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What's the DC on knowledge arcana/religion checks to know the mechanics of a higher level spell?

In my current campaign, the players try to find a scroll of true resurrection to revive a dead party member. They are a level 4 party, including a cleric and a druid.

At this moment, they do not have the scroll yet. So they can not cast read magic on it and understand the spell. They are trying to plan ahead and anticipate what they will need to do for the spell.

The druid was wondering, whether they would need the body of the diseased party member for the spell to work. I made her roll a Knowledge check on this, she rolled a nat. 1. As she was (in character) already convinced, that part of the body was necessary for this spell to work, I told her she now thinks they will need the whole body for the spell to work.

The cleric in the group, OT convinced of my shenanigans, now also did a Knowledge roll and got a 4 (yes including modifiers). After I stopped laughing, I told him, that he now backs up the druid in her understanding of the spell.

The true resurrection spell is in the clerics class spell list. So I was wondering, what should the DC be on a Knowledge religion/arcana/nature check be to know how this spell will work? I.e. what spell components are required, if any?

If a spell is not known, what is the DC Knowledge check to know about this spell

I would assume they are depending on the difference of current spell-caster level and required spell caster level of the spell.

I was willing to give my party the correct information if they had just hit a 5, the lowest DC rating I found in other Knowledge (geography) checks.

Now, I am gleefully preparing the moment, they find the decomposing body of their former party member. They don't know yet that it was given a traditional sky burial or dakhma, according to Orc traditions. laughs in evil DM

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There isn’t one; you use Spellcraft for this, not any Knowledge skill. The DC is 20 + the spell’s level, so 29 in the case of true resurrection. Or you can simply cast read magic, which does it for you without any check. Both clerics and druids can prepare and cast read magic, so realistically, the day after finding this scroll, one of them should prepare that and cast it, and then they will know it is a scroll of true resurrection and they will know how it works.

And even if the players don’t know that read magic does that, any given cleric or druid does—it’s an orison, clerics and druids know what cleric and druid orisons do. It is not an obscure spell by any stretch of the imagination in-character, even though out-of-character players use it somewhat rarely.

So you should just tell the party to prepare and cast read magic to figure out the scroll and these details (or if they don’t have it yet, tell them that they know that once they do, read magic will figure this stuff out). As the DM, you are responsible for detailing the world and filling in the gaps between what the players know and what the characters should know—such as the existence of a fundamental, basic spell that both characters must be familiar with that would solve this problem.

If, for whatever reason, both Spellcraft and read magic were unavailable, it is reasonable to houserule that Knowledge (religion) could be used for this. Knowledge (arcana) and Knowledge (nature) maybe, maybe not, since true resurrection isn’t found on any arcane or “natural” spell lists. In either case, using an alternative skill might have a higher DC, maybe +5 for Knowledge (religion) or +10 for Knowledge (arcana) or Knowledge (nature). These are just my personal guesses for what seems fair, though, not any actual rule. (I have made rulings like this in the past, and never had an issue, but it doesn’t usually come up that often.)

Also, an aside, but,

If they find the scroll, they will probably hire someone to cast this spell, as their chances of success are too slim

To cast a spell from a scroll that is on your spell list, but that you cannot cast yet, you have to make a caster level check of DC 1 + the scroll’s caster level. Assuming the scroll of true resurrection is caster level 17th, that’s DC 18, and the cleric is rolling 1d20+4, so they succeed on a 14 or higher. That’s a 35% chance—not terribly low. More importantly, there are very few consequences for failure. They have to make a DC 5 Wisdom check—which may well be impossible for them to fail, since natural-1s don’t1 automatically fail ability checks—to avoid a scroll mishap, and that’s it. Then they can try again.2

And again, a cleric or druid would know this. These are trained classes; there is no way that a person could become even a 1st-level cleric or druid without having this knowledge. Knowing how scrolls work is just part of their class features as trained spellcasters.

  1. The rules for casting a scroll of a spell above your level do say that “she has to make a caster level check [...] to cast the spell successfully. If she fails, she must make a DC 5 Wisdom check to avoid a mishap (see Scroll Mishaps, below). A natural roll of 1 always fails, whatever the modifiers.” It’s not clear to me which roll—the caster level check or the Wisdom check—is being referred to with the last line about natural-1s, but in context I consider the caster level check to be more likely. That is, you automatically fail the caster level check on a nat-1, but the Wisdom check is normal, i.e. nat-1 is just a 1, no automatic failure. You could argue the other way, though.

  2. It’s not necessarily immediately obvious that they can try again: in the core rules,3 you have to cross-reference a few different points. First, there’s “If the user [is high enough level], she can automatically activate the spell without a check. If [not], then she has to make a caster level check [...] to cast the spell successfully.” Here, meeting the level requirement allows you to “automatically activate without a check,” but when you are below the required level, you need a check “to cast the spell.” The contrast here indicates that “activate” and “cast” are the same thing, that without making the check, you are not “activating” the scroll. Then later, in another section, we get “The writing for an activated spell disappears from the scroll,” which means that a scroll that wasn’t activated doesn’t have this happen. So the scroll is fine (barring a mishap, probably), and they can try again.

  3. Rules Compendium helpfully makes this more explicit, though: “If the Wisdom check [versus a scroll mishap] succeeds, the scroll doesn’t activate but remains intact,” (pg. 85). Note that the core rules don’t actually say that a scroll mishap activates the scroll, but realistically, given what most of the scroll mishaps do (two-thirds of the options cause the spell to affect the wrong target, the wrong place, or be delayed, or else cause it to have some inverted effect; all of those seems like they are “activating” the spell, just not the way you want to). For the record, Rules Compendium is also unclear about whether the nat-1 rule applies to the caster level check to activate or the Wisdom check to avoid a scroll mishap.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't know that when trying to cast a scroll and failing at it that it isn't spent. Thank you for this information. I must confess, English not being my native language, it took me very long to fully understand the mechanics of scroll casting. This was mainly due to the very specific vocabulary of this text. This will make it easier for the group. Regarding the rest, I think I was not clear in my question. The group does not yet have the scroll, they are anticipating, what they will have to do. They know to cast read magic once they have the scroll. From then on, everything will be clear. \$\endgroup\$ – ABotros Aug 27 at 12:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ABotros Fair enough, it sounded to me like they were sitting on a scroll they could use, but didn’t know they could use, and meanwhile some player isn’t playing because they’re waiting for resurrection—that would be some pretty bad DMing, in my opinion. That’s why I was like “come on, just tell them already!” \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Aug 27 at 13:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ABotros And yeah, the scroll casting mechanics are a mess, even for a native English speaker. It’s a huge pain to track everything down and figure out all the interactions. In this case, you have “If [you’re high enough level, you] can automatically activate the spell without a check. If [not, you need to make checks.] [...] The writing for an activated spell disappears from the scroll.” The first bit makes it clear that your checks are there to try to activate the scroll, and the second says the writing disappears only once it has been activated—which never happens if you fail. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Aug 27 at 13:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Where are the rules for "Or you can simply cast read magic, which does it for you without any check."? As you say, these rules are a mess, but I couldn't find it easily. \$\endgroup\$ – J. Mini Aug 27 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @J.Mini Uuugh, this is... the part I was trying to hide my hand a little, because this is the really big mess. The rules never describe “knowing the details of how a spell works” that I can find. All the uses of Spellcraft and so on and so forth refer to “identifying” the spell. It seems to me that knowing which spell it is means you know everything about it; if that weren’t the case, the lack of any way of knowing how spells work would make spellcasters unplayable. Or maybe they’re using “identify” in the same sense that it’s used with magic items, and the identify spell. But not clear. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Aug 27 at 13:38
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Home-brew solution for knowledge gain about spells

Apparently, there is no direct solution to my problem. If there is, I will retract my answer. I have thought about this problem and have a home-brew solution that I will follow in the future.

To recognize a spell, its functionality and possible required components a DC Knowledge Arcana/Religion check is required of:

  • 5 + difference in spell level for same type of magic if spell is in spell-list
  • 10 + spell level for spell not in spell-list, but same type of magic (arcana/divine)
  • 15 + spell level for spell of different type of magic (arcana vs divine)

E.g. a Knowledge Religion check is required to learn about a divine spell, and a Knowledge Arcana check is required to learn about arcane spells.

A successful DC check gives knowledge about what a spell does, what is required to cast it, including necessary material components or a focus etc.

Explanation of the three different cases:

Case 1

Spell is in spell-list of person trying to learn about it, but at higher level.

Example: A level 4 cleric tries to remember what the True Resurrection spell is. (My example from before). The maximum spell-level this cleric can cast of the appropriate spell-list is level 2. The spell level of True Resurrection is level 9 and in the spell-list of the cleric.

Solution: So the DC would be 5 + (9 - 2) = DC 12 check against Knowledge Religion.

Case 2

Spell is not in spell-list of person, but it's the same type of magic.

Example: The Druid in the party also tries to remember whatever she has heard about this True Resurrection spell. The spell level of True Resurrection is level 9.

Solution: So the DC would be 10 + 9 = DC 19 check against Knowledge Religion.

Case 3

The Person does not practice the same type of magic.

Example: The sorcerer in the group now also tries to remember what he has learned about this spell, back when he was in school.

Solution: So the DC would be 15 + 9 = DC 24 check against Knowledge Religion.

Note: The ability to make Knowledge checks of the correct type is a necessity. So if the sorcerer does not have the ability to make those checks, he can't do this.

Do you think this is well balanced, does this even make sense from a technical perspective?

Should I use the caster-level instead of the spell-level? Should the base difficulty be higher? Does the distinction into these three groups/cases make sense?

Why not use Spellcraft

From what I have read, spellcraft is more about identification of a spell/scroll/potion/magically created object/... if it is seen or somehow observed in another fashion. My use-case is when people are trying to remember something or know something. A low-level cleric might not have seen the True Resurrection spell in real life. But his studies of the deity, the religion and what-not might have taught him about this spell. In the same manner as he knows stuff about deities, religious symbols and the other stuff.

Another abstract example: To me the difference between Knowledge and Spellcraft can be described as this: I am confronted with a word in a foreign language, i.e. French/Spanish.

  • Knowledge: Seeing this word in a foreign language and remembering the French/Spanish school-lecture where this word was learned.
  • Spellcraft: Knowing Latin/Ancient Greek and being able to decipher this foreign word based on its Latin/Greek root and thus inferring its meaning.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I’m not sure how your take-away from my answer is “there isn’t a mechanic for this,” but that’s incorrect. Your understanding of Spellcraft is also incorrect. Anyway, this is a poor mechanic. Subtraction is not necessary for this: the higher DC is naturally offset by the higher skill ranks you have at higher levels (which is also when you have higher-level spells), so that subtraction is, in a sense, “double dipping.” It’s also unprecedented within the system, and Wizards of the Coast avoided it for good reason. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 2 at 13:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree about the double dipping. Otherwise, without the -2 in Case 1, I think this is fine homebrew mechanic. \$\endgroup\$ – joedragons Sep 4 at 20:19

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