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I'm playing D&D 5e and the divination spell is a bit confusing to me and my DM. It says:

Your magic and an offering put you in contact with a god or a god's servants. You ask a single question concerning a specific goal, event or activity to occur within 7 days. The DM offers a truthful reply. The reply might be a short phrase, a cryptic rhyme, or an omen.

The spell doesn't take into account any possible circumstances that might change the outcome, such as the casting of additional spells or the loss or gain of a companion.

So if the cleric asked: "who is the leader of the secret cult?" Then could the DM reply with their name? We're planing to kill him within 7 days, and the DM is questioning this spell because it could damage the story. It will be too easy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately "Who is the Leader of..." is not "...a single question concerning a specific goal, event or activity to occur..." . Instead it would be more like "Will we find the leader soon?" "Will the cult leader be in Baldur's Gate when we arrive?" \$\endgroup\$ – Airatome Aug 6 '17 at 14:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Airatome How is that not a question concerning the specific goal of finding the leader? \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Aug 6 '17 at 17:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ related: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/96655/23970 \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Aug 6 '17 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Instead of the "What can the Divination spell tell you?" question (which is completely up to the specific DM" it is better to ask "How can DM give a truthful reply to the Divination spell and not spoil the story?" \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 6 '17 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't understand how getting the name of a creature isn't a goal or searching for the name of a creature isn't an activity. Why wouldn't they be? Or, for that matter, "who is conducting the activity of leading the cult?" \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Aug 7 '17 at 10:31
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The DM can be truthful but still evasive. Exact wording is key here.

ANY QUESTION can be handled this way.

So the question as you have it is "who is the leader of the secret cult?"

So as the DM, I have A TON of options BESIDES the dude/lady's name. (Like oh, I don't know, the dark god they are worshipping! definitely the TRUTH!) First, be specific, name your cult specifically. Because this is vague and there's got to be more than one secret cult in the world, or even nearby. I might answer "Samantha" because Samantha is the leader of the nearby nature nudist cult, which has nothing to do with the cult you are actually looking for.

Second, a question such as "Who is...?" can be as much about identity as it is about a name. Identity is a tricky thing. Bruce Wayne's identity is actually Batman. If you asked "Who is Batman?" I might give you "He is vengeance, he is the night, he is the protector of Gotham..." and so on.

If you ask "What is the name of the cult leader?" I might give the name they have been using in the cult, not their birth name. Because this what they consider to actually be their identity.

If your DM is questioning this spell because they think it would be too easy, that's a failure of imagination on their part because, yes, you can do LITERALLY DO ANYTHING WITH IT.

Ask for the birth name of the cult leader, it turns out their mother changed their name because they were on the run from an abusive father, which is part of the reason why they are psychotic and are now running a cult. OR they were a famous murderer/arsonist before, and they changed their name when they came to this town as an adult.

This may lead to some clues as to their identity but it isn't always straightforward.

It can be, but only if the DM wants it that way. I mean you can answer in a cryptic rhyme or omen...that doesn't speak to an easy answer...

I will say, as others have pointed out, the question has to be reworked, because it's supposed to be about a specific goal, and doesn't really work that way here. It's supposed to be for planning ahead for a specific event. You know a battle is going to happen, so you can ask how many spell casters will be on the battle field on the opposite side, or what direction the attack will come from or if the cultists will have traps. The identity of a person doesn't really fit into a planned event (like a wedding, funeral, or battle). It is a goal, but the DM needs to look at it more closely.

Also, there can be some kind of counter to the divination or spells that let you know if someone know if a divination spell is being cast to learn their name or identity. My rule as a DM has always been, if there's a spell out there, there's a counter-spell out there.

Also, you want to look at how close the Cleric is to the god, and also, if divination is in the god's portfolio.

And, you definitely want to look at the personality of the god you are asking. How they view the world will definitely color the answer (other posters have done better with this point than I have!)

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    \$\begingroup\$ "The identity of a person doesn't really fit into a planned event (like a wedding, funeral, or battle)." Yeah, but it doesn't say "specific goal related to an event". It says "specific goal, event, or activity". (Emphasis and oxford comma mine.) "What should we do to find the name of the cult leader" would be another valid approach — this is a specific activity. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Aug 6 '17 at 17:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm Yes. That approach would fit. As the OP has it currently, I'd be a little techy as the DM because it doesn't actually fit the parameters of the spell. The way you have it DOES. \$\endgroup\$ – Erin Thursby Aug 7 '17 at 14:58
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The DM should tell you the true identity of the cult leader

The spell says so in the description:

The DM offers a truthful reply

If the DM allows this spell in the game, they should stick to what they've allowed. If they dislike this spell, they are free to ban it, but should let the players know ahead of time that this spell will be nerfed or removed.

With a caveat:

You should ask a better question that fits the parameters of the spell. Try something like:

We are going to kill the leader of a cult, but we don't know who he or she is. What is their name and location?

This turns your question into one about a specific activity (the activity of murder).

Knowledge should not break the game

In the words of the Angry GM, knowledge should not break the game. If the DM had set up that the cult leader is hard to kill because he's hard to find, but easy to kill once you know where he is, that is the fault of the DM for designing an encounter that can be broken by knowledge.

Instead, the encounter design should take into account the skills of the player characters. If they have the divination spell, they can get this knowledge pretty easily, so the difficulty should be put in getting to the cult leader and killing him.

The players were going to find him anyway, right?

Assuming the cult leader is a BBEG who was meant to be killed, then the DM must have intended for the players to find him anyway. There would presumably be multiple valid ways of finding him, and a divination spell is one of them. If the players are resourceful enough to acquire this spell, they should not be punished, but rewarded for their spell choice.

The point of divination spells is to get the player character to ask the DM

The whole school of divination spells is able to give the players the knowledge of the DM. Whereas conjuration can teleport creatures to you, or teleport you to other places, or even create something out of nothing; whereas evocation can heal you or harm you with pure arcane energy; whereas transmutation can alter the world around you by imbuing it with properties it did not have before, or actually changing its composition, etc: divination is the school of knowing what the DM knows.

If your DM has an issue with divination, they should recognize that the purpose of this school is so that the players can ask the DM for the answer right away. If they aren't cool with that, then this school of magic simply shouldn't be part of their setting.

There is a way to be hidden from the divination spell

If it's critical to be hidden from these spells, there are ways to hide. The nondetection spell and the magic item, amulet of proof against detection and location, both offer ways to be hidden from divination spells:

Nondetection says:

For the duration, you hide a target that you touch from divination magic

Whereas the amulet says:

While wearing this amulet, you are hidden from divination magic.

Other runners up include leomund's tiny hut and mordenkainen's private sanctum, which can block divination spells from passing through their barriers.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I do think it is poor DM practice to specifically try to block efforts of your players based on your knowledge of their plans. If the DM didn't think ahead of time of blocking the leader from Divination, he shouldn't change the game world to make the players' plan fail. Also, when you're dealing with high level characters that can do stuff like this, you shouldn't center your whole adventure on something easily overcome with a single spell cast. If the players cleverly bypass your tricks, hey that's a win for them and shouldn't be taken away. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason Bray Aug 8 '17 at 18:31
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I think:

The reply might be a short phrase, a cryptic rhyme, or an omen.

is the key to this problem. Depending on the playstyle of your game, this can be either "yep, that's easy, here's your answer", or it can be a further puzzle.

I think the spell should give a useful answer. It's there in the game and it has a real gold piece cost each time. And, "we need to find the identity of the cult leader!" is clearly a specific goal, so there's no reason this question can't be asked. There seems to be some controversy over this, but "goal", "event", and "activity" aren't game terms so we use the standard English reading. The spells' limitation keeps you from asking things like "What should we do next?" or "How can we do the most good in the world", but anything about a specific end towards which your activity is directed is fair game, as is anything about a specific pursuit in which a person is active.

I like @markovchain's answer explaining why this shouldn't break the game and etc., but let me also add an in-universe one: this is a spell allowing moderately high-level clerics to appeal directly to their god for help, and presumably the deities do indeed want to help their own powerful priests.

This offers plenty of powerful flavor and role-playing opportunities: if the player is involved in a quest that is directly in the god's interest, the answer should be as helpful as possible.

Is this secret cult directly opposing your god? Does your god consider him or her a heretic? You might get back name, address, and the fantasy equivalent of a social security number.

On the other hand, if it's "Yo, where are the lootz?" and you nominally follow a god of charity, you might get back something like "You may find gold through the third door in the deepest dungeon, but true riches are in the heart." Whether in these cases the answer can be true-but-completely-unhelpful is mostly a game style thing. I think particularly if gods are basically an off-the-stage source of generic power in your game world, you should err on the side of giving helpful information. If you consistently emphasize the gods and particular belief systems and ideals, I think there's room to be more strict. (And, if the player responds to this in an appropriate manner, that'd be a good time to hand out Inspiration.

If you have a DM who is good at coming up with puzzles on the fly (or is into obsessive preparation), and you have a group that likes this kind of thing, the "cryptic rhyme or an omen" options can be fun. In your game world, maybe the gods are forbidden from interfering directly and can't give you a straight answer — so you get "When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt."

In one game I played, the DM had the house rule that divination like this took a while to get results — and it would happen that the answer would come back at the beginning of the next game session. These were clever (if not always deep) pulp-fantasy style prophetic sayings, and ultimately helpful, and it was worth having that delay to allow the DM to come up with something good each time.

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  Sometimes it helps to compare with similar sources; here's the same spell from HackMaster 4th Ed. (largely modeled on 1st & 2nd Ed. AD&D):

  A Divination spell is used to garner a useful piece of advice concerning a specific goal, event, or activity that will occur within a one-week period. This can be as simple as a short phrase, or it might take the form of a cryptic rhyme or omen. Unlike the Augury spell, this gives a specific piece of advice. For example, if the question is "Will we do well if we venture to the third level?" and a terrible troll guarding 10,000 gp and a shield +1 lurks near the entrance to the level (the GM estimates the party could beat the troll after a hard fight), the Divination response might be: "Ready oil and open flame light your way to wealth."

  In all cases, the GM controls what information is received and whether additional divinations will supply additional information.  Note that if the information is not acted upon, the conditions probably change so that the information is no longer useful (in the example, the Troll might move away and take the treasure with it).

Note that the DM always has the final say. The description goes on to explain:

  The base chance for a correct Divination spell is 60%, plus 1% for each level of the cleric casting the spell [rolled secretly by the GM].
[...more description...]
If an unusually important divination is attempted, sacrifice of particularly valuable jems, jewelry, or magical items may be required.

  Although the Divination spell from D&D-5e doesn't have these requirements, your DM is free to house-rule them in if it will make him more comfortable with the spell (questions regarding specific campaign goals or esoteric information might incur a higher cost to the players, making them less frequently used; and if your DM accidently screws up the answer, he has an "out" in that the roll could have not been sufficient for a completely accurate answer).

Anything would be better than just banning the spell (even though he could). I understand your DM's concern, but either the module was poorly written, or if it's his own campaign, he ought to use one of the many excellent pieces of advise the others here have already suggested, including:

  • Using the Non-Detection spell or an Amulet of Proof Against Detection and Location
    (thank you @markovchain)
  • Truthful misdirection (thank you @Erin Thursby)
  • A response delay to give your DM time to craft an answer (thank you @mattdm)

  And while it's your DM's job to adjudicate the effects of the Divination spell, it is your job as the cleric to carefully craft your question in such a way as to maximize the quality of the information received while simultaneously ensuring the DM can't easily screw you over with it - not unlike using a Wish spell !

It is better to ask "How can [the] DM give a truthful reply to the Divination spell and not spoil the story?"   [thank you @enkryptor]

So instead of asking "Who is the leader of the secret cult?" ... Reply: "Bob."
Try asking "What would be the best way for our party to successfully find and kill the local leader of the _____ cult?"

This gives your DM more wiggle room in answering, yet stays focused on your primary task.

 

And if all else fails, have your DM roll a Magic Eight Ball across the table and just go with that! ;)

 

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