5E Arcana Checks

BlivetWidget

Explorer
Inspired by the the original post on medicine checks, I decided it might be useful to go through the published material and put together a short list of the things arcana checks are being used for.

This was not as simple as I thought. Arcana is sort of a catch-all skill for anything 'weird' that doesn't fit into another category. The effects are often very specific, making it difficult to summarize the list. A medicine check can let you stabilize a dying creature. An arcana check can let you study a destroyed construct's components to determine how to create one yourself (this kind of specificity also makes the descriptions a lot wordier).

I think someone who just reads the PHB's description of the arcana skill is missing a lot of interesting things that WotC intends it to be used for. They use arcana for identify / detect magic / knock (there is still value in the spells of course, because they guarantee success), finding/disabling magic traps (this is briefly covered in the DMG), determining how to use unusual magic devices/symbols, and figuring out how to use/control constructs and machinery.

I counted 217 arcana checks across all the published 5e adventures I could look through. A DC of 0 means that no roll is required, simply proficiency. Some of these entries can be easily combined (there is a lot of trap checking / disabling), but others are rather specific and I will have to really think about how to simplify them to avoid losing too much information.

ActivityDCSource
Recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants of those planes.variesPHB
Detect or disarm a magic trapvaries (trap DC)DMG
Copy a spell scroll10 + spell levelDMG
Identify a spell (advantage if on your class spell list)15 + spell level (adv. if on class spell list)XGE
Craft a magic item0XGE
Scribe a spell scroll0XGE
Discover the presence of inconspicuous spellsvariesSage Advice Compendium
Contested roll: determine which of two equal spells wins (e.g. two mage hands)0Live games run by Chris Perkins
Identify a spell from glimpsing its effects on a creature19BGDiA
Determine the function of magic symbols0BGDiA
Determine how to activate an unfamiliar/unusual magic item10BGDiA
Recognize a curse and how to end it15BGDiA
With study, recognize a curse and how to end it0BGDiA
Determine the cause of a magic vehicle's malfunction15BGDiA
Identify the schools of magic associated with symbols15BGDiA
Recall lore about a fiendish structure25BGDiA
Determine the function of unusual/unfamiliar magic items14BGDiA
Determine how to break a curse12BGDiA
Study a broken machine for 1 hour to determine its purpose20BGDiA
Identify a magical effect from observing a creature15BGDiA
Study a broken machine for 1 hour to determine its purpose20BGDiA
Determine the function of unusual/unfamiliar magic items10BGDiA
Determine the function of unusual/unfamiliar magic items20BGDiA
Determine how to operate a construct17BGDiA
Identify a spell from its effects on a creature18CoS
Identify the general intent of a spell from overhearing part of it14CoS
Determine a teleportation circle is flawed and dangerous15CoS
Study bookshelves of rituals for 1 hour to determine if they are genuine12CoS
Decipher a magic inscription in a language you understand15EKDC
Decipher a magic inscription in a language you do not understand25EKDC
Recognize the nature of the connection between a construct and its controller10EKSDW
Identify statues of a diety of magic15EKSDW
Identify the school of magic associated with symbols15EKSDW
Notice magical emanations from a hidden portal and recognize the type of magic15EKSDW
Identify a disguised fiend20EKSDW
Determine a studied item is cursed25GoS
Study an abstruse book for 8 hours to understand its general subject20GoS
Recall lore about an obscure ritual14GoS
Research arcane lore (15 - days spent researching)10-15GoS
Identify a spell from its effects on an object16GoS
Identify an aberration15GoS
Determine the function of magic symbols18GoS
Recognize a draconic creature15HotDQ
Recognize a magic item15HotDQ
Use an unfamiliar and unusual magic item15HotDQ
Sense the presence of a spirit controlling a structure15HotDQ
Determine how to operate a construct10KW
Repair a construct15KW
Determine unique features of a fiend12LLoK
Open a magic gate15LLoK
Hold a knowledgeable discussion on magical matters0LLoK
Deactivate a magic hazard15LLoK
Complete the creation of an invention using notes18LLoK
Activate an unfamiliar and unusual magic item16LLoK
Open a magic gate15LLoK
Open a hatch on an operating construct15LLoK
Recognize an astral silver cord15LLoK
Decipher notes for operating a legendary magic item13LLoK
Complete the creation of an invention using notes18LLoK
Identify the planar origins of unusual materials14LLoK
Activate an unfamiliar and unusual magic item16LLoK
Recognize an astral silver cord15LLoK
Activate an unfamiliar and unusual magic item14LLoK
Activate an unfamiliar and unusual magic item16LLoK
Complete the creation of an invention using notes16LLoK
Determine the purpose of an alchemical apparatus0LMoP
Recognize a magic symbol10LMoP
Sense the aura of a magic workshop0LMoP
Identify the source of a magic aura15LMoP
Study notes for an hour to discover they constitute a spellbook0OotA
Study notes for an hour to discover they contain usable alchemical recipes15OotA
Examine symbols to determine related dieties16OotA
Reveal the nature of a curse and how to end it12OotA
Study notes for 8 hours to understand the 2 rituals they describe0OotA
Notice an object is leaking magical energy and how to activate it0OotA
Notice that a creature is from another plane15OotA
Recall learning details of an event that has not happened in 200 years20OotA
Activate an unfamiliar and unusual, clockwork magic device15OotA
Open a magically-locked door20OotA
Study books and scrolls for 10 minutes to identify the 5 most valuable15OotA
Determine characters are under the effect of Astral Projection13OotA
Determine if an action is required for a ritual to succeed20OotA
Determine that a creature was raised as undead by a unique ritual10OotW
Determine the area and type of magic that that runes can emit16OotW
Suppress magic traps for 1 minute10OotW
Deactivate a magic hazard12OotW
Sense the magic of a hidden planar gate18OotW
Examine runes to determine related dieties, general message, and powers15OotW
Recognize the ritual purpose of a particular sigil10OotW
Recognize that seemingly normal damage (such as fire) was caused by magic15OotW
Examine the results of a failed ritual to determine its purpose10OotW
Recall the effect and duration of magical effects caused by creatures11OotW
Disrupt an open portal15OotW
Examine a body to find evidence of magical damage10OotW
Understands the purpose and weaknesses of magic traps10OotW
Discern the effects of activating a magic trap15OotW
Disable magic trap15OotW
Open magic lock15OotW
Understand the properties of a magic item and how it was created/modified10OotW
Disrupt a magic item15OotW
Reveal, with a few minutes of study, a magic item's properties0OotW
Determine command phrase for magic item12OotW
Determine creature is becoming undead15OotW
Determine how long until a creature becomes undead20OotW
Stop a creature from becoming undead15OotW
Determine how to open a puzzle door10OotW
Disable a magic hazard15OotW
Study a destroyed construct's components to determine how to create one yourself0OotW
Determine a door is magically trapped14OotW
Disarm magical trap13OotW
Determine how to alter a portal to confuse pursuers14OotW
Alter a portal to confuse pursuers12OotW
Determine how a portal system works0OotW
Identify a magic plane/dimension12OotW
Convincingly fake a ritual11OotW
Determine the source of a curse12OotW
Detect a magic trap16OotW
Disarm a magic trap14OotW
Determine a creature has been magically tainted, and which part of them is corrupted12OotW
Open a magically-locked door15OotW
Identify a magic plane/dimension12OotW
Disable a magic trap15OotW
Determine how to stop an ongoing ritual0OotW
Gain control of part of an ongoing ritual15OotW
Incorporate/remove a component of an ongoing ritual12OotW
Begin or end an ongoing ritual effect12OotW
End an ongoing ritual15OotW
Notice that a landscape was shaped by magic15PotA
Study a workshop to determine the types of magic it was used for0PotA
Recognize the purpose and functional state of ritual circles15PotA
Recognize a creature12RoT
Determine the spell used by a creature's innate spellcasting15RoT
Determine the purpose of a complex apparatus after studying for a day20RoT
Recognize dried up ink as a type used for magical writing0RoT
Discover a thin line of magical salt12RoT
Determine an object is part of a construct15SKT
Determine an object has magic properties15SKT
Determine that symbols are magical0SKT
Determine how long a portal will remain open17SKT
Identify a wondrous artifact18SKT
Determine how to break a psychic link15TftYP
Determine the school of magic associated with symbols0TftYP
Determine the nature of a magic gate10TftYP
Disrupt a magic gate once its nature is understood15TftYP
Use an unfamiliar and unusual magic item15TftYP
Determine that magic runes are gibberish0TftYP
Identify the magic effect of symbols15TftYP
Suppress a magic trap15TftYP
Determine the magic effect of runes15TftYP
Suppress the magic effect of runes (requires 3 consecutive successes)15TftYP
Determine the nature of a rift10TftYP
Determine a rift is dangerous15TftYP
Determine how to distrupt a circle's magic for 1 minute10TftYP
Perform unfamiliar and unusual ritual15TftYP
Determine the effect of magic runes15TftYP
Destroy magic runes20TftYP
Determine the details of a ritual from inspecting its components20TftYP
Activate a magic circle and learn the details of its effects20TftYP
Discern the value of ritual ingredients15TftYP
Discern the value of ritual ingredients15TftYP
Discern how to use magic symbols10TftYP
Suppress the magic effect of symbols for 1 minute10TftYP
Suppress the magic effect of symbols for 2 minutes15TftYP
Activate a magic gate20TftYP
Activate a golem15TftYP
Discern the value of ritual ingredients15TftYP
Discern the value of ritual ingredients15TftYP
Discern how a magic item works and how to disable it15TftYP
Discern how to disable a magic item10TftYP
Disable a magic item (requires 3 consecutive successes)15TftYP
Determine that a magic item is failing13TftYP
Determine the nature of a secret magic trap20TftYP
Recognize teleportation circle and memorize its sigils0ToA
Identify a construct10ToA
Use a teleporter intended to only allow another creature's use20ToA
Identify a fiend15ToA
Recall lore about planar vortices10ToA
Recall lore about a magic item15ToA
Determine a magic item's purpose and current use20ToA
Determine how to destroy a magic item25ToA
Identify a phylactery15ToA
Determine how to end a magic effect17ToA
Reconstruct a summoning circle15WDDotMM
Determine that magic is being faked10WDDotMM
Identify a spell from the damage it caused19WDDotMM
Identify a magic item15WDDotMM
Identify an aberration15WDDotMM
Determine how to use a magic item15WDDotMM
Determine the purpose of magic symbols20WDDotMM
Determine the properties and effects of a magic circle20WDDotMM
Determine the properties and effects of a magic circle20WDDotMM
Determine the purpose of magic symbols20WDDotMM
Determine the properties and effects of a magic circle20WDDotMM
Recognize the school of magic represented by magic symbols15WDDotMM
Determine the purpose of an unusual artifact30WDDotMM
Identify spells being researched from incomplete notes16WDDotMM
Identify an aberration from its skull15WDDotMM
Identify the purpose of an unfamiliar and unusual magic item and how to use it14WDDotMM
Identify a plane20WDDotMM
Identify a spell from the damage it caused16WDDotMM
Determine the properties and effects of a magic circle13WDDotMM
Identify a phylactery15WDDotMM
Determine the function of magic symbols15WDDotMM
Attune to a particular legendary magic item0WDDotMM
Determine the properties and effects of a magic portal20WDDotMM
Determine the function of magic symbols18WDDotMM
Determine the function of magic symbols20WDDotMM
Identify the details of a creature transformed by True Polymorph19WDDotMM
Recognize the school of magic represented by magic symbols10WDDotMM
Recognize the school of magic represented by magic symbols10WDDotMM
Recognize the school of magic represented by magic symbols10WDDotMM
Repair a damaged construct0WDDotMM
Identify a spell from the sound of its effect13WDH
Determine the function of a magic item10WDH
Determine the magic effect of symbols and how to end it15WDH
Determine the magic effect of symbols and how to end it15WDH
Determine the school of magic associated with symbols15WDH

Update: I've spent some time consolidating the list down to 37 items. I believe this short list loses only a little bit of fidelity compared to the above list, though obviously a few hyperspecific details had to be dropped. If anyone feels like the list could be further consolidated, feel free to let me know. I chose not to consolidate the first 8 items because they are rules as written, while the remaining represent how WotC believes those rules should be implemented (by doing so themselves in their adventures).

Items with a * require proficiency in Arcana and tend not to be used as skill checks

Recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants of those planes
Detect or disarm a magic trap
Copy a spell scroll
Scribe a spell scroll*
Craft a magic item*
Advantage using (and learn more from) Alchemist's Supplies, Calligrapher's Supplies, Herbalism Kit, and other tools*
Identify a spell or magic effect during casting (advantage if on your class spell list)
Discover inconspicuous evidence of magic use, such as spell effects/damage on a creature/object/landscape
Examine the results of a failed ritual to determine its purpose
Hold a knowledgeable discussion on magical matters*
Compete to determine which of two equal spells succeeds (e.g. mage hands)
Detect, suppress, disable, or understand the effects of a magic hazard/curse/corruption/circle/portal/lock
Identify and recall features/ magic effects / places/ planes / items / body parts related to aberrations, constructs, fiends, necromantic undead, or extraplanar creatures
Determine a magic item's properties*
Determine a magic item's command phrase / how to activate it
Determine the purpose of an alchemical or mechanical apparatus*
Use, disable, or determine the purpose of an unusual magic item, apparatus, or mechanical device
Use a magic item intended to prevent you from using it
Study a magic workshop to determine its purpose*
Sense the aura of a nearby magic item/area/portal and know the type of magic*
Locate a magic item/area/portal from its aura
Sense the presence of a spirit inhabiting a structure or object
Determine how to control/disrupt/repair a construct or machine by examining it or its pieces
Study a destroyed construct's components to determine how to create one*
Build an invention using someone else's notes
Determine the function/validity/school/deities/message represented by magic symbols*
Determine how a portal system should be used*
Determine where a portal leads or how long it will remain open
Study notes to discover they contain spells or rituals*
Study an abstruse book to understand its general subject
Recognize a teleportation circle and memorize its sigils*
Identify a magic plane/dimension
Identify the planar origins of unusual materials
Convincingly fake or recognize a fake spell/ritual
Alter or disrupt an ongoing ritual
Perform an unfamiliar or unusual ritual from notes
Determine the purpose and value of magic items, ingredients, ritual components, or related incidental materials (e.g. dried spell ink)
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Good effort! In my view, the length of this further argues against consulting such lists though when determining if an ability check is called for in one's game, which skill proficiency may apply, and which DC is appropriate given the player's stated approach to the goal. Or providing such a list to the players.

Interesting to look at in any case, so thanks for posting it.
 

BlivetWidget

Explorer
Good effort! In my view, the length of this further argues against consulting such lists though when determining if an ability check is called for in one's game, which skill proficiency may apply, and which DC is appropriate given the player's stated approach to the goal. Or providing such a list to the players.

Interesting to look at in any case, so thanks for posting it.
Quite so. In fact, I would go further to say that in general, I would not advise consulting DC lists of any kind during a game. DCs in general are problematic in that they give many people the wrong idea that the DC is inherent to the task.

The DC actually represents how difficult it is to achieve a task in context. In an adventure, that context is typically duress or some kind of urgency. A wizard who wants to examine a body for signs of magical damage might have to roll against a DC of 10-15 if there's only a minute to look at the body. If they just glimpse the body, it might be a DC of 20. If the party takes the body back to their base for the wizard to examine, however, that should be a DC of 0.

That said, I plan to winnow down the list over the coming days if I can. I do think there is value in knowing what a skill is intended for. It helps DMs make good calls, it helps players design characters to do what they want, and it helps keep them both on the same page.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Quite so. In fact, I would go further to say that in general, I would not advise consulting DC lists of any kind during a game. DCs in general are problematic in that they give many people the wrong idea that the DC is inherent to the task.

The DC actually represents how difficult it is to achieve a task in context. In an adventure, that context is typically duress or some kind of urgency. A wizard who wants to examine a body for signs of magical damage might have to roll against a DC of 10-15 if there's only a minute to look at the body. If they just glimpse the body, it might be a DC of 20. If the party takes the body back to their base for the wizard to examine, however, that should be a DC of 0.
Agreed, assuming we're talking about situations that call for a check at all. In many cases, no ability check is needed because the task is impossible, trivially easy, or there's no meaningful consequence for failure.

That said, I plan to winnow down the list over the coming days if I can. I do think there is value in knowing what a skill is intended for. It helps DMs make good calls, it helps players design characters to do what they want, and it helps keep them both on the same page.
I prefer to just do what the rules say in Chapter 7 of the PHB/Basic Rules which lay out what the ability check and skill proficiencies are for: "An Intelligence check comes into play when you need to draw on logic, education, memory, or deductive reasoning." Then, Arcana may apply if the character is trying "to recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants of those planes."

A line from the DMG is also helpful here (DMG, p. 238): "If the only DCs you ever use are 10, 15, and 20, your game will run just fine."

My strategy is to teach players to just say what they do and hope to accomplish. Then I will ask for an ability check when it's warranted. They can then add a relevant skill proficiency to the roll if their approach lines up with it. And the DC is generally 10, 15, or 20 unless it's a contest.
 

cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
What do all of the acronyms stand for? I know PHB, DMG, XGE but I can't figure out the others.
 

Simonb1

Explorer
Most of the other codes are adventure modules, OotW and LLoK are the ones that I do not recognise. Although they could be AL modules?

Simon
 

BlivetWidget

Explorer
@Tony Vargas It depends on the frequency of different checks in your games, I suppose. Some modules ask for almost 50 Arcana checks, some ask for none, and most ask for about 5.

@Simonb1 and @cbwjm yes, they're the 5e adventure modules. OotW is The Orrery of the Wanderer, LLoK is Lost Laboratory of Kwalish.

@iserith I'm with you for the most part, but I feel like there are two points where we might have differing opinions:

I feel like the PHB description of the Arcana skill is lacking a lot of the intent behind the skill. A strict reading from the PHB would give you no indication that a player could use Arcana to detect and disable magic traps, for instance, to say nothing of the myriad other uses presented by WotC in the adventure modules, such as sensing the aura of a magic item/area/portal or bypassing a magic lock. I'm pretty sure I've read complaints on this board that "Arcana isn't Detect Magic," but the designers of the game clearly believe it's a decent substitute.

I also generally like the "hope to accomplish" strategy, but I feel that it breaks down at some point when it comes to supernatural abilities. The player simply doesn't have the life experiences of a magic user. A new wizard player might not know they have anything to contribute to checking for traps, believing that's the rogue's wheelhouse. Or they might not know to say they want to try to sense magic auras because, there's nothing in the PHB that tells them they can do that.

I guess what I'm saying is: ignore the DCs; I'm really just trying to put together a list of examples of what Arcana can do in practice, to expand on what the PHB says.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I feel like the PHB description of the Arcana skill is lacking a lot of the intent behind the skill. A strict reading from the PHB would give you no indication that a player could use Arcana to detect and disable magic traps, for instance, to say nothing of the myriad other uses presented by WotC in the adventure modules, such as sensing the aura of a magic item/area/portal or bypassing a magic lock. I'm pretty sure I've read complaints on this board that "Arcana isn't Detect Magic," but the designers of the game clearly believe it's a decent substitute.

I also generally like the "hope to accomplish" strategy, but I feel that it breaks down at some point when it comes to supernatural abilities. The player simply doesn't have the life experiences of a magic user. A new wizard player might not know they have anything to contribute to checking for traps, believing that's the rogue's wheelhouse. Or they might not know to say they want to try to sense magic auras because, there's nothing in the PHB that tells them they can do that.
I don't find the PHB entry to be lacking at all. Very simply, if you encounter a magical thing, try to recall what you know about it like how to deal with the magical glyph warding the door. Upon successfully recalling what to do, do that thing with automatic success. As for designers using it for "detect magic," that's just sloppy design and not worth emulating in my view as it is not in line with the rules. It's certainly in line with the rules of D&D 4e though (see D&D 4e Rules Compendium, page 135), but one wonders why it's showing up in a D&D 5e module. Sounds like whoever wrote that was conflating the rules from different games.
 

BlivetWidget

Explorer
As for designers using it for "detect magic," that's just sloppy design and not worth emulating in my view as it is not in line with the rules. It's certainly in line with the rules of D&D 4e though (see D&D 4e Rules Compendium, page 135), but one wonders why it's showing up in a D&D 5e module. Sounds like whoever wrote that was conflating the rules from different games.
It's fine if you don't want to run the game that way at your table, but "whoever wrote that" was Wizards of the Coast. Specifically, the lead 5e designer, lead rules designer, and lead story designer all show up on the author lists of these adventures. They clearly intend Arcana to be used that way.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
It's fine if you don't want to run the game that way at your table, but "whoever wrote that" was Wizards of the Coast. Specifically, the lead 5e designer, lead rules designer, and lead story designer all show up on the author lists of these adventures. They clearly intend Arcana to be used that way.
Are adventure modules rules? Because at best - and going back to your initial response to me - in my view this is just a DM telling someone reading his or her prep notes that in context a specific task involving recalling Arcana can achieve a specific result. It needn't be expanded to other situations.
 

BlivetWidget

Explorer
Are adventure modules rules? Because at best - and going back to your initial response to me - in my view this is just a DM telling someone reading his or her prep notes that in context a specific task involving recalling Arcana can achieve a specific result. It needn't be expanded to other situations.
They’re “merely“ rulings made by the lead game creators and designers. Since 5e took a “rulings not rules” approach, and considering who is making these rulings, I think it gives valuable insight into the rules as intended.

The context dependency of skill checks that I discussed earlier was in relation to the difficulty of a skill check. I definitely do not believe that context alters the capability of a skill. That is, the conditions under which a skill is used determine how difficult it is to accomplish a goal, but context does not alter the actual capabilities of the player. The adventures provide examples and insight into those capabilities. That is why I put together the list.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
They’re “merely“ rulings made by the lead game creators and designers. Since 5e took a “rulings not rules” approach, and considering who is making these rulings, I think it gives valuable insight into the rules as intended.
Fair enough. The absence of Arcana as "detect magic" in D&D 5e, but its explicit existence in D&D 4e is a signal to me that a fallible human got the rules mixed up when writing the module. Unless what we're talking about is the PC recalling some lore that then allows him or her to deduce that the object in context has magical properties. It wouldn't, however, work the same as a detect magic spell, according to the D&D 5e rules.

The context dependency of skill checks that I discussed earlier was in relation to the difficulty of a skill check. I definitely do not believe that context alters the capability of a skill. That is, the conditions under which a skill is used determine how difficult it is to accomplish a goal, but context does not alter the actual capabilities of the player. The adventures provide examples and insight into those capabilities. That is why I put together the list.
I would say context absolutely determines whether an approach to a goal may be successful and whether a skill proficiency may apply if there's an ability check involved.
 

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