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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - Arcana Checks and Spell Use

The point of this article is to define what it is that a 5th edition Arcana check can do, and then to lay out certain "utility" type spells by group.

I want to make a simple reference for non-combat spells that bad guys or allies of the characters might use. I can never remember anything about scrying, and it seems like it should be the number one tool in the classic villain's arsenal.

First I'm going to talk about the Arcana skill. Then I will list spells by group and detail them:
  • Detection
  • Gathering Information
  • Magical Communication
  • Scrying
  • Scrying Protection
  • Traveling  
Arcana Has Changed: In 4th edition, the Arcana skill did a lot. It was this sort of catch-all for utility magic. You could use Arcana for things like sensing auras, identifying spells/rituals/zones, learning what a magic item does, "sense the presence of magic" - you name it.

The more that I played 4e, the more broad and abstract the Arcana skill got. By the end, I had it deeply ingrained in me that the Arcana skill could do almost anything that the adventure required.

This has been a problem for me in 5th edition. If you use Arcana in a 4e way, you are making a lot of 5e spells useless. It's almost like you are punishing your players for taking non-combat spells.

Bad Guys Use These Spells: As a DM, I tend to handwave how bad guys do or know certain things. I'm too lazy to dig through the book to figure out what spell can duplicate the effect I want to use. I just make something up.

The more I think about it, the more I feel like I'm doing my players a disservice. The spells have limitations that the heroes could exploit and they will often present some weird wrinkle that makes fun, unexpected things happen.

Additionally, the more you use the spells, the more you can communicate the feeling that D&D has this whole complex magical interplay going on. I think that making non-combat spells useful in your campaign can add a lot of dimension and intrigue. 

5th Edition Arcana: Let's check out the exact wording of the Arcana skill:

(PH page 177) "Arcana. Your Intelligence (Arcana) check measures your ability to recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants of those planes."

That's it! Just lore. No "sensing," no detection, no magical manipulation of any kind.

Utility Spells: Now let's look at some of the "utility" spells of D&D 5th edition. Keep in mind I probably missed some spells, particularly in the scrying defense section. In my descriptions, I just lay out the basic idea of each spell. You should refer to the Player's Handbook or the online rules for exact wording and details.

Using this, I think you can get a sense of how NPC spellcasters get things done in your campaign world.


Level 1

(PH page 231) Detect Evil and Good: You know if certain creature types or objects are within 30 feet. This spell doesn't actually tell you the alignment of a creature.

(PH page 231) Detect Magic: You can detect the presence of magic within 30 feet and the school of magic it belongs to.

(PH page 231) Detect Poison and Disease: You can sense/identify poisons and diseases within 30 feet.

(PH page 252) Identify: Touch one object. If it is a magic item, you learn what it can do and how to use it. You can use this on a creature to learn what spells are affecting it.

Level 2

(PH page 231) Detect Thoughts: You can detect thinking creatures within 30 feet and/or learn surface thoughts. Probing deeper means the target gets a WIS save. It knows you are probing.

(PH page 241) Find Traps: You can sense any trap within line of sight and 120 feet. You don't know the location of the trap, you just know that there's a trap nearby.

Gaining Information

Level 2

(PH page 215) Augury: You can find out information on how an action you are about to take within 30 minutes will go. Possible answers: Weal (good), Woe (bad), Weal and woe, or nothing.

Level 4

(PH page 234) Divination: You ask a deity one question about something happening within a week. The god responds with a short phrase/cryptic rhyme/omen.

Level 5

(PH page 224) Commune: You ask your deity (!) three questions that can be answered with a yes or no.

(PH page 224) Commune with Nature: You become one with nature and you can learn 3 facts about the land within 3 miles of you.

(PH page 227) Contact Other Plane: You can ask 5 questions and get one-word answers. You might take psychic damage.

(PH page 254) Legend Lore: You can learn the lore of a person/place/object. The target of the spell must be of "legendary importance."

Magical Communication


(PH page 259) Message: You whisper a message to a target creature within 120 feet. That creature can hear it and reply.

Level 1

(PH page 212) Animal Messenger: A little creature like a bat or a squirrel delivers a twenty-five word message to someone up to 50 miles away.

(PH page 252) Illusory Script: The message you write is unreadable except to those you designate. Lasts 10 days.

Level 2

(Elemental Evil Player's Companion page 22) Skywrite: Up to ten words appear in the sky. The words remain for up to one hour.

Level 3

(PH page 274) Sending: You send a message of 25 words or less to a creature you're familiar with. The creature can answer. This spell has no limit on distance. You can even communicate with those on another plane.

Level 5

(PH page 237) Dream: You can enter the dreams of someone on the same plane and communicate with them in their dreams. You can even shape the dream.

(PH page 270) Rary's Telepathic Bond: You link with up to 8 creatures for one hour and can communicate telepathically. Must be on the same plane.

Level 8

(PH page 281) Telepathy: You create a telepathic link with one creature you are familiar with on the same plane. You can communicate telepathically for 24 hours.


Level 2

(PH page 217) Beast Sense: You can see and hear through a willing beast.

Level 3

(PH page 222) Clairvoyance: You create an invisible sensor within a mile. You can either see or hear through it.

Level 4

(PH page 214) Arcane Eye: You can summon an invisible eye that you can see through (not hear) and move around. Lasts an hour.

Level 5

(PH page 273) Scrying: You can see and hear a creature on the same plane for up to 10 minutes. You observe them through an invisible sensor that moves with them. The target gets a saving throw

Level 7

(PH page 270) Project Image: You create an illusory copy of yourself that appears within 500 miles. You can see, hear and talk through it.

Scrying Defense/Protection

Level 3

(PH page 263) Nondetection: You hide a creature or object for 8 hours. It can't be seen through scrying sensors or targeted by divination magic.

(PH page 263) Nystul's Magic Aura: You place an illusion on a creature or object that lasts 24 hours. Divination spells reveal false information about it.

Level 7

(PH 274) Sequester: The target is invisible, can't be targeted by divination spells, can't be seen by scrying sensors. The creature falls into suspended animation and doesn't age. This can last for hundreds of years - you set the conditions to awaken them.


A lot of spells let you travel up to 500 feet. I am focusing on long distance travel spells.

Level 1

(PH page 256) Longstrider: The speed of one creature is increased by ten for one hour.

Level 2

(PH page 240) Find Steed: You summon a spirit that becomes your permanent mount. You have a telepathic bond with it.

Level 3

(PH page 243) Fly: One creature can fly for ten minutes.

(PH page 265) Phantom Steed: You summon a quasi-real horse-thing that has a speed of 100 feet. Lasts one hour.

Level 5

(PH page 282) Teleportation Circle: You make a circle that links to a permanent teleportation circle on the same plane that you know the sigil sequence to. Creating a permanent teleportation circle takes one year.

Level 7

(PH page 238) Etherealness: You can travel through the ethereal for up to 8 hours. 

(PH page 266) Plane Shift: You and eight creatures hold hands and travel to another plane or a teleportation circle on another plane.

(PH page 281) Teleport: You and up to eight creatures teleport to a location on the plane you are on. If you aren't familiar with the destination, there's a chart to roll on. Bad things can happen.

Level 9

(PH page 244) Gate: You can make a portal to another plane. Lasts up to a minute.

Spells in Your Campaign
If you are running a campaign where spellcasters aren't super-rare, that means that your group is likely to deal with certain lower level spells.

For example, a druid might contact the heroes by having a squirrel deliver a message through an animal messenger spell. Heroes going before the King might find that one of the court wizards is using detect thoughts to probe their mind. Sooner or later the group will probably meet a mystic that can cast clairvoyance once per day.

I really like the idea of running a campaign where NPCs cast every spell in the Player's Handbook by the time it is over. I doubt I could do it, but trying might lead to fun things. 

I also like the idea of the bad guy using a dream spell to confront a hero and give them one final warning.

Hopefully this will save some of you a bit of time and effort.


Anonymous said...

Identify specifically has its own problem in 5e. RAW, you can spend an hour just swinging a magic item around and randomly trying words; or maybe you just meditate over it, and you somehow mystically know everything there is to know about the item except for the fact that it's cursed. This REALLY devalues Identify as a spell, unless you want to test for that pesky curse.

I have never yet had a player take Identify, for this reason.

I have a houserule in my game that spending an hour and attuning to the item only teaches you the properties of the item that you could reasonably find out by trial and error. To learn less obvious properties, it requires Identify. Even this, however, has not tempted anyone to take Identify. They'd rather wait and take the item to an NPC mage to learn all the things that remain secret..

Sean said...

Anonymous: I agree, but I'm not sure what the solution is. If they remove the ability to sit for an hour and learn what the item does, that means that if the group doesn't have someone who can cast identify, they will end with items that have powers they'll never learn. They'll also waste a ton of game time just messing with each item they find.

Maybe the best way to handle it is to establish certain rules in your game world. Like, every item with a command word has a certain rune on it. Every item that has a unique power has an etching on it that gives a clue as to what that power is.


Jeremy Graten said...

You could decide to use a long rest instead of a short rest for those functions.

Unknown said...

I agree with both the idea that there needs to be a way of identifying magic items without identify AND that unfortunately the RAW makes the Identify Spell nearly useless. Yes, Identify helps against cursed items, but that is about it.

I like the idea that without the spell a player would only know the basics of the item. Yes the armor is +1 to AC, but you would need a spell or check to know it gives advantage against dragon breath effects.

My suggestion would be possibly an Arcana check that can be made by only 1 player once per day. I know that goes against this entire article, but the Arcana skill seems limited, this would beef up the skill and make Identify better for those unwilling to wait several days to find out the full uses of items.

Yardan said...

I agree with both the idea that there needs to be a way of identifying magic items without identify AND that unfortunately the RAW makes the Identify Spell nearly useless. Yes, Identify helps against cursed items, but that is about it.

I like the idea that without the spell a player would only know the basics of the item. Yes the armor is +1 to AC, but you would need a spell or check to know it gives advantage against dragon breath effects.

My suggestion would be possibly an Arcana check that can be made by only 1 player once per day. I know that goes against this entire article, but the Arcana skill seems limited, this would beef up the skill and make Identify better for those unwilling to wait several days to find out the full uses of items.

r0zzin said...

I like the variant rule for identifying magic items found in the DMG(p 136). Fore my games it all depends on the item, some may be easy to identify while others are not. Same with attunement, not everything is the same and some things need a bit more effort for it to work.
If no one in group can cast identify have NPC's to do it for them, for a cost of course.
The best thing about D&D is that once you understand the basics you can customize things how you like, its your world have fun and move past RAW. Just make sure to tell players before hand xD.

LURKEN said...

Identify doesnt even help against cursed items RAW, DMG 138 - "Most methods of identifying items, including the identify spell, fail to reveal such a curse"

Sean said...

Jeremy Graten: That could help! That might be a good experiment to try.

Yardan: That might work. I just hate the idea of the group wasting time wiggling a wand for 15 minutes of real life time.

r0zzin: Nice! I forgot all about this stuff in the DMG. That might be the way to go - spending an hour with the item gives you clues instead of telling you exact properties.

LURKEN: I don't like to give out cursed items except on super-rare occasions. I've never seen anything fun come out of them. I guess they could lead to something cool but I haven't seen it happen.

Patrick Henry Dollah said...

I'm not sure why people seem to think Identify is useless but it might be because they haven't read every line of the spell and are still thinking it operates like older versions of the rules. It only takes an hour to cast in earlier editions of the game, and it's prohibitively expensive in earlier editions as well.

In 5th edition, Identify only has a 1 minute casting time, which means that as a spell its meant to be cast relatively quickly when the party doesn't have time (or doesn't want) to rest. Want to figure out what that sword does so you can give it to the fighter before you open the door to the next room? 1 minute and Boom! You know what it does.

Identify is also a ritual spell, which means the casting time becomes 11 minutes and it doesn't expend a spell slot. This is what makes Identify so useful because so much of 5th edition is written as a high magic system where magic items are plentiful and routine. In every session I've run of 5th edition the players are determinedly trying to allot time in the dungeon for Identifying all of the weird crap they're picking up.

I don't remember what the RAW description for learning a magic items powers while resting were because everybody at my table thought that was weird and dumb and we never used it in my game.

Joshua Thrasher said...

Like Patrick said ritual cast it. Ritual caster feat and the spells in a spell book, or the basic ritual casting of the cleric and druid, or pact of the tome warlock with book of ancient secrets. There are ways around it without burning spells and spell slots. Most of the spells listed up there are tagged ritual, your evil villain has time to do the ritual casting of his/her spells.

Mike Stickler said...

#1 I'm old school and hate attunement and the whole "sleep with it under your pillow and you know everything about it.
#2 I'm going to give every wizard several extra utility spells at first level as these are typically tasks that the wizards master is likely to have the apprentice do.
#3 I don't do "you automatically learn two spells when you level"
#4 i give you a small chance to learn any spell you encounter even if that is only seeing it cast across the field of battle. Every time you see it, discuss it with another caster, glimpse in another spellbook, etc your chance increases and you get another opportunity to learn it.
#5 Want a spell you haven't encountered... That's what research is for.
#6 Certain spells are common knowledge in my games others are extremely rare.
#7 I litter my games with magic items that have no bearing on game mechanics... Weapons that don't rust, Sheaths that sharpen the blade while it's sheathed, ladles that heat whatever they stir... (Speaking of which I had a fighter beat a werewolf to death with such a ladle, it was both silver and magical and I ruled it would be effective as an improvised weapon.) - Consider these the side effect of wizards who don't yet know how to do any really useful stuff yet.
#8 I littler my games with cursed items that have very little mechanical bearing... Swords that shine brightly in the daylight but not in the dark. Items that convince their users they are worth much more than they really are... Etc Consider these the side effect of wizards who don't yet know how to do any really useful shit yet.
#9 You can learn about magic items but only once per day and you must spend some time using them... For example if the player is pretty sure they need a 15 to and surprisingly they hit on a 14 but not on a 13 then they just discovered its a +1 weapon (yes it's meta gaming but its a game mechanic explanation for a fighter realizing that he was a little bit better during that fight than he can explain)
#10 I love rituals.... So much so that I have expanded the ritual list to include a few more low level spells and some higher level spells but such spells typically take an hour to a whole day to cast.