In doing my analyses of various early adventure modules, it strikes me that some of the things that players are expected to figure out are pretty damn impossible. How to know that wearing the robes of the clerics of Tharizdun will protect against the numbing cold of the Black Cyst? How to know that the chain in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief has to be put in the form of a figure 8 to become a teleporter to the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl? They’re way too specific, and way too improbable. There has to be a way in-game for the players to be able to figure this sort of stuff out.
And there is. Divination.
Divination spells seem to get the short end of the stick, especially since most of them are on the cleric spell lists, and everyone knows that clerics are supposed to stock up on as much healing magic as possible.
But I submit that divination spells are really where the cleric shines, and the reason there are all these impossible-to-figure-out puzzles is that they’re there to form yet another layer of logistical challenge in terms of spell memorization. A party whose spellcasters don’t have at least a few divination-type spells will find themselves blocked out of some of the choicest treasure and other goodies.
Let’s look at some of the divination spells from 1st edition AD&D.
Identify (1st level magic-user spell). Discover the dweomer of some magic item, with a base 20% chance per round of discovering one power.
Augury (2nd level cleric spell). Base 70% chance of knowing whether a specified action within 30 minutes will be positive or negative.
Locate Object (2nd level magic-user/3rd level cleric spell). Finds a known or familiar object within 100 feet or more.
Clairaudience (3rd level magic-user spell). Lets you hear what’s going on in some known location, such as on the other side of that door.
Clairvoyance (3rd level magic-user spell). Lets you see what’s going on in some known location, such as on the other side of that door.
Speak with the Dead (3rd level cleric spell). Ask 2-7 questions of a dead creature (how long dead depends on your level). Interestingly, the spell description never says the dead are compelled to answer truthfully, but I think that’s how it was generally taken.
Divination (4th level cleric spell). Lets you know strength of monsters, general amount of treasure, and whether a powerful supernatural creature might become involved (!). Applies to a building, small patch of wilderness like a wood, or a part of a dungeon level. This is clearly one of those mechanics in the game that were specifically geared towards megadungeon play, and whose significance was lost when that style of adventure design quickly dropped out of fashion. And let’s not ignore the fact that it requires an animal sacrifice as the material component!
Wizard Eye (4th level magic-user spell). Lets you see what’s going on, at a rate of 3″ per round.
Commune (5th level cleric spell). Ask your deity one yes/no question per experience level (at least 9 of them, then). You can find a lot out with a 9-question game of yes/no.
Contact Other Plane (5th level magic-user spell). Ask a… um, plane of existence… one question. The greater the likelihood of success, the greater the likelihood you’ll go insane. And you could get a deliberately false answer. Maybe stick with a cleric for this stuff.
Find the Path (6th level cleric spell). Gives you the most direct route to wherever you want to go, whether it’s home or to some locale within a dungeon or spot in the wilderness.
Legend Lore (6th level magic-user spell). Learn all about some person, place, or thing. But you’ll need to sacrifice a magic item to do it, and it takes a long time.
I think a large part of the reason these spells exist is to give players a fighting chance of figuring out some of those incredibly specific and picayune puzzles, for which there really aren’t any actual clues. Rather than pure trial and error, or the tedium of checking for secret doors in every 10′ of wall space, these spells allow the players to use clever questioning to at least know that there’s something to know. It’s also good to know that clerics have another use other than walking healing stations (although it’s once more interesting to note that there’s now a logistical choice to be made when one gets access to 4th level cleric spells – do I choose cure serious wounds or divination?).