Thursday, November 25, 2010

Divination, lead me to the treasure

OK, so I got side tracked in the last post. (the evils of Google) What I really wanted to write about was Divination in a game. Since we play a house ruled 3.5 I will be referring to the actual spell. However, the concept of having divine or arcane magic which can provide useful information towards solving the in game challenge vs. just how much the DM reveals without spoiling the fun is not limited by edition.

I have read via the interwebs some DMs suggest simply striking the spell from the available lists. I do not subscribe to such an action. Divination has a rich history in literature and my game draws much from literature.  My homebrew is not a copy of some literary world but rather draws on elements that are common in literary worlds, and hence gives a familiar feeling to the players.  Removing divination type magic would would degrade that familiarity.  Additionally, I like to use NPCs with divination abilities in the homebrew.  Knowledge is power, even if that knowledge is limited or flawed.  I like the interplay of the diviners selling their wares as absolute knowledge while the buyers of such knowledge are skeptical and yet fearful to ignore the potential such knowledge could bring.  If they NPCs can use divination magic, then so should the players.

I have stricken spells from the game.  I have not done so without careful thought about how it impacts my homebrew, and I do it very sparingly.  Players choose a class expecting to have the abilities as stated (my house rules are written and public to the players so there is no surprise), and are disappointed to lose those abilities.  There may be a sense of making the character less valuable.

So, what is the problem with Divination?  Inevitably a character would like to cast the spell and ask: "Did Varalak the High Priest murder King Coriant?",  "Where does this magical portal lead?", "What terrible creature guards the treasure in the temple?", "Which hallway leads to the captive princess?".   Thank you for calling 1 800 ASK A GOD.  We are sorry, due to convoluted rules we are not at liberty to explain why your query cannot be answered and your spell is still consumed.  We look forward to serving you in the future in the service of your god.  Be sure to watch your alignment.  Have a nice day.

The conversation between Omnipotentia, the all knowing goddess of knowledge and the DM go something like this.
Omnipotentia - "Look, I know the answer to the priest's question.  She's been true to her alignment, she risked her life in my service five times last week, and giving her this bit of direct knowledge unequivocally advances my goals as goddess of knowledge.  What gives with me having to give some vague answer, that can be taken ambiguously, to this loyal servant?"
DM - "I have spent a pant load of time putting this adventure together so the players pulling the puppet strings on your follower will have a good time.  I am not about to have them solve the adventure with a simple spell casting in the first five minutes of the game.  It is not satisfying for them, and would really piss me off."
Omnipotentia - "It just doesn't seem right.  I mean, you go on about verisimilitude in your game and-"
DM - interrupting "Listen, I hear a loyal follower of Discordia the goddess of death, destruction, and generally uncouth behavior using a divination asking the goddess for the secret to slaying the goddess of knowledge.  Maybe you are right, maybe this is the time to start answering those questions with full disclosure.  You know a god war might be an interesting twist to this campaign....
Omnipotentia - "I am starting to see you point of view.  Let me get my thesaurus."

At the heart of it, Divination should give some useful advice but should not solve the adventure.  Seems simple right?  First off the players struggle with what to ask knowing 1 800 ASK A GOD will only answer a properly limited and formatted question.  Next, those darn players will spring a Divination question when you least expect it.  Now you have to come up with a cleverly written response which gives just just enough advice without spoiling the adventure.  No wonder some DMs squirm at this point.  I rather like it though, it keeps me on my toes.

Next post, I'll talk about my most recent experience with Divination in game.


  1. I think the use of divination in the game can be a great catalyst for excellent role playing. Ambiguous results subject to various interpretations can have the players paranoid or alternately give them a needed break when necessary. Player debate and riddle solving opportunities abound. But both Divination and Augury as written (at least in AD&D) are much too specific in their calculation and results for my taste and are definitely ripe for house ruling.

  2. I don't think you must formalize house rules for divination magics; the results are behind the screen anyway. It is just as easy to keep in the spirit of the limits of the power and provide game enhancing results. As you see opportunities abound if the gods respond thoughtfully and carefully.....


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