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How powerful would an always-on passive ability or magic item or whatever else that could grant truesight to a PC be? Let's say 60 ft. to match the range of races with Darkvision.

For reference, here's what truesight does (MM, p. 9):

A monster with truesight can, out to a specific range, see in normal and magical darkness, see invisible creatures and objects, automatically detect visual illusions and succeed on saving throws against them, and perceive the original form of a shapechanger or a creature that is transformed by magic. Furthermore, the monster can see into the Ethereal Plane within the same range.

On the one hand, the spell true seeing (PHB, p. 284) is a 6th level spell, which is pretty powerful, and only grants truesight for an hour per casting (although it does have an impressive 120 foot range):

This spell gives the willing creature you touch the ability to see things as they actually are. For the duration, the creature has truesight, notices secret doors hidden by magic, and can see into the Ethereal Plane, all out to a range of 120 feet.

On the other hand, a monodrone (MM. p, 224), which is only a CR 1/8 creature, has truesight, as do quite a few other "weak" monsters, which implies that it's not that powerful.

So what should an always-on truesight ability be compared against to determine how powerful it is? It's clearly superior to Darkvision, which some (most) races start off with. Is it on par with a legendary magic item, or is it less powerful than that? A feat, or is it more powerful than that? I can't think of any other ways to grant a PC a passive always-on ability besides feats or magic items (outside something like a Blessing or something...)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It might be fine to give the player darkvision goggles, but anything more than 1-shot 1 minute duration of truesight would be too much. \$\endgroup\$ – Beefster Dec 13 '18 at 0:11
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That's a 20th level epic boon (so very powerful)

The power of a permanent truesight effect would be situational. If you measure 'power' by raw combat ability, then unless you're fighting invisible creatures truesight has little effect. Even if this player is fighting invisible monsters, the rest of the party is still vulnerable. So it shouldn't break combat balance. Outside combat, truesight would also be of little use if you don't encounter illusions or shapechangers or ethereal creatures, although if you do encounter those things it solves those challenges trivially, which may be an issue for the DM trying to make interesting challenges. The range would also be a big factor. Truesight to a range of 10ft (for instance) requires the player to be standing very close to the item of interest and wouldn't be as powerful as a range of 60ft, which would reveal an entire room.

But if we want to see how powerful the ability of permanent truesight is in general, we can look at where the game designers have made truesight available for player characters. You have already noticed truesight's availability as a 6th level spell, which automatically puts it in a rather high echelon of power. But where would permanent truesight fit into the picture?

The answer is found in page 232 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, under Epic Boons. Epic Boons are only available to player characters who are at level 20 and are made to extend the power of already-powerful 20th level characters. Of these epic boons, there is one which provides exactly the effect you are considering:

Boon of Truesight

You have truesight out to a range of 60 feet.

If the game designers thought that permanent truesight (to 60ft) is something worthy for only a 20th level character, you should be very cautious with giving out a similar ability to a lower level player character. Putting a much shorter range and/or limited uses per day might (might) help balance it for lower level characters, although it will still be very powerful in certain situations.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Well supported with the DMG reference. \$\endgroup\$ – Grosscol Dec 11 '18 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I completely forgot about boons! The fact that there's a Boon of Truesight very conclusively tells me exactly what power level we're talking about here. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 11 '18 at 14:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Pretty sure there's a warlock invocation that kinda like truesight which might suit your purposes better. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Dec 11 '18 at 14:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS No, Devil's Sight is basically just super-darkvison; I was thinking of Witch Sight, which lets you "see the true form of any shapechanger or creature concealed by illusion or transmutation magic". It has a range of 30ft (line of sight), and a prerequisite of 15th level. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Dec 11 '18 at 15:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS Not entirely. Witch Sight allows you to see the true form of creatures hidden by illusion or transmutation magic. It does not let you see anything that isn't a creature, and it doesn't work on any magic that isn't of those two schools (granted, there's not much outside of those schools that alters appearence, but still) and it doesn't let you see into the Ethereal Plane. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Dec 11 '18 at 15:15
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Truesight is a fairly powerful ability for a PC that has the undesirable effect of limiting the DM's ability to use certain types of storytelling. The ability to simply ignore effects like invisibility, illusion, or darkness makes it almost impossible to conceal information from the players, and the ability to immediately see through transformations tends to remove several whole classes of story from the DM's arsenal. That, in general, means the game becomes less varied, less interesting, and less exciting. In exchange, one character gets to feel cool once in a while by telling the DM, "Nah, that effect doesn't matter to me."

There are many abilities that are very powerful in PCs' hands but easily accessible to certain monsters. This doesn't mean the ability is weak; it means the PCs are going to be limited in some specific way for the duration of that one fight or encounter. Most monsters have a very brief moment in the spotlight (whether as an opponent, a non-combat encounter, or an ally), and then the PCs move on. Even an ability that turns the whole game system on its head is only "just for now" in the great scheme of things. An ability that disables one or more characters' specific shtick is only a sign that says "Your usual strategy won't work here, try something new!" But next time, you can go back to what you normally like doing.

Hand that over to a PC, though, and suddenly the whole game is permanently on its head, because a PC is always there, always involved, and always has the ability.

If you meet a monodrone (or several), they're there for the duration of one fight, or at most an extended adventure. Their truesight gives the modrons a specific, intentional flavor -- they're made out of Law and can't easily be fooled or bypassed. But that Gnome Illusionist isn't totally and permanently worthless; next session you'll be on to some other adventure, and those illusions will be nice and powerful again.

Similarly, a number of low level enemies have wide-ranging resistance or immunity to damage and debilitating conditions -- the Helmed Horror springs to mind. As a single fight, it's just a challenge to figure out how to get past the limitation. Give those same resistances to a PC, and they're game-breaking.

The true seeing spell is a really good signpost in this case. True sight is so strong that one of the few ways for PCs to ever get it is from a high level spell -- one that most casters can only ever use once per day and which competes for space with powerful effects like chain lightning, disintegrate, and flesh to stone. Right away, that should tell you how the designers feel about this ability in the hands of a PC.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "undesirable effect of limiting the DM's ability to use certain types of storytelling" I disagree. If the entire plot hinges on the PCs being "shown" something that actually deceives them, it's a rather flimsy story. Usually they should get some roll to figure out the deception, so your plot at best works 95% of the time (rolling anything but a natural 20). It's probably going to be lower if each person makes a roll and they can succeed on anything other than 20. So it relies on chance even without truesight. \$\endgroup\$ – VLAZ Dec 12 '18 at 7:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ And on the flipside, Truesight can be an enormous boon to storytelling certain stories. A single person can see through a deception laid over an entire village, for example. Maybe the mayor is Not What He Looks To Be™ or other town officials. Maybe some otherwise mundane people actually seem different. Maybe invisible creatures roam the streets. The person with Truesight is the one who can track this down. But even then, maybe they don't know about the deception. One player sees one form of an NPC, another a different form - unless they describe each person they meet, they won't notice. \$\endgroup\$ – VLAZ Dec 12 '18 at 7:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @vlaz Players often get rolls to acquire certain information only if they take specific actions, or have no real way to learn it. It may not be that the whole plot hinges on that information (though it might, if the PCs are, say, trying to figure out who is secretly the werewolf that's been causing trouble in town). There's a huge difference between getting an Investigation roll to discover an illusion when the players search the mayor's office after breaking in at night, and automatically seeing through it as soon as they step through the door the first time they talk to the mayor. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Dec 12 '18 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, if the party is sufficiently high level, they might have access to truesight anyway, but even then they'd already have to be suspicious of the situation to know to activate it. Always-on is hugely more powerful because it means you just always know, even when you had no reason to even suspect something was wrong (yet). Yeah, crap happens and DM plans get ruined, happens all the time; but stuff like permanent truesight is going beyond "the players did something unexpected or surprisingly insightful". \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Dec 12 '18 at 14:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not arguing it's not powerful. I agree it is. I disagree that that it strips the storytelling potential. IMO, the types of stories that rely on lying to the PCs in their face, only make the GM think themselves clever but really aren't. And besides, you can still do that - a mask or a spoken lie is still going to be effective against Truesight. Instead of a shapeshifter posing as the mayor, the PCs could get contacted via a letter or a messenger of the "mayor". The plot is preserved. You now have more plot hooks to use on the PCs when they can see something that nobody else can. \$\endgroup\$ – VLAZ Dec 12 '18 at 15:03
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Short answer: very powerful

You, as a DM, would essentially take out a big part of your "toolkit"; you could no longer be able to use invisble opponents, illusions to hide or trap anything, things that rely on the ethereal plane to hide themselves (ghosts, etc).

On an insignificant monster like the Monodrone it is not a very powerful ability - but it is not because of the ability itself, it is because of the Monodrone which would not pose much of a threat even if you gave it a +5 vorpal blade (so to speak).

Consider a vampire, high level assassin or a demon with Truesight and maybe you can see the difference vs a monster that poses no real threat to any higher level adventurer.

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Very powerful

As per DocWeird's answer, giving a PC Truesight immediately removes a large swathe of potential encounters from your DM toolkit. You will no longer be able to use illusions that conceal secret objects or shapechangers disguised as town mayors and so on. You will essentially be shooting yourself in the foot.

I wanted to add my own answer though just to point out that you cannot compare monster abilities with PC race or class features on a like-for-like basis.

Monsters tend to be one-off "disposable" creatures as opposed to PCs that have (hopefully) a continuing existence. Giving some magical ability to a monster may not have too much of an effect because, realistically, they will only get the chance to use it once or twice before they get slain (or defeated and never seen again). So even a low-level monster could have a "powerful" ability without unbalancing a game.

Whereas the same ability in the hands of a PC, who can use it all the time, against every monster...suddenly the relative 'power' of that ability becomes magnified several times over.

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This is a bit of a frame challenge, but consider the impact of the feature on the game and the players before considering balance.

First, question whether the feature may improve the character's player's experience. Would you find it exciting to see through every illusion? Suddenly, nothing is hidden to you, and the game loses an avenue for intrigue and mystique, which may or may not be an issue depending on the type of game and campaign being run. I've personally had games where hidden features were instantly revealed due to a high passive perception. Those reveals were not rewarding to me because I didn't have to make any choices for them to occur–they just were there. Consider that a player with truesight might fall into a similar position if otherwise hidden things were revealed to them.

Next, question whether the feature may benefit the group's experience. Would your group enjoy another player having this kind of power or not? Would they appreciate the alleviation of certain types of concerns presented by truesight, or would they loathe the reduction of intrigue?

Finally, question the situation it puts you in as a DM. If you're unable to hide things from this player via illusions or invisibility, does it impact the story you want to tell? Does this feature perhaps invalidate certain aspects of the planned campaign? Or can this feature be used to create a new story or avenue of intrigue for the players? Perhaps the player in question can now see a scrying sensor that has been following the players for weeks, but has no idea who might be watching them or why.

Depending on the answers to these questions and how they fit your specific group, you may find that balance concerns don't matter, as you reject the idea entirely or build a story around the feature. Or you may find that the feature fits the group, but only as a suitable reward, in which case you'd want to consider other answers here which describe the relative strength and balance concerns of the feature.

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As someone who had an item which did this (The ebony eyeshield, also reflects gaze attacks, so useful!), its completely OP unless you are playing at the highest levels (18+).

It makes it very very hard to trick the players and means 60+% of all plots the player can immediately fool with very little or no downside.

Now thats not to say you can't make downsides. What about a creature so ugly that it drives men insane, but uses an illusion to hide it's appearance so protecting anyone (without truesight) that looks at them.

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Tweak it or probably suffer from it

I think it would be globally "not that useful" but situationally "very broken", which is already kinda meh as per balancing issue, but most of all would kinda oblige you as the GM to always think about it when building scenarios and challenges. It can become a pain if you want to set a specific mood or a given type of opponent and can give a one way ticket to the end of a scenario before it even began.

Suggestions

With conditions or limits it can become cool to handle though! If the character is very pure of heart, make it so it loses its truesight for a time after seeing something really dark, so you can hide things from this player if you need to. Or the opposite, a dark being seeing something a little too much lawful/good/righty could loses its true purpose of doing bad things and its true sight along with it.

(sorry for the poor english, I'm not a native speaker)

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