Sunday, January 7, 2018

Use Magic Device Is A Great Skill, And Pathfinder Players Should Invest In It

There are some gaming strategies that are so universal in your experience that you occasionally forget they aren't truly universal. For me, this happened the other day when I was on a forum where a player was asking what the point of the Use Magic Device skill was in Pathfinder. The poster didn't see the point in spending points investing in this skill, and there were more than a few commenters who had never bothered with it either. At least a few folks said it should just be stripped out, since it was a vestigial part of the game with no real use.

Since I know there are at least some users out there who haven't heard the good word of U.M.D., I figured I'd spend this week making the case for why you should at least consider taking it for your characters.

The potential of wands alone should be enough to warrant a half dozen ranks.

How It Works, And Why You Should Have It

The name of the skill tells you pretty much everything you need to know; Use Magic Device lets you pick up a magic item, and use it. With a successful check you can fire a wand, even though that spell isn't on your spell list. You can mimic having a high Wisdom, Intelligence, or Charisma score in order to use an appropriate item. You can use a scroll, you can read a written spell, and you can even emulate a class feature, race, or alignment in order to make a magic item function for you even if it normally wouldn't.

Concrete examples are what really help to bring home how incredibly useful this skill can be, though. For instance, say the cleric has been knocked out, and you don't have any other healers. You've all downed your potions, so you can't just pour an ounce of pure medicine down the priest's throat. If the rogue has Use Magic Device ranks, he could snatch the cure moderate wounds wand off the cleric's belt, activate it, and make sure the holy man doesn't die. If you're playing a monk who wants to have the most ridiculous armor class possible, then using a wand of mage armor and a wand of shield can be just the ticket to being the next best thing to untouchable. If a bunch of shadows come lurking out of the walls, and it's early enough in the game that you aren't armed to the teeth with magic weapons, then the bard pulling out the scroll of scorching ray can be a literal life saver. If your human fighter found a bow that only unlocks its true potential for an elven wielder, he can trick the magic item into working for him, raining all kinds of damage onto the enemy. It's even possible for evil-aligned characters to wield holy weapons without penalty (or vice versa) by making regular Use Magic Device checks.

You can even cause purposeful malfunctions of a magic item in order to direct the item's 2d6 of feedback damage as a weapon against your enemies, rather than taking it all in the face. Which, considering that low-level magic items like a wand of magic missile only deal 1d4+1 damage anyway, is a risky kind of upgrade.

"Just read the scroll." But I'm not a necromancer! "The scroll doesn't know that!"
Pathfinder is a game with a lot of magic. You're practically tripping over it in the world setting, and it's everywhere when it comes to your loot. You can buy at least some magic items in most decently-sized towns and cities, and even if you find a spellbook no one in the party can use, every page in that spellbook acts like a scroll for the listed spells. Everything, from the ability to decipher written spells, to the ability to convince a magic item that you're totally lawful-aligned in order to get the full benefit of its wooge, can be done with a good Use Magic Device check.

There will never be a campaign where you can't make the most of Use Magic Device, if you invest in it, barring DMs who purposefully try to run a low-magic game.

Activating Consistently (Getting High Checks)

One thing that makes Use Magic Device stand out is that it has some pretty high DCs. Activating an item blindly is a DC 25 check. Emulating a race or a class feature is a DC 20. Purposefully causing a mishap is a DC 30, as is emulating an alignment. Those are some intimidating numbers, especially for players who want to make use of this ability at low or mid levels, instead of waiting till the campaign is nearly over to get consistent results.

Fortunately, Use Magic Device is a skill. And skills are fairly easy to crack in Pathfinder.

Let's crunch some numbers, shall we?
So, the first thing you want to do is have Use Magic Device as a class skill. If you don't have it as a class skill (not uncommon), then you can take the Dangerously Curious trait to make it a class skill, and to get a +1 trait bonus on your checks. So, ignoring your Charisma score for the moment, you've got a minimum of 4 (class skill bonus plus 1 rank) in the skill, and a 5 if you took Dangerously Curious. Not huge, but that's a 25% chance to activate a wand right out of the gate. Alternatively, if you're an Intelligence-based character, you might want to take Pragmatic Activator, which lets you swap Intelligence for Charisma on these checks. Choose your magic trait wisely.

Now, let's move on to feats. The feat Magical Aptitude gives you a +2 bonus on U.M.D. checks, and a +4 if you have 10 ranks or more. Skill Focus gives you a +3 bonus, and a +6 if you have 10 or more ranks (you also get Skill Focus for free if you're a half-elf). So, if you take the first option here, and combine it with the earlier layout, you've got a 7. If you take the latter option, you have an 8. If you take them both, you start off with a 10 overall, giving you a 55% chance of activating a wand (because you can roll a 10-20 and succeed, you don't need an 11).

There are other tricks to increasing your U.M.D. effectiveness, as well. The Pathfinder Savant prestige class, for example, allows you to add half your level as a bonus on Use Magic Device checks. If you boost your Charisma with quick infusions of things like a potion of eagle's splendor, or a stat-boosting headband, that will also eke out a few points for you. And if you have a friend (or a cohort) with the glory domain, they can touch you as a domain power to add their cleric level to any one Charisma-based skill check you make in the next hour. That can be a powerful bonus at later levels. And, of course, if you've activated the item successfully before then you get a +2 on future Use Magic Device checks with it.

Let's go back to our original math. Let's say you took all the early options for boosting, so you had a check of 10 at level one. Now let's add in your Charisma modifier. If you're a high-Charisma class like a sorcerer or a swashbuckler, you've probably got between a 13 and a 15 for your Use Magic Device checks. That's a 75% chance to activate a wand, and a roughly 55% chance to activate an item blindly if you're on the high end of the spectrum there. If Charisma was not a priority, though, you should still have an 11 or a 12. Which isn't bad. By level 5 or so, you should be able to consistently activate a wand, or emulate a race or class feature. And you've got a better than even chance of activating a magic item blindly. By level 10, assuming you took the two feats listed, you should have a minimum bonus of 23 to your Use Magic Device check (10 from ranks, 10 from the feat bonuses, and 3 from the class skill bonus). Adding in your Charisma score, trait bonuses, and miscellaneous bonuses from class features is just gravy, but it means that you should be able to run your fingers over most magic items, and get them to unlock with little difficulty. It also means you're quite unlikely to be the recipient of any backlash, since your skill is so high.

Just remember, that if you roll a natural 1 on a U.M.D. check, and that roll is a failure for that particular check, you cannot active that particular magic item for 24 hours. Which can be a bastard, if you depend on it.

It Never Hurts To Have A Little Magic On Your Side

The degree to which you invest in Use Magic Device will depend on what you want to do with it. Do you want to hoard scrolls, and constantly throw pre-prepared spells into the fray? Or do you just want the ability to use a few, low-level wands in order to buff yourself with self-targeted spells, and to free up the party casters for other duties? How much investment you make will depend entirely on your goals, but even if you're not a Charisma-based class, and you only have a few skill points per level, you can never go wrong with having Use Magic Device on your sheet. It's situational, but those situations are going to crop up pretty damn frequently.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully it got some folks' gears turning, and at least a few character concepts coming to mind. For more from me, check out my Vocal archive, or take a listen to the shows I help put together with fellow gamers over on the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. To keep up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.


  1. Note: A natural 1 on Use Magic Device is not an automatic failure. Rather, if you roll a natural 1 *and* fail the check, you cannot attempt to use that same magic item for 24 hours. If you roll a natural 1 and succeed on the check anyway, nothing bad happens.
    Also, a +10 UMD mod is actually a 55% chance to activate a wand successfully. A +9 mod is a 50% chance, since you have to roll 11 or higher on the die.

    1. Not sure on how you get your math, there. Was pretty sure rolling a 1-10 was a 50% chance, and rolling an 11-20 was the other 50%. Maybe my lack of higher math courses is showing, but I figured splitting a d20 straight down the middle gave you half and half, with a 5% chance of rolling any given number on a particular roll.

      As to the natural 1, yes, it's an auto fail. It says so in the skill description. You fail to activate the device. You may not suffer any backlash from it if you have a high enough rank, but you still fail to complete the task you rolled for, regardless of your bonus.

    2. The only thing I see in the UMD skill description regarding natural 1s is the following:
      Yes, but if you ever roll a natural 1 while attempting to activate an item and you fail, then you can’t try to activate that item again for 24 hours."
      Note the "and you fail, then" portion. In addition to rolling a natural 1, you must *also* fail the check for that penalty to apply. The text does not state that a natural 1 causes you to automatically fail the check.
      There is no text in the skill description that would indicate a natural 1 to be an automatic failure, at least that I can see. As such, if you can get a +19 UMD modifier, you will never fail to activate a wand barring having a condition inflicted on you or having a circumstance penalty on the check for whatever reason.

      As for percentages, a +10 UMD mod is a 55% chance to activate a wand (which is a DC 20 check) just for the reason you said: an 11-20 is a 50% chance. You only have to meet the skill check DC, not exceed it, so a roll of 10 (which is below that 50% threshold by 1 number on the die) will still do the job. A +9 modifier means you have to roll 11 or higher (which is, as you said, a 50% chance) in order to meet that DC.

    3. Upon review of the text, you are correct, SJammie. Edited to reflect.

  2. One thing to also remember is if you have successfully activated an item before, you get a +2 bonus to activate it again. Very useful for things like wands.