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I am a DM for 2 sessions now. This includes a training-montage'esque session 0, so 3 in total. My group is completely new to D&D.
Our Paladin has the detect evil and good spell (a divination spell), and apparently uses it rather as a "Detect if there is something dangerous ahead" spell – for example to try to identify a bunch of herbs which were advertised as an antidote.

Now for my question:
Should I rather push them into reading the spell description again and advise against using the spell in such a manner, or, would it be better practice if I just let them waste the spell like that, until they eventually learn it by themselves?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shadur Please don't answer in comments. If you think that's a good solution to the problem please put it up as an answer along with the support to back it up. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Nov 9 '20 at 14:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ How did you handle this situation so far in your game? Did you let it work as they wanted to? Did you start an argument? Did you give them misleading information, letting them believe the spell worked as they thought it would? \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Nov 9 '20 at 14:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Would using another system be an option your group would be willing to do? There are some ways to handle creativity with spells better than others, and RAW D&D5e does not have the best support for creative use of spells. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 9 '20 at 21:26
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Learn about 'meta' knowledge and separate what the characters would know and what the players know (or, not know).

First, welcome to D&D!

It's worth pointing out that there are many things the characters would know even if the players don't (like, how to shoot a bow or swing a sword!) just as there are things your players may know that their characters wouldn't (like certain monster stats if they've happened to look them up).

Distinguishing between these things can be an important lesson to keep the game moving and fun for everyone (although different groups may play differently).

To the point: A spellcaster would almost certainly know what their own spells can and can't do. As a DM, I would gently remind them that the spell doesn't do what they think it does so that they don't waste it (and also guide them to the spell description so they know for next time).

Coaching your players is a part of the DM role

For a completely new player or group, it is helpful to guide them toward what they can do. For example, ask the player for a 'Nature' check to see if they can recognise the plant they are looking for, or a 'Perception' check to spot danger.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One way that a DM can provide guidance here is to narrate the spell effects in a way that closely references the spell description -- "You cast the spell and reach out with your senses ... you don't fell the presence of any supernatural beings nearby, nor does it seem that the area is consecrated." \$\endgroup\$
    – Marq
    Nov 9 '20 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Marq The only problem is that tends to feel like you're punishing your player for not knowing how the spell is meant to work. That said, I do have a player who tends to get grouchy when they've misunderstood something, as if I'm being mean to them by thinking they should read and understand the rules. I recently had to correct them on how bonus actions work (i.e. that you only get one of them!) to which they responded, "Well that's now how my OTHER group did it." Like, well, y'know? There's a book of rules? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 9 '20 at 14:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, absolutely tell the player that the spell doesn't work that way before he casts it. He's a Paladin and doesn't have that many spell slots to begin with. He'll probably be less miffed if he still has those spell slots for Divine Smites later. \$\endgroup\$
    – notovny
    Nov 9 '20 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've had a lot more success when I bring enthusiasm for player ideas to the table: "I don't think that spell can do that, but that's an awesome idea, so I'll let you do detect danger here anyway with a nature check instead". Or "I don't think the spell can normally do that, but since it's clever, I'll let you use this spell for this, this one time". (Related: "I don't think that's what the rules say, but I'll do it your way for this session and we'll look up the official rules together after this session") \$\endgroup\$ Nov 9 '20 at 23:19
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Consider letting them change the way some spells work — with a couple of caveats.

First off, take a deep breath. You’re doing fine as long as your players are having fun.

This solution is not going to work if you are playing Adventurer’s League or other organized play, since it is not based off of the rules as written (RAW); if that is acceptable to you (and to your group; as always with things that come up in play, the first step is to check in with your group), then consider this: would it harm anything to let it happen?

If there’s no obvious harm to anything, with the possible exception of the plot, and it seems a reasonably appropriate effect that’s roughly in line with the spell’s power and theme (I wouldn’t allow produce flame, a cantrip, to have the same effect as a 3rd level fireball, for instance), I would inform the group that this is something the spell shouldn’t do by the rules, but let them do it anyways. If the only thing it harms is the plot, take a deep breath and realize the plot doesn’t matter if everyone has fun.

This is a way of letting them have some fun with their spells and giving them a cool story to tell —- one of my most memorable RPG stories is “that time we used create water to blind a dragon”. If it harms nothing, why not let them do it?

If you think they’ll abuse the new spell effect, you can say “this is okay, but only this once. Next time it’s not going to work”. If it’s a little out there (as I would say your example is, since they seem to be trying to extrapolate a new effect from the spell), perhaps they have to make an Arcana check or a casting ability check. I have a group that has a standing rule of “if it’s not in the spell description, you have to be clear about what you want to do and why, then it’s an Arcana check against DC 10+the level of the spell”, which has worked well for us since we tend to bend the magic rules a lot.

If it harms something that isn’t the plot, such as a character, a player, or someone’s ego, then tell them it will cause harm and don’t let them do it. However, I would caution you not to use this very often, and to save it only for times when it absolutely, no doubt about it, will hurt a player or a character physically or emotionally. If it isn’t an appropriate effect for the spell (too powerful, too different from the spell’s function, etc) then tell them the spell can’t be changed that much.

It’s okay to say no, but do consider that, in the example you give, they might not have another spell that would work. In your specific example, I would either make them roll an Arcana check (see above) or suggest using a different spell, possibly modified (such as identify, for which I would have them make an Arcana check to identify something that is presumably non magical).

However, I would always check with your group before letting any of this happen. As a group, you have to be alright with spells being modified to do different things, and also with the specific spell in question being used for a specific purpose other than the one in the rules. If somebody objects to any part of it (it may be unlikely in this case but it could happen in others), then you and the group should reevaluate what you want to do about that use of the spell and try to come up with a compromise.

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Make them roll for Meta Knowledge

First, I completely agree with PJRZ's answer, but I would also ask them for a knowledge or a straight intelligence check (with a really low DC) in order to give them the information. This is especially fun for new players as they can feel like their character is actually helping them out, and let's face it, they're here to roll dice, and letting them roll as a part of being corrected makes them feel less like the DM telling them "you're doing it wrong".

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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with this...making players roll to remember the rules does not seem like a good idea. You're leaving it up to luck whether or not a player wastes a spell slot because they haven't memorized the rulebook. If you're teaching someone how to play chess, do you flip a coin to decide whether or not to remind them how a Knight is supposed to move? Or do you let them make the illegal move and then promptly penalize them in accordance with USCF 'illegal move' guidelines, or immediately terminate the game with yourself as the victor in accordance with WBCA rules? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 9 '20 at 23:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you want that "character helping you out" feeling, the DM can phrase it that way in narration without having to make the character roll. Perhaps using the character's name for 3rd-person narration instead of "you", after having an out-of-character chat. If the player decides not to cast, "Ricky Matsui prepares to use his newfound spell-casting powers to detect danger. As he thinks through the spell, he recalls that it's limited to detecting the presence of extra-planar dangers, like demons, devils, and celestials, and thinks that's unlikely enough here that he decides to save his magic" \$\endgroup\$ Nov 10 '20 at 3:47

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