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Question first: Are there 5e precedents outside the DMG for differences in players identifying the capabilities of Artifacts as opposed to other magical items? This could be a rule in a sourcebook, a specific item in an adventure, or anything else.

Background: Artifacts are a type of magic item, and as the DMG says "Each artifact has its own magical properties, as other magic items do...." There is no specific text in the DMG on how the properties of artifacts are identified, but we know that in general magic items can be identified using the Identify spell or by focusing on the item throughout a short rest.

While there doesn't seem to be any specifics about Artifacts in general being identified differently from magic items, the DM is given more latitude with Artifacts "for they are as much plot devices as magic items".

Some sample Artifacts also have additional, if unclear, guidance on the extra steps needed to access some of their capabilities (though not to identify those capabilities). For example, the Book of Exalted Deeds has (emphasis mine):

Once you’ve read and studied the book, any spell slot you expend to cast a cleric or paladin spell counts as a spell slot of one level higher.

The Book of Vile Darkness has (emphasis mine):

A creature attuned to the book must spend 80 hours reading and studying it to digest its contents and reap its benefits.

Some other items also have additional requirements to access their powers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch that's a great question I hadn't considered. I think I would prefer it be limited to 5e materials if at all possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – mkdir
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 20:48

4 Answers 4

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Identification isn't activation.

I think you're mixing up two different things here. Identifying an artifact works just like any item. You cast the spell or spend the time, and you find out what the item is, what it does, and how it works.

Now the "how it works" might include attunement, a command word, or spending 80 hours in study. But that's not part of identification, that's a usage requirement. Spending time to read and digest a book is like putting on a suit of magic armor, just a lot slower.

The DM might decide that a particular artifact is immune to identify and have some alternate way of determining its abilities, like making friends with the intelligence that lives in it, but that's entirely the realm of DM fiat at that point. Going purely by the basic rules, artifacts identify just as readily as anything else.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ To make sure I understand, would you say this answer could be summed up as "there is no precedent for how players identify Artifacts outside what is already specified in the DMG"? \$\endgroup\$
    – mkdir
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 16:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but it's more specifically addressing that your examples of the BoVD and BoED are completely off topic, because the "extra steps needed to access some of their capabilities" have nothing to do with identification. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 16:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough. I suppose my thinking was that there were specific examples that seemed to override my understanding of attunement, and thus I was wondering if there were either specific examples of artifacts or general artifact rules outside the DMG that overrode identification as well. But I didn't make that clear in my question. \$\endgroup\$
    – mkdir
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 20:11
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You asked for precedent, so here is one—further back than you were looking for, maybe, but it’s also exactly what you were looking for:

Identify does not function when used on an artifact.

(Identify spell description, D&D v.3.5 revised edition)

Prior to that “v.3.5 revision,” that is, in “3.0e,” identify was even weaker, not being able to identify everything even about regular magic items. And in AD&D before that, identify forced the caster to wear the item (potentially subjecting themselves to dangerous side-effects), required numerous secret checks to determine whether the information presented to the caster is accurate, and costs the caster a large chunk of Constitution on top of some gold. (The AD&D version of the spell makes no explicit mention of artifacts, but considering everything else I’d be shocked if it could handle them.)

In short, identify has been getting stronger and stronger as time goes on; each edition of D&D has improved it to make it safer, quicker, and more convenient. To wit, Wizards of the Coast has by-and-large repudiated the “identification minigame,” and at this point characters are expected to just “cast identify and get on with it.”

That does not mean that artifacts cannot be an exception, particularly specific artifacts. It just means that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t seem to still support it. The changes to identify are, from my perspective, consistent with the changes in D&D as a whole, to focus on different things. Spending significant time on figuring out what an item is or how it works no longer seems to be part of Wizards’ conception of what D&D is about.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Artifacts also tend to have legends attached to them, which implies that asking sages or bards about them might get you somewhere. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll say that while I originally only thought about my question in terms of 5e (and should have been clearer in the question), I find this super helpful as I consider how to make artifacts feel more distinct from other magic items. \$\endgroup\$
    – mkdir
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 16:31
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You might not be able to determine the properties with Identify

Identify states:

If it is a magic item or some other magic-imbued object, you learn its properties and how to use them, whether it requires attunement to use, and how many charges it has, if any.

If you look at the example artifacts, the way to destroy them is listed as one of the properties, alongside all their other effects. So the way it can be destroyed is a property of an artifact, just like any other property.

Page 221 of the DMG states:

Each artifact has a weakness by which its creation can be undone. Learning this weakness might require extensive research or the successful completion of a quest.

If it is possible to determine the properties of an artifact by using Identify, then you will be able to learn how it can be destroyed with Identify. It would not be necessary to undertake extensive research or the successful completion of a quest. Therefore, you can conclude that if you do have to undertake research or quests to learn how to destroy the artifact, Identify will not work to tell you.

Now the wording says it might require these things. You may conclude that, if you have a lowly first level wizard to help you out, it will not. The laborious option is only for those poor saps that know no arcane spellcasters and cannot procure a simple first level scroll.

This interpretation does not make a lot of sense in the context of artifacts being "as much plot devices as magic items". You can interpret the might here as, "if it helps the story, this is the only way the player characters can find out". In which case Identify would be ineffective, and if Identify does not work to find out one property, it would make most sense if it did not work on any of the properties.

There is of course a lot of historical precedent, both in general (think of The One Ring in Lord of the Rings), and in D&D (think of the Dragon Orbs in Dragonlance), where the full powers of an artifact are never clear, new powers are discovered from time to time, and the powers in part depend on its bearer.

I think you are asking just about material published under 5e. There is no explicit statement that an artifact cannot be identified, but I think the DMG has enough support for the DM if they prefer so.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Why wouldn't learning the weakness be a specific instance of something added to the identification system rather than a replacement? Is there anything else about the normal abilities of the artifact being unidentifiable or requiring more than the normal magic item identification? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 21:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nautarch: not sure I understand the question. The destruction method seems to be treated not different than other properties in the examples if that’s what you are asking, not something added. But I found nothing else against it. You’d certainly be in your rights to have Identify work. I think it would not be smart to do so from a GM perspective, as you lose options to add/uncover new features, story drive and mystery, but that’s certainly a question of playstyle, not of rules. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 21:53
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Artifacts are magic items, for example they are found in the artifacts section of the magic items chapter.

They follow all the normal rules for identifying magic items:

The identify spell is the fastest way to reveal an item’s properties. Alternatively, a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest, while being in physical contact with the item.

Additional text on the item spells out extra steps needed to access some features, however this is not identification. For example someone who identifies the Book of Vile Darkness will know they need to spend 80 hours studying it to reap the benefits.

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