In an adventure I'm running, the characters will probably retrieve arrows from skeleton archers. In their quivers, one of the arrows is a +1 arrow.

How can the characters differentiate magic items from normal items? Is it only a visual clue? Do they have to cast the Detect Magic and Identify spells?


This is answered by the Identifying a Magic Item section on page 136 of the DMG (I won't quote the entire text):

Some magic items are indistinguishable from their nonmagical counterparts, whereas other magic items display their magical nature conspicuously. Whatever a magic item's appearance, handling the item is enough to give a character a sense that something is extraordinary about it. [...] Sometimes a magic item carries a clue to its properties. The command word to activate a ring might be etched in tiny letters inside it, or a feathered design might suggest that it's a ring of feather falling. Wearing or experimenting with an item can also offer hints about its properties...

In the end whether a PC can differentiate a magic item from a nonmagic one comes down to how the DM wants to present the item and details about the item and whether the PC actually "handles" the item. Short of that, Detect Magic would give a PC a visual on if an item is magical without them having to handle it first.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ That is a very confused description. Immediately after saying "Some magic items are indistinguishable from their nonmagical counterparts" it then seems to suggest that all magic items are in fact distinguishable from their non magic counterparts in the text you've bolded... \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris
    Jul 6 '17 at 11:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chris It makes sense if you take "indistinguishable" to mean "visually indistinguishable", since the following line talks about appearance. i.e. A +1 longsword may or may not look identical to a mundane longsword. They obviously don't mean literally indistinguishable or it'd just behave like a nonmagical version of the item. \$\endgroup\$
    – Doval
    Jul 6 '17 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chris If you want some flavor...consider a +1 Longsword. At a glance, it looks like any other longsword. You pick it up, it's indistinguishable from a finely made longsword. But then you start swinging it around to test the balance. The blade feels so lively in your hands, like you could change its movement much more easily than your current sword. Then you test the edge and holy crap is it ever sharp. You know that no ordinary sword could be sharpened to that fine of an edge and not get blunted the first time you hit something. And thus, you have identified a +1 Longsword. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6 '17 at 13:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Visually indistinguishable, but identifiable once you start messing around with it. Which is how I generally define 'handling the item.' You pick it up, examine it closely, try it out (if applicable), and so on. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6 '17 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ So basically every magic item in DnD-5e has a faint "my precious" aura. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mindwin
    Jul 6 '17 at 16:18

While the other answer is 100% correct, there's another facet to magical items.

When You look at magical item creation, each of the items quality needs to be masterwork. That in itself is usually an obvious clue, unless all the arrows in the quiver are masterwork or if the item is dirty/obscured.

The example description could include information like: "One of the arrows in this quiver is of a much better quality than the others: straight, neat fletchings and perfectly carved nock set it apart on first glance."

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I think you're conflating 3.5 terminology into 5e. Masterwork is not required any longer and indeed, in 3.5 that would've only applied to weapons and armor anyways. An ancient, musty jug doesn't necessarily look magical, but in 5e handling it would tell you that there's something special about it, and opening a port on it and finding delicious mayonnaise would further your investigatory efforts. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6 '17 at 21:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ You are correct. I mistakenly applied D&D 3.5e rules to 5e. Thank You for pointing that out:) \$\endgroup\$
    – Gensys LTD
    Jul 13 '17 at 10:11

It really depends on the DM and the players. Roll for player's applicable skills to see if they can notice or sense something.

If it's a weapon, it'll show during use and maybe even they don't even need to know. For other items it will be harder but you can give some hints as aura, feeling, glow, etc.

In summary it is a mix of the players skills, how much effort they put in inspecting the item and the willingness of the DM for them to know.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE. Good answer, but "Spot" isn't a skill in 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – user27327
    Jul 6 '17 at 15:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm a bit rusty and outdated. That's what life, work and family does to you. :P \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6 '17 at 18:07

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