get away with “Smash and Grab” dungeon crawling. This may not work in some groups but I know in my group the Player who does all the identifying and knowledge checks would be really into this. I’m going to try it out and see how it goes, I’ll reply with a write up if anyone is interested.

    TL;DR – There is no TL;DR, it’s all relevant! :)

  3. Not sure you understand fully how to identify items….

    Seeing as anyone with Detect magic can instantly know if an item is magical or not there should never be a result of…

    “[Failure]DM: You sense nothing magical from the sword.”

    It should be “[Failure]DM: you sense faint Evocation coming from the sword.”

    Thus they could try again tomorrow or if you only allow one roll per wizard/caster then they’ll have to bring it to town spellcaster.

    Considering the MAX anyone would ever need to roll to identify the strongest CL20 item is 35, (Easily obtainable before level 20 hell most wizards will have 7-8 average to start depending on if their Int is a +3 or +4. That’s easily a 17-18DC average which identifies +1 swords/armors or CL3 items. That’s without the spell Identify(+10), Elf being your Race(+2), and taking Skill focus(+3)….

    That would add up to a total of….

    Level 1 Wizard:
    1 Skill + 3 Class Skill Bonus + 3-4 INT MOD + 2 Elf Racial Mod + 3 Skill Focus + 10 Spell Identify = +22-23

    That’s an Average of 33-34 which is almost able to identify anything in the book. Anything with CL 18-19 might be identified with a roll of a 10 on a 20d…. a 2 on a 20d would identify up to a CL8-9 Item which is well past what a level 1 wizard would probably run into….. I’m not quiet sure alternative system is needed when building up the ability to identify let alone detect magic items is simplistic. A simple recastable 0 Level spell instantly tells you if it is magical or not.

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