Spells that can ruin adventures

Have you ever had an adventure spoiled by a spell? Through the history of Dungeons & Dragons, a variety of spells carried the potential to short circuit or spoil whole categories of adventures—at least without significant planning to avoid the spells’ potential.

Spells like Detect Lie (later Discern Lies) and Zone of Truth threaten to eliminate intrigue. They would turn A Song and Ice and Fire into short story.

When spells like Commune and Speak with Dead in the game, you can forget whodunits.

The Prince of Murder’s army of assassins cannot keep him safe in his mountain aerie if the characters can scry and fry.

Many of the adventure spoiling spells existed in the early days, but given the play styles of the times, they posed few problems.

Once upon a time D&D games took place in huge sprawling dungeons like the one under Castle Greyhawk, where monsters wandered and players balanced their own encounters by deciding how deep they dared to go.

Adventures never featured intrigue. You never needed to find the real killer from among a group of suspects. As the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures advertised, “NPCs were there to be killed.”

Detect Lie probably started as a way to determine if the captive Kobold was lying about the treasure behind the “untrapped” door ahead. It also deterred the thief from stealing your stuff. Know Alignment simply existed so the cleric could tell the paladin who to kill first.

A few troublesome spells existed in the early days, but Gary built in solutions for the DM. The description of Commune says, “It is probably that the referee will limit the use of Commune to one per adventure, one per week, or even one per month, for the gods dislike frequent interruption.” Strangely, when you want to know who betrayed the party, the gods always prove too busy. The Contact other Plane spell could potentially gather lies or drive the caster insane. How bad do you want to know? In practice, these spells typically provided the Dungeon Master with a way to give hints to stuck players.

In the early days, information spells couldn’t ruin adventures, but travel and movement spells could.

As long as the players stayed indoors, Fly wasn’t a big deal. Outside, it let players fly past obstacle and enemies or just bomb and strafe them from out of reach. Every DM who fails to plan for flying will see mid-level encounters ruined, but you learn fast.

Ethereal travel can threaten to take dungeons right of the game. Any cleric with the 5th level Plane Shift spell could take seven friends ethereal, allowing them to waft through the dangerous dungeon stuff and go straight for the treasure. AD&D attempted to limit the problem by populating the ethereal with tough wandering monsters and the random Ether Cyclone. Apparently that failed to deter enough adventurers because Tomb of Horrors includes this note: “Character who become astral or ethereal in the Tomb will attract a type I-IV demon 1 in 6, with a check made each round.”

The Manual of the Planes finally gave Acererak and other dungeon makers options other than contracting with the Abyss for ethereal security. Now you could overlap your stronghold with barriers such as ethereal stone, or you could mix gorgon blood into your mortar. Inexplicably, third edition made the gorgon-blood trick an optional rule. Thanks guys. Who’s side are you on?

By the time 3E came around, some designers had become so immersed in the story slant of D&D that they forgot how broken ethereal travel could be. How else can we explain Ghostform–just add invisibility to Ghostform and you can phase through any dungeon. Ghostform appeared at 4th level and rose to 8th in errata! The four level revision must be a record.

Eventually, even in the early days, the mega-dungeon seemed a little tired to a lot of folks. Dave Arneson started mocking the routine in his Blackmoor campaign, where the dungeon entrance featured turnstiles and holy water dispensers.

In the mid 70s, at a kitchen table somewhere, for the first time ever, a DM told his players that their characters met a cloaked stranger in the back of the inn with a special job. The plotted adventure was born. Suddenly the DM needed to plan adventures around a class of spells that could ruin everything.

You might suppose the new interest in plot would lead the second edition designers to reconsider all the spells that stand as an obstacle to fun plot elements like mystery, double-dealing, and skulduggery. Mostly, the designers doubled down by adding spells like Zone of Truth. At least they added a saving throw to Detect Lie, giving any DMs willing to fudge die rolls the power to save their adventures. (Unless the players just rely on Detect Evil to determine who to kill.)

I cannot imagine situations where the truth and alignment-determining spells add to the game. They only stand as an obstacle to certain types of adventures.

Next: Scry and fry

7 thoughts on “Spells that can ruin adventures

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  4. DMoloth

    I really enjoy your look-backs at D&D history. I have been on both sides of this issue (as a player and DM) and you pretty much hit the nail on the head.

    If I remember correctly, almost 30 years ago, as players we avoided the bulk of the Isle of the Ape encounters by using a magic carpet. If I am remembering correctly, the module was mostly outdoors and the mobs were mostly ground-bound dinosaurs. I do remember that there came a time where we stopped using the carpet as a courtesy requested by the DM.

    There is a good whodunit example in one of the old Bloodstone modules where someone is killed, so we (of course) went straight to Speak With Dead. The module tried to counter the spell by saying that the corpse was to disfigured to talk (or something along those lines) but the spell stated something along the lines of “the condition of the corpse does not matter because you speak to a spirit”.

    Take everything above with a grain of salt… it has been nearly 30 years and I no longer own the books to check myself. That said, I am pretty sure of the events.

    Strangely though, I only had those problems as a DM back in the days of 1st and 2nd ed. By the time I was running 3rd ed, my groups were more of the video game generation, and never looked twice at a spell that did not deal damage (or at least provide a tactical combat advantage).

    The new generation of players made storytelling easy most of the time, although they were occasionally painful when they really SHOULD have been using the spells as a resource. On the flip side, they were brutal when it came to combat rules (they forced me to really be “on my game” with combat stuff).

    Both 3rd and 4th eds suffered from power creep on a crazy scale. Some of which I think was intended (to sell books) but with some, I just had no idea what they were thinking when they published some classes and options.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi DMorloth,
      I appreciate your observations. Very interesting.

      DMs frequently overlook the ways things like a magic carpet can break encounters or even break adventures. In 4E I ran a paragon-level where wooden palisade was meant to serve as a major obstacle. In practice, the wall provided characters a chance to show off their magic brooms, flying mounts, teleports and so on. That’s fine—players deserve some chances to show off, but I felt amused by the designer’s notion that the palisade would create a paragon-level challenge.


  5. grampy_bone

    There’s a very easy way to solve the “Speak with Dead” issue:

    Player: “I ask the corpse who killed him.”
    Corpse: “I don’t know, I didn’t get a good look.”

    Boom. Problem solved.

    The correct way to handle these spells isn’t to try to stop players from using them but to encourage and reward power usage by giving players hints and clues. In the case of the murder mystery, the speak with dead spell could be a way to give players critical hints as to the identity of the killer, hints they might otherwise have to gain through interrogation (strength) or eavesdropping (stealth). By providing multiple paths and ways for all players to shine you make the game more fun and stress the fantasy elements, rather than punishing players for being creative and using all the tools at their disposal.

    I had another game that relied on the players ability to detect evil and discern lies via a Ring of Truth as the only means to root out corruption in the kingdom. Players enjoyed going back through the court and finding out who the evil schemers were, and figuring out not who was lying but about what and why. This could not have been done without the use of magical spells and items. All the players agreed it was a fun way to enhance the *fantasy* elements of the game, which is kinda what its all supposed to be about.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Grampy_bone,
      Thanks for your insights. Too often DMs feel tempted to handle players’ adventure-spoiling abilities by nullifying them. You seem to do a great job of letting players use their tricks without allowing the tricks to eliminate all the challenges. It can be a tough balance to strike.



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