Make It Cinematic: More Exciting Magic Item Identification

Recently, Dungeon’s Master talked about how we can and should Make Magical Item Identification Harder.   

After all, a simple purchase or short rest and bang! – you know what your magic items do.  It doesn’t get any easier, and it hasn’t been that easy in D&D as long as I can remember.  But it is now!

Still, I’m not sure it’s difficulty that’s most worrisome when it comes to magic item discovery, identification and the specific wonder and mystery involved. 

Don’t make magic item identification harder.  Make magic item identification more exciting!  

Excitement vs. Difficulty

Harder, or rather more *exciting* magic item identification would help the balance some more wonder into the mechanics of magic items.

That is, all you have to do now is fit in the already dull, very mechanical, but expected short rest. Everyone handles each item for a few minutes while they catch their breath, dress their wounds, check their gear, and so forth. And that’s it… not very exciting.

I’m not sure creating an Identify Magic Item ritual is the best answer, but it definitely a solution that could be fun. It’s just rituals already feel so underused, burdensome and/or forgotten already, so I’m not sure they can save the wonder of magic items.

Great food for thought though – without question, there’s a great opportunity here for balanced flavor-crunch solutions here, similar to the wondrous balance struck between magic item lore, description and mechanics found throughout Mord’s Magnificent Emporium.

Hmmm… now you’ve really got me thinking about the possibilities!

Those were my initial thoughts that I shared with Dungeon’s Master.  Which brings me to…

A More Cinematic Solution

My solution to boring and easy magic item identification?  

First, have a short rest reveal only the most basic properties, such as the all-important flat numerical bonuses.  This gets the most important and easiest-to-use mechanic incorporated into your game right away.  Especially critical for the Big 3 magic items: weapon/implement, armor and neck slot.  These even keeps the power gamers from flaying you.  (Well, maybe.)

Next, here’s where it gets exciting!  Any other properties or powers are revealed as surprises and delights during the perfect dramatic narrative moment! 

So what does that mean?  Here’s an example: a giantslayer sword +4′s true properties and most powerful giant-killing features reveal themselves when first encountering or fighting giants.  Simple, adds some mystery, adds to the narrative, fuses flavor and crunch in a balanced way. 

Think of the ripple effect.  If every magic weapon, implement, armor, amulet and cloak always had a bit more mystery to its power, wouldn’t that add to the anticipation as you move from scene to scene and encounter to encounter? 

Perhaps you finally find that magically hidden frost giant cave, and when you first charge their jarl with your raging barbarian, your greatsword trembles with power as you near them.  That’s probably enough – simply encountering or attacking the giants, rather than needing to hit them, too, like in older editions. 

Doing it this way – proximity or scene-based - also means more possibilities to think outside the box and not automatically jump right into combat.  That is, you or your players will have more time to mull over all their options – pitched D&D combat included! – once they know they have a giantslayer weapon in their hands or a helm of languages on their heads.

Two-Step vs. One-Step Identification

Where the two-step process of magic item identification makes sense for the critical weapon/implement, armor or neck slot items, a one-stop identification scene is plenty for everything else.  Just like with the most critical magic item types, here’s yet another great opportunity to flex your creativity as DM and seamlessly weave together the mechanics and story. 

For example, say when finally locating the frost giants’ lair, the characters encounter a minor NPC character in a social encounter at about the same time they make the discovery.  Say the NPC is a fey creature, perhaps a dryad, and no one in the party speaks her language: elven.  Some desperate miming occurs while the party figures out that the creature doesn’t mean them any harm, even though no one can understand each other. 

Until that helm the party found earlier with the strange glyphs begins to let loose a hundred echoing whispers.  One of the PCs then slips on the helm and discovers it is helm of languages, learning all its properties.  Best of all – it helps them immediately, in the current situation or encounter.  The helm becomes instantly more wondrous, useful, and memorable.  And all it took was a relevant scene or situation in the story for the magic item’s sense of cinematic purpose to come to light.

Your Turn

The only questions that remain?  What do you and my friend the gnome think?  Does this make magic items feel more magical again, in the spirit of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium?  Does it achieve a healthy mix of magic and mystery?  What would you change or how would you improve it? 

Give this approach some thought and try it out in your games, and let me know how it goes!

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5 Responses to “Make It Cinematic: More Exciting Magic Item Identification”

  1. Johnn says:

    Wow, I did not know magic item identification was so easy in the current edition.

    My favourite method? Ask the owner.

    Instead of items being added infinitely to a campaign from a generation machine, create a closed economy where almost all the interesting items are known entities.

    * NPC owns and uses item
    * Item is in a collector’s collection
    * Item is lost but stories and legends describe its uses

    In all three cases PCs can initiate interesting gameplay.

    Are you serious that just by using an item as a pillow a PC can determine its properties in 4E?

    • Kilsek says:

      Johnn, yes it’s that easy in 4e – a short rest identifies one magic item’s properties per party member. And since common rarity magic items are purchasable (vs. uncommon and rare magic items, which can only be found as treasure), you essentially know those immediately.

      In an effort to bridge the gap between the old administrative headache of not knowing what something does until you actually hit with it, for example, maybe they’ve swung too far in the other direction?

      I love your “Known World Magic Items” approach! I like that it integrates magic items more directly and more prominently into the world’s lore and its personalities right out of the gate. It’s shared world-building at its best, built with or by the PCs – very cool!

  2. This sounds like a great idea for making items a little more mysterious and exciting. After finding a new magical item, players would be encouraged to try it out as they attempt to figure out the rest of its properties. The only real drawback that I can think of is that a DM would need to do a really good job of keeping track of what items the party has and which have hidden properties that haven’t been revealed yet.
    Glimm the Gnome recently posted..Ninja, Pirate, Robot, DinosaurMy Profile

    • Kilsek says:

      A little organization will be important for the DM here, Glimm, agreed. I think ensuring that there are always a few scenes and encounters lined up and ready as either story/background branches or side treks is a good way to ensure that each magic item is “awakened” cinematically in a reasonable amount of time.

      Maybe keep a simple checklist based on player wish lists and have a no further out than 2 session limit on the magic item awakening? What do you think?

  3. [...] what?  How about one healing surge to spend per character, maximum?  No ability to anticlimactically identify magic items, like you’d get during a short rest.  But you do get a very quick injection of adrenaline, [...]

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