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In D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1, Detect Magic was a cantrip. That meant it was possible to cast it a lot / infinite number of times per day, and get useful information in 1 to 3 rounds.

In 5e, it is a 1st level spell, but a ritual. It means that it still can be used quickly, or can be used indefinite number of times per day, but not both.

Given that worlds I DM are usually magic rich, what changes to the gameplay should I expect? How can I utilize this change in Detect Magic for the benefit of the story?

I'm not looking for an essay, just for main points that came with your experience in DMing 5e adventures with significant magic to be detected, or to stay hidden.


For future reference, in 3.5 Detect Magic uses were not always infinite, but they were much more accessible for three reasons:

  1. they didn't compete for spell slots with Magic Missile and other non-cantrip spells, and there were more cantrip slots to begin with.
  2. if needed, they still could use 1st level spell slots and
  3. Magic Sensitive Reserve Feat (Complete Mage, p. 44) allowed you to effectively have it always on even without casting it at all.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I assume that this change was made for a reason, but designer intent is off topic, and I'm more interested in how it actually worked out than in the intent anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Dec 17 '19 at 11:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ How does "if needed, they still could use 1st level spell slots" make a cantrip more accessible, let alone in comparison to a system where it is a 1st level spell? \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Dec 18 '19 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TylerH this part, taken out of context, does not. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Dec 18 '19 at 15:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm including the full context you provided; just trying to get clarification as it doesn't make sense to me. \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Dec 18 '19 at 15:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TylerH full context = points 1 and 3, and bonus spells per day from high ability scores. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Dec 18 '19 at 15:13
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It makes time pressure more important

Unless the party has a Warlock who can cast Detect Magic at will, the party will have to make a choice. Do we use a ritual and take 10 minutes, or do we use a spell slot to know the answer right away?

I've had players who are absolutely paranoid and will try to keep Detect Magic active at all times, just in case some creature is an illusion, or they miss some sort of other magical phenomenon.

Because it takes 10 minutes (and 6 seconds) to cast the spell as a ritual, and the duration is 10 minutes, you can't keep it up permanently, so my party would walk around for ten minutes, then pause for 10 minutes to recast the spell.

Eventually they realized it was taking them twice as long to get to places and there was a risk/reward system at play when it comes to always wanting to be able to Detect Magic, and after a village was burned to the ground because they arrived an hour too late to stop it (because their 3 hour trip back from the dungeon became a 6 hour trip), they stopped trying to keep it active at all times.

If it is a cantrip, there's no real reason not to have it on if you're not concentrating on anything else.

If that's a good or a bad thing depends entirely on your own personal opinion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. And I didn't ask about good or bad anyway :) It's a change, and I want to be able to make the most out of it, and not miss some important implications of such change. Remembering that it gets more important with increasing time pressure is a good point. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Dec 17 '19 at 11:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your players are only paranoid because you are out to get them. :P \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Dec 17 '19 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Now you sound just like one of my players @Slagmoth ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Dec 17 '19 at 12:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the sake of completeness. In 3.5 cantrips were not unlimited, thus Detect Magic was only slightly more accesible than in 5e and it was definetly not possible to have it active at all times. +1 anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Ols Dec 17 '19 at 13:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ols in 3.5 they were much more accessible in three ways: 1) they didn't compete for spell slots with Magic Missile, 2) if needed, they still could use 1st level spell slots and 3) Magic Sensitive Reserve Feat ( Complete Mage, p. 44) allowed you to effectively have it always on even without casting it at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Dec 17 '19 at 13:20
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What we found: without a wizard, our cleric keeps Detect Magic prepared

This choice was made as we had gone back and forth between relying on the Wizard to use it as a ritual from his book, or be able to cast it. Since both the wizard and my cleric can prepare the spell, and cast it as a ritual, we defaulted to "Cleric keeps Detect Magic Prepared."

This frees the wizard up to prepare his optimallly effective spell choices. My cleric's "go to spells" are not huge in number and we have found that the domain "free" prepared spells are the ones she uses most frequently. Having detect magic available seems necessary. It is usually used as a ritual, but now and again, I burn the spell slot and cast it in situ (doors blocking our flight was one such use early in our career). Knowing there was something magical on the doors helped us figure out how to open them.

In two other games that are now dormant, the cleric in the group always kept it prepared as a ritual. In one, my warlock didn't want to use an invocation (Eldritch Sight) for that. In the other our sorcerer was considered to be a bad choice to use spell slots for detect magic: the cleric kept it prepared.

In a higher level one shot (Tier 3) my druid kept it prepared and only ever used it as a ritual (twice) during that adventure. In both cases it was while we were investigating and the group was trying to find out what, in the room, was magical.

The spell is most often cast as a ritual in our campaigns

In other campaigns, where people want to use it a lot (as you described in your OP) I can see how the "only use it as a ritual" approach can create time problems. Which is good. But in our case, it mostly ends up being a case of "is this stuff that we found (now that the battle is over) magical in nature?" There is often a pause anyway, so the cleric doing a ritual detect magic fits the pacing of our game.

Pacing as a concern (DM side as much as player side)

I was only in one game where the pacing (it was almost a pure dungeon crawl) worked against the above approach, but in that game I wasn't playing a cleric.

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