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Some context: I'm a newbie DM running the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist campaign for my party. What's so special about this campaign is that it's full of intrigue / politics / betrayal and mystery. Also it's a city campaign, where the party has a "safe home", a tavern where they can rest and cast a "free" ritual spell many, many times during the month of the campaign's story. My party just hit Level 7 and they got super excited with the brand new Divination spell... And they went "all in" with this spell, almost trying to "hack" the campaign's mystery with it! 😱 They even came up with a list of questions they'd be asking after every long rest, both of the casters got this spell, etc... So, the party that was previously super excited to do the politics talking / heist missions, etc. to get the pieces of the puzzle together... now bombards the DM with Divination spell requests...

I do understand that the spell says "The reply might be a short phrase, a cryptic rhyme, or an omen.". So it would be a fair expectation that if the party asks "where Xanathar will be keeping the Stone of Golorr?" the DM will not just ruin the mystery by saying "The Xanathar will keep the stone in his cabinet's drawer". But neither I want to just say "The gods don't reply anything to you" or answer with something completely useless like "The Xanathar will keep the stone in a safe place".

I really want the Divination spell to be fun and useful 'cause I see the party is excited with the whole idea of divinations. But I really don't want to ruin the whole campaign's mystery by answering everything "truthfully as they ask" so there got to be some reasonable limitations to this...

Here are some of back-of-the-envelope ideas I came up with:

  1. Let the party know that the gods are usually busy and can reply only once a day for each person asking a question (a bit of a house rule here)
  2. Make so that both of the spellcasters must meditate together and they both must pass a 10DC Religion check together in order for Divination to work.
  3. Do a skill check (Religion or spellcasting ability) and give a confusing or even misleading response if they throw less than 10
  4. Always give an answer to any question but with a confusing pantomime that my party will spend many outside-session hours to decode 😁
  5. The last idea was that maybe my campaign's mystery just sucks and the party wants to just finish it 😁 But I'd say they were pretty excited to do all other stuff before Divination came in.

Based on your DM'ing experience, could you please share any best practices or cool ideas how to handle this spell?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What about the material component cost? Im unsure about 5th, but in past editions those were consumed. So each casting will have the cost of whatever your players are offering. \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Jan 14 at 3:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fering This one specifically consumes it: * - (incense and a sacrificial offering appropriate to your religion, together worth at least 25 gp, which the spell consumes). Not sure how flloating in gold the party is. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan
    Jan 14 at 4:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Added the DnD-5e tag due to referencing the Waterdeep adventure and link to D&D Beyond (per our most recent guidance on exceptions to not guessing system tags). In the future make sure to explicitly say which game system you're using by adding it to the tags. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Jan 14 at 5:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have played through Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and it is a campaign for characters level 1-4 (the book says 5 but apparently you level up with the last encounter), and this is what makes it possible: it ends before Divination can give these kind of answers. How are you still playing it at level 7? This might change some answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Jan 15 at 14:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mandatory OOTS reference. Oracle: Hey, "In his throne room," was a perfectly legitimate answer to the question, "Where is Xykon?" (when they don't even know on what continent he is on) \$\endgroup\$
    – vsz
    Jan 15 at 21:47

7 Answers 7

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Make time count

You are already playing Dragon Heist outside of the recommended level range (1-5), if your party has access to a caster level 7 spell. If you make such modifications, you generally need to account for it with compensating changes, as higher level characters have more power.

At least in our playthrough of Dragon Heist, there were many parties racing to get to the treasure, and time was at a premium. It may be that this is a modification that the DM made, but a "clock" (as such time pressure is usually called) easily fixes your issue -- and a lot of other issues that come with a "five minute workday" approach that is possible if the characters have unlimted time and can reset to use their highest level spells and abilities every encounter at will.

If there is even a mild clock, the spell has a built in safeguard:

If you cast the spell two or more times before finishing your next long rest, there is a cumulative 25 percent chance for each casting after the first that you get a random reading. The GM makes this roll in secret.

That means, you can reliably only cast the spell one time per day. The second time already, you cannot trust the results fully, and the third time, it is a toss-up if the spell will help or hinder your investigation by providing some random nonsense. There is no explanation why this happens in the spell, but if you assume it is because the powers called upon get annoyed by being pestered, then this combines well with the other tactic.

Combine this with

The reply might be a short phrase, a cryptic rhyme, or an omen.

These omens and riddles can be as obscure, difficult or vague as you as the DM like. And it can actually add to the fun and mystery to reply in a riddle that the party will need to work out, or only really will be able to understand when they also do some adventuring work to find the missing pieces to it that allow them to make sense of it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think your last point is particularly relevant if the DM's goal is to get the party to stop waiting for all the answers to come to them through divination and get back to adventuring. The DM can use the "cryptic" answer to point the party in a particular direction, e.g. by describing the location where the answer can be found, or describing the person who can answer the question, thus giving the party an obvious next step. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 14 at 6:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ We've mostly only used divination as a sort of "we're being dumb and missing the clues so nudge us in the right direction" button instead of "just magic the entire adventure away" and it worked great. It might be worth bringing it up outside of game and reminding the players that they probably won't have as much fun if the answers are handed to them for free. While I don't know your players, most would very much want to avoid spoiling the adventure for themselves. It might just be a case of them getting a bit too excited about a new spell and they'll tone it down once the novelty wears of. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kryomaani
    Jan 14 at 20:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding to the last point, when I plan an adventure, I make a point to come up with stock answers for divination specifically to leverage that part of the spell’s behavior so I don’t have to do so on-the-spot. The real trick to doing this well is to give an answer that still requires additional information to be useful. For example, asking about when something will happen may get a cryptic response about planetary alignment that requires the party to seek out an expert astrologer, while a question about location may get a couple of generic landmarks that describe a bunch of possible locations. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 14 at 23:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is no better way to make time count than switching from an 8 hour long rest to the "gritty realism" 7 day long rest. It makes the resources much more valuable, in that vein limitation creates creativity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Jan 15 at 10:49
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Surely you meant to say “our awesome campaign mystery”?

Because, the whole point of playing this type of scenario is for the players to solve they mystery. It’s up to them how they do it, the DM is just along for the ride. It really shouldn’t matter to you how they solve it.

Don’t nerf player autonomy

These players chose to make this investment in their characters. If they are a “spells known” caster, this is a significant investment because there are a lot of really good 4th level spells the could have taken instead. Even if they are a “spells prepared” caster, committing a 4th level spell slot to this dedicated purpose means its not there for other things.

I will also mention the material cost of 25gp per casting but that is relatively insignificant. Unless incense or sacrificial offerings become hard to find because someone is casting a lot of Divination spells.

This is their choice and the rules are clear on what you should do - narrate the results of their actions, not invalidate their actions.

Knowing isn’t resolving

So they know where the BBEG is keeping the McGuffin. That means the campaign is over? Time to retire these characters and start the next campaign? Oh no, wait, they still have to go and get it, don’t they. Can’t do that with the Divination spell.

A week is a long time in politics

Time marches on and since they can only reliably use this spell twice a day, the information they got at the start of the week may no longer be correct at the end of it. As I understand it, this is (or should be) a dynamic faction driven campaign. The other parties in this adventure are not idly waiting for the PCs to get all their ducks in a row.

In a world with thieves, people invent locks

In a world with computer viruses, people invent antivirus. In a world with interceptable communications, people invent encryption.

In a world with Divination, people invent Nondetection. Or the Amulet of Proof against Detection and Location - invented by a paranoid wizard with no talent for naming his inventions.

Important people and objects should be using this routinely. This includes the players, if the players can use divination magic against their enemies, their enemies can use it against them.

Read the spell description

"[W]here Xanathar will be keeping the Stone of Gollor?" is not a valid question for Divination. It says:

You ask a single question concerning a specific goal, event, or activity to occur within 7 days.

That question isn’t about a “specific goal, event, or activity”. A generous DM will let the party rephrase it without wasting the spell slot and the material component - a less generous DM won’t.

The spell also says:

The reply might be a short phrase, a cryptic rhyme, or an omen.

Let’s assume that Xanathar is keeping the stone in Sylgar’s bowl as a plaything and let’s also assume that you allow the invalid question above. You might reply:

  • Short phrase: “In the home of his best friend”
  • Cryptic rhyme: “Though treasure may be bought and sold, The crime lord has more precious gold, While potent magic has the stone, Its presently a piscine throne.”
  • Omen: A jug of water suddenly shatters leaving a small goldfish flapping and dying on the bar. If the players act quickly they might get a pet of their own.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ They're casting it as a ritual, so it's not wasting a spell slot. The non-generous ruling on an invalid question would waste the materials, and the guaranteed-correct first question of the day, since that goes by how many times you cast the spell, not how many times it works. It's also wasting the 10 minute + 6 second ritual cast time, in case that matters. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 16 at 7:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is "where will X keep Y" not a specific activity? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 16 at 21:24
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Treat it like it is written

Your magic and an offering put you in contact with a god or a god's servants. You ask a single question concerning a specific goal, event, or activity to occur within 7 days. The GM offers a truthful reply. The reply might be a short phrase, a cryptic rhyme, or an omen.

This is the text of the spell. Your reply needs to be truthful, but it doesn't need to be straightforward or easy to decipher. It requires the players to ask the right question. Also, they need to ask about the future, they can't ask about the past with it. And don't straight out answer yes/no. So if they try to reality-hack, the gods will answer accordingly. Let's call this way "type 1" and see examples below.

The spell doesn't take into account any possible circumstances that might change the outcome, such as the casting of additional spells or the loss or gain of a companion.

The spell also doesn't figure out what you asking the question does change. It also doesn't even try to figure out if acting differently might change something. That's "type 2", and again, examples are below.

If you cast the spell two or more times before finishing your next long rest, there is a cumulative 25 percent chance for each casting after the first that you get a random reading. The GM makes this roll in secret.

You get one long rest a day. First spell: 0% fail. 2nd is 25% you get "the sky is blue" as an answer. 3rd: 50%, 4th: 75% and if you roll the 5th, don't even bother asking, the GM should answer akin to "There will be rain with sunshine in a town 400 miles east... stop calling already."

Type 1 - Message received, Information unclear

The answer creates the plot, as it does give imperfect information!

Polybus: "I ask the gods who will be responsible for my death."
Gods: "Your son will become the one that will bring the death of you."

[Polybus his baby son tossed to animals, but he ends up as the adopted son 2 kingdoms over. A dozen and half years later]

Oedipus: "What does my future bring?"
Gods: "You will kill your father"

This is a classic from Oedipus Rex. Both answers are absolutely true, and while the end result of the first technically is outside of the 7-day span of the spell, the very act of putting Oedipus on the track to kill his father happened just hours later: by having Oedipus sent away, he ends up adopted at the other court not knowing who his real father is - and when he flees his adopted father to try to prevent killing him, he promptly meets Polybus and slays him, his real father.

But the first prophecy even would have held true if Polybus doesn't send Oedipus away: Young Oedipus is praised for being the most beautiful child and that sows the seed of discord in a neighboring queen, who sends people to kill the child on his first birthday - and Polybus saves his son, dying in the process. In another alternative, the toddler distracts Polybus at the wrong moment during a court session and an assassin strikes down Polybus within that week. And in yet another alternate line, by loving his son too much and not casting Oedipus out but instead sheltering him more than ever (and too much), the young boy contracts a contagion and brings it home years later.

The main reliance here is: The first answer only sets something in motion that, even if avoiding a death within 7 days, at some point much later will result in death. However, the event that set things in motion happens then.

Both prophecies rely on information the asker doesn't have: The first prophecy never inquires about the method of the death, or when it will occur. The second lacks the identity of the real father.

Double Meanings: Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Athenians: "How do we defend Athens?"
Gods: "Build Wooden Walls."

Wooden walls... We know that these are ships and the battle of Salamis gives us that knowledge in hindsight. But at the time, it could also be read as building palisades and barricades, turning Athens into a fortress city with its Akropolis impenetrable.

Don't tell them, but show them an omen!

Thebans: "Will the gods bless the harvest if we sow tomorrow?"
Gods: An Eagle catches an early Owl over the Nile.

What do the gods want to tell our inhabitants of Theben, Egypt? Is it the Eagle, a bird seen as honorable and godly and a good omen in general, or is it the Owl, which is seen as an ill omen as it hides during the day and flies silently? Shall the people sow tomorrow or shall they be on the lookout for the hidden danger instead?

Sometimes, the answer is just the icing.

Players: "What does the road to Baldur's Gate hold?"
GM: "The gods show you a flyby of the road to the town, and it is a long and windy one. You spot about 4 other settlements before you see the gates to the town and they open."

If you played Baldur's Gate, the original, then that would be the prophecy someone might get at the start of the campaign: you don't get to be in the town till the midpoint of the campaign. But the answer glosses over all the fights or dungeons that are also there.

Other times: the Gods are Jerks

Players: "Is the Road to Baldur's Gate safe?"
GM: "More dangerous than your halfling hill home and safer than the road from Easthaven to Kuldahar."

Yup, the gods can be jerks giving totally irrelevant comparisons. For the record: the halfling hill home is Bag-end, which at the start of the Tolkien Saga is like the safest and most peaceful place in all the world, and the road from Easthaven to Kuldahar is a reference to Icewind Dale: When the noobie adventures take it at the start of the campaign, their travel group is assaulted by frost giants and decimated to just the party. So in other words: the gods say "you will face some danger, but not what.

Type 2 - Or: Fate does not expect meddlers.

If you do nothing unexpected...

Player: Where does the Overlord put his scepter on the night of the 14th to the 15th?" GM: "[...] he'll put it onto his nightstand, chained to his four-headed guard chimera."

Congratulations to the player that was fairly specific at the act he's asking about! Though... Do you see the implied [...] up there? that's where the five magical words "If you do nothing unexpected" belong. Unexpected can be a lot: Do the players raise a ruckus to divert attention, to a different place? Well, Fate did not expect that, and now the Overlord has his scepter forgotten on the dark cathedral's altar, as he is out of the house turning one of the PCs into a statue for his lawn.

Preparation is dangerous!

Player: "In what town will the Lord be on the evening of 14th?"
GM: "Lunden."
Player: "Ok, we travel to Lunden, and on the evening of the 14th, I cast..."

Ok, it's a nice idea to try to pin down the location of the target in advance. And once the area is clear, and a little legwork can help there, Locate Object (2nd) and Locate Creature (4th) come to play, your standard homing beacon spells to try and find the exact location... Till you reread that this is Type 2. By casting the Locate X spell, you actively trigger the second stance: you might change the outcome.

The locate spell might trigger a detection spell, like Detect Magic (1st), or it runs into some item that triggers when a locate or scrying spell targets the area - in any way, the pinpointing triggers alarms and the Lord instantly leaves the town, leaving behind a trap. Oh, and as icing: the prophecy was true till that moment...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @AnneAunyme acknowledged and adressed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jan 15 at 23:42
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Three things come to mind: One as per the comment, there's this line at the bottom:

(incense and a sacrificial offering appropriate to your religion, together worth at least 25 gp, which the spell consumes)

Is your party swimming in gold to be asking this many questions?

Second thought would be since it is a mystery game to embrace the mysterious omen response mechanism. Each answer is itself another riddle, so they are replacing solving a big riddle with a series of smaller ones.

Third one is magical interference. I don't know that campaign or 5E that well, but as Waterdeep is a city entrenched in both magic and mystery, it would not be at all out of theme to have major movers and shakers have some kind of magical effects that distort or prevent divinations from working when they are the target. Or even more fun, they might have a 50% chance of intercepting the divination and having it respond from a different source....whistle Sky's the limit, but you can infer from the setting that 25GP and a 7th level character doth not allow one to simply walk into Mordor as it were.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Alan, thanks for your suggestions! Regarding the gold: I may have given the party a bit more gold with the tavern business to make them happy :) I was trying to reward them for engaging A LOT with the tavern promotion and all the creative things they came up with. (In Dragon Heist you get a tavern as a reward for completing a quest) \$\endgroup\$
    – Lisa
    Jan 15 at 21:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lisa If the tavern business is a thing they enjoy, then you can include subplots that add money complications to it. Rival businesses sabotaging them, corrupt officials looking for kickbacks, all kinds of fun plot threads that can tax the income without completely taking it awway \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan
    Jan 15 at 22:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ yes, great suggestion! Actually I did the sabotage thing from the neighboring competing tavern. The party did a whole Spec Ops operation to investigate the root cause of the sabotage and they burned the competing tavern (hired thugs to do the dirty work). And then they hired their top cook / barman from that burnt tower cause he had 4 poor kids to feed :D. So I decided it would be wise to reward them with some additional business earnings because of that to have some extra "player agency". \$\endgroup\$
    – Lisa
    Jan 16 at 16:48
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The mystery isn't all of the fun.

Knowing where the macguffin is doesn't end the campaign. The players still need to get it, use it, and get to the end goal. There's still lots of room for excitement and adventure left. It is called Dragon Heist after all, not dragon search or dragon mystery.

They may just be asking for direction.

One of the worst experiences as a player is feeling aimless or directionless. They know their goal, but don't know how to get there. Divination is perfect for players to know that the choices they are making are going to work out; no 'the princess is in another castle' nonsense after hours of planning and danger.

If the players are level 7 in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, that tells me that they've been at this for a long time. It's likely that they've been floundering, and are ready to get to the resolution. Divination can give them the confidence to move boldly towards their goals.

Divination isn't a cheat code. It has limitations both in how much it says and how often. It's just one part of high-level information gathering. The players could have rolled some thugs or bribed some city guards and gotten better or more complete information than Divination can give them. Heck, they still might have to! But they chose to start with Divination, and in the end this is the story about the player characters, about the players' choices.

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Machina ex Deus

One more option.

I'm a newbie DM running [a published module]... What's so special about this campaign is that it's full of intrigue / politics / betrayal and mystery.

My party just hit [a level well above what the module was intended for, but still appropriate given that]... actually, we're running a remix of [the module]: the original book + [two other reinterpretations]

From these quotes, I get the impression that you welcome a challenge as a DM. So, one more option presents itself: prepare so that you have a bit of flexibility; let "the gods" say whatever, and then cover your tracks after the fact.

Xanathar's a beholder. He literally wrote a Guide to Everything. He's a boss in your significantly modded campaign. So, he's presumably pretty smart, and presumably has a lot of places where he could hide the Stone of Golorr.

The party comes up with an event question: "where will Xanathar hide the Stone of Golorr when he hears that we seek to retrieve it?" (assuming that the party subsequently intends to spread exactly such a rumour, in keeping with the intrigue theme. The Fates, of course, would know of such an intent.)

On the fly, you come up with an answer:

The Xanathar shall move it not
From bag of silk with string drawn taut;
It hides within his cabinet drawer
Ah, pride's a sin - woe to Golorr.

(Or maybe you aren't that talented and just say something more direct. Probably very few people are can make that up on the fly. I spent a few minutes on it. Or maybe the party is openly planning what to ask, and you take notes so that you can prepare the scene for when everyone comes back next session, or after a short IRL break for whatever.)

So far, nothing new. But what you overlooked in setting the question in the first place, is that there are presumably tons of cabinets that Xanathar could reasonably consider his. Retroactively (through the many-universes interpretation of quantum mechanics, I mean, storytelling) the stone is now in one of them, without him having to move it. Or maybe it's in something that could metaphorically be called a "cabinet drawer". Maybe you come up with a different plausible interpretation for what you said, before the next session.

Make a careful note of whatever you say in the role of the divine, so that you can bend reality to the omen later.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, that is a classic of prophecies and omens, to have them be true in the letter of the word, but leave surprising outs. Like the witches telling McBeth no man that a was born by a women could kill him, and then someone who was brought out with Cesarian section goes to kill him, or his castle being save until the woods walk onto it, which he thinks means "forever", until the opposing army cuts down the wood to mask their numbers and carries them along to apporach. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 16 at 10:51
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Your answers can be about where the party needs to go to find out the answer for themselves.

For example, someone might know something about the stone's location, and another NPC might now how the party can gain access to them.

And some answers can be joke riddles, for example something about keeping their stones in their smallclothes.

If they're simply excited about divination and not using it to try and cheat the game, then these are sorts of responses that can reward them - especially if they are the sort of people who would feel rewarded if they work out a riddle, only to discover it's a dirty joke.

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