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I'm running through the Lost Mine of Phandelver Starter Set adventure with a new group of players. The backstory of one character was that they were born to a noble family but were abandoned at birth (because they are a tiefling). Because the character was abandoned early, they do not know that they have this heritage.

The nothic that the characters can face in Tresendar Manor has the Weird Insight action, which states:

The nothic targets one creature it can see within 30 feet of it. The target must contest its Charisma (Deception) check against the nothic’s Wisdom (Insight) check. If the nothic wins, it magically learns one fact or secret about the target. The target automatically wins if it is immune to being charmed.

The ability contest suggests to me that the nothic is looking into the character's mind, but there is nothing stating that the fact or secret has to be known by the character themselves.

Can the nothic use Weird Insight to learn a secret about the target that the target doesn't know themselves?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm asking if the nothic can learn something the about the target that the target doesn't know themselves if the target fails their saving throw \$\endgroup\$ – Falconer May 1 at 16:54
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Read As Written, yes

While the implication of the description is that the character has direct knowledge of the fact or secret, that does not necessarily preclude the nothic from learning something that might be buried in the character's subconscious, nor is it explicitly stated that direct knowledge is what is able to be gained.

If the nothic wins, it magically learns one fact or secret about the target.

A "fact" is just something that is true, and since it does not explicitly state that it learns something the character has knowledge of, this opens up the door for interpretation as to how the Nothic is able to come by this knowledge.

Perhaps the Nothic could search through memories and "see" the faces of the people that abandoned the character, even though the character cannot remember it themselves.

Perhaps the Nothic is looking into the character's past, not into the character's mind, and is able to view events as they unfolded.

Further indication that it may be able to extract information not known to the target is in the the description of Nothics in the MM (p. 236) (emphasis mine)

Dark Oracles. Nothics possess a strange magical insight that allows them to extract knowledge from other creatures. This grants them unique understanding of secret and forbidden lore, which they share for a price. A nothic covets magic items, greedily accepting such gifts from creatures that seek out its knowledge.

The specific reading of this is:

Nothics... extract knowledge from other creatures -MM pg. 236

Which is not the same as:

The Nothic is able to extract the knowledge of that creature

The Nothic is able to extract another creature's knowledge

If either of the two above examples were used, then it would explicitly mean that it could only extract something known to the target. As the actual text reads, it never specifies this. The actual text is very general and does not indicate that the knowledge learned needs to be possessed by the target, whereas the two examples are far more specific and denote knowledge the target actually holds.

Read As Intended, possibly not

Since there is no further clarification other than the description of the ability and the creature itself in the MM, one could assume that this is intended to work like detect thoughts in that the target must be actively conscious of the information being gained, though this is not supported anywhere.

Character development

Ultimately I would suggest discussing with your players about whether they would be agreeable to such an outcome, some might think it would be a neat plot hook while others would prefer the mystery of not knowing.

While not explicitly relating to this situation, in a game I am currently running I have a player who enjoys when I add things to her backstory that she as a player and as a character was unaware of through dialogue with NPCs (due to having her memory wiped) and then having an opportunity to act on the new information, but this does take a level of trust between you as the DM and them as the player.

Another player at the same table prefers to discuss in detail things relating to their backstory that they would like incorporated into the story before actually moving forward with it.

When it comes to something like this, to save myself time and headache I will often default to the lowest common denominator to make a table ruling; since one player would not be amenable to new information being sprung on them, I would simply not have the Nothic able to gain information outside of character knowledge even though it is not explicitly disallowed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I could totally see a Nothic reaching into my mind and telling me things I didn't already know (much like a psychiatrist might). \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Vincent May 1 at 19:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast "Extract knowledge from other creatures" and "Extract another creature's knowledge" are two distinct phrases. It could be used as an indication for intent of the ability, but still does not support that being RAW. \$\endgroup\$ – Seidr May 1 at 20:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Seidr: I don't know what that's supposed to mean. I don't see a distinction. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 1 at 20:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ The use of "from" does imply that the knowledge is in some way in/of/around the other creature, and not just magically obtained from some unlimited source of any true fact at all. But sure, that doesn't necessarily limit it to conscious knowledge. Something like subconscious knowledge, a mystical aura of fate, etc. might be interpreted as a valid medium for the ability. \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler May 1 at 21:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ My only real argument against this is that creatures that are immune to charm automatically win the contest (have no information extracted). My understanding of charm (within DnD 5e) is that it's a mind manipulation. In which case the information extracted would come from the mind of the character. So while a character would know they were abandoned, they most likely don't have a memory of who did it. Even if the nothic could see the vision, it's highly unlikely they would be able to identify the person (a noble would likely have a lowly maid do the act instead of doing it themselves). \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott May 1 at 22:05
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Likely not - The nothic is learning from the character and is limited by their knowledge

They key aspects here are that there is an active check of the PC's Deception vs the Nothic's Insight and the limitations of the nothic's ability.

The Monster Manual entry supports this interpretation of what they learn as well (MM, pp236):

Dark Oracles. Nothics possess a strange magical insight that allows them to extract knowledge from other creatures.

While this isn't the same as detect thoughts, which uses a Wis save rather than an ability contest, it's similar in that it is discovering something in the mind of it's target. If the information isn't there, then there is nothing to discover. And abandoned at birth suggests that the character has no knowledge.

The language simply isn't there to suggest it could discover things that the target doesn't even know. The problem is that there is just one source of information here, and that source is the character himself (as confirmed from the Dark Oracle description in the monster manual.

If that source doesn't have the knowledge then there is no way the nothic can find that knowledge with an insight check. Maybe if it was history or something else or it talked about being able to have general knowledge outside of that particular character this would be possible.

Roleplay

But this is part of the PCs backstory. If you feel, as a DM, that this would be a great opportunity to utilize that backstory, then you can absolutely do so.

I'm currently running a game where the PCs have some fun backstories that I try and integrate into the storylines. If an encounter opens itself up to developing their backstory, then I'm not shy to use it. And I've usually done so after particularly good (or bad!) skills attempts like Deception and Persuasion. It's added a fun twist and created a plot hook that I've used to help develop a character and give both the player and character a chance to expand on their stories and not just mine.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It seems like you're reading the ability too loosely and putting too much interpretation into it. A strict reading mentions nothing of discovering something in the mind of the target, just that a fact or secret is learned by using an Insight check. This may have ultimately been the intent of the ability, but RAW does not support it since it never mentions the character having knowledge of the fact or the Nothic reading the characters mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Seidr May 1 at 17:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Seidr Maybe, but I'm taking the two pieces and coming up with an explanation. It is the contested ability check that leads to the information. And I'm having a hard time coming up with a raw way for that information to be disclosed if it's not actually there. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 1 at 17:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ The description of nothics in the MM (p. 236) seems to indicate they're gaining the character's knowledge, indicating they'd only learn things that the character knows somehow: "Dark Oracles. Nothics possess a strange magical insight that allows them to extract knowledge from other creatures. This grants them unique understanding of secret and forbidden lore, which they share for a price. A nothic covets magic items, greedily accepting such gifts from creatures that seek out its knowledge." It supports this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 1 at 19:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks @V2Blast! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 1 at 20:11
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It requires an Insight roll that is opposed by a Deception roll, and is blocked by immunity against charm effects. I regard all three of these things as indications that the ability is supposed to be a mind-reading effect, and therefore would require that any gained information is known to the target.

It also calls the gained information "a secret", which usually means information that is deliberately kept hidden, not facts that are not known.

My reading is that it can only reveal something that is known by the target.

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