I just finally read the Identify spell in 1st edition PHB, and it’s pretty crazy. 2nd Edition D&D simplified Identify a lot and made it much more useful. I think that was a result of ID not being playable as it was, but maybe the change ignored some fundamental reason for just why ID was useless. Here’s the skinny on 1E’s ID spell:
1: The caster takes a CON hit so you can’t adventure soon after.
2: You have to put the item on, so consequences of the magic (like curses) apply to the caster.
3: It works on only one item per spell, and has a 15% + 5% per caster level chance to ID one power on the item, and he gets one identificatin chance per level on the item.
4: There is a large chance of mis-identification or failure even if the above percentage succeeds, based on the M-U’s saving throw.
5: Charges aren’t known exactly, but within 25% of the true amount.
6: If you wait too long after finding it, you can’t ID the item. The limit is just 1 hour per caster level after finding it.
7: The material component is a 100 GP pearl – again, this is just for one magic item.
8: You can always grind up a Luckstone and get +25% to your success chance (which is 100% stupid and I’m certain nobody has ever done this in a serious campaign).
OK, so, let’s say the party finds a pair of magic gauntlets. Jimmy the M-U is their wizard of record, only Level 1 but willing to try Identifying. But there’s a problem: Jimmy doesn’t have Identify memorized (as he has only 1 spell and they’re on an adventure, so he probably took Sleep or more likely something dumb like Hold Portal because that’s all he has. Also who took Detect Magic to figure out the item was magical int he first place?). He needs to get out of the dungeon, sleep 8 hours, memorize Identify, and cast it. But then he’s 7 hours past the deadline so he can’t identify the item at all!
Let’s assume Jimmy knows this and instead races to town to pay someone to identify the item. He spends time exiting the dungeon, travel time back to town, and scampering from wizard to wizard. Say it takes 2 hours to return to town. Let’s also assume that the town is fairly chock-full of Wizards who are (1) willing to risk doing ID, (2) awake and willing to be bothered, (3) have ID memorized, (4) are at least 3rd level.
Here’s a little table of the success chance for varying levels of M-U:
Level — Chance — Save %
3 — 30% — 45%
4 — 35% — 45%
5 — 40% — 45%
6 — 45% — 55%
7 — 50% — 55%
8 — 55% — 55%
9 — 60% — 55%
10 — 65% — 55%
For example, if you’re level 6, you have 6 tries. On each try, you have to roll under 45%, and also under 55%, to succeed on that try. If either fails, that try fails. I’m simplifying here, since the save is actually a roll over on d20, but I converted it to percentage chance for easy comparison.
For a L4, you could expect about one success out of four tries, but then only about a 50% chance to confirm that success on the saving throw. Which means if you have the L4 M-U ID it, it’s a roughly 50-50 chance of success.
If he fails, you need to run around and get another M-U to try it, which probably means an extra half-hour at least of searching and travel (plus the 1 turn casting time), so every other try will have to be done by an M-U one level higher than before.
Finally, I believe the higher level the M-U, the less likely he will be to want to do ID services. After all, he has:
1) More to lose, since he’s higher level
2) Greater income, which means he expects a higher fee
3) His own high-level projects he’s working on, meaning his time may be unavailable
4) A grander mansion, which he’s less likely to allow potential thieves into
5) Finally, far fewer M-Us exist as you go up the levels, for the same reasons there are more Community College graduates than Ivy League PHDs.
So for those reasons, I typically assume no M-U over 10th will ever perform ID services and even those are rare.
Anyway, let’s assume the adventurers are simply out of luck when it comes to magic item identification until about level 5. At that point the party M-U Jimmy can do it himself with a reasonable chance of success. But you need to escape the dungeon to identify, which means wasting time entering and exiting in the same manner as the 15-minute adventuring day. You also need to carry the ID spell at all times just in case you find something because you don’t have time to re-memorize, which means one less useful spell at all other times.
And of course, it only works on one item! And you need to use up a 100 GP pearl per item! And there’s still a 1 in 20 chance per try of mis-reading the item and getting a false result.
By level 10 the spell becomes useful to Jimmy. He’s virtually guaranteed to successfully ID the item and can get multiple readings per spell to sift out false results. He has the money to spend on ID pearls so it’s no big deal. And finally he doesn’t have to carry ID at all times, since he can leave the dungeon and camp to memorize before the 10 hour time limit is up. But again, by that level, will his player be willing to take the risk of cursed items fusing to him and ruining his character?
Here’s my big point: if we assume Gygax intended it to be this way, it means he meant ID to be pretty useless. What alternatives are there?
Legend Lore is a 6th level spell, which means you need a 12th level M-U to cast it. It doesn’t specifically say it gives magic item properties, it just gives any legendary information about the target. You also have to sacrifice a magic item (just a potion) and the casting time is days or weeks.
Bardic knowledge includes Legend Lore and magic item identification, and the fact that Bards don’t have the harsh requirements in the Legend Lore spell mean hardly anybody is going to cast the spell. Bards can’t ID things they can’t use unless it’s a written magic item, which means they can probably ID most things. But Bards have to be Fighters, then Thieves, then Bards before they get any percentage chance. A single-classed Fighter in the group will be 6th level by the time the Bard gets a 5% Legend Lore chance (and that assumes the Bard rushes through F and T, which is a terrible idea). A well-done Bard will have a 25% LL chance by the time the party Fighter is about level 9.
The Bard is an optional class, kind of a weird mix of the dual-class rules and a proto-prestige class like the Thief-Acrobat, sequestered in the appendix after psionics. I hesitate to say Gygax meant Bards to be the go-to solution for magic item identification.
So besides ignoring the ID rules, what are PCs supposed to do? You can reliably Detect Magic, but don’t know what the thing does. Maybe the DM is supposed to say the command words are inscribed on the item. That’s a lot like the problem with modern computer passwords: people often stick them next to the device protected by the word even though that violates security, because they can’t be bothered to remember them. I dislike that concept for magic items because M-Us have memory as a class ability and any M-U able to make a magic item will be able to memorize the command word with no problem. Then again, runes and inscriptions on magic items are a solid staple of fantasy. And if you put the item on or say the command word and see a visible effect, you can safely write down that this is a Cloak of Batman or a Wand of Blowing Shit Up.
Purely from a paperwork perspective, it’s important for players to know what their junk does because otherwise the DM has to keep track of all of it. If you have about 1 magic item per level, that might be okay, but a game with greater-than-Gygaxian magic drops will have long lists of stuff for the DM to track at high levels. We already do it for cursed items, why extend that paperwork to everything?
Baldur’s Gate had a Lore skill which allowed identification of magic items based on the party’s highest-skilled Lore character. If the Lore was high enough, you got it, so if you didn’t ID at first you might after going up a level. Or you could pay for ID or cast the spell. It kinda took the Bard LL% and gave a much lower percentage to everyone.
I guess Gamma World had a system for identifying tech objects, which sometimes resulted in destruction of the item or harm to the researcher. That’s kinda cool, and I’d like to see that done for magic items, but items in D&D are pretty simple. If you get the command word, it works. If you put on the armor you can tell it’s lighter and sturdier. Figuring out just how sturdy, or whether it specifically resists fire or acid or whatever, is a matter of manual testing.
I wonder about charges, though. I can see a DM wanting to keep number of charges secret, but it’s less playable because there’s more bookkeeping for him. I’d rather have charges come as a very visible thing, like glowing runes on the side that tell you how many are left or you have to power it by sticking diamonds in the haft and they slowly erode and vanish so you know when to jam more in there.