Down With Identify!

In Rogue and similar games (Roguelikes) your character would have to use items to identify them. There might have also been identify scrolls or pools or whatever, but the gist of it is that once you encounter and figure out that this is a Potion of Healing, any other Potion of Healing you come across is already ID’d for you. When your character inevitably dies, your next play-through loses all your previous knowledge (though as a player you might know things).

Here’s how it could work in D&D:

Player A: Okay, I pull Black Dougal’s body off the chest and look inside.
DM: You see some loose iron spikes, a big heavy helmet, and several loose bottles of liquid.
Player A: Gah, glad we didn’t try to carry the chest out or smash it! I carefully pull out each thing and set them on the floor. Checking the helmet for decorations, what’s it made of?
DM: Thick bronze, no visor, red-dyed horsehair plume, old cloth padding inside. Like a Greek helmet.
Player A: Cool. What about the potions? Any labels?
DM: The labels are faded and peeling. In the bottles the liquid is: oily metallic red, luminous blue, and two syrupy clear with black flecks.
Player B: (Referring to handwritten notes) Looks like the luminous blue one is probably a Potion of Speed. We found a clear with gold flecks, which was Extra-Healing, so maybe the black flecks mean just plain Healing?
DM: *Shrugs and smiles*

Detect Magic would work normally, giving the presence of magic and (for M-Us) the type of magic. That clue is suddenly more valuable without an actual ID spell.

This would require good descriptions for all the magic items, including command words etc. It’s in the vein of description-based environmental interaction for things like secret doors, traps, monsters, oozing pools, green devil faces, etc.

(“Descriptive monster interactions? Huh? We roll dice for that!” you say. But what about the ecology of the monster which determines how it reacts to the PCs? What about Carrion Crawlers and Bulettes and Beholders with their variable AC by location? Players need to describe where they’re hitting or else you assume they’re just walking up and smacking it.)

I like this because once you get the ball rolling with descriptive traps and secret doors, special monsters just invent themselves and weird dungeon things pop into mind. Players become more immersed and feel like they’re gaining player skill instead of just system mastery. In general I think it’s worth the tradeoff of extra time spent at the table for description vs. dice roll because the description is enjoyable.

And when it’s not enjoyable, feel free to skip it! “When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with.” is a quote from The Mule Abides on this issue. BUT I wonder just how many circumstances will be onerous not-fun but also complex. For example, the player dealing with the caltrops can just say “I brush them to the side with my shield” and the DM goes “alright two turns later, staircase cleared, what now?” It would take longer to pick up your dice, roll, interpret, add modifiers, say the result, DM compares to success chance, DM declares success or failure. In cases where it’s complex and there’s no easy answer, such as some puzzle, figuring out the puzzle is part of the game! If you don’t want to do it, there are lots of other things for your character to do. That’s part of why a puzzle or riddle shouldn’t be a roadblock in an adventure, but a side thing.

So what kinds of experimentation could a player do to figure out what a magic item does? Potions can be sipped, which is dangerous. Magic rings and other articles can be tried on. If you put on the ring and you vanish from sight, we can be pretty sure it’s a Ring of Invisibility. Maybe a magic item has a command word, like wands and such. You can try all kinds of magic words, but you probably won’t guess. The command word might be inscribed on the item or found somewhere in the dungeon. Adventurers’ journals found in a dungeon can be a great source of info on the magic items those adventurers owned but are up for grabs by the PCs. Intelligent swords will try to communicate when picked up.

Again, loads of description is needed. Imagine a Fighter putting on a magic belt, and suddenly he feels light on his feet as if his equiment doesn’t weigh a thing! The player might be excited to think he has a Girdle of Giant Strength, but maybe it’s a Girdle of Levitation instead. Experimentation can easily reveal this: the player needs to try snapping some tree branches or something to see if his arm strength is greater. Maybe concentrate on floating to see if it’s levitation. Pick up lots of stuff to see if it’s just encumbrance-reducing magic instead of general strength-enhancing.

Why not just make it a WIS check and bypass all the roleplaying? I’d ask similarly why not just hand the DM a list of procedures that your PC “always does” when entering a room? Because you enjoy the roleplaying part, the immersion.

If you don’t want to deal with all this hassle and fuss, and you want the convenience of the ID spell, I suggest just getting rid of the spell anyway and telling players what their stuff is as long as they have an M-U in the party. No M-U means no identifying. Having a Thief means you don’t have to deal with traps and locks, and having a Dwarf or Elf means you notice the secret doors. Much easier and more streamlined.


One Response to “Down With Identify!”

  1. Brendan Says:

    Great post. I would also add that copious description is a way to make campaigns unique. For example, who is to say that healing potions in one game look like healing potions in another? Learning what is what in a particular game diegetically allows player skill to matter, and allows for depth through play. I’m still working on tools and techniques to allow myself to run this kind of game (mostly having to do with pregenerating descriptions with the help of some random tables). The part that I feel I am worst at is keeping track of things that happen during the game (perhaps just bad note taking skills, but when I’m running a table full of players I often don’t feel like I have the time to take notes about what is going on).

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