Spells that ruin mystery and treachery

In my last post, I explained how Dungeons & Dragons includes a variety of spells that can ruin adventures. Confined to the original megadungeons, spells like Know alignment and Commune caused no trouble. But as D&D grew to embrace more types of stories, such spells caused problems.

Which spells prove troublesome, and how does fifth edition deal with them?

Spells that unmask villains

In the second-edition era, many issues of Dungeon magazine included an adventure that asked players to identify some secret villain who inevitably possessed a Ring of Mind Shielding—inevitable because none of these adventures could have worked without it. In the implied D&D universe, such rings were as common as window curtains.

Spells that reveal lies and evil can be foiled, but they either make adventures with deception impossible or they force dungeon masters to nullify the players’ abilities.  Players who prepare spells like Detect Thoughts will feel cheated if every mystery thwarts them.

Alignment detection spells

Third edition dropped the Know Alignment (2nd level) spell, but the loss did nothing to help adventure designers because Detect Evil, Detect Chaos, and so on filled the same niche. At least 3E kept Know Alignment’s reverse, Unknowable Alignment, on the spell list. Paladins could cast it, because they enjoy deception, I suppose.

Detect Evil (1st level) used to reveal any creature of evil alignment, which told players exactly who to trust. Now, Detect Evil and Good detects any abberation, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead of any alignment, making the name a meaningless nod to tradition. The redesign keeps the spell useful and makes it trouble free.

As written, Glyph of Warding (3rd level) can still detect alignment, serving as both judge and executioner. In a magic-as-technology world, you would have to pass a glyph before boarding your airship flight.

Lie detection spells

Detect Lie (4th level) entered the game with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, at a time when Gary Gygax should have known better. The original spell didn’t even grant a saving throw. Second edition added one, and then 3E changed the name to Discern Lies. Fifth edition removes the spell from the game. It offered no play value to offset all the adventures it spoiled.

Zone of Truth (2nd level) grants a saving throw, allowing schemers who save to lie freely. Dungeon masters determined to save their adventures can fudge saves. But I eschew fudging die rolls, so I would rather strike the spell from the game.

Mind reading

The-Demolished-ManOf all the troublesome spells still in the game, the mind-reading spell Detect Thoughts (2nd level) ranks as the worst. With just a 2nd-level spell, you can read a creature’s surface thoughts before they even gain a save. If you probe deeper, the target senses the scan and resists with saves and contested intelligence checks. “Questions verbally directed at the target creature naturally shape the course of its thoughts.” Presumably, you could shape a suspect’s thoughts with idle gossip about a murder or traitor. In a D&D world, every schemer needs an earworm on continuous loop in their head. I suggest, “Tenser, said the Tensor.

At least Detect Thoughts can cut tedious interrogation scenes where the murder hobo threatens a captive while the paladin visits the little boys’ room.

The spell’s description fails to say how long you can read surface thoughts before the victim gains a save. The spell comes from an AD&D spell called ESP, which let scans continue for the spell’s duration without a save. To remove the scientific flavor of extra-sensory perception, 3E renamed the spell. The 3E version adds a save to any attempt to read surface thoughts.

In 5E, I suggest only allowing a 6-second round to scan before the target becomes aware of the probe and gains a save. This will allow casters to gain clues and insights without laying every mystery bare.

In play, Detect Thoughts existence means that if a plot requires someone to keep a secret, then they either need that Ring of Mind Shielding or to be so dangerous that noticeable mind reading creates complications. (Denizens of a D&D world would consider mind reading as rudely provocative as burglarizing someone’s bedroom.) Imagine a scene where the target thinks at the mind reader. So you know my secret, but who will believe the word of a hired sword over the archbishop? Now the party faces proving their case before the archbishop’s inquisitors reach them.

Of course, D&D rarely pits players against schemers too powerful to confront, so the spell’s ongoing existence limits the sort of stories our game can tell.

Next: Spells that fish for spoilers (or perhaps a side trek to Origins)

5 thoughts on “Spells that ruin mystery and treachery

  1. Worldwalker

    I’m reminded of the MMO Shadowbane, where they expected a stereotypical medieval world would develop despite giving the players the functional equivalent of jet packs, transporters, cloaking devices, and phasers. In short: it didn’t.

    The problem is, of course, that society is the product of technology, and when you change the technology, you change the society. Magic is technology by another name. The simple Continual Light spell could arguably turn a quasi-medieval setting into something approaching the social structure of Industrial Revolution simply by making it practical to establish centralized factories instead of cottage industries. Teleportation would make long, slow voyages to the there-and-then Spice Islands unnecessary; imagine the profits that would have gone to a wizard with a Teleport Without Error spell and a backpack full of pepper.

    The feudal system as a whole, in fact, is the product of slow communications. When information could only travel at the speed of a galloping horse, strong central authority was impractical; provincial governors, marcher lords, etc., all had to have significant power of their own. With the instant communication various magic items and spells provide, government types could be very different.

    These are all things a GM needs to think about a great deal before they come up in a game.

  2. The Maze Master

    I think the temptation for designers of D&D was simply that anything that *could* be done with magic *would* sooner or later receive an official spell. I think another example of this is the way that wizards started to take over the utility provided by thieves. Who needs to pick a lock when you have Knock? And who needs a single character capable of moving silently or backstabbing for double damage when a wizard can use Silence 15′ radius for the entire party and a fireball against multiple opponents?

    The only way to get balance is to be strict about the way wizards acquire spells. They need to find them. Do not allow a magic store or library. And whatever you do, don’t let characters pick their own spells! (This also brings the fun back when they reach a level where research is possible. You can finally get the one you WANT or something similar even if you never discovered it in your travels!)

    A DM running a game of intrigue simply need not provide the game breaking spells. Remember, a character should only get these if they find them on scrolls or in enemy spellbooks. Players should not be leafing through the Player’s Book for 7 hours each level musing, “Let me see… shall I get Fireball, Lightning Bolt, or maybe a little something special from the Illusionary School?”

    Give them everything they want all the time and pretty soon your game gets dull.

    The roll of the dice determine fate. So it should be with available spells.

  3. Timothy Park

    Have to agree with Maze Master: the players shouldn’t be able to just pick spells from the book. At least not if the game is going to be fairly story and role playing heavy.

    In a more combat oriented game optimization and free choice on the part of the players makes some sense, but in situations where the story is more focused many things, spells included, should have limits on them established by the DM.

    In the early days of the game part of how the “game breaking” spells were managed was that a spell casting player had to either be granted them (clerics) or find them somehow via fortune, adventure or research in the case of other spell casters. The very limited and inflexible magic system of OD&D and 1st Edition kept things controlled and, dare I say, balanced.

    Part of the challenge of taking on a Magic User (Wizard) back when was that you started with 5 spells in your spell book and one of them was Read Magic which enabled you to manage other spells and scrolls and such. You might have 3 or 4 spells to select and memorize for your single first level spell slot. “Prepared” spells didn’t exist. You didn’t get to pick on the fly (although often that was the first house rule). But you didn’t get the whole book to pick from. 3 or 4 randomly determined (unless your DM was kind) spells. Part of the challenge was making do with odd spells and the ongoing hunt for scrolls, enemy spell books and the like to flesh out your own spell book.

    To a great degree, until your character reached a level (if s/he reached that level) where research was possible *and* you had the resources to do the research, your spells were determined by the DM to a great degree. If ESP or Know Alignment was something that might throw a campaign in a direction the DM didn’t want to go, the DM simply didn’t put that spell into the mix. If you didn’t find it in a scroll or a book somewhere (all controlled by the DM) it didn’t exist for you. Period.

    Of course “broken” spells were around. The point of them, and artifacts and a great many other game breakers wasn’t that they all needed to be used, but to show what was *possible* within the context of the game. To give ideas and options to the DMs and players for elements that might make a good adventure. But there was no requirement that *everything* had to be in play.

    Granted it took some experience and maturity both personally and with the game to realize that. But by 1980 or so around the tables I played and ran it was common enough to manipulate spells, magic items and even the available races, classes and languages to suit the campaign. And 5th Edition DMs should take a lesson from that. And so should he designers.

    “Just because you can do a thing doesn’t make it a good thing to do.”

    There were even times when this cut both ways. I do recall the last “ring of three wishes” which came our way actually sparked an adventure that the DM did not intend. We disguised that ring, hid it on the most stealthy and survivable character and immediately set out for the nearest coast city. Booked passage on a ship bound for the fartherest destination and when the captain assured us that we were about halfway from anywhere and in very deep water we quickly went to the rail and made very sure that that ring went into the deep to the surprise of the DM. “All that to dump a magic item?”

    “They’re useless and dangerous.” And we laid out how he had perverted every wish we had ever tried to use for four years. Wishes were broken both ways. DMs had to limit them because they could be horrendously disruptive to anything developed rendering many hours of game prep useless at a stroke. But those who limited them by sadistically twisting anything players came up with broke the player’s game as well.

    Simply don’t include the thing that will disrupt your game. But don’t remove potentially disruptive things from the game *materials*.

    So what if Teleport might cause a problem *in a particular milieu*. Don’t remove it from the book, simply don’t let it be an option. Or only grant the option to players with the maturity and experience to use it in partnership with you as the DM to further the story or open a storyline the party wishes to explore that is also agreeable to the DM (what a thought!). Teleportation is a frequent feature of adventures I put together for the same reason there are transporters in Star Trek: I wish to connect locations that would otherwise require game time I don’t want to invest in travel. So there are teleportation portals and rings and sigil sequences and Stargates and other things which show up when I need them.

    Yes, I play at tables where things are wide open and players pick spells and races and classes that do strange things. It works because we’re adult enough around the table to back off if something is clearly broken. That’s actually not uncommon. It’s pretty much an accepted courtesy to the DM that you don’t just take the Lucky feat. At our tables there is a great deal of latitude because we’ll take a hint from the DM that a certain spell or feature or build is out of line. Similarly there are return courtesies like allowing reworks of characters between sessions. Generally the “gentleman’s agreement” is that you don’t generally swap primary classes that you’ve used heavily, change stats, or dump spells you’ve made use of. But you aren’t stuck with bad choices that don’t fit the campaign either.

    Simply apply the same sense and logic.

    However, when it’s my table and campaign, I feel perfectly comfortable engaging with each player, examining character sheets and giving “strong hints” that certain things aren’t quite cricket. I also publish ahead of time what’s in and out of bounds with some notes on what the starting situation is like. And, yes, I’ve been known to return a character sheet with a bit more coin, a few extra bits of gear, and occasionally a magic item when it’s appropriate.

    1. Numa Pompilius

      “Have to agree with Maze Master: the players shouldn’t be able to just pick spells from the book. At least not if the game is going to be fairly story and role playing heavy.
      In a more combat oriented game optimization and free choice on the part of the players makes some sense, but in situations where the story is more focused many things, spells included, should have limits on them established by the DM.”

      Gee, I wonder how Ars Magica players manage to have fun then

  4. Ettina

    Wow, you really hate any sort of magic designed to gather information, don’t you? It’s really not that hard to make those spells useful but not automatically winning in mysteries, if you have some imagination. Seems like a more interesting solution than banning any spell that could potentially reveal someone’s secrets.


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