Using Skills – Arcana

Last week we covered Athletics. After a hiccup in the order, I present to you Using Skills – Arcana! We are now back on schedule.

Using Skills – Arcana


A wizened scholar pores over an ancient text once thought of little note, but he is beginning to know better. A treasure hunter traces her finger over the sigil set into the chamber wall, remembering the right way to draw the symbol so as to not set off the ancient trap. The warlock repeats a phrase he learned early in his youth, once believing it to be a child’s rhyme but now knowing its true power. Arcana is the domain of arcane lore and secrets; the deep well of knowledge about the power that weaves itself throughout existence.

The Player’s Handbook describes it thus: “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.” (PHB pg.177)


Normal Usage

Arcana is the proficiency used when attempting to recall magical lore. Quite simply, if you arrive in a situation in which a component might be arcane in nature – such as a magical glyph on a dungeon wall, a strange text on magical theory, a creature of obvious magical nature – you can use your Arcana check to see if that is something you know anything about. The DM will set a DC based on the likelihood of this, and might outright tell you that you haven’t heard about it if it is not possible for you to have learned about it anywhere before.

This makes this check, and other “lore” skills, pretty broad in application and quite dependent on the Dungeon Master to really be of any use. Hopefully your dungeon master is designing with lore skills in mind. On the other hand, using this skill might provide your game with entertaining improv, giving the DM the sudden inspiration that only an immediate deadline can give about what to tell you about an arcane object or situation in the game.

A secondary use for Arcana is for the detection and disabling of magical traps (DMG pg. 120).


What it is Not

  • Detect Magic or Identify – This is not a skill that allows you to know the specific properties of a magical item or whether or not something is definitely magical. It might be used to contextualize an object that would give you a good idea of these two theories, but you cannot know anything definite unless you actually use these spells on it. For example, you might come across an unidentified ancient sword. Rolling a check, the DM tells you that you recognize it as a blade that is noted for its magically keen edge. However, you still need to cast identify (or spend a short rest focusing on the item as per pg 136 of the DMG) to determine that it is a +1 vorpal longsword.
  • Other Knowledge Skills – The other lore skills are Nature, History, and Religion. If there is a question involving the gods and demons (though as residents of other planes one could make a case to allow at least some Arcana on these), or religious rituals that goes to Religion. If there is a question specifically about the past, that goes to History. If there is a question involving herb-lore, weather, or terrain that goes to Nature. These might bleed together occasionally (see the earlier example about the ancient sword), but determining the focus of the piece of lore you are trying to recall should determine what check you are using. In that case, the sword itself is the focus and not that a ancient elven noble family once wielded it (which would call for History).


Optional Uses

The following are optional or edge cases for Arcana, and are entirely dependent on the Dungeon Master.

  • Identifying an Item – As mentioned above, Arcana doesn’t actually identify an item giving you its exact in game properties. However, the Dungeon Master might allow you to use Arcana to do just that. It should require a difficult DC, starting at 15 for common and consumable magical items and going up by 5 for every rarity level above that.
  • Explaining magic – The DM might let you use your Arcana check in social situations. Doing so sees how effective you are in explaining magical theory or other arcane subjects to those who are not learned in this area. This could be useful if your goal is to convince someone or a group of people of the magical danger they are in, or of an impending magical event that needs to be prepared for, or of the proper way in which to do an important ritual involving multiple people. Hearing it from the educated person instead of just the person most persuasive might lend it more credence.


Dungeon Master Examples

The following examples are meant to inspire the Dungeon Master to design with Arcana in mind. Dungeons and Dragons settings are magical in their nature. The arcane, weird, and occult wait sleeping in the dark places of the world to be discovered by curious adventurers. Do your ruins ever have that layer of “the other”? Used sparingly, giving your PCs a chance to use their arcane knowledge can add a sense of mystery and magic to your sessions.

  • The Sigils – There was an ancient culture whose language was made up of complex swirling pictograms. It was a magical language, and using an ink brush you had to create the symbol in an exact way for it to be valid; thus you had to know the exact brush strokes -the direction to brush, the starting points, and the ending points. These sigils were sometimes carved into doors and walls, and in order to open the doors or to reveal secret passages, you had to trace the symbol just as if you were writing it. Doing so wrongly could result in a nasty magical trap. In order to recall the right way of doing a certain symbol, a DC 15 Intelligence (Arcana) check is necessary if the PC would have any knowledge of this culture. Once they have done a symbol correctly, they do not need to roll for that specific symbol any more if they come across it again.
  • The Library Contest – A magical academy holds an annual contest in its library. The purpose is to, in the time given, find the rarest piece of knowledge in the vast vaults of the library. This provides a competition for the great researchers of the area, and also helps the library catalogue any great knowledge that might have gone missing through the long years of its existence. The grand prize might be a spell or a tome, or perhaps the knowledge of the thing you found itself. To determine a PCs progress, have them roll a series of Arcana checks. They can roll up to six times, however if any roll is below a 15 they must stop.

15: 1 point

20: 3 points

25: 5 points

30: 10 points

Determine competitors point totals before hand by rolling or choosing arbitrarily. Make sure to come up with a number of arcane secrets to discover. If the competitor is a wizard a spell to add to their spell-book is a particularly fun prize.

Next week we will be exploring the shadowy world of Deception. Stay tuned!

Author: Patrick McGill of 9th Key Press

Content creator for 9th Key Press.

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