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Are they always unidentified, except for when a Wizard already knows the spell? If the wizard already knows it, is it already identified?

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Page 200 of the DMG states:

If the spell is on your class's spell list you can use an action to read the scroll and cast its spell.

So if a wizard were to pick up a spell scroll containing a wizard spell, the wizard would be able to identify it.

Later in the same paragraph it also states:

Otherwise, the scroll is unintelligible.

So if the wizard were to pick up a sorcerer spell,the wizard wouldn't be able to read it.
In conclusion if the spell is on the reader's spell list then the reader would be able to identify it.

Casting spells of levels the spellcaster doesn't have

Page 200 of the DMG again:

If the spell is on your class's spell list but of a higher level than you can normally cast, you must make an ability check using your spellcasting ability to determine whether you cast it successfully. The DC equals 10 + the spell's level. On a failed check, the spell disappears from the scroll with no other effect.

So for example: If you have a 2nd level wizard who finds a spell scroll containing the spell fireball, the wizard can cast if it can pass an INT check of 13 otherwise it has no effect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I dunno, reading the whole section on page 200, it does seem that being able to read it = being able to (potentially) cast it, as far as the designers are concerned. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 18 '15 at 3:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie no question that you can cast it. But will you have any clue what it is that's going to happen? I.e. do you know what spell you're about to make happen, or is it going to be a surprise. I'd originally thought it obvious that you'd know, but in writing an answer in that direction I've got myself back on the fence. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Sep 18 '15 at 3:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 D&D doesn't have the Call of Cthulhu or Evil Dead trope of “what does this incantation do? let's find out…”, at least not for normal spells. (I could see a unique Plot Item having that property.) You can only cast spells you grasp and understand, and it doesn't seem any different for scrolls. (Now, activated items like wands on the other hand…) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 18 '15 at 3:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ulrich Historical note: In every edition of D&D prior to Fifth, spellcasters could use scrolls to cast spells of higher level than the highest level spells they'd be able to cast otherwise. I don't know if it's still true in Fifth edition, though. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 20 '17 at 0:22
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There's nothing in the rules that tells us whether it's immediately obvious what spell a scroll is designed to produce. I see touchstones that pointing us in either direction:

Arguments for "everyone knows what spell's on that scroll"

  • Teleological: it's (often) the purpose of scrolls to be used by those other than the author. And they're consumed upon use, so I can't just try it in a safe setting.
  • Scrolls are, according to DMG5e p.139, readable by anyone literate. Doesn't that include the 'title' of the scroll? Or at least enough text to get the gist?
  • We don't have Read Magic anymore, which from ODD to 3.5 was the required... well, sometimes required... well, at least, useful way to figure out what spell was on the scroll without casting it.

Arguments against "everyone knows what spell's on that scroll"

  • Use Identify. That's what it's for. (At least, that's one of the things it'll do.)
  • Spells aren't, according to DMG5e p.200, readable by anyone literate. They're unintelligible if the spell contained isn't on your class's spell list.
  • Both Scroll of Protection and Spell Scroll descriptions in the DMG tell you what happens when the scroll is read. There's nothing to indicate that the reader has foreknowledge of the effects. So it's up to the DM. "But this interpretation is ludicrous! What kind of a world would we have if...?" I live in a world where you can give me intelligible instructions for a series of actions to take on my computer, and I may have no idea what the end result would be. Why not the same for magic, specifically written to be read/executable by laypersons?

In short...

There aren't specific procedures--which did exist in earlier editions--for knowing what the end result of a scroll is.

Most DMs I know from AL will say "you found a scroll of Speak with Animals." There's your answer at that table. But I know plenty of DMs who'll say "you found a scroll" and grin like a Cheshire Cat.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The statement on page 139 of the DMG is about the category of magic items known as "scrolls", which consists of two items: scroll of protection and spell scrolls. Spell scrolls have the specific restriction that they can only be read by a character who has the spell on their class list, which means that only scrolls of protection (and any other non-spell scrolls that may be published in the future) can be read by anyone literate. \$\endgroup\$ – jwodder Sep 13 '19 at 14:41
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Spell scrolls are magical items. The full properties (except curses) of any magical item can be discovered by handling the item for 1 hour or by casting Identify.

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