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I'm running a sandbox campaign with Adventurer Conqueror King System (essentially Moldvay-Cook Basic/Expert D&D). My players are starting to find probably-magic items during their expeditions and they're keen to figure out what they might do. However, as a DM I'm not sure how to adjudicate their efforts to find out about the items they find.

My first D&D was AD&D 2nd edition, so I'm used to there being spells like identify that, though costly, provide a reasonable way for PCs to figure out the nature of a suspected magic item. My default assumption was that I could turn to the "paying for services" section and they could pay through the nose for an NPC wizard in a big city to cast identify for them. There's no such spell in ACKS, so that's not a reasonable default.

How do you handle players wanting to identify the nature of found magic items in your old-school game? What works, what's awkward, what maintains the mystery of magic items and the thrill of discovery?

I want to find out what other DMs of old-school games have found to work from experience, but I'm not just asking the Internet to solve my problem for me. Here's what I've considered so far and the benefits and drawbacks I've thought of for them, though I haven't put them into practice yet:

  • I'm perfectly happy to let the players experiment with their unknown items until they figure out what they are. This is my preferred method, but since I like lots of player agency I'm hesitant to make it the only way. Giving players the choice between between the risky but cheap methods and an expensive but safe methods something I'd like to have in this game. Also, this is a great option for things like potions and magic swords, but no so much for other items. In particular, a PC currently suspects that a case of crossbow bolts is magical – experimenting with these isn't going to make their nature obvious, unless I give them a visual FX or some other "wow that was obviously a magical arrow I just shot that rat with" indication.
  • I could just introduce identify or some variant, since that's a legit thing to do in a B/X game. The spell would be jealously guarded by the NPC mages who know it, just like any other spell that's not commonly known. This has the bonus of making experimentation worthwhile since hiring an identify casting would be difficult and costly. It also would make discovering a scroll of identify a very, very valuable find.
  • I could give such inconvenient magic items as above some kind of visual FX. This would require the player taking a risk and using the item at all, but fits into my desire to have them experiment. The problem is that I'm not sure that this won't have some awkward corner cases that won't work well. It also doesn't give me any guidance for how to handle a player who is really insistent on finding someone who can magic up an answer for them.
  • I can lean on PC and NPC bards (which exist in this setting) being able to do their legends and myths thing regarding magic items, which gives me a nice way to suggest what an item likely does without getting into game-mechanical details.
  • High-level ritual spells that do a legends lore sort of effect could easily fill this role, but would be ridiculously expensive from NPCs even assuming a high-enough level NPC could be found and induced to give the PCs the time of day. This would be impractical for minor items, even for high-level PCs.

I'm currently leaning toward a combination of experimentation, visual FX of some kind, and some rare scrolls of a long-lost identify-alike spell to be found as treasure. Probably also bardic knowledge, but that would be more along the lines of "a bolt such as this one took down the Giant of Acadia in ages long past!" sort of unreliable hints. Pitfalls of these approaches or entirely alternate methods are very welcome.

Edit: I've accepted an answer that solves my problem but I'll continue to give upvotes to answers that speak from experience of what has worked in your own games. Keep them coming!

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Kinda you asked the question and gave yourself the answer...;-) –  Yaztromo Apr 29 '12 at 21:26
@Yaztromo It's encouraged: Show that you're putting work into finding the answer yourself. (FAQ) :-) –  SevenSidedDie Apr 29 '12 at 21:43
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4 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

ACKS has removed the "Identify" spell but it has replaced it with explicit mechanics to identify magic items in other ways.

p210 of ACKS: "Sages and other characters proficient in Magical Engineering or Loremastery can identify common or famous magical items simply through their knowledge of such things. Potions may be identified by sipping them, or by consulting an alchemist. Otherwise, an arcane spellcaster of 9th level or greater can identiy a magic item using Magic Research."

p117: "Spell research can identify a magic item. It takes 1,000gp and two weeks to identify a magic item, and a magic research throw is required. Note that potions and common magical items can be quickly identified with the Alchemy and Magical Engineering proficiencies.

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Ahah! This is the piece that I was missing in my reading, led astray by my existing assumptions about "how D&D is run". I did independently think of having them hire an alchemist's services to identify a potion, but it didn't occur to me to extend that to sages and magic items. This supplies the necessary "costly but safe" method to complement experimentation. (And seeing an author come by to answer a question is why I love this site.) –  SevenSidedDie Apr 30 '12 at 21:29
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I think all the suggestions you've contemplated so far are very good. An additional one you could consider and include:

  • Allow the players to spend time in a nearby Library or Mage Guild to research the nature of the item and perhaps find out the properties of it. Here the cost isn't as much a factor(as say hiring some to cast identify or retrieving components for the identify spell) as is the time spent, which could take weeks depending on the uniqueness of the item.
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This is a good additional option, and would give PCs who focus on research ability an enhanced role. I'd have to figure out how to determine the length of time taken and the success rate, but maybe I can base that on spell research rules… –  SevenSidedDie Apr 29 '12 at 21:12
The catch is dependent on the version of D&D. Characters may still need an arcane character or a thief with "read magic". –  CatLord Apr 30 '12 at 2:13
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As one of your players, I am about as biased a respondent as could possibly answer this question. But I'm not the one with the box of crossbow bolts, so I'll have a go at it anyway.

As an old-school DM thirty years ago, I expanded the definition of "read magic" into a form of "identify." When mages inscribe their magic on the world, I reasoned, they cast a single evanescent spell. When they store magic permanently on paper, they create a spell book or a scroll. But when a mage does both at once, a much harder task, they create a permanent spell effect, i.e. a magic item. And so the same spell that allows future magic-users to read and identify a scroll will — with about ten times the effort — also let them read and identify a magic item. So basically your suggestion #2.

But I think there may be a more narratively interesting answer within ACKS. Browsing the system's manifesto of Vancian magic, I see that each magician has a distinctive spell signature. Is it possible that in ACKS, "identify" will reveal the magic item's spell signature, and tell a sufficiently knowledgeable caster who crafted it rather than what it does? This would transform identifying an object's powers into a three-step process of revealing the spell signature, researching who the signature belongs to, and then either tracking down the crafter to ask them in person, or doing some educated trial-and-error based on the crafter's reputation and interests?

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There is maybe another option, that you have not mentioned and it's that you can "decide" that magical items do "speak" in your mind when you touch them.

Depending on their age, power, intelligence and, I'd say, creator, they'll "speak" plain and straight or though riddles and tricks that may (or may not) help understanding the nature of the object.

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This is a good option for powerful items, especially if I want to give a weird-fantasy bent to the setting (which I do a bit). It's not so helpful for minor items. I do tend to overlook intelligent items even at higher items though, so I'll keep this in mind! –  SevenSidedDie Apr 29 '12 at 21:44
Yes, it can be cool, for a beginner, to dialogue with a +1 dagger, but later on, when you'll have more magical object on you than fingers (including toes...), it can be a bit confusing, if not skizofrenic... –  Yaztromo Apr 29 '12 at 22:13
Sentient items are often quite fun because they can be tempermental and withhold their power and neglect to mention what they can do unless it's a pinch of a situation. In one AD&D game I was in, there were a few sentient swords, and one didn't let the player access it's powers until it was switched to a more like-minded character. I had one as well, and would often bargain with it to let me know a new ability if I owed it a favor later on. –  CatLord Apr 30 '12 at 2:15
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