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In D&D 5e, the detect evil and good spell states that:

For the duration, you know if there is an aberration, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead within 30 feet of you, as well as where the creature is located. Similarly, you know if there is a place or object within 30 feet of you that has been magically consecrated or desecrated.

To me, it's unclear whether, if the caster detected some consecrated ground, it would be possible for them to mistake it for desecrated? Or vice versa? Do they just know that this ground has been touched by the gods, or specifically whether there were good or evil ones?

I'm not asking with regards to a specific situation that happened in play; I'm just curious how it should go as intended by the game writers.

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RAW: You do not know whether it is consecrated or desecrated

For the duration, you know if there is an aberration, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead within 30 feet of you, as well as where the creature is located. Similarly, you know if there is a place or object within 30 feet of you that has been magically consecrated or desecrated.

As written, the spell does not allow for determining the difference between consecrated and desecrated only detecting the presence and location of either. All it says is: if [there is a consecrated or desecrated place within 30 feet] then [you are able to locate it].

In 5e, spells do only what they say they do and the spell does not allow any way to differentiate the two types of places, it detects both. It doesn't even say that you get to choose one to look for when you cast it. If the spell allowed you to tell the difference between the two it would say so.

The same thing applies to the first part of the spell as well.

You can't tell what precise creature type something is, only that it falls into that list and are able to locate it.

Other features have wording (which this spell does not) that specifically allows for this

Compare this to Divine Sense (the paladin ability) which specifically allows you to know the type of creatures:

Until the end of your next turn, you know the location of any celestial, fiend, or undead within 60 feet of you that is not behind total cover. You know the type (celestial, fiend, or undead) of any being whose presence you sense, but not its identity (the vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich, for instance). 

The first part of this ability is almost identical to the wording of detect good and evil, yet the ability still needs that second sentence to allow it to specifically identify the type.

See also detect poison and disease which also has the language allowing the poisons to be identified.

For the duration, you can sense the presence and location of poisons, poisonous creatures, and diseases within 30 feet of you. You also identify the kind of poison, poisonous creature, or disease in each case.

If detect good and evil was intended to work this way, it would have included a similar specification.

The spell is named poorly, but that doesn't change how it works

Some spells' names are confusing or downright deceptive1, but that doesn't change what the spells' descriptions say they do. In this case for example, detect good and evil doesn't detect alignment at all, but it senses creature types often associated with some alignments as well as objects and places that have been touched by divine power. Other than that it does do what it says: detect. The spell detects all of these things and allows them to be located. Nothing in the spell indicates or even implies that you can differentiate between the things that are found.

Rules as Fun: Harmless to allow as a houserule

Besides potentially stepping on the toes of the paladin feature Divine Sense, there really is nothing that would break by allowing the caster to know the type of creature or if ground was consecrated or desecrated. It would be a small boost in utility, but certainly nothing to be super concerned about. We play it this way at my table and have had no issues.

If your campaign plot is full of fiends pretending to be celestials (for example) or your plot is fragile to such abilities obviously you should see caution in adopting it.

Just note that this would be a houserule so not really allowable at Adventurers League tables or other tables that strictly adhere to RAW.


1 - A few examples: Catnap, does not put creatures to sleep. Sacred flame does not do fire damage. Chill touch does not do cold damage and is also not a touch spell. Daylight does not actually create sunlight.

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In the strictest RAW, it unclear, but reasonable RAI would mean a yes.

RAW

"Spells only do what they say they do."

The spell says you can locate the ground, not that you can identify it as consecrated vs desecrated. However, you could also read it as being able to locate consecrated ground, and being to locate desecrated ground, in which case the answer would be yes.

RAI

Definitely. First, what would the point of a detection spell named Detect Good and Evil be if it didn't tell you what you detected was good or evil? If you wanted to just see magic, you could use detect magic. Second, in 3.5 edition, the spell Detect Evil was actually based on alignment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ By "RAI" do you mean "Rules as Intended"? If so, what is your source (beyond your personal interpretation) for claiming that the designers intended the spell to work that way? It might be a harmless houserule, but you don't seem to make the case for it being the intended meaning. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Nov 12 '18 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 I don't think you can take a a reading of it as 'locate consecrated ground or locate desecrated ground' like you say under your RAW section. The object of the rule sentence is “a place or object” that meets the condition of having “been magically consecrated or desecrated”. So you have a single mode of identification that will ID a place that meets either criteria, rather than two methods that identify a place that meets one of the criteria. \$\endgroup\$ – A Very Large Bear Nov 12 '18 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ To follow on from @Rubiksmoose on the intended - a fair reason would be (IIRC) there's no other way (bar Wish, I guess) to tell consecrated vs desecrated. Clerics couldn't be sure their own temples were consecrated to their own gods, which seems a little daft and quite the oversight \$\endgroup\$ – Cyberspark Nov 12 '18 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Worth noting that if you use detect magic you wouldn't have any idea if an area is either con/desecrated only that it is magical and potentially it's school of magic. Using this spell gives you more information if you are looking for areas of con/desecration specifically. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Nov 13 '18 at 0:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cyberspark while I suppose this could be a separate question, its worth remarking that this is a pretty rubbish way to ensure that, as one good god could concecrate another's temple. And how do neutral gods/clerics manage? \$\endgroup\$ – Rugnir Nov 13 '18 at 18:51
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You can't tell the difference because there is no (mechanical) difference

In order to answer this question, we have to ask exactly what "consecrated" and "desecrated" mean in terms of game mechanics. The only place I can find any explanation is in the Paladin's Divine Sense:

Within the same radius, you also detect the presence of any place or object that has been consecrated or desecrated, as with the hallow spell.

From this, it seems that the hallow spell is the way to consecrate or desecrate something. So, what does the spell's text have to say about consecration and desecration? Well... nothing. At least, not directly. But depending on the parameters you choose when casting hallow, you could have an area that protects all within it from being frightened and does not allow undead or fiends to enter. That sounds a lot like consecration. Or you could have an area that causes vulnerability to necrotic damage and prevents celestials from entering. This sounds a lot like desecration.

The point is that in practice, both consecrated and desecrated ground mean the same thing: that someone cast a hallow spell there. Whether the hallowed area is consecrated or desecrated is merely a matter of opinion with no mechanical import. Hence, detect evil and good can't discern any difference between the two because there is no difference to be discerned. The person who cast the hallow spell would most likely say they had consecrated the area, while a cleric of an opposing faith would accuse them of desecrating it. This lack of explicit distinction between consecration and desecration is consistent with the overall downplaying of alignment-based mechanics in 5th Edition (e.g. the fact that detect evil and good detects creature types rather than alignments).

Of course, the DM of a campaign is free to invent other ways to consecrate or desecrate an area besides the hallow spell, and they are free to consider consecration and desecration as distinct states within their game world. If they do decide to make a mechanical distinction between the two, it would also make sense for them to rule that detect evil and good (as well as a Paladin's Divine Sense and other similar abilities) can detect the difference. Even if the DM does not make any objective distinction, it would not be unreasonable to rule that when you detect hallowed ground, you get a sense of your deity's subjective opinion on whether it is consecrated or desecrated.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ English is not a programming language. Read it like an English sentence, not like query logic. \$\endgroup\$ – user47897 Nov 13 '18 at 17:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkTO From the context of your other comments, I assume you are referring to the bolded sentence quoted in the question, as well as the bit I quoted from Divine Sense, which has a similar syntax. However, my answer is not dependent on reading either of these sentences "like query logic". To the contrary, the entire point of my answer is that it doesn't matter how you parse these sentences. Whether or not the spell/ability says you can tell the difference is irrelevant, because there is no difference to tell, at least not mechanically. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson Nov 15 '18 at 6:11
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First off, a lack of absolute clarity does not mean it doesn't differentiate the two, even if 'spells only do what they say they do'. The problem is not that it doesn't say what it does, the problem is that English grammar gives two possible readings.

All these people who say reading the RAW, you can't tell the difference are completely missing the sense of it. By that same reading, it doesn't tell you what type of creatures you sense nearby either. That might be undead, or it might be a celestial, or something else entirely, or possibly a piece of consecrated land, is not a helpful distinction in game; it just adds unnecessary confusion and complexity. Similarly, it is almost entirely useless to be able to tell if ground is consecrated or desecrated without being able to tell the difference. What ability might one use second after Detecting, that could differentiate between all of these substantively different things? None. It is nonsense to say you can't, and any DM that rules that way is missing the point. Already, the ability to tell alignments apart is gone. Do we just redact the ability so far till the name is absolutely meaningless?

And the relativist argument is even worse. D and D is a world with objective morality. Evil is a physical, actual thing made manifest to many beings (like all the devils, demons, and fiends, which are basically made from evil). It is an intrinsic enough thing to be made actual part of a creature's stat block in the monster manual. Evil gods and evil clerics know they are evil, unless they are mad or delusional, which might in fact mean they are actually good, just mentally ill. They may masquerade as good, but only the insane would fail to realize that those who act exclusively for their own benefit at the expense of all others could call themselves good. They might believe they are acting correctly, as one aught, and might hate others who behave differently and disagree with them, but no sane evil cleric would think that a celestial might visit with some goodness award. Even the damage/energy types are objectively, empirically different. Necrotic damage and Radiant damage are not the same; whether or not you are vulnerable to it is not a relative matter.

Any ambiguity in the written paragraph fades away if one asks the simple question, to what end? It would be useless for players to only know that ground is possible consecrated or desecrated, especially if there is no way to know which. Why try to make a stand against some undead there if it turns out they are going to more powerful and harder to turn than normal?

If there isn't someday a Sage Advice or designer ruling to clarify that this spell/ability allows the caster to differentiate between the possible creature or consecration types, then we might as well just quite playing, because up is down, good is evil, and what's the point.

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