AD&D 2nd Edition: Holy Shit, Guys, Identify Is Hard

It’s shocking how many misconceptions about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons you pick up partly from the way the videogames implemented things, partly from how many people glossed over significant sections of the rules.

For instance, the Identify spell? Really kind of difficult to use. It just recently came up in my Roll20 game (where the players have finally found some honest-to-goodness magic items but need someone to identify them.) I’m convinced a lot of people just skim the description, if they read it at all, because they go “oh, that’s the one which identifies magic items” and that’s enough for their purposes. Oh, no no no no no! In 2nd Edition, Identify requires you to spend 8 hours prior to casting the spell handling and preparing the items, and then gives you a 10% chance per caster level (maximum odds of 90%, 96-100% gives you false information) of finding out something about the item. If it’s a multi-purpose item, you only get to find out about one purpose. If you fail to discover anything about an item because you didn’t make the roll, you can’t try again on the same item until you have gone up a level. You need to expend a 100gp pearl each time you cast it (if you include a luckstone then you can get more detailed readings), and you temporarily lose 8 Constitution (and may lose consciousness) once the spell is done. You don’t get precise details of weapon and armour bonuses, or of number of charges left.

In some respects this is kinder than 1st Edition, in some respects less so. 1st Edition did not have a flat 8 hour preparation time but had a variable preparation time which you only need to do once so long as the item remains in the caster’s possession (though the Constitution drop is unchanged), and the wording in 1st Edition implies that you can only do it for 1 item (in 2nd Edition you can try 1 item per caster level). In principle, the odds of success in 1st Edition are better for 1st and 2nd level casters, even at 3rd level and worse at higher levels compared to 2nd Edition, but in 1st Edition the magic item gets a saving throw to deny information to you, so in that respect 1st Edition is both more awkward to adjudicate and less kind to the caster. In addition, in 2nd Edition preparation merely requires handling the item – more than enough to kick off curses if it’s a nasty item – but 1st Edition requires you to actually wear rings or other garments and otherwise handle items as you would to actually use them, making it substantially more likely that ill effects will kick off.

Earlier versions of the game did not even have Identify! It’s completely absent from the core OD&D set and from the Holmes basic rulebook. The Rules Cyclopedia (and thus the BX/BECMI line) offers the very similar Analyze, which gives the same basic odds on the roll as 1st Edition with far fewer restrictions but with the handling requirements still intact.

In short, in TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons quickly working out what magic items do requires you to either be a quite accomplished wizard or have one to hand – otherwise, you have to rely on trial and error. Conversely, whilst Identify still takes ages to cast in 3.0, it does at least give you the details guaranteed with no mucking about. Looked at another way, TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons is much more inclined, especially at early levels, to push you into saying “fuck it, I’ll put on the ring/drink the potion” and seeing what happens. Some may not find this fun because of the potentially unexpected and chaotic consequences of doing this. Some of us, though, play tabletop RPGs precisely because we’re after the unexpected and chaotic consequences.


17 thoughts on “AD&D 2nd Edition: Holy Shit, Guys, Identify Is Hard

  1. I suspect the shift is partly a matter of a change in attitude to magic. Between AD&D and 3.0 magic becomes much more malleable. There’s less of a feeling that arcane magic is a force you call upon but can’t control, and that being a wizard is a risky endeavour (which feeling comes directly from the source material). As far as I remember, the side-effects of some AD&D spells (like haste) disappear, and I think it’s also easier to control summoned creatures. I wouldn’t be surprised either if spells in 3.0 are more likely to have enemy-only targetting, but I haven’t checked.

    Along with that I think there may have been some “but logically” going on, along the lines that it doesn’t make sense for wizards to be so bad at identifying magical items. General 3.0 philosophy seems to include more mechanical control for players (more detailed character generation, for example) and I’d say that carting around loads of unidentified items for level after level probably doesn’t fit that philosophy well. In fairness, since you could easily spend more than an item’s worth in attempts to identify it, and it’s likely to get fiddly doing all the dice-adjusting for unidentified stuff, I can kind of see the point.

    Coming at it from another angle: I’m not opposed to identifying magic items being a tricky matter, but that is utterly ridiculous. It’s expensive, it takes a huge amount of time (which not only prevents use in or between combats, but also affects downtime activities and time-sensitive quests), it’s got a punishing and entirely arbitrary stat ding, and after all that it’s very likely to fail or actively mislead you. I’d really, really like to know what was going through their heads when they came up with that. A large part of my brain thinks “make people trigger curses”.

    A large part of my incredulity is the 8 Con ding. It’s not just heavy (especially for a wizard), it’s also completely arbitrary. Setting people on fire doesn’t sap Con. Summoning extraplanar beings doesn’t sap Con. Why the blazes does looking really hard at something sap Con? I can only think “because we don’t want anyone to actually cast it”.

    Oh, incidentally… given it’s so hard to identify stuff, how do the AD&D rules handle trading magic items? I mean, unless traders are going to spend several days and large amounts of cash checking everything they buy (more than once, in case of 96%+) they have no way to tell whether that sword you’re selling them is benevolent or cursed. And similarly, how would PCs trust vendors?

    1. To be fair, if you are a 9th level magic user with enough downtime to do the preparation and recover safely from the Constitution drop (which exists mainly to firmly establish Identify as a thing you only do when you are safely back home), you can apply Identify to 9 items and have a 90% chance of getting decent information about each of them.

      It is possible you got screwed over by picking low-level magic users to cast the spell. On the other hand you did actually have the information you needed to work out what their levels were (in that the better wizard could only do 2 items), so you knew the odds going in. The wizards you used might refer you to the Baron’s mage, who is somewhat more powerful than they are.

      Re: Trading magic items – so far as I can tell. for the reasons you note, the “magic shop” is mostly an artifact of computer games from the 1E/2E era (which generally had much nicer Identify rules) which then carried over to 3.0.

      1. Ah, to be clear, I’m not specifically annoyed about what happened in our game, in fact I’m fine with it. I’ve only glanced at the spell list myself, and don’t remember any details of AD&D spells because my head’s full of later editions, but I imagine some of the others had worked out the odds.

        I suppose it just… I dunno, it seems like a clunky and roundabout way to enforce that approach to item identification. It’s not enough to insist on spending considerable time and a fair chunk of money, it must also be inaccurate a fair proportion of the time and sometimes give deliberately wrong information. At that point I sort of feel like you might just as well say that magic items can only be identified through experimentation and be done with it, y’know? I don’t mind that sort of approach (provided it’s not Steve Jackson-level gotchas).

        Yeah, the 8 Con thing just feels way too meta for my taste. I can see why it’s there, I just don’t like it.

        Tradingwise, I wasn’t really thinking of shops – had a pretty good idea they would only exist in CRPGs where you can’t find random NPCs to buy stuff, certainly never used them in my D&D stuff. In fact, I’ve specifically implemented scaling/unlockable magic items to cut down on that end of things because I find it so weird. I just wondered if they’d mentioned any suggestions for handling magic item trading, because it seems such a natural extension of the Identify rules and there must be occasions when it happens. Fetch quests, if nothing else!

        Too late for lucid commenting. Time for bed.

      2. Re: the implementation – I think what it’s good for is pitching it so that larking around doing trial and error or seeking the services of a high level wizard to work out the powers of your magic items is still a part of the game at low levels, but gradually goes away as you level up – either because your wizard’s now good enough at Identify to reliably suss out most of the details of most of the magic items you’ve discovered on your latest jaunt with one shot of the spell, or because you’re raking in enough treasure to pay a decent-quality wizard to do it.

        Re: “but logically” – I think you can turn that around and work out what the difficulty of Identify implies about the setting. For instance, since only well-trained magic users have decent odds of reliably turning up useful information about an item, that’s very advantageous to colleges of wizardry or guilds or things of that nature – an established institution whose political interests depend on its reputation for honesty would be the only folk many people would trust to give an item the all-clear. And there’s a 1 in 20 chance of them getting misleading information anyway, so accidents still happen. There’s also the implication that trying to suss out what a magic item does without actually just using it is difficult, which makes sense to me – it means magic items are essentially black boxes (or wands, or staves, or rings, or whatever) and inferring what’s inside them without seeing their actual effects is an arduous business. It also implies that part and parcel of the process of sealing magic inside an item is to make that magic rather inaccessible to diviners – you can tell it’s there but telling what it does is more exhausting than most magic.

        Also it means that the bard’s lore skill is much more useful than it first seems.

        Re: trading – in principle money values for magic items are given in the books but naturally due to the issues with Identify it might be tricky to sell stuff unless you can get a trustworthy high-level mage to vouch for you.

    2. I agree that the CON penalty is just weird. The timescale and the unreliability make sense, but I don’t understand at all why casting Identify should be more physically taxing than casting any other spell.

      1. Yeah, I can only assume it’s to enforce a cooldown period after you cast Identify and to doubly encourage you to make sure you’re somewhere safe and defensible to cast it. You could get more or less the same effect simply by extending the casting time to a full day.

      2. ZanathKariashi

        Because like making a magical item in the first place strips off 5%-13% of a caster’s lifespan depending on whether it needs just Imbue with magic (6th) or both imbue with magic and permanency (8th) to make (+3 or higher items or items of similar power levels require both spells, while +2 or lower power level items only need imbue with magic), in order to magically discover the items features, you’re effectively communing spiritually with the items to magically divine it’s properties, which leaves you physically drained but without the lasting harm to your lifespan a lot of 2nd edition spells could do.

      3. See, that’s another thing which just comes across as perplexing, because it’s a very strong disincentive to making magic items at all.

        Not just for PCs, I mean for NPCs.

        A +1-equivalent magic item is nice, but not very powerful, which means giving up 10% of your *life* to make it is a desperately poor tradeoff most of the time. People tend to care about that! In particular, it makes essentially zero sense for any NPC stay-at-home wizard to make magic items. Court wizards patiently forging rings of power for the king? Forget it. Cutting-edge scholars devising wondrous artefacts? Nope, making stuff for its own sake is a truly terrible idea.

        Also, nobody would be able to make more than a few items, which means nobody has any practice, so they’d all be bad at it. I’m just surprised they aren’t ALL cursed.

        It seems like at this point, the only time it’s worth making a magic item is if the wizard expects it to save their life. That means more protective items and a lot fewer aggressive or just cool ones. And a heavy weighing towards protective items for spellcasters, because there’s a strong motivation to only burn your lifespan making things that will compensate by saving your own life.

      4. I think to rationalise that IC you have to infer that once upon a time it was much easier to make magic items, but something happened to change that – maybe the required knowledge was lost, maybe the nature of magic changed.

        Personally, I like the idea of an ancient empire of evil wizards who cooked up a variant that allowed them to use other people’s life force to make magic items, churning them out at the expense of the lives of innumerable slaves…

      5. Evil empire sounds like the way to go, yeah. Or indeed, some version of communal spellcasting – maybe the warrior who wants the magic sword has to infuse it with part of her essence, and so on. I’d still expect a very heavy weighting towards items of obvious practical value though, and very little in the way of trinkets and stuff. Even to an evil empire, slaves are worth something.

        Playwise it reminds me of the XP system for item creation in 3e. Casters had to spend precious XP to craft magic items, so crafting knocked you back compared to the party, so the logical response was to only craft items to use yourself. I don’t know how it weighed up against the general balance problems, though… maybe making the casters do crafting for the fighter all the time and keeping them behind in levels actually balanced things out!?

      6. A moment of staircase insight re: the above: my understanding is that when they were playtesting 3E, they did so with hardwired-in assumptions about how the classes would behave. That’s why, for instance, you have issues like some builds of 3E cleric being better at fighter-y stuff than the poor fighter is – because they didn’t plan on people playing clerics like fighters, they just balanced them for playing them like 2nd edition clerics.

        I suspect the assumption was that the party wizard would be making magic items for a range of party members, and that would put a brake on the linear fighter/quadratic wizard thing (because your fighter can get substantially less linear and more quadratic if they get amazing gear), but didn’t account for greedy/self-serving/system-competent wizards.

  2. Super old post, but I just wanted to add my 2 cents.

    Why is identifying magical items with the Identify spell so hard and, depending on your level, such a hit-or-miss with a massive downside? Because its a 1st level spell.

    A spell that would enable mages to easily, quickly, and safely learn everything you’d want to know about a magical item, guaranteed, would be WAY over powered for just a 1st level spell. So you give it a downside, don’t let it give out all the info, and let it have a chance of failure. That’s more like a piddling little 1st leveler.

    And if you really don’t want to have to deal with that stuff, either pay someone else to do it and let them worry about the downsides. Or research your own higher level version of the spell that gets rid of the stuff you don’t like. That’s what spell research is for! Maybe make it a 3rd level and increase the amount of information learned, or decrease the Con loss. Or heck, make it 5th level and do both. 7th level? Shit, you learn just about everything, guaranteed, and only lose like 2 Con for an hour or two.

    1. See, I get why it would be very overpowered as a spell you cast in uptime. Granted, at low levels your spell slots are going to be limited enough that you’d never want to sacrifice any of them to take Identify anyway.

      On the other hand, I’d personally be OK with Identify having better odds on giving up the information if cast during downtime – on the grounds that if you can set up a nice quiet spellcasting area for yourself and take the time to do it all absolutely perfectly and have a reasonable level of luxury and conveniences you’d expect it to be a bit more reliable than if you were doing it in an improvised casting circle at a makeshift camp during an adventure.

      And the first level spells include Sleep, which allows you to easily and quickly shut down entire groups of adversaries, so it’s not like there aren’t Really Quite Good 1st level spells out there.

      1. Aside from the spell’s level, I think that that’s kind of the point of Identify’s drawbacks too– it wasn’t intended to be a spell that you’d use in the middle of a dungeon. 8 hours prep time plus at least 8 hours to fully recover your Constitution? That’s an absolute killer during an adventure, but during the week-n-half the party spent chilling at a tavern? Easy. There were a lot of spells like that, which is something I really liked about older editions. It gave mage’s options for their downtown and kept magic from being something that you’d only use when out adventuring.
        It also plays into certain ideas 2e had about magic item availability. Namely, that the best a level 2 or 3 character could hope for was finding a +1 weapon, and if they were lucky they might find some +1 armor by the time they were level 4!. And even then, it wasn’t an idea that they had any consistency with. The rulebooks say magic shops don’t exist and that magic items are rare, but certain settings had so much magic that there were magic shops that’d deliver to your door.
        But if you don’t get any magic items worth going to the trouble of identifying (that’s another thing, a certain amount of trial-n-error experimentation with magic items was expected too) til you’re at least level 3 or 4, that chance of failure isn’t as bad as when you were level 1 or 2. Besides, low level characters level up so fast, failing an identify isn’t so bad. And by the time you’re high enough level that the wait time between one level and the next is pretty long, you’re chances of a failed identify spell are pretty slim.
        Well, true, there are low level spells that do what they do really well but they still have limits that keep them in the “just a 1st level spell” camp. Yea, Sleep is great for groups of mooks but its useless on anything higher than 4+3HD, and if you rolled poorly you might only take out 1 or 2 foes (or none, I’ve had that happen before and boy does it suck). Really, the best part of the spell wasn’t what it could do but that there was no save.
        Honestly though, if you’re the DM, Identify can work however you want it to. The last DM I had kept the prep time and Con penalty but threw out the chance of failure and the limit on things learned. And if you’re not the DM, you could always try talking to them about it. Maybe they don’t like it either. Maybe they’d be cool with you having a variant of the spell, either researched yourself, learned from your eccentric mentor, or just found in some random dead mage’s book.

      2. Sure, though for 2E purposes I’d be inclined to keep it as it is for the most part for the reason you outlined. I get the impression that you seem to think I think that the spell as written is a problem and I actually don’t.

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