Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Identifying potions with Detect Magic.

I'm having fun examining the wording of the Holmes basic D&D rules under a microscope.  As a lawyer, I can't help reading things very carefully and weighing each word.  I try not to do it when I'm playing a game, but I do like performing these little thought experiments on this blog.

This is from Moldvay, not Holmes. But you get the idea.
So today we're looking at the rules for magical potions under Explanation of Magic Items in the blue book.  What caught my eye was the introductory paragraph detailing potions:
Some method of detecting the effects of the potion must be found.  If the characters lack a detect magic spell, they may dare a tiny sip to see what the result may be.
Emphasis mine.  Did Holmes mean for players to use the spell of Detect Magic to find out the effect of a potion?  I think so.  Look at the description for this spell:
A spell to determine if there has been some enchantment laid on a person, place or thing.  It has a limited range and short duration.  It is useful, for example, to discover if some item is magical, a door has been "held" or "wizard-locked," etc.
Let's read this carefully.  The spell can be used to find out whether a door has been held or wizard locked.  You could stretch that phrase to mean the caster can determine not just if a door's been enchanted, but how it was bespelled--i.e., Detect Magic can tell you whether that door you can't open is under the effect of a Hold Portal or a Wizard Lock.  There's also the "etc."--meaning the spell could determine what kind of magic as well as just the presence of magic.

That's how I see it: A character can use Detect Magic to figure out exactly what a potion will do.  Would you allow this in the campaign you run?  Would you let players use this spell to identify other magic items as well?  I think I might.


Brad Ncube said...


Desert Scribe said...

I know :)

1d30 said...

I would think that because the phrase is inside one set of commas, the Detect magic spell detects if there is some enchantment on a door. If it read "whether a door is held, or wizard locked," I might see some ambiguity.

Further, it specifically says that it tells whether a magic item is magical but doesn't say it tells you what the exact enchantment on it is. Attributing extra powers to a spell that aren't explicit is like expecting that Fly will make you resistant to the cold and buffeting winds found at high altitudes.

As for some reason why Holmes wrote about Detect Magic under Potions, maybe it was from an earlier draft where Detect Magic explicitly did Identify. Maybe it refers to Detect Magic identifying the TYPE of magic, which would give a clue to the potion's effect. Maybe it refers to finding out the potion is magical at all instead of a vial of holy water, acid, or some water sample.

That said, I've found that Identify used on potions is a PITA especially in higher-level games where multiple potions are found AND in lower-level games where the material component for ID is worth more than the eventually-identified potion. Especially since the buyer probably wants to pay for independent identification of the item.

One good solution would be to allow Detect Magic to identify potions, in the same way Read Magic identifies an M-U scroll. These are low-power and low-value magic items and shouldn't require as much effort to ID.

Another good option would be to give Gnomes the ability to ID potions by smell. It's a cool ability that's relevant to the race, improves an (in my experience) under-used race, is not too powerful, isn't used in combat, and is useful throughout the PC's career. It also encourages use of Gnomes as alchemists' assistants, unless the alchemist is himself a Gnome. I like the idea of henchgnomes.

FrDave said...

In context of potions, I think this is a great interpretation. It helps with the problem of identifying potions and it has another practical use for Detect Magic which encourages players to use those utility spells that folks normally overlook.