D&D 5th Edition allows you to identify an item by spending one hour studying it. See Dungeon Master’s Guide chapter 7:
During the typical D&D adventuring cycle, the party will take a short rest after discovering a magic item, at which time the character can identify a magic item they’ve obtained.
Narratively, this leaves opportunities on the table. Mechanically, it undercuts other options.
Giving up the properties of a magical item on a short rest is a lost narrative opportunity. Mystery builds an air of suspense and reverence around a magic item that makes it exciting. Especially if additional features are revealed over time. This can make a player feel like the item has grown with the character, and they form a special bond.
Narrative mystery is also lost for potions, which only require a sip to identify. Any player can identify any potion with a simple object interaction. This is a real shame, since players drinking unidentified potions has provided decades of hilarity for fans of D&D.
Timing Is Everything
Mechanically, the standard option for identifying a magic item makes the identify spell a poor spell choice. It’s not useless, but its applications are niche enough to make it a tough option.
The main issue here is casting time. Identify takes a minute to cast. So, it’s assumed that you’ve got a little bit of downtime. It’s not something you’re doing in the middle of combat.
Every class (Wizard, Bard, Artificer) and subclass (Knowledge Domain, Forge Domain) that learns identify also gets the ritual casting feature. Ritual casting lets you take an extra 10 minutes to cast a ritual-tagged spell without using a spell slot.
If you’re going to take 1 minute to cast a spell as a ritual caster, you’re likely going to opt to take an extra 10 minutes to cast identify as a ritual, saving a spell slot. There’s seldom a difference between a 1 minute break and an 11 minute break outside of combat.
Similarly, there’s little functional difference between an 11 minute break and a 1 hour break. If the rest of the party is going to wait around for 11 minutes, they’re more likely to want a full short rest to recharge features and get some hit points back. If you’re going to take a short rest, you didn’t need the spell to identify the item.
Identify does have some other uses:
Unlike the identify spell, the standard rule does not say you learn whether an item requires attunement, or how many charges it has left. Attunement seems easy enough to figure out, and is probably information not worth keeping from the player. Knowing how many charges an item has left is interesting, especially since some items have a chance to break when they run out of charges. Since these items tend to recharge at dawn, characters can just reduce the risk by waiting to use them. Ultimately, most DMs are content to give out the information once the item is identified. If the item doesn’t have charges, the identify spell isn’t doing anything above the standard identification process.
Identify can also tell you what kind of spells are affecting a creature. But, it’s not the type of thing you can cast on an enemy combatant to find out how to break their defenses, due to the long casting time. Rather, it seems poised for use in a roleplaying situation, where a DM may give you a shot to identifying what’s happening with an Intelligence (Arcana) check.
And it is not without cost or risk. You may need to learn identify or spend gold copying it to your spellbook, it requires a 100 gp reagent, and still doesn’t flag cursed items.
So, identify still has uses, but they are niche. If it was harder to learn what an item does than spending a short rest, the identify spell would prove a lot more useful. You can cure this using the variant rule, which is basically to make the characters figure it out:
There’s a couple examples in Dungeon Master’s Guide chapter 7. We’ll flesh it out further below.
Here’s some ideas for how characters can identify magic items:
Arcana Checks. You can roll an Intelligence (Arcana) check to gain some information about the item in different situations. While spending some time with the item can provide some clues, so can reading about it in a library or showing it to a wise enchanter.
Tools. Give proficiency bonuses to skill checks to identify the item based on relevant tool usage. Consider Alchemist’s Tools for potions, Woodcarver’s Tools for magic arrows or wands, Calligrapher’s Tools for scrolls, Smith’s Tools, Armorer’s Tools, etc.
Languages. When rolling checks to divine a command word, consider giving the character a +1 bonus for each language they speak that’s not common. Or, give a character advantage if a language they know is related to the item. For example, dwarvish for a Dwarven Thrower.
Tasting Potions. Down the hatch! Don’t forget the potion miscibility table.
Critical Activation. Identify the features of a magical weapon when the player scores a critical hit! This can provide a great narrative reveal that makes a character shine.
Watch and Learn. When a character loots a new magic item off a fallen nemesis, they’ve likely seen the magic item in action. Perhaps a character learns how to use a magic item because they saw the BBEG do it. Or, at the very least, seeing an item in use should give a character advantage on checks to figure out how to use it.
Inspection. Magic words or runes inscribed on the item may lend clues to how to use it.
Forming a Bond. Perhaps the magic doesn’t manifest from the item until the character has formed a sufficient bond. Some ancient artifacts want to drink a few souls before the curse activates.
To break any magical item curses that have befouled you, support us on the ThinkDM Patreon. For more identification discussion, check out our article “What Am I Counterspelling?” Today’s cover image is “Opt” by Dan Scott used under the Wizards Fan Content Policy.