On Divination

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?).

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

7 thoughts on “On Divination

  1. Having just recently finished reading all the collected stories of JE Holmes in the "Tales of Peril" compilation, I was struck by how ESP, Detect Evil, Know Alignment, and such spells were used regularly, especially ESP.

    Of course, it helped that each player often controlled two or even three secondary characters, often as hirelings/henchmen, some of which served as little more than walking, talking scrolls for this purpose (others as meatshields/hired swords).

    Thus it comes to mind that the loss of the use of divinations (and thus, the kind of play that goes with such things) might go hand in hand with the loss of the use hirelings, henchmen, and the like. These secondary characters, when spell-casters, could have been loaded up with these needful, if secondary to combat kind of spells, and called upon at need.

    "Friar Bob, we need to find the nearest stairs up. Please be so kind as to cast locate object…"

  2. the history spell in OA was super useful and my players prefered to identify on crawls – you could imply magic functions from history and work out how to use things and what they were for – i added it to a few lists – hadn't realised this had been phased out

  3. Don't forget sages and oracles. Unless the party's covering truly unknown ground there's always the possibility that someone got there first, and escaped to record at least part of the tale. And an obscure prophecy from the local oracle is an excellent way to drop clues about the more difficult puzzles. Of course, this assumes the players are smart enough to consult sages and oracles, but that's their problem.

  4. Very interesting thoughts on 1e play! Got me thinking what the prepared spells were for pre-gens in various modules I have which survived my Great Soap Debacle (when packing for a move in the 90s, I accidentally put a new, plastic-wrapped bar of soap into the box I was transporting all of my mods in. In Texas. During the summer). One of those is A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, of which I did a 2-part analysis of the pre-gens for my blog back in 2016 (comparing them to Pathfinder expectations re: stats, hp, gear, etc.). http://www.cbediting.com/single-post/2016/05/07/The-pregens-of-A1-Slave-Pits-of-the-Undercity-a-retrospective-part-1

    While that adventure is not a megadungeon, and the pre-gens topped out at 6th level, I thought I would take a look to see if any of the spellcasters have any divination spells prepped. As it turns out, Karraway (male human cleric 6) has find trap prepped and Dread Delgath (male human magic-user 5) has read magic and ESP prepped.

    That got me thinking about pre-gens from a higher level megadungeon adventure. I pulled out Tomb of Horrors but the pre-gens in there don't have spells prepped. So then I turned to the next best thing: G 1-2-3 Against the Giants. Flerd (human cleric 9) has detect evil, detect magic, find traps, speak with dead, and commune prepared. That is a ton of divination spells in the available slots! Faffle (human magic-user 9) has detect invisible prepped. Gleed (human magic-user 12) has detect magic and detect invisible prepped. Fonkin (high elf F/MU 5/8) has read magic. Roaky (human cleric 12) has find traps and commune. Given that multiple characters have commune, and one has speak with dead, the pre-gens have some serious divination capabilities for solving problems/learning about upcoming traps, etc.

    Speaking of speak with dead, during 3.X's Living Greyhawk, the spell was so useful to both PCs and NPCs would cut the tongues out of the mouths of the dead to prevent the spell from being used on corpses. The spell is so useful in 3.x (just has a saving throw if the corpse's alignment differs from the caster's) that I include text in my published investigatory adventures for responses to questions I assume the PCs will ask. Even in 5e, it's useful; while running Princes of the Apocalypse (but set in the Bandit Kingdoms instead of Forgotten Realms), the PCs often had a local friendly cleric NPC cast the spell whenever they killed a bad guy and dragged the corpse back to town.

  5. One thing I recall from the 2nd Edition AD&D rules was how the Divination spell was overhauled so that you merely had to sacrifice something of value (e.g. a gemstone) rather than a live animal. The 2nd edition spell was also much less specific about what you could learn from it-IOW, it wasn't just monster strength and treasure amounts. You could, conceivably, still use the spell for that though.

    Reading through some of those old modules, I thought about how skill checks might substitute for magic in getting past some of the traps, or in giving players hints about what they could do next. That's one of my favourite things about both 3rd Edition D&D and Mr. Bloch's own Adventures Dark And Deep, namely that smart investments in skills could allow characters to contribute in ways beyond their more strictly defined class abilities and spells.

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