[4e] Not Your GM’s Keep on the Shadowfell: Identifying Magic Items


First off, Mea Culpa on The Keep on the Borderlands articles that have been mentioned but failed to materialize.  Work and other obstacles have stalled me on that front.  But as my players have recently reached fourth level, and are taking a much deserved break back in the relative safety of the Keep, I may have a chance to catch that up as I prepare for the second half of the heroic tier.

In the meantime, I have started playing in another 4th Edition game with a different group, this time a weekly game (more or less) run by our old 3.0 – 3.5 DM.  While I am having fun, I feel the need to share some of the changes and modifications he’s made to the game, both for my own sanity but also so I can think through the implications and perhaps get some help pointing out the potential pitfalls, and avenues for exploitation.  The backdrop will be somewhat familiar to most 4th Edition players, as these stories will involve us progressing through his interpretations of the Heroic Tier adventures, starting with H1 Keep on the Shadowfell.

As usual for my screeds, a little back ground first.  I initially ran this group through the intro game in the DMG and then through the initial few encounters of H1 shortly after the game came out.  And with one exception, we all had a pretty good time.  The exception being, of course, the guy used to running 3.0, our old DM.  He was pretty much in the ‘4th Edition = WoW’ camp, and nothing we could do would dissuade him.  He played with us, but with only one eye on the game, while playing computer games on his laptop.  He didn’t really give the game a chance.  The funniest part of his attitude is that we find 4th edition to be VERY similar in some respects to how he used to run his own version of 3.0+ D&D.  Similar, but not the same, of course.  Maybe that was the problem.

This is a guy who always heavily mods whatever games he is running ‘to make it better’, or to ‘make things consistent’.  I could go into detail on his 100+ pages of replacement and supplemental rules for our 3.0 game, but why?  The volume alone should tell you everything you need to know.  Which is not to say the changes he makes are arbitrary or just for change’s sake – he just likes to tinker.  And he runs a hell of a game, putting tons of work into it, so that even when we vehemently disagree with a change (and he dos listen to opposing views – one of the reasons I want to discuss the changes here – ammunition to take back).

Running the 4th Ed game with this group was more of a fall-back option.  I was there primarily to play in the D20 Future game run by a third fellow, Amber run by a fourth, or my own Mutants and Masterminds game set in Chris’  Alphaverse setting.  So it ended up being run every few months when no one had anything concrete prepared, and I could just whip out the module and pick up where we left off.  And our old DM would find other things to do on the nights we ran it.

But fast forward a few months, when half of the group is out of work, and the other half is so busy, they feel they need to take a break from running prepared games.  I propose running the 4th edition game regularly.  Our old DM shocks us by suggesting he run it, so I can play, and he can be involved doing what he loves to do – learning and tinkering.  Apprehensive, we agree, and he takes over the game.

I had the group running the supplied characters from the H1 booklets, and we had just gotten to 2nd level in my version of the game, so I was having everyone retool their characters at 2nd level as they wanted (since we started before the corebooks came out, and now we had both them and the PHB2 to choose from). Some choose to rework their original characters (Dragonborn Paladin, Eladrin Warlock), some choose to go in different directions (Tiefling Cleric of Pelor, Deva Avenger), while I got to try something I’d been itching to (human wizard multiclass druid).

While we were initially following the rules as written, it wasn’t long before the changes started creeping in.  here’s one: Identifying Magic Items.

Usually in 4th edition, one discovers the the properties of a magic item after spending some time with it, after a short rest, etc.  After we had been playing for a short while, we made it to the first level of the Keep, and discovered our first magic items.  It was then the DM discovered this , and decided he’s prefer that some sort of Identification Ritual was used to determine the properties.  Since we didn’t have that ritual, but I had the Brew Potion 1st level ritual, he had me swap his new ritual for that one in my spellbook (I’m getting the Brew Potion back, via a trade with the sage in Winterhaven, but I was a bit upset, even though at 2nd level the ritual is of little use to me).

The basics are this – for a material cost of 1% of the item value, the caster can make an arcana check which determines how long the ritual takes to fully determine the item’s properties.  Depending on the check it’s a sliding scale from 1 minute per level of the item, up to 10 minutes per.  Not exactly something you can do during a short rest. Add to that, that wearable items (armor, bracers, etc) must be worn for 24 hours before their properties/bonuses take effect.

Potential pitfalls:  Drain on money and other resources.

I purchased ritual components before leaving civilization, and made good use out of an Unseen Servant conjured up between encounters (to keep those darn planks in place around the goblin’s pits and excavations on the first level, and to levitate a ghoul corpse out in front of us to trigger some sneak attack archers).  but I didn’t count on having enough components to check every magical doodad we found.  And even if I did, it costs money and time to do that – and especially with written modules, it can be assumed that any items found are going to be needed almost immediately, so a delay to have the item ‘acclimate’ to a user could be potentially deadly.

And encourages us to take more extended rests.

Anything else I’m missing?


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11 Responses to “[4e] Not Your GM’s Keep on the Shadowfell: Identifying Magic Items”

  1. Bryant Says:

    I think that’s a good one. If I were in those shoes I’d just take the 24 hour rests after each magic item was found — it’s the appropriate response, particularly if the GM is prioritizing third edition style world simulation. (Which is not a bad thing!)

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      Well, I’ve got a ton of them to get through, but this seemed like a good one to start with.

      And No, it’s no a bad thing in and of itself. The issue I have (well, have always had) is that we (sometimes) get these changes dribbled out as they come up. And I’m worried that since he’s not as familiar with the 4E design ethics as he was in 3E, that little changes here and there will end up messing with the various economies. This is for another post, but the magic item economy is already threatened, since he’s replaced the Daily Magic Item rules with the concept of ‘Magic Surges’, which basically let us originally use more Healing Potions, but are allowing magic creep in other areas.

      • Bryant Says:

        “since he’s replaced the Daily Magic Item rules with the concept of ‘Magic Surges’, which basically let us originally use more Healing Potions, but are allowing magic creep in other areas.”

        Hmh. The consumable economy (APs, healing surges, magic item dailies) are not one of the more stable systems in 4e — I find it to be fairly easy to screw them up by such minor modifications as “let’s not do three encounters today.”

        • Jack Kessler Says:

          Don’t understand that last bit. You mean by ‘quitting early’?

          • Bryant Says:

            Yeah. In play, particularly in heroic tier, the number of encounters played in a day makes a huge difference to the ease of those encounters.

            This was the case in 3e as well, mind you; Vancian magic is what it is. But since the first thing an experienced D&D player sees about 4e is that Vancian magic is gone (woo!) we often miss the fact that healing surges are just as important.

            • Jack Kessler Says:

              There’s a few times my players have pressed on to the next encounter with only healing surge left (well, one or two of the players were down that far), and it was VERY difficult to keep them from dying. They had to rely on a regen boost from the cleric and me misreading when to cut that regen bonus off (below zero). And these weren’t hard encounters. So I understand what you mean.

  2. adamdray Says:

    It seems to unravel some core design ideas in 4E (avoiding the painfully long planning sessions between encounters and keeping the game moving forward).

    Does your DM discuss changes with you guys before they go into effect, or are they sprung on you and you’re supposed to accept them as law?

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      I think he would like to discuss changes with us, and he does a lot of the time. In our old 3.0 game, new players would get a stack of papers handed to them when they first joined up (we didn’t get a lot of long-term new players, for some reason. 🙂 outlining the way character creation, classes, and feats were changed.

      Sometimes, though, he just doesn’t think of it until it comes up in the game, or he sees how a particular rule works in practice, and decides to change it. Generally, he is open to discussion about changes, and we’ve gotten changes revoked and repealed by explaining their shortcomings. He’s not monolithic, just… very experimental. And has some very set ideas as to what balanced play should be like.

  3. Kameron Says:

    I’ve tinkered with the rules for identifying magic items a little, and your right, reverting to a ritual that replicates the 3.x mechanics is going to disrupt the design philosophy behind 4E adventures. The section on identifying magic items does allow for the DM to require an Arcana check to identify an item’s properties, which I’ve interpreted literally (i.e., if the item has a “Property” feature, it requires an Arcana check to uncover. The Arcana check is equal to 20 + 1/2 the level of the item.

    At some point, I’m going to institute a houserule that requires a series of Arcana checks: first check to see if it is magic, second check to determine its enhancement, third check to determine its power, fourth check to determine a property (with additional checks to uncover any powers or properties after the first). One check per short rest will be allowed. I would still allow any passive features to function (enhancements, critical hit bonuses, etc.) prior to their identification.

    You should also warn your DM about his change to Daily power usage, as there are already some items with Daily powers that allow the expenditure of Healing Surges to recharge them. His houserule is likely resulting in breaking powers that were specifically balanced for a once-a-day use.

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      I noticed the Healing Surge recharge items this past week. It’s something I will bring to his attention, but I think I may have given you the wrong impression.

      He doesn’t allow us to reuse the same Daily Power from an Item – his Magic Surges just take the place of the Milestone refreshes of a Daily Item use. A Daily Power is still a Daily Power.

      Of course, he’s made other changes to items which I am getting to in later posts.

      Thanks for the insight on how you plan to have your players ‘identify’ an item. He is using that passage to justify his requirement of a new ritual (which, while it does say you can require a special ritual to identify certain unique items, I don;t think this is what the developers had in mind. 🙂 )

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