Magic items are a staple of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. But, some of the rules for figuring how they work may be a bit confusing for newer players.
How do you identify magic items in 5e? What methods are available to players? And, are there any alternatives for it?
This article covers everything you need to know concerning identifying magic items in 5e.
Let’s start things off with the basics of what identifying magic items means.
Identifying Magic Items in 5e
Identifying magic items in 5e is the process of understanding the properties of enchanted objects. A creation takes the time, usually through magical means, to figure out attunement requirements, use charges, command words, and other aspects of a given magic item.
Now, holding an enchanted item is usually enough to indicate whether its magical or not. A creature can usually feel the enchantment. But, they don’t know what that enchantment is or what an item does.
That’s when identification of a magic item comes into play.
Identifying magic items in 5e grants a creature the information they need to properly wear, use, or wield an enchanted object. The process usually involves spending time with a magic item, but players have a few options for learning the properties of them.
The three most common methods of identifying a magic item in 5e are:
- Spending a short rest in physical contact with the item
- Casting identify on it
- Experimenting with the object
These are the default methods for identifying magic items in 5e. That said, Game Masters have the freedom to have additional methods such as research or successful skill checks. But, these methods aren’t explicitly in the base rules.
We’ll go into a little bit more detail on each of these methods later one.
Once you successfully identify an enchanted object, you learn the following about it:
- The item’s properties
- How to use the item
- Any command words
- If it requires attunement
- How many charges it has, if any
That’s the default and most basic ideas behind identifying magic items in D&D 5e.
Variant: More Difficult Identification
The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes a variant for making identifying magic items harder. It removes the short rest option, explicitly requiring the use of magic, research, or both.
If you, as a GM, want to make things a bit more difficult for your players concerning magic items, you can forego the option to spend a short rest to successfully identify them.
See, the benefit of taking a short rest to identify a magic item is it doesn’t use any resources. A player character simply takes their short rest as per the normal rules and, assuming they successfully finish it, they learn the properties of any single magic item.
The DMG’s variant rule for More Difficult Identification cuts out this option, regulating creatures to use the identify spell, experiment with magic items, or both to fully understand an enchanted object.
This means player characters may need to use a resource through the use of a spell slot (or not, identify may be cast as a ritual) and/or run the risk of becoming cursed or activating a dangerous ability of an item through experimentation.
Do You Have to Identify Magic Items?
You don’t have to identify magic items. Players have the option to attempt attuning to a magic item without prior knowledge of what an object’s powers or if it even requires attunement.
That said, there are inherent risks to not identifying a magic item prior to attempting to use it.
At best, a creature won’t know how to use a magic items abilities. A weapon may have a powerful property which helps them in combat or a piece of armor has an ability to reduce incoming damage further.
At worst, failing to identify a magic item prior to its use may mean a creature can’t use the properties at all due to attunement. Some magic items in 5e require attunement, basically the process of establishing a magical bond with the object. Without attuning to an item which requires it, a creature can’t use its magical properties.
Identifying a magic item means avoiding these situations, giving a creature the ability to use them to their fullest.
Identifying Magic Items Through a Short Rest
The default method of identifying magic items in 5e is through taking a short rest why maintaining physical contact with the object. After finishing a short rest, you gain an understanding of the item’s properties.
All it takes to successfully identify a magic item through this method is finish the short rest.
That said, you must spend the entirety of that short rest in physical contact with the item. What’s more, if the rest gets interrupted, like through an ambush resulting in combat, you need to start the process over again.
As mentioned earlier, the best parts of this method of magic item identification is 1) it doesn’t require and resources and 2) you still benefit from the short rest. Meaning you don’t need to use a spell slot for identify and you may still use hit dice to regain hit points and feature uses your class may have.
Identifying & Attuning to Magic Items
One of the benefits of identifying a magic item is learning whether it requires attunement or not. That said, you may not identify AND attune to a magic item during the short rest. You must take two separate short rests to both identify and attune to an enchanted object.
Now, the default rules for attunement in 5e state a creature must complete a short rest to successfully attune to a magic item which requires it. But, a creature may spend a short rest to identify an enchanted item.
So, you may ask; can you identify and attune to a magic item on the same short rest?
Simply put, no. You have to finish two separate short rests to identify and attune to a magic item.
Page 138 of the DMG explicitly states:
Bolded by me for emphasis.
So, it’s pretty straight forward. You can’t identify a magic item to learn its properties and attune to that item on the same short rest.
The Identify Spell
The identify spell is the easiest way to learn a magic item’s properties and abilities. It’s a 1st-level spell, which reveals many aspects of an enchanted object like attunement requirements, abilities, and command words.
Casting the identify spell is the fastest method of identifying magic items in 5e. Once you use it on an object you suspect to be enchanted, you learn that item’s properties.
If your game features a lot of magic items, having a spellcaster in your party with identify prepared is invaluable. Alternatively, finding a non-player character who has the spell may be something your character want to accomplish.
Identify has the following elements:
- Level – 1
- Casting Time – 1 Minute (ritual)
- Range – Touch
- Components – Verbal, Somatic, Material
- Material Components – a pearl worth at least 100 gp and an owl feather
- School – Divination
- Classes – Bard, Wizard, Artificer, Cleric (Knowledge Domain), Cleric (Forge Domain)
It’s important to note that identify may be cast using D&D 5e’s ritual casting rules. Meaning you can add 10 minutes, for a total of 11 minutes, to the casting time and cast the spell without expending a spell slot.
Here is the rest of the spell description for identify found within the Player’s Handbook:
At the end of the day, casting identify is usually the easiest and fastest way to figure out what a magic item does in D&D 5e.
Does Identify Reveal Curses in 5e?
Typically, no. The identify spell usually does not reveal curses in 5e.
Now, it’s not only the identify spell which doesn’t reveal curses. Even taking a short rest to learn a magic item’s properties typically doesn’t inform a creature of any curses on a given object.
There…aren’t really any explicit methods of detecting cursed objects in 5e. Discovering that a magic item is cursed is pretty much supposed to be a surprise unless that magic item explicitly mentions identify reveals the curse like Armor of Vulnerability does..
That said, there are a few ways of identifying cursed objects. But, they’re more…roundabout than anything else.
First off, the Cleric spell list includes a few spells for divining a course of action. Augury and divination may help in determining whether using a potentially cursed item is a good idea, but the answers are usually vague. Commune is another option where a Cleric may ask their deity a Yes or No question. So, that question could be " is [magic item] cursed?" You wouldn’t find out what that curse is, but at least you’d find out it is cursed.
If the magic item is of some great importance, the legend lore spell is another indirect method of learning of a potentially cursed item. Now, this won’t work on relatively basic cursed magic items as the spell states "If the thing you named isn’t of legendary importance, you gain no information." Also, the information you gain might be cryptic or more poetic than academic, so any character who uses this spell on a cursed item may need to infer the meaning of its lore.
Finally, if your GM has prepared for and allows it, your character may have the option to research the item to see if it has a curse imbued into it. Like casting legend lore, you may need to infer some information concerning any potential curses as you most likely won’t find a historical account explicitly stating "[magic item] is cursed". Or, maybe you will, that’s up to your GM (or you if you are the GM).
Experimenting With Magic Items
Experimenting with a magic item is a good way to figure out what the object does, assuming that object doesn’t require attunement.
Possibly the least reliable method of figuring out what a magic item does is through experimentation. Basically, your character finds a magic item, picks it up, and starts trying things out.
For weapons and other magical implements (wands, musical instruments, etc), this is pretty straightforward. You start swinging it around hoping the magic works.
For armor, you’ll probably have your other party members start trying various spells and attacks on you. Perfect for the more reckless player characters.
The problems with the experimentation method of identifying magic items in 5e are twofold.
First, if the magic item requires attunement, you won’t necessarily know that and the item’s properties won’t work. Now, you could probably figure out a magic item requires attunement after trying out various things and none of them working. But, this goes hand-in-hand with the next problem.
Second, if the item has a command word, you wouldn’t know how to activate its properties. Now, some magic items may have their command word etched someone on their surfaces, but that’s not a universal rule. If a magic item has a command word, experimenting won’t help you learn what it is.
Both of these problems won’t happen if your character takes the time through a short rest or magic to identify a given magic item.
This all said, experimenting with a magic item which doesn’t require attunement and doesn’t have a command word is faster than even the identify spell. For example, your character finds a +1 sword. You find out what it does with a single swing.
Can Detect Magic Detect Magic Items?
The detect magic spell will let you know if an object is enchanted but it won’t tell you anything else about it.
The spell description for detect magic includes the following:
So, yes. Detect magic can detect magic items in D&D 5e. This a good first step in understanding if an item is magical to begin with. The problem is, detect magic doesn’t give you any other information on a given magic item.
You’ll still need to go through the usual channels (short rest, the identify spell, or experimentation) to learn a magic items properties.
Skill Checks to Identify a Magic Item
Skill checks typically don’t help in identifying magic items in 5e. That said, the use of skills may help in figuring out whether an objects is enchanted or not or possibly the origins of the item.
Rules as written, skill checks won’t allow you to learn a magic items properties. Which, from a design perspective, makes sense. Figuring out what a magic item does in 5e should either take time (short rest or ritually casting identify), use a resource (spell slot), or present a danger (experimenting without identifying). If all it takes is a die roll through the use of a skill check, it removes a lot of the experience from identifying magic items.
That said, if you as the GM want to add a little more to the process of learning enchanted item properties, skill checks are a good way of understanding if an item is potentially magical to begin with.
Now, I would say you should only allow characters proficient in any given skill to make a roll which aids their understanding of an object. They have the training and understanding to make an attempt at figuring out what a magic item does.
And, to further the point; this isn’t explicitly spelled out in the rules. This is an alternative or addition ruleset for GMs who want a little more freedom in their games concerning the identification of magic items.
Can an Arcana Check Identify a Magical Object?
Rules as written, no. An Arcana check cannot identify a magical object.
That said, Arcana is a great skill for inspecting runes or other glyphs featured on a potentially enchanted item to see if it’s magical.
If a magic item has runes or glyphs inscribed on its surface, Arcana comes in handy for deciphering that object’s enchantment. Through this, your character may gain an understanding of what sort of enchantment an object has.
Other Skill Checks for Identifying Magic Items
Game Masters may allow other skill checks, like History or Nature, to get a feel for what a magic item does. That said, this is not explicitly outlined in the rules, so it counts as homebrew.
Arcana isn’t the only skill GMs may wish to use for helping players understand magic items.
Here are some skills you may elect to include for aiding in identifying a magic items properties:
- History: use to see if your character knows any historical information concerning a given object
- Insight: see if the intent of a magic item is to cause harm or aid others
- Investigation: inspect the item for hidden words or possible activation requirements
- Nature: understand if the magic item is the result of naturally absorbing natural energies
- Religion: learn if an enchanted object has any religious significance
Researching Magic Items
If you want to add some intellectual pursuits to your game, you could have player characters attempt to find historical information regarding a magic item.
While not explicitly included in D&D 5e’s rules, it’s just common sense for player characters to want to research a given magic item, assuming a given item has any sort of history attached to it.
This works best for magic items with a storied past and is basically a longer, potentially more difficult version of casting legend lore. Players may seek out academic tomes concerning an object or maybe folklore concerning its creation. As a GM, you have the option to have any available information be as clear or poetic as you like.
Now, while legendary magic items have the most possibilities for research, you may seek out experts in enchantment for help.
Assuming the setting has enough magical information and scholars around, player characters may seek out an expert craftsman or mage to help identify magic items. Even if they don’t outright identify an object, they may have esoteric or specialized knowledge about the origin of it and what properties it may have.
Or, and this is a personal favorite of mine, includes lore of a legendary magic item in folktales and children’s stories. Folktales tend to be heeded a bit more by players, but children’s stories are a fun way to introduce clues and lore for a magic item.
The point is, researching a magic item is a good, roleplay-focused way for player characters to identify magic items in 5e.
How Do You Identify Potions in 5e?
By default, a creature can identify potions in 5e by imbibing a small sip. The creature wouldn’t benefit from the potion’s effects, but can learn what the potion does through essentially taste-testing it.
It’s honestly as simple as that.
Page 136 of the DMG states:
So, rules as written, all you need to do to identify potions in 5e is take a little taste.
That said, if you or your players are little cautious and don’t want to start sipping potentially dangerous potions, the other normal methods of identifying magic items should still work.
Identifying Sentient Items in 5e
Identifying a magic item reveals if it has sentience. That is to say, the process of identifying a magic item informs a creature if the object has a personality of its own.
Some magic items in 5e have their own personalities and goals. These are called Sentient magic items because they’re technically their own person.
So, you may wonder; does identify reveal sentient items?
The answer is simply, yes. Both taking a short rest and casting identify reveals if a magic item is sentient. Now, the trick is it doesn’t reveal what that object’s personality is like or what its goals are.
Chris Perkins also stated as such on his Twitter when someone asked if identify reveals an item’s sentience.
So, while you may learn a magic item is sentient, you wouldn’t learn what it wants.
Identifying Magic Items in 5e FAQ
Do You Need the Pearl for Identify?
Yes. To cast the identify you need a pearl worth at least 100 gold pieces. Since this Material component has a specified monetary value, you must have it to cast identify and cannot ignore it through the use of a spellcasting focus.
Spellcasting focuses in D&D 5e allow you to ignore most Material spell components. The exception is Material components with a specified gold piece value. Since identify requires the Material component, "a pearl worth at least 100 gp", you must have that component.
Does Identify Consume the Pearl?
No. The identify spell does not consume the pearl required to cast it.
A spell which consumes a given Material component explicitly states as such. For example, the 2nd-level spell arcane lock requires the Material component and explicitly states "gold dust worth at least 25 gp, which the spell consumes". Identify does not include "which the spell consumes" following the requirement of a pearl. So, it doesn’t consume it.
Does Identify Work on Non-Magical Items in 5e?
Technically, yes. Identify works on non-magical items in 5e. But, you don’t learn any sort of background information on them. Instead, you learn if any spell currently affects that item or if the item was created through a spell and which spell that was.
The identify spell can tell you if any spells are currently affecting an otherwise mundane item. Alternatively, it can inform you if a mundane object was created through the use of a spell, like the wish spell, and what spell created the object. Both of these are techincally situations when identify works on non-magical items.
Summary of Identifying Magic Items in 5e
That’s it for what you need to know about identifying magic items in D&D 5e.
Identifying a magic item is the process of learning its properties. The normal methods of accomplishing this are taking a short rest while maintaining physical contact with the object, casting identify on it, or experimenting with it. Skills don’t identify magic items by the default rules, but GMs may want to expand to include them in the process. And, research is a great roleplay method for figuring out a magic item’s properties.
Do you let your players use skills to help identify magic items? Have you tried experimenting with an enchanted object to figure out what it did? Leave a comment below!
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