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.
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.
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.
Of 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)