How the Identify Spell Destroys the World

This article assumes that 1st level identify spells are used in identifying and validating a large range of magical items whenever a magic item changes hands.  For example, when an item comes out of a dungeon, when taken off an enemy after a battle, when validating an item’s nature, during a financial transaction, or with death and wills and the pearl is consumed in the spell

Components: V, S, M (a pearl worth at least 100 gp and an owl feather)

– D&D 5th Edition Players Handbook, page 252

Seldom do the clam divers find wild pearls.  Only one in a thousand divers slices open a clam and finds a perfect white glittering orb inside.  Pearls are a misfired immunization response to possible invaders within the clam shell – a round orb of calcites working as white blood cells to entrap a speck of dirt.  A quirk of evolution which, before the Divination School of Magic, was simply a pleasant happenstance which neither worked for nor against the clam’s continued ability to reproduce and exist.  The wealthy craved pearls for their extreme rarity.  A string of wild pearls was worth a million gold.  And then, pearls became a core part of the magic item economy.

The Divination School of Magic set up local Identify shops in every major town, city-state and trade cross-roads in the world.  They work like any medieval guild: they enforce a certain level of service quality among their members, police services members can sell, and drive the right to who can and cannot set up shop.  They maintain monopolies in their territory.  And, like any other guild, they also offer members a carrot on a stick – the possibility the most diligent, most hardworking, and best diviners entrance into higher levels of Divination Mysteries. With entrance comes training in higher level divination wizarding spells.  The Grandmasters of the Divination School of Magic are the best Diviners in the world – and rightly so because they have mastery over the spell Foresight.   

Diviners in the local shops are 1st level Wizards trained in basic low level divination spells and cantrips.   They dream of notice by the higher ups in their Guild so they can abandon their storefronts and go into actual wizarding.  To do that, they must show a little entrepreneurial spirit and set up their kiosks where they will cast a high rate of identify spells per week.   Every town with a major Adventurer or Magic Item presence has an Identify Kiosk.  The Diviner needs a constant source of pearls worth at least 100 gp to service his clientele. 

It’s unreasonable to expect Adventurers will supply pearls but perfectly reasonable to assume Adventurers will supply at least 100 gp.  The Diviner buys pearls in bulk from a supplier and burns them in his spell-casting. We’ll get back to the Identify Kiosk in a few paragraphs but walk way with the scene of a Diviner at level 1 casting identify on a sword unearthed from a nearby ruin.

The Supplier of pearls is a merchant’s guild broker from one of two mercantile sea-side city states at war.  The city states are at war over pearls.

Originally, pearls were rare things the merchants found in distant bazaars and sent to their home cities with big batches of black pepper, rare textiles, and spices.  Merchants used these rare pearls to sell to or bribe the nobility.  Once the Diviner’s School of Magic started buying pearls in bulk, the traders had classic supply and demand on their hands.  They could sell the one rare pearl for an extraordinarily high price or they could feed the aggregate demand – but they needed to keep prices high, since pearls must possess worth at least 100 gp. The race was on, Lawrence of Arabia-style, to find enough pearl farmers so the merchant’s guilds could have fun with aggregate pearl pricing, and selling pearls in the pricing band.  Things got twitchy once they located pearl farmers and supply lines stood up.

Pearl farming is a slow and dangerous business.  Farmers seed clams and then harvest them underwater.  Then farmers must wait an entire year before the pearls are harvestable.  Beds are only good for 2-7 years and then beds rotate.  Worse, it’s trivial for a clam diver to get swept up in currents and drown.  Magic helps but clam farmers must expect casualties every season and magic is quite expensive.  Unless one mitigates all those expenses.  Brutally.

A sudden deluge of purchase requests from traders where there were none before incentivizes the clam farmers to produce pearls at an extraordinarily high rate and with a crushingly low overhead to maximize their profits.  They require large clam farms, dangerous work, large workforces, and a quick replacement policy for those who die on the job.  Merfolk are cheap, work underwater, are kept in cages, and fed chum.  Remember all those low level adventures with fighting slavers?  Why were slavers enslaving people?  Pearl farming on an industrial scale to feed the voracious appetites of mercantile city states who have found a customer.  And don’t forget the occasional enslaved wizard.  Need to cast those spells to allow Management to breathe underwater and cast the occasional identify to check batch quality. That guy is on an adventure of his own.

Two city-states in close physical proximity selling pearls have a rent problem.  The rent problem is simple: there are two of them. 

Profits magnitude is not by who makes the most money overall but who makes more than the other guy.  Say, for example, City State A and City State B both use the same slaver pearl farmers to get their supply and the pearl quality is roughly equal.  Since they both provide the same service, and they both have their own merchant guilds selling pearls wholesale to diviners, they will both make equal profits.  Sure, they backstab and murder while competing over groups of diviners and exclusive contracts but aggregated overall, both city states make the same money. If, suddenly, City State A reduces City State B to a smoking ruin via giant fireballs and could no longer offer the same service, City State A could offer better service for the same price and sell into City State B’s customer base.   City State A’s profits would be magnified by how much City State B loses.  And then City State A could start extracting monopoly rents from the Diviner School of Magic to raise pearl prices to exorbitant heights because where are you going to buy pearls?  City State B?  Why, they’re a ruin!

In infinite worlds, surely one exists where the two city states work out territories peacefully.  Happily. They shake hands.  Everyone hugs. In the other infinity-1 worlds, both cities hire a bunch of mercenaries, load some fireballs into trebuchets, and go to town.

History provides many means to enforce a monopoly but the most popular is violence. 

And now, the pirates and black market.  The Diviner’s School of Magic prefers a complete monopoly on the casting of identify spells.  It is, after all, a divination spell and they are duly authorized to provide divinations. With enough money bribed to nobility and local magistrates, pearl supply and the casting of licensed and regulated identify spells are the sole province of properly licensed diviners.  Any old wizard casting a divination is unlicensed and perhaps illegal.  We don’t want wrong information about magic items getting passed around, do we?

Claiming the illegality of a 1st level and highly common wizard spell considering the political pull of high level wizards is a bit unreasonable.  But it is not unreasonable to outlaw the handling of pearls without proper license.  Black markets spring up when people desire certain substance but it is highly controlled or outlawed.  The market, here, are non-Divination School of Magic wizards with adventuring groups.  The supply comes from hijacking and theft – piracy.

Since pearl farming needs specific species of clams, the pearl farmer plantations operate overseas in exotic lands.  When a batch is ready for market, farmers load pearls onto large shipping boats and the pearls head for trading mercantile hubs.  Pirates hunt cargo cogs in well known shipping lanes, board ships, steal pearls, kidnap high value hostages, and sink the boats to the bottom of the sea.  Piracy is incredibly expensive for City State A and City State B (although it helps keep pearl prices high – maybe they create their own buccaneers).  “Good” City States hire adventuring groups to protect boats with cargo from pirates who are terrorizing the high seas… who then, after a thrilling adventure, take gear off pirates and get it identified.  Adventuring is a long tail.

Unlike setting up a supply chain from farmers, locking in contracts with downstream buyers, warehousing, transportation and distribution, the black market has a relatively low barrier to entry.  One pirate ship, one set of deals in a bar, and one big score of profits. Until one Thieves Guild grows dominant over the other smaller players and decides to grow into a full on underground economy.  That entity enforces its monopoly through obscene back-alley violence.  (Again, monopolies, violence.)  Once one is already breaking a number of laws, it’s not a jump to just keep on going with the law breaking.

But it’s there, the black market, with all its backstabbing and murder.  Thief gangs muscle into each other’s pearl selling territory, fight among themselves, and generally kill each other for their kingpins.  And a wizard shows up at a grimy corner in a back alley slum and deal with skeezy thieves to get a baggy of pearls priced at exactly 100gp each so she can identify the party’s equipment from the last dungeon run.  Maybe the baggy has pearls.  Maybe the baggy has marbles.  Maybe the baggy is full of pearls worth less than 100gps.  The wizard takes a gamble with the thieves guild.  Or the party can go to a fully licensed Identify Kiosk.

The wizard making back alley deals may get herself in real trouble with the Diviner’s School of Magic if she operates on enough scale. How would the Diviner’s School of Magic know unlicensed black market pearls and rogue identify spells? Well, hell, they’re diviners.  And speaking of…

Let’s get back to our friend, the diviner, from way in the beginning.  He bought his pearls legally from a merchant who has marked the pearls up and put on a ‘crossing a war zone’ premium on the supply.  If the two cities ever flood the market with pearls, the pearls will drop in worth to under 100gp and become useless for identify spells* so the war and markup are good for business.  It is in the interest of the Divination School of Magic to keep City State A and City State B at war and to destroy the black market to force price controls over their identify spells to ensure they work and to maximize their profits.  Being the reliable source for identify is the kiosk selling point.  It always works.

The Diviner’s School of Magic is not particularly interested in profits.  Sure, profits help to fund their grand enterprise but they are not motivated purely by extracting rents from adventurers, militaries, magic item resellers, hordes of hobgoblins, or anyone needing a check on a magic item.  What they crave is information, and what everyone hands over willfully in their transactions with the diviners is all the information about the magic items in their possession.  It only takes a question to also extract identities.

This is the hook for the 1st level diviners: the more identify spells they cast, the more information they gather about the magic items in circulation – where they come from, who has them, what they have, where they’ve moved to.  The more knowledge diviners feed back into their guild, the likelier they are  “promoted” to a “higher level of secrets”and get out of the daily drudgery of casting identify spells.  Low level diviners are knowledge forwarders to a centralized knowledge repository held by the Diviner School of Magic.  The mysterious and unknowable Grandmasters know everything about everyone – who is adventuring, who is successful, who has what high level weapon or tasty piece of armor, what great weapon has fallen into which military’s hands.  They know about magic item transactions between parties.  They are a lovely secret society and highly integrated intelligence network for hire spidering their way across the realms – intelligence useful to both sides in a war.  Would you like to know what magic items the other side has in reserve and how to counter them? 

Why bother casting spells to look omnipotent when one can merely consult the hordes of accountants in the back room? Money is money but intelligence is priceless.  Who questions the least of all Schools of Magic?  Look at the evokers, they have fireballs!  We merely cast spells to gain little bits of knowledge…

From Secret Grandmaster Diviner to a corner kiosk to a Great War to black markets to pirates and slavery and back to the adventuring party again with their fresh levels and unidentified gear.  The arc of the supply and demand line from farmer to consumer is relentlessly neutral evil.  Lost in this entire discussion is the forgotten cage of owls, somewhere, cold, forgotten, and completely bereft of feathers.

  • This brings up a whole different question of how does the pearl know it is worth less than 100gp that is on the topic list for later.

Writer’s Note:

The original conception for this idea was a knowledge problem.  The diviners who identified magic equipment for 100gp always had the upper hand over adventurers because while the adventurers would know what magic items they had, the diviners would know the magic items all adventurers had since they identified them.   It’s a small hop to incentivize sharing information with a secret cabal in a giant information network in return for cheap benefits ie, 2nd level.  Then came trying to figure out how many identify spells needed to be cast/week to support adventurer groups, magic item transactions, death and wills, auction houses, etc and since identify is the de facto validation check much like an appraisal, the answer turns out to be “a non trivial sum.”  It’s millions of gp in pearls/year with pearls at 100gp. And pearls are intensely difficult to come by from nature so that needs puts pressures all over society.

I am a big fan of the Diviner School of Magic as massive secret society/intelligence network and put together a few notes on why one would never use their services (ie, you’re the thieves guild/magic user underground).  Also working on ways to counter them.  This is a nice campaign idea to start from the slavers and work up through levels like an onion to the horrible reveal of the secret society apparatus about to be used for something horrible and that Grandmaster Diviner your wizard just learned from wants to eat the party’s face. 

I also like cities at war because it’s a lovely excuse for high seas adventure: two maritime cities giving groups buccaneer’s papers to operate as pirates on the high seas for a ‘good cause’ by rolling each other’s ships.  One can roll slaver ships and rescue wizards who maybe were sold into slavery by defying the Diviner’s Guild in the first place…

This is really the first cluster of ideas I would flesh out into something bigger with more meat.  It really needs the 10K word treatment to work.

Comments

  1. Chris Smith says:

    Unlike previous editions, in 5E a material component is not used up unless specified, and in the case of Identify it doesn’t get consumed. So you only need a single 100gp pearl to cast Identify as many times as you like. The spell Heroes’ Feast, on the other hand, was clearly invented by the Bowl Jewelers Guild.

  2. multiplexer says:

    I patched the above article. Assume it’s 3e, then. 🙂

  3. The ruthless logic of it all is riveting — and not a little unsettling. ^_^

  4. Fade Manley says:

    I like to think that a pearl is “worth” what you’ll pay for it, so a wizard can go point to any darn pearl-like object, say, “I’ll pay 100gp for it,” do so, and, ta-da! It is a pearl worth 100gp, suitable for casting the spill!

  5. I’m just getting into your blog, so I apologize up front if I am missing some vital axioms along the way.

    World-building–and especially historical and fantasy economics–is one of my favorite subjects to think about. The specific details of a well-put-together world can lead to absolutely fascinating cases when you start taking them to their logical conclusions. I think I’m going to really enjoy this site.

    I do wish to point out, however, that, depending on which ruleset (and also which world!) you’re using to generate your examples is critical, because there are many *other* moving pieces that can affect your single-point-of-origin analysis.

    For example, does the Identify spell only work with pearls that cost 100GP in the current local market? That would seem to make ID fail in a coastal pearl-farming community, because the pearl supply is much larger and the cost of safely shipping to a market is unneeded.

    I don’t believe so; I view the 100gp as a guideline based on reading *all* DMG prices as guidelines. The DM always has the authority to alter local prices based on any reasons marginally acceptable to the table. The 100GP requirement should be taken in that context. If a DM and their table are interested in complex economies (or the DM is hanging it out there as a potential adventure hook), then the price of a suitable pearl should certainly be allowed to fluctuate. Trying to tie the magic of the spell directly to a price seems to be pushing it a bit.

    Another issue that I’d like to point out is alternative means of identification. Depending on the world’s magic level, social structures, and commonality of magic, the Diviners may or may not have a school-specific guild (and/or otherwise monopoly-seeking agency). Even if they do, there may or may not be extensive competition, including by generalist or non-Divination specialist wizards, or other casters. In addition, magic weapons and armor can often be identified by usage, especially if performed by an expert crafter; if a monopoly controls ID casting, other services with access to curse-removal spells could offer to test your items for you (or you can test it yourself and pay for the curse removal if needed).

    Finally, 3.x provides a loophole (that most DMs should monitor on a case-by-case basis) in the form of Wondrous Items. An Item can be made that essentially casts a spell for free, for 1/day – 5/day, or even infinite uses (the last, I believe, costs the same as a 5/day Wondrous Item). I *think* that you figure the reagents into the up-front cost, as with a scroll or wand, rather than paying them for each use. This makes for an expensive item, but one that can be used indefinitely.

    For a really good example of a more complex/advanced D&D economy, I’d recommend looking at Eberron, which contains elements ranging from High-Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, and into the Industrial Revolution, all mixed with plentiful low-level magic and guilds based around large families with inherent low-level casting abilities in their bloodlines. It also happens to be built around the end of a hundred-year Thirty-Years War with strong WWI influences (it pointedly ends on November 11th, in their calendar).

  6. Daniel Scribner says:

    You’ve just established the fantasy equivalent of big data, by the way. Nicely done!

  7. Is it so implausible that city-state A and city-state B could form a cartel? They could call it the Organization of the Pearl Exporting City-states, or “OPEC” for short.

  8. Ben Lehman says:

    If every magical item runs through the Diviner’s guild, why do they bother to cast Identify spells at all? Surely almost every item has already been recorded somewhere in the guild’s archives: appearance, function, aura, etc. You can save a lot of money and hassle claiming to cast the spell and not actually consuming the pearl.

  9. Wonderful, outstanding, marvelous post. So let’s talk about extra-market forces. . .

    How else could a kingdom opt out? Product standardization. Identify assumes that item creation follows no standards whatsoever, but why on earth would a kingdom’s alchemists and artificers make their healing potions/+1 swords/bracers of giant strength different every single time? Unless we enforce some meta-rule that “magic makes everything come out differently” the kingdom that releases standardized magical products suddenly becomes a grave threat to the divination cartel. Especially if/when the kingdom decides to franchise by exporting standards by way of official licensing.

    You can accept the chaotic slop of what’s out there or you can pay a small premium on a Standardized Magic Item and know exactly what it is. Standard goods and cheaper production values destroyed the craft cartels in our world. So how does that war go in this scenario?

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  1. […] hobos gets wind of some organized slavery going on in a far off land – something vague about fish people, industrialized farming and pearls.  The slavery operation aims are relatively immaterial to the party. Slavers are over there […]