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The discern location spell says

A discern location spell is among the most powerful means of locating creatures or objects. Nothing short of a mind blank spell or the direct intervention of a deity keeps you from learning the exact location of a single individual or object. Discern location circumvents normal means of protection from scrying or location. The spell reveals the name of the creature or object’s location (place, name, business name, building name, or the like), community, county (or similar political division), country, continent, and the plane of existence where the target lies.

To find a creature with the spell, you must have seen the creature or have some item that once belonged to it. To find an object, you must have touched it at least once.

So, while I am aware this looks like one of those situations that would just depend on how good your DM feels the day you cast the spell, I was wondering what's the most correct way to interpret the meaning of "location's name", in particular how good would the spell be into recovering a location's name. Some examples I am unsure how to handle correctly:

- A location that is known by a certain name only by the caster (and maybe few other people)
Mialee the wizard and her friends call a cave in the High Forest "Yellow bed cave" because it's full of yellow moss on which they slept. She casts discern location to find the whereabouts of her beloved pin (which she forgot in the cave), would the spell say "High Forest" or "Yellow bed cave"?

- A location that is known by a certain name only by a group of people but not by the caster
Turniel the evil cleric wants to know where his nemesis Mialee is. She is in the Yellow bed cave looking for her pin but Turniel doesn't know the cave is being called like that by Mialee, once again would the spell say "High Forest" or "Yellow bed cave"?

- A location with no official name but to which different groups gave different names, none of which is known by the caster
A very small village of humans near the Lurkwood calls a clearing "The clearing of the great meeting" because two kings met there to discuss peace, nobody else except those from that village calls it this way. A group of orcs call that same place "the big clearing" because, well, it's a clearing and it's big and they stop there often enough that they gave it a name. Mialee wants to know there the group of orcs is, she casts discern location while they are in the clearing. Would the spell say "The clearing of the great meeting", "the big clearing" or just "Lurkwood"?

- A location with no name that could be unequivocally determined by some directions
I am aware that discern location can just give a name and should not be used to receive directions to reach a location, but I wanted to talk about this example anyway. Mialee wants to know where her friend Lidda is and so she casts discern location. She is hiding in the High Forest, in a nameless cave a few Km north from Grandfather Tree. There's no other cave in that direction. Would the spell say "The cave a few Km north from Grandfather Tree" or just "High Forest"?

The way I personally feel correct is to use the name of the smallest location with an official name (or at least a very common and acknowledged name. Being the DM I suppose I can get to decide what's common and what's not), and never give a more precise name if it's only used by few (caster included), nor give directions to a place. But i'm not sure it's the most correct

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The intricacies of discern location vary by the text

Official material provides some guidelines on how to use the 8th-level Sor/Wiz spell discern location [div] (Player's Handbook 222), but official material also varies the spell's efficacy depending on the text.

For example, some sources expand the discern location spell's obvious mandate to include giving directions to the location… or, at least, implying that the spell provides directions to the location.

  • The Monster Manual's retriever possesses the spell-like ability find target that says, "When ordered to find an item or a creature, a retriever does so unerringly, as though guided by discern location" (47). However, the discern location spell does not say that it guides a caster to a location, despite the retriever—a core monster—having an ability that's like the discern location spell that does guide it to its target!
  • The Monster Manual IV's oaken defender possesses the supernatural ability find oaken defender that says that it is as "the discern location spell; always active; caster level 18th. An oaken defender can use this ability only to find another oaken defender on the same plane as itself" (106). How an oaken defender is to find another oaken defender with this ability if the ability provides only a name is a mystery. (Oaken defenders may just be very lonely in your campaigns.)
  • Frostburn says, "Once [a rimefire witch] wakes from the dream, she knows the most direct route to the rimefire eidolon’s iceberg, as if she had cast discern location to find it" (67). While knowing the location of something is the typical result of the discern location spell, also knowing how to get there certainly is not!

However, mostly the spell is merely glossed, the text not really explaining anything. For instance, both Complete Mage and Complete Scoundrel list the spell among the best spells for, respectively, a spy (24) and a divine scoundrel (17), offering a sentence of commentary each. And Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk views the spell not as an end itself but as a means to an end: a villain therein "then uses the second scroll [of discern location] in whatever way seems best to track down those who destroyed him [by learning the location of one of his magic items], reclaim his gear, and wreak his vengeance" (161). Finally, the Epic Level Handbook on Designing Event-based Adventures says that even if the DM designs such adventures, they'll likely be less challenging for epic heroes because "[f]ind the path and discern location will lead the characters unerringly to their goals" (112), and such a description leaves it up in the air whether the EL's authors thought the 6th-level cleric spell find the path [div] (PH 23) should be subsumed into the discern location spell.

By contrast, at least one source would see the discern location spell dialed back significantly and subjected to a strict rules-as-written reading. Heroes of Horror on Divination says

Discern location is a powerful tool, but it functions only if the caster has seen or touched the person or object in question or has something belonging to the individual. The spell reveals only where the being or object is right now. If the caster realizes that the werewolf she’s seeking (currently in human form) is standing in the middle of a crowded tavern, that doesn’t tell her which of the three dozen occupants is the one she seeks. Given the phrasing of the spell description…, a DM could say that, if the caster does not have something belonging to the target, she must know the actual identity of the individual she’s trying to find. For example, “the person or creature who killed the mayor” is not a viable target of the spell. Only by using the target’s name, or some other title specifically associated with the target, can the caster utilize discern location. (78)

In sum, the DM can—following the game's designers' examples—opt to have the spell discern location function however he wants. Seriously, while normally this writer urges a DM be consistent—and here, too, that's preferred—, given that the game's writers aren't consistent, he can imagine a DM ruling that that the discern location spell is inconsistent depending on the story's needs. This player would grouse if not warned when the campaign began that this is how the spell would be adjudicated, but he wouldn't leave a campaign over it: the spell discern location can derail many otherwise engaging plots, and this player respects the DM's desire to tell a certain kind of story despite the presence of such a know-it-all spell.

How this DM rules

This DM follows the letter of the spell much like Heroes of Horror recommends, but, because it's an 8th-level spell, this DM doesn't screw around: unless something interferes, the caster always gets the location. That means, in this DM's campaigns, here's how the issues the question raises would be addressed:

  • If the location literally has no name, the caster learns a name that serves to identify precisely the location using nearby significant and largely unmistakable landmarks. The caster may have to ask around to find the location, but the spell will make sure that there's no confusing the location it provided with another similar location.
  • If the location has a name, the caster learns that name, and if knowing multiple names for the same location would serve to more precisely identify the location, the caster knows those names, too. Further, the caster will also learn a relative name (as above) if the names that would be provided are so obscure that they can't be used to identify the location (e.g. that name no is longer used, only one hermit on another continent calls the location by that name).

Nonetheless, this DM does limit the spell discern location is one important way: the spell does not narrow the location to anything smaller than the equivalent of something that possesses a definable entrance from the outside world. (And, to be clear, this DM doesn't play games with this definition either. It's an 8th-level spell, y'all; it's supposed to just work.) In other words, in this DM's campaigns, the spell discern location provides the caster the name of the location that makes it unique but not any names of sublocations inside the location! In addition to other effects, this gives a reasonable campaign explanation for large-scale dungeon complexes.

For example, in this DM's campaigns, the discern location spell tells Mialee that her precious pin is in Yellow Bed Cavern which is also called in the Sylvan language Amber Downs, but the spell won't tell Mialee in what monster's lair in Yellow Bed Cavern her pin now resides. Once Mialee gets to Yellow Bed Cavern, she's on her own.

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