Divinations – Is Some Magic Just Too Powerful for PCs?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 14, 2011

No power is greater than the ability to see the future. Whether it’s the ability to determine if turning right or left will lead to a better outcome or foreseeing the death of friends and family, knowing what lies ahead often tips the scales of power heavily towards the diviner.

In fantasy literature divinations are often vague and described as prophecy. Rarely does any character get a clear picture of exactly how things are going to unfold. After all everyone has free will and actions can be unpredictable. Divination magic assumes that people will continue along the paths that they’re most likely to take.

The advantage that authors of fantasy literature have when they’re creating stories with divinations is that the author controls all aspects of the story. This is certainly not the case in D&D (or any RPG for that matter). The DM may design and set the framework for the story, but with up to six players making decisions on how things are going to play out it becomes next to impossible for the DM to predict what’s going to happen next with any certainty.

This more than anything else is what makes divination magic so difficult to include in any edition of D&D. If the event divined doesn’t involve the PCs directly then the DM can more likely ensure that the event happens, regardless of steps the PCs take to change the outcome. For example, if a divination spell provides the PCs with information that some important NPC will be dead within the week, the DM can just throw roadblocks in the way of the PCs to ensure that the NPC dies.

The danger in using divinations is that many players will often try to change negative outcomes. So if they foresee someone’s death they’ll take it upon themselves to try and stop it. Unless this is the focus of the campaign then things are likely to get messy and head of the rails in a hurry.

With the potential complication that divination magic brings to a campaign it’s understandable that many DMs prefer to just shy away from it all together. However, I’m a big believer that players should be able to play whatever kind of character they want to play. So even though the schools of magic don’t really exist in 4e D&D like they used to in previous editions, if a player really wants to run a divination Wizard my feeling is to let them. Now the challenge becomes how to incorporate divinations into the campaign.

When we were introduced to rituals in 4e D&D this seemed like the perfect place for divinations. After all most divinations, especially powerful divinations, require significant preparation. They aren’t the kind of magic that can be fired off in a few seconds. More importantly they rarely have the kind of outcome that is useful in a combat situation.

Powers in 4e D&D that use divination magic tend to have very limited and small effects, like getting to reroll an attack or having the DM reroll an attack that he just made against you. Anything more complicated than that doesn’t really have a place in the midst of combat. Or more to the point is that there isn’t an easy way to incorporate divinations into combat situations. As I mentioned before, with as many as seven people affecting the outcome of the battle raging at your gaming table it’s impossible for even the DM to predict with certainty what’s going to happen.

But this doesn’t mean that divination magic doesn’t have a place in 4e D&D. There are a lot of very useful divination rituals. The way that they’ve been incorporated into the game is that the vast majority of them focus on looking backwards. There are only a select few, like Voice of Fate, that provide a glimpse of the future. And in the case of Voice of Fate it’s a level 26 ritual. By the time the PCs reach that level they should be able to affect the outcome of any divination.

I must admit that I’m not a big fan of divinations at the game table. I like them a lot when I read about them in the various D&D novels, but at a live gaming table they just become too unpredictable. I don’t think it’s fair to have a PC put time and resources into a powerful divination and then not get a satisfying and accurate response to the magic. So even if as the DM I say that someone will live of die, I don’t control the players and that creates uncertainty.

I think that the compromise that the Wizard of the Coast folks made by keeping most divination confined to rituals is the right way to go. And at the end of the day I think we’ll find that most players would rather fire magic missiles and fireballs, inflicting damage to their opponents and levelling the battlefield then try to predict the outcome before or during the fight. Divinations aren’t sexy. In fact in the heat of combat they would just become slow and cumbersome. Players insisting that they want to try and use them in combat will likely feel a lot of pressure from other players to wait and use them outside of combat.

Using divinations to see the future almost seems like a cheat. Knowing the answers before hand takes some of the fun out of the game. I prefer to keep divinations in the hands of the NPCs. This way I can provide just enough information to PCs to keep them interested without providing too many details to spoil the upcoming campaign. By leaving this kind of magic to the NPCs I don’t feel that I’m denying the PCs something that should rightfully be theirs. If PCs choose to use divination rituals then I’m perfectly ok with that, but the idea of giving a Wizard at-will or encounter divination powers that let them see into the future (beyond their next turn) seems too unpredictable and potentially too powerful.

This is one of those rare instances when I’m not terribly upset that the eight traditional schools of Wizard magic disappeared with 4e D&D. In the world of 4e D&D I don’t see a divination Wizard being on par with other, more offensive character. Let’s just leave the divination to rituals for now.

Do you use divination magic at your gaming table? What 4e experiences have you had where PCs have tried to use divinations to see into the future? Have they met with success, failure or something in between?

Related reading:

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!

1 callin March 14, 2011 at 10:42 am

I’ve never really minded divinations. I have been part of a long-running LARP and we have an extensive list of divinatory spells at the player’s access. The spells are rather broad and not as limited as 4E or even most D&D divinatory spells have been in the past, so I have had to deal with players asking for the moon with their questions and spells.
The DM has a lot of control over what information he can convey. If you don’t want the players to pursue a line of questioning, or you don’t want them to know something too soon (“Is our patron going to betray us?”) you have a few options. The result of the spell/ritual can be vague and shrouded in ambiguity, to the point of making the answer useless. The result can be nothing but a lead to another adventure/question (“The answer to your question lies at the heart of Wilting Wood.”) The definition of an appropriate answer is up to the DM.
How the DM reacts to the divination determines how effective it is.

2 Kilsek March 14, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Yes, I agree that divinations’ power brings a whole new level of unpredictability to the game – a game that already has plenty built-in without them! The fact that they’re rituals now and cost money, and for the most powerful ones, cost a lot of money, is probably a good thing just from a game management perspective. Because of this cost, rituals simply aren’t popular, or at least the ones that use to be, like old divination spells, are much less so.

That said, last session I included a sending from an NPC to the party, and wouldn’t you know it? Just like you said here, they jumped right into “cheating”-like questions in their response, trying to get every single answer for their current adventure’s situation from the NPC. Not what I intended at all…

I do no miss the days of bogging down the session with half-a-dozen questions to the gods, as flavorful as some of those were sometimes. The cost, in those days, was nothing for the players, but for the session and adventure, it cost a lot of time and created a whole bunch of new factors to work into the adventure.

Yes, I want the players to enjoy their abilities and any rituals they actively want to use. But rituals in 4e require a lot of forethought by the DM, as far as their potential impact on… well, everything! Because of that extra level of planning above and beyond all the planning and management we already are responsible for as DMs, I can why DMs may not emphasize them at all in their adventure preperation.

At some point, the ritual’s cost for the PCs and the costs of adventure re-design and inclusion for the DMs make it so that they’re a less desirable, and easily ignored option 4e, if you want them to be. And it won’t hurt you much at all if you do ignore them either, except for the very rare ocassion you need the ones associated with obvious adventuring risks. Remove Affliction and Raise Dead alone, with no other rituals, will take you from 1-30 very easily.

3 Dave March 14, 2011 at 1:58 pm

While I haven’t yet ironed out the details, an idea I’ve been playing with for a while is what I call “Heisenberg Divinations”. The idea is that divination is like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for quantum mechanics: the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be measured. For physics, these properties may be position and momentum, but for divination the properties would be certainty, chronology, and relevance. When divining, the PCs can choose one or two properties that are most important to them, and how focused this importance is. With greater focus, the chosen properties will be more accurate, but the unchosen properties will be less accurate.

For example, the PCs may want to know about dangers that face their king in the next day or so. If they choose to focus on chronology and relevance, the may find out about something that will threaten the king tomorrow, but the details of what it is could be ambiguous or erroneous. Alternatively, if they choose to focus on certainty and relevance the dangers that they find out about will be certain to come, but they won’t know when (they may even be things that happened in the past, if the GM feels this would add to the game). Lastly, if they choose certainty and chronology they will find out about things that will certainly happen soon, but they could be unrelated to their king (or they may *seem* unrelated…).

4 shimmertook March 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Divination is a fundamental aspect of fantasy and mythology so of course it has a place in D&D. It’s very tough to manage though, that’s for sure, for all the good reasons you pointed out.

The thing I’ve learned most from DMing divination spells or rituals is that they should be rooted in the story, and not the mechanics. It’s difficult to force the mechanics to your will when implementing something like seeing the future, though as you mentioned, there are basic powers, Paragon Path features and the like that strive to do so. The reason why is because you’re already dealing with story elements when you choose to interpret/integrate the divination. Therefore, its integration to game play should be story-based as well. Keeping divinations out of combat is probably the best idea for most of the game, but guess what? The story shouldn’t be kept out of the combat either.

Divinations can bring great dramatic weight to battles that they normally might not have. If your divination produces a vision that a certain PC will die, why not go one step further and describe *how* the PC will die. For instance, the vision reveals the PC will perish at the hands of Natural Causes. From then on, the tension will swing as the PC may believe they are invulnerable to monsters or traps, but may become a complete sheep when tasked to cross a bridge or swim across a creek.

Also, part of the fun, and historically literary foundation of divinations is knowing how to *interpret* divinations (see the Scottish Play). Who knew there was a vicious subterranean one-eyed clawed beast named…”Natural Causes”?

5 Ameron March 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Even though the DM has a lot of control over the information revealed by a divination spell, I do feel some obligation not to just screw the players. If they’re going to use a divination and the glimpse into the future that they’ve requested isn’t out of line considering their level and the time, preparations, and material that were required to perform the divination ritual in the first place, then I want to give them something useful.

In cases where this has happened in my games I have certainly tried. The challenge is giving them a piece of information and then having things play out and discovering that the information no longer makes sense (usually because the players have done something unexpected and changed the outcome).

In the case of a divination spell that reveals something that has already happened I can give them an answer with absolute certainty that it’s correct. It’s that seeing the future trick that I’ve found creates the most grief.

I suppose one easy solution to problems created by divination that looks into the future is to simply rule that the future is too unpredictable and therefore these rituals don’t exist (or if they do they rarely work as expected). I doubt anyone would pay to cast a level 26 ritual they knew was just as likely to fail as give an accurate prediction. Not an ideal solution, I’ll admit, but something to consider.

@Dave March
I like your “Heisenberg Divinations” principle a lot. I suppose this is how I’ve ruled divinations in the past. Questions that are more general “Will the kingdom still be rules by Prince Awesome when we return?” is more likely to get a straight forward yes/no answer then “When will Prince Awesome be assassinated?”

I’d likely expand on your HD principle a bit and say that actions outside of the PCs purview (and the things they’re less likely to interfere with) are also more likely to provide better and more specific answers than the events they’re directly involved in.

I see a lot of potential for divinations to become solid adventuring hooks, guiding a campaign in a certain direction. The real challenge is often getting the PCs to ask the right questions.

Your take on interpretation of the specific details from a divination reminds me a lot of how DMs usually subvert Wishes (another mechanic that disappeared all together in 4e D&D).

You’re absolutely correct that the heart of any divination attempt should be firmly rooted in the heart of the story. Any PC that tries to use divinations as a way to avoid hazards and essentially be safe and lazy should be weighed heavily before any DM allows it.

Your comment actually gave me a few ideas on how to incorporate divinations into a nested skill challenge within a combat encounter. So I suppose if handled with care they can have a place in combat. Thank you.

6 Sunyaku March 16, 2011 at 1:45 am

I’ve never viewed Divination as a guarantee. Any divine entity can provide, or interfere with whatever information someone is prodding the aether for… so given that, I try to have fun with it like any other skill check. If the player rolls well, they might get a vaguely accurate bit of information. If not, they might get something even more vague… or vaguely wrong and confusing. On some occasions, I even view certain Religion checks as divination (like when a character prays to their god for guidance).

Actually, my home campaign is fundamentally based on the misinformation divination can provide. One faction thinks they’ve obtained “divine clairvoyance” from their goddess, and they’ve risen to political and monetary prominence because of it. In reality, they’re being spoon fed images from other, nefarious forces. The “puppetmasters” are able to use the divine imagery to ultimately manipulate a variety of factions into unknowingly supporting their evil works… … … and I think I’ll leave it there. Eventually I’ll publish this mod to my site for everyone. 🙂

7 shimmertook March 16, 2011 at 10:35 am

I’m just not sure I would appreciate that at all as a player. Given the time, money and effort that it takes to even owning a ritual, I would feel very denied, powerless, and quite un-heroic if my efforts stabbed me in the back like that. Sure, it’s a nefarious force, and as a hero I would want to find and seek out that force, but then the only solution to the adventure is combat, and that’s not good gaming.

I agree that fun can be had in the interpretation and “twist” to divinations, but I also strongly believe that when a player invests in something in the game, whether that a background story, a feat, or a hefty book of rituals that rarely get used, they should be rewarded for that investment.

Every time a ritual “doesn’t work” it discourages their use. They are already difficult enough as they are, there’s no reason to incapacitate them any more then they already are.

8 Kilsek March 16, 2011 at 1:57 pm

@shimmertook: You’ve made me give some pause in finding divination rituals especially painful for DMs to manage, by simply and clearly stating that it basically sucks for the PCs to feel like their rituals suck, especially if they weren’t “gaming it” and really just thought one made sense and would help in the context of the adventure.

Nothing sucks more than realizing one of your shiny new powers, feats, etc. actually stinks (for whatever reason) – pretty much the same thing with rituals.

9 Grimm March 24, 2011 at 8:33 am

I think as a DM you have to ask yourself is the future fixed, or changeable? And from that you can give your PCs either vague or specific answers. I’ve generally given vague answers, when PCs have used it before. And I’m usually very upfront about telling them the more specific of a question they ask, the harder sometimes it is to get an answer. But i can understand that you don’t want your PCs to think It’ll never make a diference and never use it. In the past sometimes i’ve given them an answer that happened pretty much that way…and sometimes the answer they got didn’t happen at all. <– The future strands of fate changed…what are you gonna do?
So far in 4e I've not had any PCs try to use Divination, but I have a feeling shortly in my current game, they might try to seek someone out who can. In v3.5 I had a player whose PC got really hooked on it…and he did a GREAT job of roleplaying it, and we had a lot of fun…his PC got really addicted to Divination, and towards the end was needing to roll bones or something to do just about anything.
I think Divination or Prophecy is a place and time when you need to ease the mechanics of the system and really get the story telling juices flowing in there.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: