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The spell description of detect thoughts says

When you cast the spell and as your action on each turn until the spell ends, you can focus your mind on any one creature that you can see within 30 feet of you.

But later goes on to say:

You can also use this spell to detect the presence of thinking creatures you can’t see. When you cast the spell or as your action during the duration, you can search for thoughts within 30 feet of you. The spell can penetrate barriers ... Once you detect the presence of a creature in this way, you can read its thoughts for the rest of the duration as described above, even if you can’t see it

So what is the benefit of being within sight of a target when casting Detect Thoughts? Does it confer any benefits or circumvent some restrictions? Does it save any actions?

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3 Answers 3

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One step thought detection vs Two-step

Seen Creatures

The difference is that in order to detect the thoughts, you must first focus on a single creature. If you can see them, you can immediately identify and Detect Thoughts from the Cast a Spell Action of the initial casting(emphasis mine):

When you cast the spell and as your action on each turn until the spell ends, you can focus your mind on any one creature that you can see within 30 feet of you.

Unseen Creatures

The spell also gives you an opportunity to detect thoughts of an unseen creature. You can either do so with the initial Cast a Spell Action (doing so replaces your initial chance to Detect Thoughts of a seen creature), or do it with your next action.

You can also use this spell to detect the presence of thinking creatures you can't see. When you cast the spell or as your action during the duration, you can search for thoughts within 30 feet of you.

This enables you to "find" the unseen creature, at which point you can then Detect Thoughts with the action outlined above.

Your Options

  1. Initial Casting of Detect Thoughts - Choose between picking a seen creature and Detecting it's Thoughts OR Detect Thoughts of Unseen Creatures.
  2. If you Detected Thoughts of a visible creature, then that is your focus for the duration of your spell unless you use an Action to change your creature focus.
  3. If you chose to Detect Thoughts of Unseen, you can now identify either a seen creature or an unseen to Detect Thoughts. Your next Action can be to Detect Thoughts of a Seen or Unseen creature.
  4. You can choose to use a later Action to shift your Detection to another creature or probe deeper into their thoughts:

    As an action, you can either shift your attention to another creature's thoughts or attempt to probe deeper into the same creature's mind [see spell description for mechanics of probing deeper].

This is all supported by Jeremy Crawford via Twitter:

In detect thoughts, it's 1 action to read thoughts if you can see your target, at least 2 actions if you can't.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It says "when you cast this spell or...". you don't have to use the extra action \$\endgroup\$ Mar 27, 2018 at 17:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right, if you can see the creature, you can immediately detect thoughts. If you can't, you have ot use an action to detect thinking creatures you can't see. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't have to use an extra action though. You can immediately choose to detect thinking creatures on cast. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 27, 2018 at 17:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron Only if they're visible (hence the one-step thought detection), You still need to pick your creature and can only pick creatures you can see unless you've used your initial Cast A Spell action to find unseen creature thoughts. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Once you detect the presence of a creature in this way, you can read its thoughts for the rest of the duration as described above" It doesn't say you have to focus your mind (per the creature you pick) to read the thoughts. Only that you do for the creature you see \$\endgroup\$ Mar 27, 2018 at 17:28
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It saves 1 action after your first target

To read the thoughts of a target you can see or that you have previously detected requires an action. To detect thoughts of someone you can't see also takes an action.

Ergo, to read the thoughts of someone you can't see takes 2 actions (and normally 2 rounds): 1 action to detect, then 1 action to target & read. This is twice as slow as with someone you can see.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @David It still only tells you about one: you still save one action when switching targets. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 27, 2018 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ this chat discusses my argument. I think I was mistaken. Sorry \$\endgroup\$ Mar 27, 2018 at 17:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @David No worries! It did show a detail I needed to address more clearly, so it improved the answer. Thanks. :) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 27, 2018 at 17:55
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Spell Range

If you read on a bit longer for the target you can't see, it reads:

... but it must still be within range.

With the creature you can see and target, once it is focused on, you can continue to detect its thoughts (as well as having the option to delve deeper) even if it leaves the 30 foot range per the Spellcasting rules (under Range):

Once a spell is cast, its effects aren’t limited by its range, unless the spell’s description says otherwise.

This gives an indirect benefit if you focus on a target you can see compared to one you can't see.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I love getting downvotes with no explanation. My answer is accurate and answers the question. Does anyone think it could be structured better? If so, please advise. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28, 2018 at 3:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ You haven't answered the question. Your answer explains that the initial distance range doesn't apply after casting, but the question is about the beneits of sight. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 28, 2018 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch If you have sight you can take advantage of the range rules, since the range limit is only called out in the unseen targets section. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28, 2018 at 21:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Seen creatures must be within 30' as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 28, 2018 at 21:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch at first. Not after the creature is selected as your focus \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28, 2018 at 21:33

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