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The argument presented in this Reddit post is that the spell find traps can be cast on a legal document to find out if that legal document is fair, or if it contains any non-obvious "legal" traps which would disadvantage one party in a non-obvious way.

The argument is that the description of the find traps spell is:

You sense the presence of any trap within range that is within line of sight. A trap, for the purpose of this spell, includes anything that would inflict a sudden or unexpected effect you consider harmful or undesirable, which was specifically intended as such by its creator.

This spell merely reveals that a trap is present. You don’t learn the location of each trap, but you do learn the general nature of the danger posed by a trap you sense.

So casting find traps on a complicated contract written with malicious intend would reveal that the contract contains a "legal trap".

Is this argument correct?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Alternatively, instead of find traps you could just cast summon Timothy Wiseman. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanfaeScotland It just feels that a physical trap is different from a legal trap. Legal traps usually require skills like linguistics to understand them while the other you notice the trap. \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Oct 5 at 13:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Fering - Ah, got you bud. It's not that the question itself is out of scope for the site, it's that legal docs are out of scope for the spell. I misunderstood what you were referring to and thought you were calling into question the question's suitability for rpg.se. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5 at 13:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ I so often wish I had a spell that could find traps in legal documents. I'm left to resort to careful reading, experience, and research. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5 at 18:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AncientSwordRage There’s certainly some which are intentionally obscure, but the vast the majority aren’t - unconscionability is rarely invoked. They’re just obscure to the layman because they’re written in legalease. So if, in D&D, you’re dealing with fiends, 100% expect a malicious trap in the contract to be found by the spell. But if you’re just dealing with normal people, probably not. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Oct 6 at 6:26
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I think it is useful here to approach this from both the RAW and RAI approaches.

RAW: Yes

Let's take a look at what Find Traps says:

You sense the presence of any trap within range that is within line of sight. A trap, for the purpose of this spell, includes anything that would inflict a sudden or unexpected effect you consider harmful or undesirable, which was specifically intended as such by its creator. Thus, the spell would sense an area affected by the alarm spell, a glyph of warding, or a mechanical pit trap, but it would not reveal a natural weakness in the floor, an unstable ceiling, or a hidden sinkhole.

This spell merely reveals that a trap is present. You don’t learn the location of each trap, but you do learn the general nature of the danger posed by a trap you sense.

So let's look at each part of the spell in turn:

  • In range and line of sight: Let's assume this criterion is met.
  • Sudden or unexpected effect: This is the condition I think presents the most difficulty. The central question is whether or not a "legal trap" in a legal contract is an effect that is sudden or unexpected. Sudden may be tough depending on the specific legal trap. But unexpected - this is explicitly what the person casting the spell is trying to uncover in the contract, and as far as I can tell, is analogous to the rationale for casting this spell to find traps in a dungeon.
  • You consider harmful or undesirable: Easy to meet since this is a subjective expectation of the person signing the contract.
  • Intentionally designed as such by the creator: Also easy to meet since we are assuming this is an intentionally malicious trap laid by the drafter of the contract.

It seems like the above criteria are met, so the spell should work as written. Keep in mind that the specific trap will not be revealed, but only "the general nature of the danger posed".

RAI: Probably not

I think reading the broader spell, however, indicates this would not work under RAI. Let's look at the examples in the spell:

Thus, the spell would sense an area affected by the alarm spell, a glyph of warding, or a mechanical pit trap, but it would not reveal a natural weakness in the floor, an unstable ceiling, or a hidden sinkhole.

These examples are all physical and magical traps in the typical sense of the word. Though an examples list is not exhaustive, it does not seem that a "legal trap" would fall under the same categorization as the examples listed. As a result I think doubt the spell was intended to spot "legal traps" in contracts. That being said this is RAI, and since we don't have any guidance, it is ultimately up to the DM, which leads me to...

Rule of cool: heck yeah!

I think this is exactly the type of creativity I would want to encourage at my table, and in the spirit of the rule of cool, would give the party something for taking a rarely-used spell and applying it in an fun and unconventional way.

Keep in mind that:

This spell merely reveals that a trap is present. You don’t learn the location of each trap, but you do learn the general nature of the danger posed by a trap you sense.

So I would give the party some hint that something is amiss - maybe the term "bound" in the context of "You bind this demon" is defined strangely, or perhaps the time at which the contract expires seems sooner than the party intended. Whatever the specific case, this is a great opportunity to let the players have some fun, build some plot/intrigue, and reward good, creative, and fun roleplaying!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's a sudden/unexpected effect, a clause that said: "Anybody who casts find traps within range of this document <negative effect>" \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4 at 14:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AncientSwordRage that would be so devious, especially if the party begins using this workaround frequently! \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4 at 15:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AncientSwordRage: cast Find Traps before signing. If it has negative consequences for anyone who cast Find Traps on it before they signed, you probably don't want to go through with signing it and being bound by those terms. Unless there's a legal precedent wherever the PCs are which actually supports the D&D equivalent of real-world EULA shrink-wrap licenses that claim to bind you as soon as you open the packaging on software, before you can even see the contract. (I think in real life, most people don't expect any weird clauses in those to stand up in course if ever tested.) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5 at 17:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a well thought out answer, but personally I think Chris Bouchard's answer is far more persuasive. Unless the contract is magically self enforcing, the contract itself never inflicts anything. Rather it creates a framework that might allow the other party or a judge to inflict something on you. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5 at 18:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman From one lawyer to another, I totally agree. My clients would definitely prefer that contracts have some inherent self-enforcement! Alas. \$\endgroup\$
    – screamline
    Oct 5 at 20:32
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RAW: No

I don't think the rules as-written support this interpretation. From the spell description you linked:

A trap, for the purpose of this spell, includes anything that would inflict a sudden or unexpected effect you consider harmful or undesirable, which was specifically intended as such by its creator. Thus, the spell would sense an area affected by the alarm spell, a glyph of warding, or a mechanical pit trap, but it would not reveal a natural weakness in the floor, an unstable ceiling, or a hidden sinkhole.

(Emphasis mine.) As far as I know, inflict is not a game term, so we'll use its dictionary definition:

to cause (something unpleasant) to be endured

—  Merriam-Webster

In all the examples from the spell description, the thing being detected is the thing that causes (inflicts) the harmful effect — the spells' lingering effects and the mechanical trap.

In the case of a legal document, the document itself does nothing. It takes no action other than to exist. It is the lawyer and the judge, in their interpretation and execution of the document, that cause an effect. And even then, they don't directly do anything either. It will be the sheriff or the bailiff that will enforce the court's ruling.

But either way, in the end, the marks on the paper cannot inflict anything on their own. (Unless of course the legal document is sentient and malicious, but that should probably be a new question.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your quoted text uses "sudden", which seems another argument against. "If delivery is not made in 3 days, you owe 1,000gp" may be a trap, but it's not sudden. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5 at 3:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmmm I like the different perspective but it doesn't fly with me. It's like arguing the trip wire can't be detected as it's the boulders that fall on your head that inflict the harm, and even then if there was no contract the lawyer and the judge couldn't inflict harm, it IS the contract that is causing it. Side note to @OwenReynolds, try missing a credit card payment and you'll quickly find out how sudden harm from contracts can be! No downvotes or anything, just some more food for though on an answer I like but disagree with. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5 at 8:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @OwenReynolds "sudden" is absolutely irrelevant, because it is followed by "OR unexpected", which is the easier to argue case \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 5 at 9:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Quickly googling phrases like "the law would inflict" or "the contract would inflict" finds plenty of uses, which suggests to me that the very narrow definition of the term "inflict" you suggest here doesn't really apply in actual use. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joe
    Oct 5 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanfaeScotland I disagree; your tripwire example doesn't work. It's more like "there's a tripwire, and if tripped, a third party will then decide whether boulders will fall on you." A contract means nothing until someone acts: a party conceivably bound does something inconsistent with its terms or seeks to have it rescinded, a party seeks to enforce it on grounds that the other party breached, etc. Contracts are not, so to speak, self-policing. (FWIW, I'm speaking as a lawyer whose work is heavily rooted in contracts.) \$\endgroup\$
    – screamline
    Oct 5 at 20:29
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It's up to the DM to decide what counts as an "effect" for the purposes of find traps.

The key phrase that the DM has to rule on here is:

anything that would inflict a sudden or unexpected effect you consider harmful or undesirable

I've emphasized the word "effect" here because this is the word that is going to make the difference in the ruling. Use of the word "effect" in spell descriptions typically refers to something like "a discrete mechanical imposition on the target", rather than a more general or broad understanding of the word. This DND Beyond search is full of examples where "effect" refers to a specific discrete mechanical imposition on a target. Consider the spell greater restoration:

You imbue a creature you touch with positive energy to undo a debilitating effect. You can reduce the target's exhaustion level by one, or end one of the following effects on the target:

  • One effect that charmed or petrified the target
  • One curse, including the target's attunement to a cursed magic item
  • Any reduction to one of the target's ability scores
  • One effect reducing the target's hit point maximum

All these uses of the word "effect" seem to be referring to a discrete mechanical imposition on the target creature, an effect that imposes the charmed or petrified conditions, or an effect that imposes a reduction to hit point maximum.

If we take this understanding of "effect" in the description of find traps, then legal loopholes and linguistic traps in documents probably would not qualify. However, of course, if we take a more loose undersanding of "effect", find traps might work.

If the DM rules that find traps capable of doing this, the DM still gets to decide if and when it works.

Now for the second important part of the spell description:

which was specifically intended as such by its creator.

Assuming the DM rules that find traps can be used this way, they still get to decide if and when it works. The legal document being checked must have been intended as a harmful or undesirable trap by its creator, which gives the DM much leeway in ruling here. For example, a legal document may contain "traps" that are not actually intended by the creator. This article documents one such instance:

In 2017, 22,000 people who signed up for free public Wi-Fi inadvertently agreed to 1,000 hours of community service — including cleaning toilets and "relieving sewer blockages," the Guardian reported. The company, Manchester-based Purple, said it inserted the clause in its agreement "to illustrate the lack of consumer awareness of what they are signing up to when they access free wifi."

Despite there being a very obvious trap contained in these terms and conditions, the creator of the document had no intention of enforcing such stipulations, so find traps would not work.

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While the other answers RAW vs RAI, and I generally agree -- RAW, there is nothing in the spell description that says it HAS to be mechanical/physical in nature so it should work, but RAI it's probably not what the spell was designed to do -- There are other aspects to consider.

First, and foremost, is an unsigned contract, a "trap"?

The characters have a piece of parchment in front of them, filled with words. Is that a trap? Or is it just a thing to sign?

It might be that a contract is merely the POTENTIAL of being a trap. The "trap" doesn't exist until signed. But I digress...

For contracts, "trap" is very subjective

To that point, what some people would call a "trap" might actually just be boilerplate text. An example we've probably all run across is forced arbitration. It generally stacks the deck in favor of the contract writer, but wouldn't be a "trap". It clearly says that in case of dispute, it will not be settled by judge and jury, but by an "impartial" arbitrator. Trap? No, but maybe not what you want when there is a dispute.

Or for a more classical/fictional example; was the contract used by Willy Wonka a "trap"?

I, the undersigned, shall forfeit all rights, privileges, and licenses herein and herein contained, et cetera, et cetera... Fax mentis incendium gloria cultum, et cetera, et cetera... Memo bis punitor delicatum!

The contract, presumably, made it extremely easy for the undersigned to do something that would make them lose everything. Was that a "trap" or was it careful wording to ensure that the contract was always broken so that the winner was always chosen on the whim of Willy Wonka?

Is it a trap only if the the parties are bound in some way beyond their expectation, or is it a trap if it is easily broken as to free the parties to do as they will?

What if the contract is legitimately for a trap? The contract states that the party will build a trap, or be part of a trap; what happens?

The spell itself is a trap

This spell merely reveals that a trap is present. You don't learn the location of each trap, but you do learn the general nature of the danger posed by a trap you sense.

What is the "nature" of a contractual trap? Could it be explained away by anything else in the room? The chest in the corner could be a trap. The thief that walked by the window could be a danger. The devil offering you a contract is a threat with or without a contract.

Everything is up to the DM

It is unlikely that any actual contract, or other legal document, is being drafted. So the contents of which are entirely on what the DM thinks it should contain.

Likewise, the effectiveness of the spell is up to the DM as well.

If kobolds used rotten planks to cross a chasm, is it a trap? What if they could only find rotten planks so they used what was available? They are light enough to cross without breaking the boards so they don't care. The DM has final say.

What if every contract includes the "Find Trap" clause?

This contract, and all items pertaining to the undersigned "soul", is null and void for the duration, and only for the duration, in which the contract is subject to the "Find Trap" spell or other similar magical and non-magical effects, or in the range of said effects. This includes if the effect is handled though an intermediary such as familiar, dominated creatures, scrying, clairvoyance, and other means not listed above.

So while examining the contract, the trap is not valid so therefore not subject to trigger the spell.

The slippery slope

How would this go beyond contracts? If you cast it on the guy offering candy from the back of their windowless van, would it show up as a trap? What about the friendly barkeep that says he overheard about a get-rich-quick scheme? Or the blacksmith that sells you a cursed weapon?

Where does sensing "the presence of a trap" end?

In the end, it may cause more trouble that it's worth

Players will get grumpy when the spell works for some "traps" but not others. For instance, with the kobolds scenario above, since there was no malice in placing the board, it wasn't a "trap". But, last session, when the bandits did the same thing with rotten wood it WAS a trap because they knew it wouldn't support pursuers.

Now multiply that with all the other things that can be screened; shop keeps, mission-giving NPCs, objects, places, etc... I would leave the spell alone unless it really furthers the story.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ WRT your first point: All traps are only the POTENTIAL of danger until they are triggered, so that doesn't distinguish a legal trap from a physical or magical one. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Oct 6 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dave, another way to look at it is, is a mousetrap a trap if the spring is not set? It doesn't gain the potential until it's been set. Once it is set, then it can be triggered. But it starts off as a harmless board and some metal pieces. Same with a contract; until you sign, it has no effect on you. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Oct 7 at 2:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Mephistopheles writing the contract with the convoluted clauses to ensnare his victim is cocking the mouse trap; signing that contract is what causes the trap to be sprung. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Oct 7 at 20:41
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No.

I don't think a contract "inflicts" an "effect." Unless of course it is magically trapped, or has a contact poison on the ink or something.

Rather, a contract has to be used by someone else at a later time to cause harm. The spell doesn't say it detects all malicious intent, or all things that might be harmful later. It detects things which are either sudden or unexpected, and inflict an effect that you consider undesirable, etc.

By the same logic as applied to legal traps in the contract, we could have 'find traps' detect anything harmful, or potentially harmful. Very likely the spell would become truly useless, because everything would be detected. Crystal ball? Could be used later to spy on characters. A knife on the table? Well, maybe someone planned to stab the characters with it later, so now it's a trap!

What would you really get out of the spell if it could detect anything someone could later actively use to cause harm? It actually dilutes the spell, and you have to selectively apply the logic to make it useful.

That said it, is a creative interpretation, and a fun one. A custom spell made for this purpose for a player specializing in intrigue, document forgery, politics, etc could be a lot of fun depending on the campaign.

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No, abstract concepts do not meet the definition of "anything".

They also do not have physical locations and therefore cannot be in line of sight.

Suppose we come to a rope bridge, and I suggest you cross first. You get nervous and cast FT: do you detect my intent to cut the rope? Falling is sudden, and it's intentionally harmful. I would say you still don't detect it because a persons intentions are not "a thing" in the normal sense of the word. What's more, my plans do not have a physical location - you can't draw a line from your eyeball to my scheme, so it's not in range.

Similarly, the letters on the page are not a trap, only the abstract concept represented by those letters could be a trap. My obligation to pay you a large sum of money has no physical location, is not "a thing", and so can never be in range of the spell.

RAW I would say that the spell does detect hidden weapons and perhaps ambushes, though.

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Yes, all contracts are traps!

Any binding contract is inherently a trap and would "set off" this spell. The purpose of a contract is to ensure that all parties comply with the strictures of the contract. While they penalties are entered into willingly, they are also intended by the creator. Consider a mortgage, if I don't pay there is probably a short term effect where I owe fees, but there's also definitely going to be a longer term effect where a certain amount of missed payments will result in forfeiture of a house. Is having a rule that missed payments in October count ten times as strictfor purposes of defaulting MORE of a trap? Yes, but the whole thing is still a trap.

Since Find Traps doesn't differentiate in severity it's not useful for finding "gotchas" in contracts, but it might be useful for find a contract that's been hidden in a room!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Aaah, the Sovereign Citizen edition of the Player's Handbook. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ The description of Find Traps indicates that the trap must be sudden or unexpected. I can't see how that fits a contract where everyone who signs is 100% aware of what's going to happen. They would have had to have time to decide about the contract, which means it isn't sudden. And the fact that the contract was fulfilled exactly as everyone understood would mean it was not unexpected. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    Oct 6 at 0:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @trlkly When's the last time you read a EULA? We sign them because we have no choice, yet we certainly never expect to get taken to court over anything in it. \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Oct 6 at 12:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aslum No, I don't usually read most EULAs. But I do generally have an expectation of what they contain. I do know what would most likely violate that contract. And I very much would expect that the contract would allow them to take me to court over such violations. It would not be a provision in the contract that was in any way unexpected. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    Oct 7 at 9:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ My Sovcit Wizard casts Accept for Value on the fringes of the troll's flag. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7 at 10:14

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