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A bard in my party has been trivializing social encounters with the detect thoughts spell, especially when the NPCs are deceitful or dissembling in any way. I'm looking for advice for dealing with it without making the player feel cheated.

The most recent example

The party encountered a Bheur Hag, and hags are all about trickery, double-speak, etc. They don't hide the fact that they're evil, but they rejoice in subtly ruining people who think they're coming out on top. Even though the Hag had a CR 3 higher than the party's level, the spell automatically succeeded at letting the bard read her surface thoughts. I did my best to reveal surface thoughts without giving too much away, but it seemed impossible without disregarding the spell's stated effects and robbing the player of the effects.

Parsing the text

My read of the spell is that the target is only aware of the spell if the player probes deeper, and the saving throw also only occurs on a deeper probe. In other words, if the player is willing to only read surface thoughts then the target creature will never know, can never save, and because they never know they can't police their thoughts.

Dealing with it

Assuming my read of the mechanics are correct, what can I do to work with this? The party loves social encounters, so I can't just avoid them, or avoid ever having intelligent creatures that try to deceive them. The bard player loves this stuff and built around social spells like these, so I'm hesitant to house rule the spell to be weaker or more restricted.

Perhaps I'm interpreting "surface thoughts" too loosely? It's a difficult concept to define clearly. Anyways, any advice is appreciated!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I originally asked for clarification on some ambiguity in the spell description too, but I found another stack exchange question that covered it: When using Detect Thoughts, is the target aware when not doing a deep probe? \$\endgroup\$ – Vesuvium Dec 1 '16 at 6:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How to stop a player constantly using Detect Magic/Evil? (manyof the answers to that one also work for you) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 1 '16 at 6:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you give examples of "Surface Thoughts" that you've given from the use of this item? \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Dec 1 '16 at 9:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ How many encounters are you running per adventure day? The recommended 6-8, or fewer than that? I ask due to the matter of how resource management (spells are resources) aspect of 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 1 '16 at 14:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @OldBunny2800 The questions may have similar answers, but these are definitely not duplicate questions. They're asking significantly different things. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Dec 2 '16 at 7:05
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These answers pretty well cover several of your options, but I'd like chip in a few others.

Targeting

As others have said, be aware of how the spell is cast. You must be within 30' of your initial target, must have line of sight on an initial mind-reading target, then must use an Action to switch it to a new target. OR you may scan for thoughts within 30' of you and use an Action to pick one of those thought sets to chose from

So, you have three options here.

1: You cast the spell, involving speech, gesticulation, and a copper coin within line of sight of your target. This is super suspicious. And will probably end in combat or summoned guards. And, however it pans out...the spell will have expired by the time things calm down.

2: You cast the spell outside the line of sight of the target, then move to within line of sight and shift the spell, this burns a round of time (I'll get to that in a second.) Assuming it only takes you 1 round to get into line of sight of the target. And, bear in mind, someone else might see you casting and freak out. I'd be calling for stealth checks here if they were in a populated area.

3: You cast the spell outside the line of sight of the target, then attempt to hone in on the thoughts of your target without moving into line of sight. The catch here is, you detect every intelligent creature within 30' and have to pick which one you want to focus on, consuming an Action. This includes your allies and any bystanders, and the spell does not give you any information about the intelligent creatures besides 'they are within range of the spell.' You don't even know which direction they are in. If this is how they are doing it, determine how many people are within range of the casting, and roll the dice to see if they picked the right person.

Time

The spell lasts for 60 seconds. 10 rounds. Most conversations last significantly longer than that. And unless they cast the spell directly on the target (requiring line of sight) then they burn 6 seconds to take a round and Action to switch the spell to their desired target. So, more likely, they can Detect Surface Thoughts for 54 seconds.

So, have your NPCs engage in small talk...like actual people would. If the players try to push them straight to the topic, feed the person reading their mind thoughts about how rude they think the players talking to them are...and allow that to run a risk of the NPC refusing to talk to them further.

In social interaction, 60 seconds is not a long time. Particularly if the players cast the spell before trying to start the conversation. Have the NPC putter around their shop for a bit before coming to talk to them...have them be already talking to someone else when they arrive...have an interruption occur (such as someone else entering the shop). Anything that eats up time. They are taking a gamble by casting Detect Thoughts that the relevant topic will be discussed within 60 seconds. This isn't an interrogation where you just start demanding answers...and if they treat it like one, I'd expect no one to want to talk to the players next time they are in town.

Obviously, don't abuse this...let Detect Thoughts work sometimes. Otherwise you'll just frustrate them. But it shouldn't be the all-solving-hammer they are currently using it as.

Hard Counters

If you have a villain, you want to block this, especially if they are going to deceive the players directly. For this, you need hard counters that absolutely block mind reading. You have a few options...

The obvious option here is Mind Blank. You are immune to mind reading. Period. They try to read your mind, and get nothing.

Next is the 17th level Mastermind-Archetype Rogue's ability, Soul of Deceit. They can block attempted mind reading with ease, or even roll Bluff to present false thoughts to attempts to do so.

Creative use of Modify Memory can bypass this. The villain could temporarily alter their memory (leaving a written note to tell them to undo the spell later) to believe they are telling the truth. Thus, 'Detect Thoughts' would accurately pick up on false information.

Mordenkainen's Private Sanctum shuts down Detect Thoughts entirely...one of the options is that no creature inside the Sanctum can be targeted by a Divination spell. You could even play this off as the other person casting or entering an area under the effect of the spell to 'make sure their conversation remains private.' The RAW allows for permanent versions of these...so a wealthy non-magic user could very well have a permanent Sanctum set up for private conversations.

Nondetection is probably the lowest level method of a hard-block. It makes the target immune to Divination spells (and, again, Detect Thoughts is a Divination Spell).

And, of course, Detect Magic would go off if a player using Detect Thoughts entered the caster's range. It wouldn't tell them specifically what you were up to, but they would know you were using a Divination spell in their presence.

Non-Spell Countermeasures

Misinformed NPC. Have the character providing the information be entirely honest and truthful...but the information they give was provided by a deceptive source, so the NPC in question is honest...but wrong. The players may be able to use DT to be immune to manipulation, but the NPCs they talk to certainly aren't.

Pathological Liar. A character like this would probably think about several different 'answers' to their question with no distinction as to which one was true. You know they probably aren't telling you the truth...but good luck figuring out which of their thoughts was the truth.

Superfluous information. People's brains hop around all the time. Don't just give your players the relevant information..dump that NPC's whole stream of consciousness on them. Thinking about what's for dinner, wondering if these adventurers will shut up and buy something, grumping about that spider web they just spotted over your shoulder (I just swept the corners, dangit). Sure...they might get the info they are looking for, but they'll have to dig through a bunch of extra crap to find it.

Hopefully this helps out a bit

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    \$\begingroup\$ The villain would need to have someone else cast Modify Memory on them, since it cannot be cast on self ("You attempt to reshape another creature's memories") \$\endgroup\$ – Zso Dec 1 '16 at 23:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ an Amulet of Proof Against Detection and Location also works (DMG p.150) \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Dec 5 '16 at 2:26
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This has been said before here, but spells in social encounters aren't free. You're obviously casting a spell, especially the one you linked. That has verbal, somatic, and material components (though the material components could be replaced by a focus). What would you do if someone walked up to you and started uttering a spell while waving their hands? I'd probably scream for the guard. The average person doesn't know the difference between Detect Thoughts and Fireball until the spell is already cast. Have your NPCs act accordingly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely true as far as the focus of your answer goes. For instance the spell has a duration of "concentration, up to 1 minute" and a range of 30' once cast, so it would be perfectly possible for the spell to be cast outside of the target's perception, though that also adds to the "cost" you mention in terms of planning. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Dec 1 '16 at 9:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I particularly like that you point out that spells are never totally "free", you always have to pay some price for them to have a positive effect. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Dec 1 '16 at 9:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ From my experience, this is the answer our group has always used. My DM always references the component list to see if it has verbal/somatic components. If the player doesn't have a feat/ability that allows casting without those components and the situation is set up where it's obvious that you are casting mid-conversation, we can either cast the spell openly or if we want to hide it, we roll some kind of stealth check to hide casting depending on how we rationalize it. A Bheur Hag absolutely would know if someone started chanting in the middle of conversation that it looked like magic. \$\endgroup\$ – Calvin Smith Dec 1 '16 at 15:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Between this and the next answer, another detail should be that if done openly, the surface thoughts are going to be largely about what the hell your character is donig <.< \$\endgroup\$ – StarWeaver Dec 2 '16 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I cast read thoughts" - GM: "His thoughts are: 'What the heck is this guy doing, waving his arms and pointing at me? Did he just cast a spell? Should I ask him? What did he do? Was this a curse? Do I feel different? Why is he looking at my forehead like that?".... And after 1 minute the spell stops working. So when you steer the conversation back on topic, you will have to cast it again ^_^ \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Dec 4 '16 at 16:52
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In games where Detect Thoughts has been used heavily, I have seen the GM treat the initial effect as a free insight success, which seems appropriate for a no-save 2nd level effect.

The text of the spell says that the "surface thoughts" of an NPC is

what is most on its mind in that moment

Given that the spell has verbal and somatic components, a savvy NPC might recognize that its thoughts are being read and choose to focus on something tangential. Indeed, it might only reveal that the NPC is indignant that someone is trying to read their thoughts.

In order to keep it useful, you could give only limited information. In the case of the hag, the spell might reveal that the hag is lying about something, but that knowledge might not be very useful to the PCs (a knowledge check might reveal that this kind of hag is a chronic liar, for instance). If the hag fails its save, then you might give some information on what it is lying about, or why it's lying.

In no case does this spell allow a character to read minds like a book, or to examine memories, or anything of the sort. In that sense, surface thoughts are a single step up from noticing that an NPC is sweating or looking shifty, and shouldn't break social encounters that badly. And if a PC built their character around this kind of interaction, why not let them have their victories?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also from the real world, we've all run into people who lie effortlessly and automatically without even thinking about it. That sort of NPC wouldn't be thinking about deceiving you on a conscious level because it's not doing anything unusual. \$\endgroup\$ – Hugh Brackett Dec 1 '16 at 17:04
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I agree with the other answers and want to add an additional solution.

The spell isn't free. It uses up a spell slot. So give them more potential targets so they have to weigh up how and when to use the spell. For example:

  • Add more varied social encounters, including actual benign ones, and some where the target is acting deceitful - e.g. They bump into a pickpocket who thinks the players saw them in the act. OR The contact they are meeting is a bit late because he/she is cheating on their spouse. Etc.

  • Make social encounters longer. This requires them to use more than one spell slot. E.g. Maybe a fight breaks out in the tavern where they are talking. Or someone walks in and the target wants to continue the conversation outside/elsewhere. Etc.

  • Include more potential targets in social encounters. They can only read thoughts of one per caster of the spell due to the concentration requirement. How do they determine who is best to mind read. E.g. Maybe the speaker is really a herald/lackey and the head guy should be the target. Maybe the head guy is actually a double and the real leader is disguised as a non-speaking guard. Etc.

  • Disguise your bad guys via spells or actual disguises. The PCs won't want to cast the spell on poor Susie the milkmaid who appears as a quest giver or victim but is really trying to set the players up. And if they do start noticing this then include more innocent encounters as well.

Alternatively prevent its use or effectiveness but using suitable bad guys.

  • Use suspicious bad guys who are vary of Detect Thoughts spells. They could deliberately be singing a song in their surface thoughts or cast a protective spell or wear a magic item to prevent thought reading. Make sure all your PCs use some level of tactics so your players don't feel you have done this deliberately. E.g. Bad guys shouldn't group together for fear of a fireball. Bad guys shouldn't just attack the nearest opponent and should try to geck the mage. Etc.

  • Include a bad guy where the PC wouldn't want to read it thoughts. E.g. Something with an alien thought process which could also cause psychic damage, madness or something bad if attempted to be read.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you are going a bit too far. I'd go the psychic damage route only if the bard used DT on a great old one (fthagn). But everyone else would be taking psychic damage from just being in his presence anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Dec 1 '16 at 13:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think I've just been playing too much Out of the Abyss. Obviously tailor to your specific situation. \$\endgroup\$ – Ian Miller Dec 1 '16 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Tenser, said the Tensor... \$\endgroup\$ – Trip Space-Parasite Dec 1 '16 at 19:54
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The duration of the spell is only up to one minute. Time the length of your conversation and you will notice that most of the time, it will take longer than a single minute. They will have to recast the spell several times to cover the full conversation.

Also, check your own thoughts. How quickly can it be distracted by a random sound, smell or sight? What comes flying through your mind while you are in a conversation?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I removed the example in the third paragraph. Could you come up with something that is less overtly sexual? It's not really appropriate to make sudden turns into overtly sexual content on this site, in a Q&A that is otherwise non-sexual. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 1 '16 at 15:43
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First, generally the surface thoughts are going to be pretty mundane and predictable. The spell isn't intended to reveal deep secrets or complicated plans. So it would reveal that the target is lying, but little else without probing. So asking the hag, "Why are you here?" And her responding, "Just to buy some food." would be revealed to be a lie, but the truth would not be revealed in her surface thoughts. This is little more than a person with a really good Insight could obtain without magic.

Second, surface thoughts aren't going to normally reveal secret details about the nature of the target. Who one is is rarely part of one's surface thoughts. I don't routine think, "I'm a white 51-year-old American." and the hag likely wouldn't have "I'm a bhuer" as her surface thoughts.

Finally, if this really becomes a problem, the bard could have a reputation for casting detect thoughts, and paranoid NPCs could require the bard to stand 45 feet away under observation before engaging in conversation, or cast dispel magic (perhaps with Subtle spell) before engaging in conversation with the bard.

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Social spells like Detect Thoughts are a legimate and play-balanced part of the game. If they are throwing off your game as DM, include consideration of them into your preparation, or just have stock answers ready.

“Surface Thoughts”

The Detect Thoughts Spell can be a little tricky, but it is balanced and workable, if handled fairly.

Surface thoughts should reveal what the target is “up to” at the moment, and often not much else. Reading them might be useful to find a pickpocket in the room. But if a creature is trying to convince the party to go to the Dungeon of Dooms, their surface thoughts are probably going to be about how they are trying to convince the party to go to the Dungeon of Dooms.

If you want to add more color into surface thoughts, just consider that even the nicest folks in the world can have off-color thoughts. (If you didn’t want to know that the Abbott of Absolute Niceness liked that sort of thing, then you shouldn’t have read his mind.)

Deceipt is More Than Skin-Deep

Professional deceivers, like your Bheur Hag, will have greater control over their surface thoughts. Psychology Today reports: “The best liars don’t show any shame or remorse because they don't feel it.” They “stay focused” and “keep [their] facts straight.” Detect Thoughts won’t catch them prematurely gloating over the ruination of their marks.

(Perceptive players might catch onto the trend that targets with highly-focused thoughts are more likely to be up to something. If they do, that was an OK clue to give.)

Don’t Nerf the Bard

You are right to be reticent about making changes to make social spells a lot more difficult to use, or less effective in general.

The Targets section of Chapter 9 in the Player’s Handbook (p 204) specifies that your bard should be able to use a spell like this in a social situation, so any advice that the general populace would always recognize such a spell is simply contrary to the rules as written:

Unless a spell has a perceptible effect, a creature might not know it was targeted by a spell at all. An effect like crackling lightning is obvious, but a more subtle effect, such as an attempt to read a creature's thoughts, typically goes unnoticed, unless the spell says otherwise.

While I allow social spells like Charm Person generally to be cast in front of the non-initiated without them noticing, other DM’s argue that the fact that someone is casting a spell should be obvious to someone observing the caster. Either way, it should be possible to use the spells — somehow — that is relevant to their intended use.

I find the rigmarole of the bard slipping away to cast the spell from behind a corner simply to be tiresome after a few repetitions. But it can give a DM a few moments to come up with a plan to handle the mind reading, if need be.

Knowledge of Magic

One can assume that awareness (and fear) of magic is widespread in a D&D world, although a lot of it might be very mysterious to them.

If there is a bard hanging around town that seems always to know what people are thinking, people “in the know” would try to be guarded with their thoughts while he is around.

Don’t break what you’ve got going

I think you’re doing things pretty well with this spell, and with the social encounters that the party is currently enjoying. The main tweak would be that the most devious liars should give less away.

Don’t cause problems for your game by making any big, abrupt changes, that might make your player tuck away his bard character and start rolling up something else.

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I think a significant issue might be related to

My read of the spell is that the target is only aware of the spell if the player probes deeper, and the saving throw also only occurs on a deeper probe.

The target will likely be aware of the spell because it has a range of 30 ft, a duration of up to 1 minute, and requires verbal, somantic and material components.

It is certainly possible for players to pre-cast spells for a social encounter, outside of sight and hearing range of the target, and move within 30 ft of the target within the 1 minute duration. But it's not going to trivilise all social encounters.

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One more thing: It requires concentration. That's going to be a big problem in a social setting!

Since someone didn't get it--think you can carry on a conversation with someone while maintaining concentration for the detect thoughts spell??

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    \$\begingroup\$ What part of spell concentration prevents people from carrying on with ordinary conversation? Do you have anything you can cite to indicate it would? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Dec 4 '16 at 21:30

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