#RPGaDay2020 Day 4: "Vision"

Today's word is "Vision" and I'm focusing on my love-hate relationship with divination in role playing games.

Divination has three purposes in a game: It can provide the characters with a hint as to what they are supposed to know, it can give deeper insights into a situation and it can be a source of mystery to the players. But it can also be a tight line to walk...do you reveal something that might happen? How do you provide information without giving away too much? How do you avoid frustrating the players with such vagaries than the divination wasn't worth it.

My favorite divination spell is Augury, a 2nd level spell. State your condition and the universe will provide you with "Weal or Woe." No answers about what will be encountered. No details about how it will occur...just a high level good idea or bad idea. As a GM, I'm usually fine with providing that information, if asked.

After that, are all the detection type spells. Is there magic? thought? life? evil? Is the object I'm after around here? These are simple to implement, and provide the players with much-needed information about whatever their immediate action is. I'm equally fine with the much more powerful spells of this sort, like "True Sight" which cuts away all illusion and provides an absolute truth.

I'm also fine with scrying spells, such as Clairvoyance and it's peer, Clairaudience, and then just general scrying, though those spells begin to have risks. You start having to balance between giving away too much or too little for a general usage. It can be handy in the same way that TV's in movies are always talking about the exact thing you need, and therefore advance the plot. But in reality, you also might get somebody just reading a book for 8 hours, and while realistic, it's "the GM keeping things from the players."

My least favorite are the "ask for a hint" spells. Divination, Commune, Contact Other Plane, etc. These are investing serious magics to ask the universe for a hint or answer. Of these, I prefer Commune, as it's a 20 questions style game, and it's normally helpful without breaking the game. The other two are open ended questions to the GM: "Tell me what's going on." And here's where my dislike is most strong. From a play perspective, there starts being a question of what does the universe know and what can it provide. But from a metagame perspective, it runs the risk of flipping the characters to the last page of the book...revealing major points that people have spent years hiding--and you are left with the choice of meeting the spirit of the spell without just handing the players the answers.

So do you "The wind that blows around you also blows to a tall dark man in the east" the spell, which is to provide totally true but useless information, or do you give them "Colonel Mustard did it with the knife in the Library" which takes any fun out of trying to figure it out for yourself? Ultimately, because these spells can be so disheartening for the players and so risky to the game, I dislike them

Bruce Cordell and Andy Collins, in the Epic Level Handbook for 3.x D&D had a different approach. They suggested that at higher levels, assume the players know everything and can go anywhere--and then it offers the GM advice on how to keep the game interesting in spite of these advantages. Yep, the demon lord Hikisr'tht is behind the attacks, and also his home address is But what are you going to do about it? I never ran "epic" level games, but that advice became very useful when normal D&D began to break down, around 14th to 16th level.

Frankly, these are some fairly advanced GM techniques, but I found them helpful. Assume the players are going to just ask, and what happens if you just give the answer. Is there more to still find out? Does that only push them onto a path or complete the journey? By thinking of these things ahead of time, especially for the big plot points, it takes some of the stress out of the game--or at least lets you realize that "If they ask that, it's over, so figure out how you're going to approach it."

Divination spells are a mainstay of fantasy games, and different editions have tweaked or limited them to avoid some of these problems. But ultimately they are going to continue to be a challenge to make both useful and fun, without giving away too much.

My first callout of the year is anyone who has ever put a prophesy into their game, and managed to blow the players minds by having it come true.


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