Saturday, 5 May 2018

Identifying the Point of 'Identify'

Following on from Scrap Princess' Google+ discussion about first level spells, I've been thinking about Identify.

The problem - Identify identifies the properties of magical items. Therefore the implication is that you don't know what magic items will do unless you (A) randomly and dangerously activate them or (B) cast this particular spell that has no other function.

If the GM is giving players magic items, or providing a space/setting that allows for the random acquisition of magic items, the implication is that the GM thinks it would be jolly good fun if the players had magic items. So why, then, the barrier to using them? Players either

(A) waste one of the wizard's otherwise-useful slots with this otherwise-useless spell and then just carry on as if they knew the item's properties from the outset (and if the day consists of "ok we do nothing today except let the wizard identify the item so we're not going sperlunking with one less spell slot" then in real-time about 10 seconds passes so it's almost as if you just told them outright anyway)

(B) don't touch the scary object because they're afraid what in reality is a "boring ring of boringness" could be Satan's Personal Fuck-You Ring, so there was never a point to giving them it

(C) fire it off randomly, and surely there are more interesting ways to fuck with your players and their characters' wellbeing than just giving them magic items whose only purpose is to hurt the players.

(D) take it to an NPC identifier because they have no wizard, at which point we're just pussyfooting around just telling the players, but now you've put that info behind some weird EA Games paywall microtransactions bullshit.

The Solution - get rid of Identify altogether?

But just letting the players magically know what the items does is also a bit lame. There are millions of non-magic items I come across in my real-life life that I haven't a clue what their application is, so random omniscience is dumb too. Plus, identifying is just one of those things that makes the nerdy, 4HP wizard feel very smug that all the big beefy fighters are watching with philistine awe as they do their very smart stuff to figure out what the helmet does.

Pictured: Magic-users
So let's keep the idea of identification, let's even keep it a spell - Identify - but scrap how it works. We could scrap the name too, but now I'm interested by the name as just a hint of what the spell does. Forget everything you know about "Identify" - just go on assumptions about what the name suggests. It identifies things, right?

Things. Not specifically magic items.

A green player without any D&D knowledge who hasn't read the spell descriptions might naively declare "I cast identify on the strange murals in the tomb!". No, pet, that's not how that works.

But maybe it should be?

To be honest this right here is where the post sort of ends for you, the reader, since what I'm about to suggest is heavy with a lot of implied worldbuilding unique to my table. The general advice of "ditch Identify and rework the spell from the title outwards" is my conclusion.

What I'M personally doing is this:

I feel wizardry ought to come with a heavy dose of "meddling with forces beyond yer ken", and so pacts with devils, demons, and genies seem like a staple of why some people can summon armies and other people don't know how to write their names in sparkles. A bit of it is academic opportunity, a bit of it is basic literacy and discipline, but a part of it also comes from making really dodgy deals with extradimensional demigods.

So Identify is a 1st level spell. I feel it is a very opportune place to insert the beginnings of a wizard's descent into devil-deals. One summons a being (a genie, in my campaign set in Yoon-Suin) whom the wizard beseeches to Identify something beyond the temporal knowledge of the mortal party. Maybe the murals on the tomb walls, maybe the provenance and capabilities of an ancient magical item, or maybe the identity of a corpse. In exchange the wizard offers some payment - at this very low-level, easy-peasy request from the genie, it's probably not going to be his soul. Maybe 100 of your local currency. It's really down to the given entity and magic-user to hash out an agreement, although again because this is such a low-effort dime-a-dozen deal request, the entity won't waste time if the magician gets super haggle-happy. "Dude it's literally the difference of ten silver. Fuck this, you can go read about this fortress' history in a book anyway, I'm out, Peace".

The limitations on what the entity is happy to identify will also teach the party about how genies (again, devils in your campaign, or whatever) work. There's a code of conduct. They won't identify anything that could affect another living person in the world - at that point you're hiring the genie for a much more involved process - espionage, assassination, etc. - and that requires a much more specific ritual that costs more and comes with more stipulations, and genies hate being pulled into the world for one kind of deal and then being talked to about a different kind (much like how people hate a 5 minute itinerary meeting evolving into a monolithic 2 hour expounding of everything the office is up to)  - so you can't Identify "the person who killed my father" or "the best way into the Doge's palace" or "the antidote for the poison I just drank". Identify should literally be a Google for publicly-accessible information that the party just doesn't have on-hand. History, art, and magic items, sure.

But if you've been teleported by a spiteful mage to the middle of an unknown forest in the middle of the night in another hemisphere, then sure a genie will be like "ok gimme that necklace and fifty gold and I'll show you which of these stars points south"

I feel like (again, personal to my world) becoming a more powerful wizard is a process of becoming less like your fellow mortals and more like a genie. Super-high-level wizards are floating immortal transdimensional wanderers for whom sleep, food, latitude and longitude are hazy suggestions rather than confines. So at a much higher level I would introduce another spell - named something other than Identify - which allows a wizard to personally tap into the Vortex and identify items and histories personally.

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