Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Placebo Effect and Unidentified Magic Items

As I continue in designing a set of low magic rules for play in the pre-Christian Ireland analog of my Remnants of Rema setting, I've begun to wonder about the identification of magic items. I've always encouraged experimentation, but the existence of an easy (if a bit expensive at low level) Identify spell has had the historical effect of new and exciting treasures getting stuffed in a sack for later instead of being wondered about and played with in the moment. The discovery is cheapened, in my opinion, when the item is simply stowed away--and the grand reveal of its powers relegated to the notekeeping segment at the end of the adventure. I've therefore decided to remove Identify from the game, at least to start with. I may end up putting it back in, although certainly at reduced efficacy.

Another notable feature of this corner of my campaign world is a scarcity of metal weapons. Although many clan leaders keep swords passed down from their ancestors from before the great cataclysm that drove the world into an extended dark age, and many buried crypts are home to assorted weapons from that age, they won't generally be available for starting characters. A PC's first iron or steel blade should therefore make for an exciting find, and I predict it may put players under the preconception that the item is magical.

Now, for a long time I've avoided the problem of running combat for a pile of PCs who don't know the bonuses of their unidentified magic weapons and armor by allowing simple experimentation to reveal those numerical elements. A fighter who picks up a +1 sword can swing it around a bit and get enough of a feel for its balance and so on that he can pretty accurately estimate that... but it won't reveal that it's +3 vs Air Elementals until such an encounter takes place and the effect can be revealed. Likewise, he won't know that a magic word will ignite the blade or that it can hit incorporeal creatures, etc.

Thinking on these two components, I've decided to make the latter rely on a Wisdom check rolled secretly behind the screen. On a failure, a magic item seems to behave like any non-magical one of its type--but a non-magical item may seem to provide a +1 bonus. The interesting thing here is that the bonus will be real, as a reflection of the character's increased confidence in his special weapon: a placebo effect. This effect will remain in place unless and until the character stops believing in it (as when it fails to harm a creature that can only be harmed by magical weapons).

Does this sound like a good idea? Have you tried anything similar? And for that matter, how do you handle unidentified magic in your campaign?


  1. I've wondered about how to handle this too. In my home game, I generally let people attune to a magic item and learn its properties if they spend an hour handling and examining the item. But, I've often felt like I'm letting my players off too easy (and ruining the utility of Identify).

    A wisdom check seems like a good solution. If a player has some reason to know that a weapon is magical, perhaps they could repeat the check to learn its properties once a day or once a week. This might be a way of keeping a player engaged with the mystery of the weapon. It's easy to imagine a PC spending nights around the campfire studying the weapon and trying to unlock its secrets. Plus, the player could look forward to getting another opportunity to roll a check. Depending on the circumstances the DC may increase or decrease with time.

    As for the placebo effect, that sounds like a great way to mess with your players. The high level cleric in town inspects the "magic" weapon to determine whether it has other hidden properties, realizes its not magic, tells the player, and the +1 bonus disappears.

    1. My rule of thumb is to allow previously failed rolls to be tried again upon gaining a level. It promotes experimentation due to the delay in getting the cool thing, but also prevents cool stuff getting lost and indefinitely forgotten in the loot list.