Book of Elements (3.5e Sourcebook)/Magic Items

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Magic Items[edit]

I need to borrow your pants. It's for the petrification trap. Honest.

Magic items are absolutely essential to an adventurer; an adventurer without their magic items is not an adventurer. People remember Aladdin because of his magic lamp, King Arthur because of Excalibur and its scabbard, and Jason for the Golden Fleece. The really great heroes that supposedly don't need their items to be big actually have more items than everyone else. Herakles, the original trophy collector made an invulnerable lion into armor and has arrows poisoned with the blood of the Hydra. Without their items, these heroes would not be the adventurers they are.

Most of the fixes for magic items being given here have been done already in the Book of Gears draft. A few parts are new here, though.

Magic Item Slots[edit]

PCs and important NPCs get a total of eight magic item slots. Unimportant NPCs shouldn't have enough magic items to make you care. Really. Any magic item you are getting benefits from takes a slot. The sword in your hand does, but the one hanging from your hip doesn't, nor does the dagger in your boot. You can stack as many similarly-shaped items as you want within physical possibility (no two suits of armor) and the eight-item limit. You can't get bonuses to the same thing from multiple items, regardless of bonus types. Nothing physically prevents you from wearing more magic items than this, but you can't gain benefits from them. Changing the benefits you get from a magic item takes a minute if you're wearing it, or fifteen minutes if it's the kind of item that sits in your lair and benefits you from there (such as a crystal ball or Mirror of Life Trapping). Carried items, like weapons, can be switched out as easily as the nonmagical kind, so activating a magic sword can be done as a move action, or as part of a move with a BAB of +1 or higher, or as a free action with at least one rank in Sleight of Hand. Switching in magic items is something that must be done willingly, if the character whose items are being swapped in or out is conscious; switching out magic items is the same unless the item is unattended (like a Crystal Ball or Mirror of Life Trapping).

So, what takes a magic item slot? Any item that provides a continuous benefit to you, or a benefit whenever you take a certain kind of action. So your magic sword does, as do your Sneaking boots and Tumbling belt. Items that must be activated, like wands, usually do not take a magic item slot. Those items only take a magic item slot when they provide a beneficial effect of non-instantaneous duration. They can be used with magic item slots in one of two ways:

  • Two single-target spell effects can occupy a single magic item slot on their beneficiary. So if you drink a Potion of Bull's Strength, that takes a magic item slot, but if you then read a Scroll of Haste, that can fit into the same magic item slot, but a Wand of Invisibility would take a second magic item slot if you already had both up.
  • One such item can occupy a magic item slot belonging to its user, provided that either the user can cast spells of a higher level than the effect, or the effect is a 1st or 0th-level spell. So if you use a Wand of Bless on your party, it counts as one of your eight magic items until the spell expires. You can't take the item out of the slot while the spell is still in effect if you choose to use it this way.

Regardless of the way you choose, though, instantaneous items like healing potions, wands of fireball, and so on don't take magic item slots.

Option 2 works differently for users that can't cast higher-level spells than the effect they're using an item for. Each item takes up a slot from the time it is used until the user refreshes their spell slots. Scrolls of multiple spells count as one single item, as can an unlimited number of scrolls of the same spell no matter how many times it's written. The item occupies its slot until the user refreshes spell slots (or rests for eight hours, if the item was activated with Use Magic Device), not for its own duration; instantaneous effects still take up a slot. They can still choose option 1 if the effect only applies to them. This means that the fighter doesn't have to stick their stack of healing potions in a magic item slot; it's a bunch of separate instantaneous "buffs", but a wand of Delayed Blast Fireball counts as an item the wizard is using until he rests.

Magic Item Types[edit]

There are a bunch of kinds of magic items available, so classifying them is actually more than a little difficult. One of the more obvious ways is by power, under which magic items can be classified as Minor, Lesser, Moderate, Major and Artifacts. This section mostly deals with minor items, since most of the items people will use are variations on them, or are OK as they stand.

What does a good magic item look like? Pretty much every item in the DMG that doesn't have "gives you a straight numerical bonus" as its primary power is fine or mostly fine. The numeric bonus items make us cry, so we have to change them and make them scale, like the Book of Gears says. All of these items are minor magic items. Here's the bonus list, reprinted and slightly modified:

  • Enhancement Bonus (Weapon or Armor): +1 per 3 character levels
  • Enhancement Bonus (Attribute): +2 per 6 character levels (1-9 +2, 10-15 +4, 16-21 +6)
  • Enhancement Bonus to something else (Natural Armor, DR, SR): +1 per 3 character levels
  • Resistance Bonus to saving throws: +1 per 3 character levels
  • Resistance Bonus to a single saving throw: +1 per 2 character levels
  • Competence Bonus to Skills: +1 per character level or per 3 character levels*
  • Energy Resistance to any one energy type: +1 per character level
  • Energy Resistance to all energy types: +1 per 4 character levels
  • Deflection bonus to AC: +1 per 4 character levels
  • Extra spell slot of your highest castable spell level**

*Skill bonus items provide a bonus equal to character level that does not stack with ranks. They can also provide a third this bonus (rounded up) which does stack with ranks. Select whichever mode gives the higher final bonus.
**Anything that grants you an extra spell slot takes an item slot from when you prepare/ready slots with it until you prepare spells/ready your slots without it. Anything that lets you cast a spell without expending its slot, or recover a cast slot, eats an item slot from use until you reset your spell slots.

These bonuses round up and scale indefinitely. Note that specified bonuses and general bonuses to the same thing, such as Resistance Bonuses to a single saving throw and resistance bonuses to all saving throws, do not stack with eachother. Each such bonus you have costs a magic item slot and counts as a minor magic item. More powerful items don't grant bonuses to more things (those take up more slots). Instead, they add other abilities. Minor items can be created with Wish, or by anyone with the appropriate Item Creation feat and maybe a single spell prerequisite. Even if an item is made to grant a nonstandard bonus, it doesn't stack with other bonuses granted by items, and nonstandard bonus items don't scale. Since armor class bonuses are hard to come by except in item form, different types of standard AC bonuses stack with eachother, but not with nonstandard bonuses.

A basic scaling item has the same cost and prerequisites as a +2 item of its type. So a scaling weapon costs like a +2 weapon, scaling armor costs like +2 armor, and scaling Gauntlets of Ogre Power cost like Gauntlets of Ogre Power.

Examples of appropriate powers are given in the Book of Gears. For weapons, armor, and shields, any +1 weapon or armor ability, or armor ability available for a straight cost increase of up to +5,000 GP, is an acceptable Lesser ability. Any +2 or +3 ability or sum of abilities, or ability of up to 20,000 GP cost addition is an acceptable moderate item. Major items usually have up to +5 in abilities and linear armor cost additions of up to 80,000, but anything greater is still a major item. Any Wondrous Item on the minor treasure table that uses the same body position as an item that provides a numeric bonus is an appropriate lesser power for an item providing said numeric bonus, so a Cloak of Charisma (minor item) can also be a Cloak of the Manta Ray and add up to a Lesser Item. The medium treasure table is fine to dive through for moderate powers (Gauntlets of Ogre Power can also be Gauntlets of Rust or Gloves of Storing). Major magic items from the table are can be major magic items on their own, and are still major magic items if they grant a numeric bonus like a minor item. You can have, for example, a Flying Carpet of Fire Resistance that flies and gives fire resistance equal to your character level even when you're just carrying it, or an ordinary Flying Carpet that only takes up a magic item slot to drive.

The Scrolls, Potions and Wands sections of the DMG are fine, if a little bland. Scrolls cannot be created with Wish for free if any single spell has the product of its spell level times caster level greater than 45, although scrolls with several qualifying spells can be created, as can piles of scrolls. Any better scroll means that a powerful spellcaster set aside a day or more on their calendar to make it. This is so that people don't simply stop preparing spells and switch over to their infinite pile of spells more powerful than they can prepare as soon as they learn how to slap genies around. No matter how few charges it is created with, an item that is worth more than 15,000 GP fully charged can never be created with Wish. Also, a limited use item that grants wishes can only grant wishes up to a certain cost, paid on creation; unlimited-use items can only grant free wishes.


Artifacts are powerful enough that they get their own section here. They can be based on any power scale of magic item, although there are very few artifacts based on minor items. They almost always have unique names and histories, but some of them are new and made by particularly powerful PCs. Naturally, most of the artifacts in the DMG aren't actually any good, although some of them are traditional ways to end a campaign (like the Deck of Many Things), so here are some rules to allow you to make artifacts you might actually care about.

The basic idea of an artifact is that it's an item that has its own level, built on the general chassis of a minor item, with powers added to make it a lesser, moderate, or major item. Very few are mere minor items, although nothing keeps you from making one if you want to. If the artifact's wielder is lower level than the artifact, the artifact scales as though the wielder was the artifact's level. If the wielder is higher level, the artifact stops caring about its own level and scales to its wielder's level. If Excalibur is a 14th level artifact, for instance, in the hands of a 2nd-level boy-king, it's a +5 sword; in the hands of a 9th-level experienced champion, it's a +5 sword, but in the hands of a 16th level once and future king, it's a +6 sword.

Some, perhaps most, artifacts are also really hard to destroy. This is modelled by giving them enormous hardnesses and hit points, and, as a fallback measure after that, repairing artifacts is easy and many have contingent Wish effects, either built into them or cast by people periodically watching them, so if they're destroyed they come back. Regardless, there are often contrived ways around this for specific artifacts that will permanently destroy them, although a PC a few levels higher than an artifact should be able to just destroy it by smashing it and wishing it gone a few times.

Making an Artifact costs the same as making the normal item, plus 500 GP times the square of the artifact's level, as a creation cost. The market price for an artifact is generally twice that, although artifacts are seldom found on the market.

Dealing in Items[edit]

Sometimes people will have a magic item that they and all their friends can't use. In those cases they may want to sell the item and use it to buy a new one. For minor and lesser items, this is easy because people will buy and sell them for gold in places that have laws that cover that sort of thing. Even some medium items can be traded that way, although finding one to your specifications can be difficult. For more powerful items, that's more than a little tricky, since no amount of gold is a fair price for them, and most people aren't even strong enough to safely hold them. If you really want to sell them for gold anyway, you can usually find some kingdom or archmage willing to offer large amounts of gold for them, but in most cases you have to find someone who has something you want and wants what you have, and arrange a trade. Fortunately, powerful adventurers are not known for their low profiles, so finding a few of the local high-end adventurers is a trivial task in places that have any. These trades are extremely risky, though, since both sides are trading magic items with people who professionally stab others in the face and steal their magic items. Also, selection on these trades is likely to be very, very limited.

Another option is to trade them for high-end planar currencies. Because planar currencies represent potential and magic items are a specific thing, there is a much higher demand for lich souls than there is for Rods of Thunder and Lightning, even if the latter has the same listed value as the former. So people trying to offload magic items quickly can usually only trade them for half their value. Doing this almost always requires going to a large planar metropolis where the trade in planar currencies thrives, such as Finality, the City of Brass, or the City of Glass. Selection is usually better in these places, too, since the planar currencies obtained can be used to commission other items, and there's a large supply of crafters and even secondhand magic items. These trades are also usually safer, if significantly less lucrative, than trading in the wilderness.

Wealth By Level[edit]

Wealth by level is a terrible idea. It limits the kinds of adventures you can play by requiring the PCs to be rich, but not too rich, and it unacceptably strains the world's verisimilitude when it comes to crafting, trading, or other possible adventures. So we're getting rid of it. By mid-teen levels, the eight-item limit and the limitations of scaling items should hopefully restrict players to level-appropriate power. Characters should probably get at least one permanent minor item each, every level 3rd and after. As they gain more levels, their treasures should likewise increase, with lesser items coming online around 5th level and so on, medium items somewhere around 7th to 9th level, and so on.

Parties that face and kill a lot of humanoid NPCs should, naturally, have more treasure. This is actually fine, since the main concern you have is your ability to use all your items. PCs in such a situation, then, just get a bigger batcave than other characters, and have more of their item slots filled with top-tier items, just not necessarily items they want. Humanoid NPCs can also be equipped the same as PCs without doubling your wealth and power, which is awesome.

Making Magic Items[edit]

Making magic items is simple. It requires access to the rare components the item needs, or, for powerful items, sufficient planar currencies and the ability to use them. The creator then puts in the cost and the time, and the item is made. EXP costs don't work, so they go away. The biggest constraint on creating magic items is time, and time can be used to substitute for other things: given enough time, a magic longsword can be made out of wood, dirt and rocks. Many adventurers won't have the downtime to craft items, and many will; regardless, taking large amounts of downtime means having the party stop adventuring for a time, and sit up at the top of a tower or in a dungeon crafting items with which to accomplish their aims. This exactly describes people who find themselves on the wrong end of an adventure, which provides an incentive for PCs to not tarry too long. Rare components to craft wish-generable magic items are arbitrary, specific to each item or shared between a few, and treated as trade goods; they can be bought in any settlement with a GP limit of at least their cost unless it's important to the adventure hook that they not be. They can also be found as loot for adventures or even by just going out into the wilderness and looking for them.

More powerful items have to be made with planar currencies, like the following:

  • Souls. The souls of powerful creatures contain a powerful magic that can be tapped for a number of purposes. Rules for the collection and use of Souls are given in the Tome of Fiends.
  • Concentration. Ideas take form, and given time and pressure in Mechanus, can solidify into an essence usable in crafting items. Rules for the use of Concentration will be given in the Book of Civilization.
  • Magic Gems. Many D&D worlds posit the existence of their own special magic gems, but magic gems exist in all settings. These can't be made with Wish and can be used to make items. Rules for the use of Magic Gems will be given in the Book of the Wilds.
  • Raw Chaos. Limbo is made of chaos, constantly forming and destroying new material, mostly elements. Sometimes, though, raw chaos doesn't actually form into anything and can be found there or anywhere else, often in the elemental planes. Those with sufficiently strong will and the right feats from this book can make it form into magic items and demiplanes.
  • Hope. This is the major currency of the Upper Planes, although the Lower Planes aren't above making things out of people's shattered dreams. Rules for the use of Hope will be found in the Book of Stars.
  • Bound Elementals. Binding an elemental into an item works a lot like making an item with souls, because that's exactly what you are doing except that the elemental is still alive. The rules for using bound elementals are also in this book.

To make an item with planar currency, you have to just have its cost to create, in planar currencies, a proper mundane or (usually) masterwork item (if needed), and all the item's prerequisites. Everything else can be done with magic from the above list; you don't need any other reagents. These items take the normal amount of time to create (1 day per 1000 GP of item). Concentration, Hope, Souls, and Raw Chaos are not usually compatible with eachother in making the same item, and so most items can only be made with one of them. Also, items made with bound elementals typically must either have the elements in balance, with no two elementals being of the same type, or must be of one element, with all bound elementals being of the same type. A few special items might be made differently, with more or unbalanced elementals, or combining incompatible essences, but in general only one kind of planar currency should be used. Also, only one Raw Chaos should be involved in any single magic item.

Other EXP Costs[edit]

EXP costs are bad for the game, so we are doing away with them as actual costs that must be paid, with a few exceptions. Instead, the EXP cost to cast a spell refers to either the amount of planar currency that must be used to fuel it. Souls, Concentration, Hope, and Raw Chaos all have a value listed in experience points (for instance, Souls are worth 20 EXP times the square of the CR of the creature within), and any of them can be used to pay experience costs.

The Wish spell is an exception; its experience costs are actual experience costs that must be paid in your own experience points, or those of the person you're reviving if you're reviving the dead. Also, since it should have been already, Limited Wish is free for all uses. The Miracle spell description has a list of Miracles that you can get for free, and then some vague guidelines on what you can't. While the spell will be fixed more thoroughly and made more distinct from Wish in the Book of Stars, until then it's probably wise to use the list of Miracles that are free from the spell description and the list of Wishes that aren't from the Tome of Fiends.

You can go a bit more radical and get rid of EXP entirely, like the Book of Gears suggests and many people already do. In this case, even Wish either pays EXP costs in planar currency, or in some other resource. For instance, you may have an EXP allowance where you're allowed to pay a certain amount of EXP costs per level, similar to an Eberron artificer. Depending on how often people are supposed to be using exp-consuming wishes, the DM will want to set the EXP allowance higher or lower. More information on EXP-less advancement systems, alternate systems for EXP costs, and so on, will be given in the Book of Stars. Also, if you're using planar currency as fuel, using Wish to increase the power of an item should only grant 5 GP of value per XP spent, since otherwise it actually has the same cost as making it the long way, and you can Wish in combat.

Fueling things with souls raises some important questions. While its fine and dandy if any given piece of Concentration or Raw Chaos is consumed forever, people tend to be a bit pickier about souls. Any use of souls to fuel a spell gives the spell the [evil] descriptor, and souls cannot be used to fuel a spell with the [good] descriptor. Exactly what happpens to the soul depends on the effect used:

  • Atonement, Commune, Planar Ally: Soul is given to the caster's patron, who must be bargained with for its release if anyone else wants it (if it isn't resold or used)
  • Awaken: Soul is bound to the Awakened creature. Requires Craft of the Soulstealer feat. The awakened creature is its own person, not the stolen soul, although the stolen soul might be able to talk to it sometimes. This is usually upsetting enough to eventually drive the creature to random violence or self-destruction.
  • Gate: Soul is paid in tribute or used to bait for the called creature and not released until it dies.
  • Genesis: Soul is bound into the created demiplane, and released when the demiplane is destroyed. It's that hard. Requires Craft of the Soulstealer.
  • Permanency: Soul is bound to the spell, and released when the Permanency is dispelled or the target is destroyed. Requires Craft of the Soulstealer or Devour the Soul; the latter only works for self-targeted effects.
  • Greater Restoration, Vision: Soul is scattered.
  • Simulacrum: Soul is bound into the Simulacrum for use as fuel, although the soul is never depleted, just like when it's used to fuel a magic item. Requires Craft of the Soulstealer.

Souls that are listed as "scattered" are scattered across the Astral or Ethereal plane, and finding them requires a Discern Location, Wish, or Miracle or several plus actually gathering the pieces and putting them back together to release it. Once any soul is released, and not before then, it goes on to its afterlife and can be returned from the dead.

Raw Chaos[edit]

Since Raw Chaos is the new planar currency for this book, it's appropriate to go into detail on it here. Raw chaos can have any size, shape, weight, color, and so on, and the same piece of raw chaos can have a different appearance at different times, when looked at from different angles, or even just by different people, but, regardless, it is portable (even if it's big enough that it takes a Portable Hole). You either have Raw Chaos or you don't; it doesn't come in quantities. If someone who has raw chaos tries to acquire more, it usually repels and refuses to be carried by the same person. People with the Reality Shaper feat can force their own Raw Chaos to take any appearance, shape, size, and weight they want as a standard action, although they can't abuse this to smash through floors or create black holes.

Glyphs and Wards[edit]

Hey, is it bad that the runes are glowing now?

Magic is a staple part of many D&D traps, and the most common trigger mechanism for such a trap is a magic glyph. Magical runes have at times been implied to have the power to determine a character's alignment, their level, their class, even what they've eaten recently. That's not good for anyone, and we cannot suggest that it be allowed. So here's what Runes do: first, they are constantly taking 20 on a Listen check. That means that you need to make a Move Silently check DC 21 to sneak past one. It also means that they will, generally speaking, hear a command word to turn off or turn on. A Magic Rune can also have a detection spell embedded in them, which last until the rune triggers. So a rune might be set to go off as soon as a source of "Good" was brought to within 10 feet of the Rune. A Rune might also simply be set to go off whenever any creature moves through its area while it is active (being activated and deactivated with command words set when the rune is), or when the rune is touched. The parameters of a rune can be determined with a DC 20 + Spell Level Knowledge (Arcana) check.

Spells for Glyphs[edit]

Glyphs have none of the senses that most creatures are accustomed to except for hearing, and so giving them senses requires using spells that are often a waste of a spell slot for a creature to prepare them. Both of the spells below may be put into glyphs as trigger mechanisms when the glyph is created, just as if they were detect spells.

Discern Ancestry
Level: Bard 2, Sorcerer/Wizard 3
Components: V, S
Casting time: 1 standard action
Range: 60 ft.
Target: One creature/round
Duration: Concentration, up to one round/level
Saving Throw: Will Negates (harmless)
Spell Resistance: None

You pick any creature you can unambiguously identify, living or deceased, and can tell if the target has that creature as a direct ancestor (parent, grandparent, and so on, but not aunts or uncles). It does not reveal the exact relationship, nor does it even tell the number of intervening generations. This only detects blood relations, not adoption (barring powerful magic used at the adoption). Each round, you can pick a new target, a new ancestor, or both. This spell may be imbued into a Glyph, but it does not allow the glyph to detect people, only to identify those it has already detected. The Glyph can identify the ancestry of everyone it detects at once, but it can only detect one specific ancestor.

This spell can be used as a cheap and unreliable race detector by specifying "the first human" or "the first goblin." Unreliable because this is D&D and D&D has a bunch of crossbreeding, so anything might have the first human as one of its ancestors. Also because you can rebuild yourself as a new race without changing your ancestry. I have no idea how that works, but it's been published.

Discern Lighting Level
Level: Bard 0, Cleric 0, Druid 0, Sorcerer/Wizard 0
Components: V, S
Casting time: 1 action
Range: Personal
Target: You
Duration: 1 minute/level
Saving Throw: None (harmless)
Spell Resistance: No (harmless)

The caster learns the ambient lighting level that their body is exposed to. If his body is exposed to multiple at the same time, he learns only of the one that has the greatest amount of area. This spell also updates the caster as lighting levels change. Lighting levels are as follows: Darkness, Shadowy Illumination, Full Torchlight, Bright light, and Full Sunlight; the latter three have no differences in game effect except for creatures with light sensitivity (further rules for lighting will be given in the Book of the Wilds). This spell may be imbued into a Glyph.


Portals are the major way of getting around the planes, and it's appropriate that something be given about them here. The Create Portal feat given in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting is hilariously bad, since it required the ability to cast an 8th level spell, and you could just replicate it with Craft Wondrous Item and custom items anyway. A portal may take the form of a literal portal, a doorway that connects two places, or they can be a teleportation circle or area of floor, or a room that teleports when the door is closed or a button is pressed, whatever, no matter what spell you actually use. Sometimes they're all glowy and/or covered in runes, sometimes they're no different from the rest of the floor. This latter kind are usually thought of as traps.

So, instead, portals are created with the Fortress Mage or Magical Artifice feats. A portal to a specific place on the same plane takes the Teleport spell (although Greater Teleport, Teleportation Circle, and anything similar are acceptable alternatives). A portal to another plane takes Plane Shift at minimum, although Gate can be used. Also, portals to a preset destination are perfectly accurate (no matter how inaccurate the spell used is), although you have to teleport to the destination as part of crafting the portal. That is, you have to find a way, not necessarily in one hop, to teleport from point A to point B and then get back in a hurry. You can stay the night and prepare spells at Point B if you want, but not much more. Portals work through barriers that would block normal teleportation, although not being able to teleport directly make teleporting to build the portal more difficult. A portal with a single destination costs 30,000 GP in planar currency to create, each way; a portal with variable destinations adds 15,000 GP worth per additional destination. That's cost to create; base price is twice that, so it takes one day for each 500 GP in the cost to create, unless you have a way to build it faster. The second half of a two-way portal only costs half what the first half did.

A portal can lead to places, but not to things. What this means is deliberately vague and can only be clarified through example. At a minimum, it means that if a portal's destination moves with something, where the portal lets off has to be on that something, and that something has to be big enough to carry it. Probably a bit bigger, too, depending on what can go through the portal. A portal that a person should go through should probably not let off on an elephant saddle, or on a boat, but it might be able to let out onto a large ship, though. A mobile flying castle is fine, too. If the portal is able to move relative to a barrier, though, then it can't teleport through it. A portal on a mobile cloud island might be able to go through the island, but not through an intervening mountain or planet. Two-way portals fare a bit better, though; as long as one way can bypass a barrier, both ways can. So a portal from a cave to a cloud island and back works.

Portals can be keyed to require a specific item or kind of item, password, time, or whatever to operate. They're a lot like glyphs, that way, and can be keyed to anything a provided detect spell can detect or anything else that can be put into a glyph. Adding such an effect to a portal costs 1000 GP per spell level per caster level, using the parameters for the detect spell (not the portal itself), with 0-level spells counting as 1/2 level. Some portals can also be keyed to require a specific spell to be cast on them. Generally, any portal will stay open for a few (1d4+1) rounds or minutes (depending on the portal) after being opened with a key, but some require the key for any operation. The latter variety costs an extra 10,000 GP worth of planar currencies.

Keys are often used as controls for portals to multiple destinations; a portal might lead to one destination with one key and another destination entirely with a second. A portal might also have multiple different keys for the same destination that work independently, or a three-part key that it only needs two of, or whatever. Regardless of key, a Use Magic Device check can emulate pretty much any key a portal may have, even objects (typically DC 30, DC 40 for one-of-a-kind objects) or ancestry (DC 30), or even specific times (DC 20 for times that happen at least once per day, 25 if once per month, 30 if once per year, 40 for once per decade, 50 for once per century, and so on). A portal with an unknown key can be activated with Use Magic Device at a -10 penalty; in that case, a portal with multiple destinations leads to a random one.

There was a pretty awful Gygaxian trick to have a portal that leads to two places at the same time, one for creatures and the other for objects, so you go through and you're naked and your stuff's somewhere else. That's bad for the game, and those portals don't exist. Carried or worn objects always go where the creature using them goes. A portal still might take a rock that you toss through it to one place and send you to another; that's just a keyed multiple portal.

There are also naturally-occurring portals. These can open pretty much at random, from almost any point A to almost any point B. They behave fairly similarly to artificial portals, except even more arbitrary. While a created portal would have its destination set and be keyed to fit the needs of its creator, a natural portal is simply a rift connecting two arbitrary points, with no guarantees that that destination is useful, that it has a way back, or that the key (if it has one) makes immediate sense. Ancestry is very rare as a naturally-occuring portal key, although ancestry-based natural portals do exist, mostly in and to areas with ties to a specific ancestral line, usually with one end in a divinely-morphic plane.

Spells exist to tell you this information about portals. You can also use Identify or Analyze Dweomer exactly as if they were magic items, which they are.

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ComponentV + and S +
LevelBard 2 +, Sorcerer/Wizard 3 +, Bard 0 +, Cleric 0 +, Druid 0 + and Sorcerer/Wizard 0 +
RangeOther + and Personal +
SchoolDivination +
SummaryDetermine if a creature has a specific ancestor. + and Determine how bright of light is shining on you +