The Background

I'm a pretty new DM, and I'm running a casual game of D&D 3.5 (with some rulings from Pathfinder added to the mix, for practical reasons) and I like doing special things for my players, who are very close friends.

One of my PCs seeks justice, to clear his name from a heinous crime he didn't commit. So, I'm trying to set up an investigation and trial arc, with some rewards on his head to spice things up.

But, I'm thinking about setting up something mechanically special for this arc. By the climax, after investigations and ready to prove innocent, I want a trial to take place, but as a game itself, similar to what the Ace Attorney videogame series, loved both by me and the player in question, does. And seeing how the series implemented itself on a medieval setting already (Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright), I thought I could do something similar.

This way, I can get more of a "game" out of this situation, and reward logical thinking in a more structured manner. Witnesses, cross examinations and evidence analysis would be added as mechanics by me, so they aren't the problem. Neither will be the setting, not being based on the "Kings do Divine Justice".

Also, I'll be creating or finding some class to serve as the "Truth People" or something like that, to carry on with this idea, so I don't have to twist the whole setting to fit this thing in.


...then I got slapped in the face by the fact that magic, even though not so strong in our setting, still exists and will probably destroy everything I can think for this system, from illusion and transformation spells to Zone Of Truth, for starters.

They would make everything so obvious, or so fabricated it wouldn't need a trial. Shove people on Zone Of Truth and there you go. Modify an item with magic, perfect piece of evidence.

I don't want to cherry-pick spells to rule them out just for this scenario. So, is there a way to set this up without being so "Ok magic here works different because I want to"? Am I overestimating the use of magic in D&D? Should I give up this silly idea before it ruins the game?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Does the campaign employ typical D&D 3.5 demographics? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 14:43
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Yes, it does. As I'm a new DM, I'm not delving into customizing this kind of detail too much yet. \$\endgroup\$
    – Punkgeon
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 14:47

5 Answers 5


There are two parts to this: using magic for the law, or for getting around it. Let's consider these in order.

Using magic in your legal system

I've seen some settings with magical truthsayers (or whatever you call them) making trials much simpler. But, you still have to track people down, bring them to trial, consider motive and sentencing, etc. Consider also that telling the truth isn't necessarily foolproof; some lawyers can ask questions that make you feel flustered and say things that come out the wrong way. That could be tough to roleplay, though.

So, I'd suggest not treating magic as foolproof. Fortunately, it's not! Looks like Zone of Truth is a 2nd-level spell, so probably in any good-sized city some 3rd-level cleric could be found to cast it, but what if they couldn't get anyone much higher level than that? That would leave plenty of room for successful Will saves. Just the possibility should be enough to make people take the trial seriously.

Another option is to make it illegal to use magic on anyone against their will, but it would be an unusual society that would set that rule broadly in the first place and wouldn't make an exception for suspects in trials. It could be considered a civil rights issue, though, like we have the 5th Amendment.

Using magic to circumvent the legal system

I'm not sure this is as much of a problem as you're worried it might be:

  1. magical tampering can often be detected via Detect Magic or other means (especially if you decide that the courts have developed techniques not explicitly mentioned in the rules)
  2. evidence can be falsified today (especially electronic evidence); doesn't stop people from trying to use it
  3. historically the use of physical/forensic evidence is pretty recent (saying Arthur Conan Doyle invented it is a stretch, but it became popular in the West around that time.) Before then, it's much more about who you can get in the court and how convincing and sympathetic they are. (Also, in medieval settings trials were often more about finding a guilty party than the guilty party necessarily; that would interfere with your Phoenix Wright vibe if taken too far, but could be interesting as background info.)

Overall, magic can certainly complicate trials more than it simplifies them, but it doesn't have to invalidate them. You've set yourself a challenge for sure, but it's probably not insurmountable. (I would, however, try to avoid spending more than a session or so on this, unless you're sure all the players at the table are into it and have some way to stay engaged.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I'll make sure it doesn't bore other players. I'll get them involved into the whole thing, as I often try to get the spotlight on each of them during our games, and this wouldn't be different. \$\endgroup\$
    – Punkgeon
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 13:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Re: magical tampering, might it be easy to get an official in the court room who can cast detect magic? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 17:32

There has been a lot of discussion of this over the years, in fact I'm sure I've seen some similar questions asked here.

Basically there are a number of tricks you can use, and by mixing and matching them you can keep people guessing.

  1. Will saves - magic is not 100% reliable, even scrying can be tricked if you do it right (for example preparing a staged scene for the scryer to see).

  2. Minions - bad guys who only know part of the plan or who have been tricked or lied to themselves. Boss tells X to tell Y to commit the crime, but also to tell Y that the Boss doesn't know about it so keep it quiet. Y is not lying when he takes the stand and under a truth spell says the boss knows nothing about it.

  3. Protection from Evil will make you immune to most mind effects like truth spells, you can even mask the aura of the spell using yet another spell if you don't want it seen.

  4. Fake memories. The bad guy might fake his own memories or implant false memories in another. "No, I didn't do the crime" truthful as far as he knows at that time.

  5. Dopplegangers. He looks just like you, he takes the stand. He is absolutely honest when he says he didn't do the crime...

  6. Magic items. The Ring of Lies that protects you from truth spells. The curse placed on a bad guys minions so if they try to betray him their heads explode. That leads to a lot of "no comment" on the witness stand.

Basically think of the magic as a tool and look for ways to both use and subvert that tool in interesting ways.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Will saves and Spell resistance (both apply for Zone of Truth). +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – Roflo
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 19:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for pointing out the various limitations of Zone of Truth; between the ability to resist it, the short-comings of the Truth of the enunciated facts being based on the perception/memory of the subject being interrogated it is far from fool-proof AND the fact that the subject is aware of it and may (craftily) tailor its answers to only yield partial truths... there are reasons it's only a second-level spell! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 16:38

You could approach this less as a question about magic, and more as an opportunity to flesh out your game world's fictional legal and political system (make those ranks of Knowledge:Local / Nobility pay off).

Here are some key aspects to how a legal system might deal with magic, based on legal systems that exist in our world:

Standards of Evidence

All legal systems have rules about what constitutes evidence (Wikipedia: rules of evidence). Consider whether magic is a valid form of evidence. If it is, when can it be allowed as evidence?

Some possibilities:

  1. Magic is unreliable (as noted in other posts). So it is not allowed as evidence.
  2. Magic is unreliable, so it is only allowed as evidence under a strict set of circumstances. Perhaps only an special barrister is allowed to use Zone of Truth in a legal setting, for example.
  3. Many legal systems might consider evidence obtained by magic to be inauthentic, and not suitable for the court room (similar to evidence obtained by coercion in our world).

A different possibility is that magic is allowed as evidence, but is a low ranking form of evidence which is easily surpassed by something like testimony.


Okay, so magic is allowed in court. Are the PCs able to maneuver the legal system effectively enough to use it?

First of all, it is currently a fairly normal standard for all evidence to be reviewed by both parties far in advance of an actual trial. This is to give the defense adequate time to examine the evidence and formulate a response. Did your PCs have enough time to be able to do this?

Advocates might have to document their exact processes, questions, et cet. in a very specific and non-obvious way. Unless one of your PCs is specifically a lawyer, they probably don't have the training to accomplish this.


Supposing that magic is allowed in a trial, and the PCs can maneuver the legal system, would it be effective? If the decision is being made by a jury, does the general populace embrace magic? If not, is it really effective to mount an argument on magic?

A judge might not be swayed by magic for a variety of reasons. Judges typically have complex legal philosophies and a lot of independence. Consider this a role playing exercise.

Special Concern: Self-Incrimination

Many legal systems have protection against self-incrimination, which magical coercion is almost definitely an example of. A person testifying guilty of their own free will is very different than a person forced to talk.

If you decide that it is legal to force a confession by magic, consider the kind of political atmosphere your game is likely to have: the government can, at any time, force someone to tell the truth magically. Legal proceedings which are overtly unfair to the public are often detrimental to a government's existence (for example - maritime court proceedings were one of the major factors in the American Revolution). The structure of your fantasy government may make this unimportant, or very important.

In any case, it seems unlikely that PCs (unless you are running a very unusual kind of campaign) would have the credentials and training necessary to perform complex legal proceedings. They should not expect (and you should probably not allow) them to simply magic their way out of a trial.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ "more as an opportunity to flesh out your game world's fictional legal and political system" - If this is accepted as an answer, i'll be paying it 500 bounty. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 11:00
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately I don't get to hold you to that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 22:31

I don’t think magic makes trials useless. Almost any magical impact on the evidence can be detected.

Ongoing spells

Ongoing spells are easy to detect by Detect Magic. A caster can also determine spell’s approximate level (see Detect Magic spell description) automatically and, being trained in spellcraft (which is usually the case), school of magic (DC 15 + spell level) and even the name of the spell (20 + spell level Identify a spell that’s already in place and in effect. You must be able to see or detect the effects of the spell. No action required. No retry.) See the Spellcraft skill description.

Material evidence forged by a spell

Most spells that shape matter (like Fabricate, Stone Shape, Mending and the like) have instantaneous duration. It means that they transform matter and go away. In this case Detect  Magic will reveal nothing unless it is used very short time after the shaping spell. But spellcraft helps again:

20 + spell level Identify materials created or shaped by magic, such as noting that an iron wall is the result of a wall of iron spell.

Witness fooled by an illusion

This is probably the most tough situation. I can’t now find immediate appropriate solution in the core mechanics, but I’ve been using a home rule in my campaigns that spells with obvious visual effects could be identified by description with a spellcraft check, provided the witness could give a thorough description of what have been going on. Obviously, the DC has to be much higher. 25 + spell level or even more.

Aside from mechanics you can use common sense. Everybody in a magic world is aware of illusions. Imagine a witness reports seeing the defendant telling an NPC about his crime and another witness reports seeing the same NPC in an other place at the same time. That should rise a legitimate suspicion in the first witnesses words. And if it is proved that both don’t lie, then a use of illusion can be suspected.  

Zone of Truth and similar spells

Treat it as a modern lie detector. It is not flawless (successful will saves), there may be some legal restrictions for using such magic in court and so on.


Don't forget that court experts can have really high skill bonuses possibly enhanced by spells and/or magic items. They can use equipment or professional help to get circumstance bonuses. They also can take 10 and in some cases take 20.


Note: This answer was originally crafted for this now-closed-as-a-duplicate question that asked about preventing magical interference with court business and magical courtroom procedures, both preferably involving only low-level and mid-level spells.

Order in the court

A serious courthouse should be affected in its entirety by the 6th-level Clr spell forbiddance [abjur] (PH 232-3) tied to a clearly visible, respectable, unembarrassing password. Even with the password present, creatures still can't employ extradimensional movement methods (like teleportation effects) to exit or enter the courthouse. (The password prevents damage upon entering the courthouse mundanely; nothing allows extradimensional movement into, out of, or within a forbiddance effect!1) (Tying a dimensional anchor effect to, for example, a hallow effect likely only inhibits a creature that's using extradimensional movement from exiting that way and traveling that way within the affected area but not from entering the affected area using a teleportation effect!) (Also see this question.)

Notices should be posted around the courthouse that unauthorized magic items will be confiscated upon entry. To enforce this, I'd expect the court to employ at least one extremely trustworthy or magic resistant creature on whom the 0-level Sor/Wiz spell detect magic [div] (PH 219) has been made permanent through the use of the 5th-level Sor/Wiz spell permanency [univ] (PH 259-60) and that possesses significant ranks in the skills Knowledge (arcana) and Spellcraft. (In a pinch, a level 2 warlock, a level 7 swordsage, or a creature capable of employing a wand of detect magic (0-level spell at caster level 1) (DMG 246) (375 gp; 0 lbs.) will do instead.) That creature is equipped with an artificer's monocle (Magic Item Compendium 72) (1,500 gp; 0 lbs.) that the creature employs to use an identify effect on any magic items.

In addition to identifying all of a creature's magic items, the creature itself should be subject to a detect magic effect and all magical effects operating on the creature successfully identified. Paranoid courts will insist that a creature repeatedly trigger until no magic remains an automatically resetting boon trap of greater dispel magic (PH 223) (6th-level spell at caster level 20) (Dungeonscape 135-6) (60,250 gp; architecture).

Obviously, unauthorized creatures should be prohibited from casting spells in the courthouse. Baliffs should have significant Spellcraft skill check modifiers and each should wear a ring of spell battle (Complete Arcane 144) (67,600 gp; 0 lbs.). Circular courtrooms become the norm as they should be designed so that no one can be more than 60 ft. from the ring wearer. (The ring is the most expensive element of courtroom security; a DM may consider homebrewing a lesser ring of spell battle that lacks the original ring's counterspell-or-redirect property, likely substantially reducing the item's cost.) This still won't prevent magical terrorism, but that's really difficult anyway without each courtroom bearing sigils of antimagic (Stronghold Builder's Guidebook 83) (66,000 gp; architecture), and those create a whole 'nother set of problems (like—ew!—totally mundane courts!).

A super paranoid court may also, every hour, confirm officials lack bias by using a rose of kings (see below). (Such a court will also likely want automatically resetting boon traps of cure minor wounds (PH 216) (0-level spell at caster level 1) (Du 135-6) (750 gp; architecture) and neutralize poison (PH 257) (4th-level spell at caster level 7) (Du 135-6) (17,500 gp; architecture) unless the court is willing to risk court officers being disabled, drunk, or both.)

Handling the truth

Both the 2nd-level Clr spell zone of truth [div] (PH 303) and the 4th-level Clr spell discern lies [div] (PH 221-2) are unreliable methods of getting at the truth. Even employing the 3rd-level Clr spell speak with dead [necro] (PH 281) for maximum efficacy typically mandates the court keep on hand several different casters of wildly divergent faiths, making consistent and frequent use of the spell difficult in all but the most tolerant of societies.

(For 3,000 gp per year the spell zone of truth can be tied to the effect of the 4th-level Clr spells hallow [evoc] (PH 238) et al., but tying a zone to the hallow effect does not eliminate the zone spell's saving throw, and the zone spell's caster receives no feedback if a creature succeeds on the saving throw against the zone effect, the effect affecting an area.)

I wouldn't expect the 1st-level Clr spell detect good [div] (PH 219) et al. to be used by the court with any regularity to reach conclusions during regular proceedings: even good creatures break the law, after all! However, the court might allow a creature whose alignment is confirmed by a detect alignment spell to have that factor into the creature's sentencing. But the detect alignment spells are remarkably easy to spoof, even mundanely—for example, with the feat Mask of Gentility (Elder Evils 25-6) or Mind Mask (Secrets of Sarlona 117). I suspect larger courts favor evidence and honest testimony, ignoring a creature's alignment altogether.

Because of the limitations of the aforementioned spells, this GM recommends the court invest in the rose of kings (Dragon #289 106) (10,000 gp; 0 lbs.), a "chalice of copper or, rarely, wood in the form of a beautiful rose" with, on its stem, sharp thorns, one of which glows green when the rose is filled with wine. A creature that touches the glowing thorn is dealt 1 point of damage; this also causes one of the rose's twelve petals to glow. Each creature that's dealt damage by a glowing thorn and that subsequently drinks from the rose is for 1 hour unable to lie to other creatures that've also been dealt damage by a glowing thorn and that've subsequently drunk from the rose. Creatures subject to the rose's effect can lie freely to those who've not undergone the prick-then-drink process, and creatures are not compelled to speak. Presumably, the maximum number of creatures that can be involved simultaneously in a rose's circle of truth is twelve (the number of petals on the rose), but this is only implied by the text.

Thus a typical rose of kings trial by jury may include the accused, the accuser, one lawyer for each, the judge, and a seven-creature jury. With all of them unable lie to each other, after a few insulting stock questions to confirm a properly functioning rose ("Are you a cheeseburger? To the best of your knowledge, will your behavior during this trial be influenced—magically or otherwise—by one or more creatures or forces outside this courtroom? How many fingers am I holding up?"), guilt or innocence should be established well within the rose's 1-hour time frame. (And it had better be—a level 1 commoner jurist that has a Constitution score of 10 will be rendered disabled by a second prick from the rose's thorn!) Such a trial can still find a guilty creature innocent (and vice versa), but that requires obfuscation, omission, calculated silences, and, possibly, a particularly careless judge or a really good attorney.

A rose's creation prerequisites are the feat Craft Wondrous Item and the spell zone of truth, making it so a rose can be created in 10 days by level 3 cleric possessing the appropriate feat (or with help from another who does); a community that's at least the size of small town has a level 3 cleric (Dungeon Master's Guide 137). The rose's price makes it available for purchase in any community that's at least the size of a small city (ibid.).

So far as I'm aware, the rose effect is the only surefire method of making a creature that's willing to speak actually speak truthfully, all other effects granting the creature a saving throw. The rose effect should even work on creatures immune to mind-affecting effects (as the rose's effect is not called out as a mind-affecting effect), and the GM may rule that the effect even affects creatures immune to divination and similar effects like from the 3rd-level Brd spell glibness [trans] (PH 236), the 8th-level Sor/Wiz spell mind blank [abjur] (PH 253), or the supernatural ability cloak of mystery granted by the template Vecna-blooded (Monster Manual V 66-7) (as the rose's effect isn't called out as a divination effect either, despite needing the spell zone of truth for its creation.)

While the rose's effect ensures that creatures are at the time speaking the truth, this doesn't mean they'll do what they said they'll do later. For example, a judge that asks the accused, "If convicted, do you plan to escape from prison?" may receive an at-the-time honest No, but that answer may change after the convicted elf's 213th year in prison without parole, for example. To make an judgment binding, I suggest the courts use contracts of Nepthas (Complete Arcane 148) (1,400 gp; 0 lbs.), the 5th-level Clr spell mark of justice [necro] (PH 252), or the 6th-level Sor/Wiz spell geas/quest [ench] (PH 234-5).

Like this fine answer recommends, a caster can employ the 5th-level Clr spell commune [div] (PH 211) or the 5th-level Sor/Wiz spell contact other plane [div] (PH 212-3) to determine a creature's guilt or innocence, but, "'[u]nclear' is a legitimate answer [to a commune spell's question], because powerful beings of the Outer Planes are not necessarily omniscient," and using the spell contact other plane to ask a question of even a greater deity yields a chance that the deity admits to not knowing an answer (2%); lies about the actual answer, presumably giving the opposite answer (9%); or makes up a random false answer (1%). (And whether these are better odds than the traditional courts is a question for another stack!) Finally, unless the deity that was posed the question deigns for some reason to answer aloud, only the spell's caster receives the answer! This is fine in the hands of, for instance, an incorruptible judge, but otherwise transparency may be an issue.2

1 Fine, there is the 8th-level Sor/Wiz spell freedom of passage [abjur] (Polyhedron #159 12 from Dungeon #100), but, c'mon, that's pretty darn obscure and, anyway, you don't have the spell's focus (at least not for very long you won't!).
2 The untyped feat Prophet of the Divine (Power of Faerûn 49)—one of my personal favorite feats—addresses this issue by having the deity answer some divination spells "in the form of a loud booming voice accompanied by a visible manifestation of the deity’s power, such as a nimbus of colored light in a hue favored by the deity." Take that, haters!

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Chemus Thank you for updating the links! That was very kind of you. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2017 at 5:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Incidentally, we were talking about it in chat, and I remember there's a reason you don't use d20srd.org, but I don't remember what that is - would you mind reminding me? \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 5:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman I like to keep my 'puter as unencumbered as possible, and d20SRD.org's ads A) take forever to load, and B) often crash my browser. The site I link to is clean and adless if a little more difficult to search. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2017 at 6:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, makes sense. Thanks for that - it was bugging me that I couldn't remember :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 6:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can probably simplify the rose arrangement tremendously by making witnesses answer only to the court. Then only the judge and any witnesses need to be pricked. Possibly lawyers too, though that seems more procedural. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 18:27

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