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Low-Level Play (1–6)

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 154
At early levels, the number of spells available is smaller, but these are sometimes the most important spells to understand. Low-level spells of intrigue (typically 3rd level or lower) can remain useful at high levels, and high-level characters can cast them far more often.

Divinations

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 154
Nothing can alter the fundamental flow of an entire adventure or campaign quite like divinations. The rules for divination spells contain many gray areas. Unfortunately, that can lead to GMs either reining in these spells too tightly (sometimes making them a waste of a spell slot), or allowing divinations to provide far more information than the spell should allow, potentially derailing the story. Many GMs feel that divinations are the primary reason high-level games can be difficult to run.

When adjudicating the results of divinations, you, as the GM, should apply the principle of “yes, but. . .” rather than simply saying “yes” or “no.” In other words, the PCs can get the kind of information the spell indicates, but that information doesn’t include other factors beyond the scope of the spell. Or perhaps it comes in a cryptic form, is sketchy because the PCs didn’t have enough information to connect the dots, or is otherwise less than ideal. These spells have built-in restrictions that prevent them from being perfect, and targets can prepare countermeasures to vex casters.

Information is a key factor in many games, and divination magic often plays a central role in uncovering that information. Information allows characters to lay ambushes instead of being ambushed, to bypass threats to pursue their goals most efficiently, to prepare exactly the right countermeasures for their opposition, and more. As the GM, ultimately, you are the channel through which all the knowledge about the world flows. You are responsible for providing the appropriate information to both the PCs and the NPCs. You should give them the information their characters would have and not withhold knowledge, but you should also control the information flow in a way that enhances the game.

Some of the first divinations available to characters can often cause the most disruptions because they are available at will: detect poison and especially detect magic. Detection spells generally cannot pierce solid material, including a thin layer of lead, so consider having NPCs use lead linings for important secrets. The idea of using appropriate precautions makes a particularly formidable NPC seem like a more worthy adversary after the fact, once the PCs find the hidden secret, though if every NPC does this, it can quickly cheapen that effect.

Though it might seem humble, the ability to find a creature, object, or location can easily short-circuit an entire adventure based around discovering something lost or hidden. However, spells that find things have significant limitations, and the first line of defense against allowing locator spells to damage the fun of a campaign is knowledge. Characters can’t attempt to locate something they don’t even know exists, and several of those spells have further restrictions that depend on the caster’s level of knowledge about the target.

Augury: Conceptually, having only four options (weal, woe, both, and neither) seems simple enough, but the trick comes in that almost everything involves a little bit of weal or woe—so where do you draw the line? Remember that the spell can see only 30 minutes into the future. It doesn’t take into account long-term consequences of the action. That means that, for instance, making a deal with a devil to gain 1,000 gp in exchange for possibly forfeiting your soul sometime in the future would probably be considered a weal by a casting of augury.

If the half-hour isn’t enough to decide, then think about the personality of the caster’s deity or spirit. For instance, a god of bravery might think that a CR-appropriate battle with great loot is a weal because that sounds like a grand adventure, while a more cautious deity might say that is a weal and woe.

You can’t predict everything that will happen, so just try to make your best guess—even the gods can’t be sure exactly how the PCs will behave! Try to remember that “neither” is a valid option, particularly since that’s the result when the spell fails to give an accurate response. The caster must consider whether the “neither” result is a false negative or a true negative. Augury costs 25 gp to cast, so likely the PCs won’t throw it around indiscriminately, even at higher levels.

Clairaudience/Clairvoyance: This spell is the lowest-level scouting spell, and so is often the first to appear in play. It allows PCs to examine their surroundings or eavesdrop without endangering themselves, but has a large number of mitigating factors, which can make it trickier to use.

Clairaudience/clairvoyance has a limited range of 400 feet, plus 40 feet per caster level. While that is generally enough to see areas in the same dungeon, the spell can’t just look anywhere. The caster must place the sensor in a known locale or a familiar place, or somewhere he can see. This prevents blindly casting it on whatever is 100 feet in a given direction, for instance. The casting time of this spell—10 minutes—is quite long, likely wasting the duration of other spells currently cast on the party. It is also a major security risk to chant for 10 minutes straight in a loud and clear voice in hostile territory, so this spell is best paired with Silent Spell for safety’s sake. This spell lasts only 1 minute per level, which makes it difficult to spy on long conversations unless the caster knows exactly the right time. Finally, the spell doesn’t project any enhanced senses, so even if the caster has darkvision, if the spell hits a dark area, he can only see in a 10-foot radius. Unlike some of the more powerful scrying subschool spells, the caster can’t move the sensor beyond rotating it.

The clairaudience version of the spell can better detect things in the dark, but making sense of auditory stimuli can be tricky. Finally, remember that the enemies might potentially notice invisible magical sensors (the base DC to notice a sensor is 23 for this spell). Detect scrying automatically detects the spell and possibly reveals the PCs’ nearby location, too, potentially allowing the observed enemies to retaliate quickly.

Detect Evil: This entry applies to other alignment detection spells and abilities, as well. In some stories, concealing a character’s alignment is important; it can be particularly challenging in the presence of a paladin or inquisitor who uses detect evil at will (or some familiars that have constant detect evil). Fortunately, there are a lot of easy ways to protect against these spells.

The first thing to note is that at the lowest levels, alignment detection spells simply don’t register NPCs due to their low level. Other than clerics, undead, and evil outsiders, creatures require 5 Hit Dice or more to register with detect evil. The second thing to keep in mind is that creatures with actively evil, good, chaotic, and lawful intents register as that alignment if they have enough Hit Dice, regardless of their actual alignment. So a selfish merchant whose heart is moved by an orphan’s plight into an act of largesse would register as good at the time, and a loyal knight forced to kill an innocent child to stop a war could appear evil while she formulates and executes the deed. The final thing to consider is that alignment detection is exceptionally easy and cheap to foil in the long-term.

Some GMs rely on expensive, high-level, short-duration spells that could fail based on a d20 roll such as misdirection and nondetection, but the 1st-level bard spell undetectable alignment lasts 24 hours and works automatically. A wand containing this spell lasts for longer than a month and costs only 750 gp. Several new spells and magic items in this book also help protect against alignment detection.

As always, it is important to use countermeasures that the NPC in question would reasonably and realistically use, considering the NPC’s circumstances and the cost of employing the countermeasure. Spending 15 gold pieces a day for a charge from a <%SPELLSundetectable alignment">wand of undetectable alignment is clearly worth it for an important spy who expects to match wits with paladins who can test her alignment, but it isn’t reasonable for a random evil monster living alone in the sewers. Also, undetectable alignment fools alignment detection, but it leaves the telltale aura of undetectable alignment itself on the NPC, which could give him away just as easily if not combined with other effects to obscure the magical aura of the spell.

Detect Magic: Though this at-will cantrip is an extremely powerful tool, remember that concentrating to maintain the spell consumes the caster’s standard action every round, and may significantly slow a party’s progress when timing is important or action is required. It also requires several rounds to reveal useful information.

On the first round of the spell, the caster doesn’t learn more than the presence or absence of magical auras in a 60-foot cone. If the wizard is standing behind someone in the party who has a magic item, he’ll get a false positive. Even on the second round, the caster just learns the number of auras and the power of the most potent aura, so it takes quite a while to pinpoint the locations of each aura. For instance, a common complaint about detect magic is that it might reveal invisible creatures, but in reality, an invisible creature can easily run circles around the concentrating wizard’s cone, never allowing the wizard enough time to pinpoint it.

The final and most important point to note is the fact that magical areas, multiple types of magic, and stronger auras can distort or conceal weaker auras. Very few GMs use this to its full potential. For instance, the NPCs might build their base on a ley line in order to mask magic auras. If all else fails, numerous countermeasures protect against a simple detect magic spell, starting with nonmagical means such as thin layers of lead and moving to magic aura, nondetection, misdirection, and more. Take a look at greater magic aura for a solid countermeasure. Greater detect magic allows for some interesting additional pieces of information, but it’s a 2nd-level spell, so it can never be as ubiquitous as the 0-level version. Greater magic aura still foils greater detect magic.

Detect Poison: This spell makes it trivial for even a fledgling acolyte to detect the presence of poison, and seems to kill the entire idea of poisoning the king’s drink. One solution is to slip poison into something that it wouldn’t be socially acceptable to check with detect poison or that the consuming character doesn’t even stop to check, such as poisoning the spoons rather than the meal. Clever assassins may poison something that is supposed to have poison in it (such as alcohol). Even though ethanol alcohol (along with other possible food additives) is a neurotoxin, it doesn’t have its own poison stat block, and you’ll want to make your stance clear on poisonous substances not listed with specific poison rules to your players. If you use this option, the caster still has to fail the DC 20 Wisdom check (which is quite likely, particularly at lower levels). For added concealment, use an overdose of the same sort of poison already expected to be in the dish, so even a successful check wouldn’t help (such as lethal quantities of wormwood in a glass of absinthe). Obscure poison, a 1st-level spell, can also make a poison harder to detect, and the languid venom spell can both delay the onset of a poison and make it slightly harder to detect.

Detect Thoughts: This spell’s notorious ambiguity often leads back to the idea that, as the GM, you are the one who ultimately controls the flow of information. Reading surface thoughts doesn’t act perfectly to give the information that the PCs want, even if the target fails its saving throw, instead only betraying a character’s immediate concerns. For instance, the rakshasa disguised as a noble probably isn’t thinking “I’m a rakshasa” all the time, but she might generally think of things in oddly predatory terms. Give the PCs something interesting and worthwhile but, most importantly, the spell should tell them something that makes sense for the target to be thinking and provide clues more than answers.

Clever PCs could combine detect thoughts with an interrogation session in an attempt to gather answers to specific questions. Against rank-and-file foes who are nonetheless too loyal to intimidate, this is very likely to work. However, liars skilled enough to remove any tells from their social deceit often train themselves not to dwell on their prevarications, so characters with high ranks in Bluff are likely able to obfuscate their surface thoughts. Still, if the PCs aren’t sure whether they’ve captured a spy, their captive might reveal that she is more than she seems when the PCs’ pointed questions are met with surface thoughts repeating a soothing rhyme or song.

Seek thoughts allows a character to sweep through many more people’s minds than detect thoughts, but still allows a saving throw (and with multiple targets, the caster isn’t aware who made or failed the save). The same adjudication on surface thoughts applies: a sweeping search for surface thoughts about being the murderer will only work if the murderer is actively thinking about being such. A true sociopath might be thinking about their lunch, though clever PCs might be able to use this information as evidence that the sociopathic NPC is suspicious.

Locate Object: Many GMs fear that a PC who casts locate object can locate key objects and ignore entire sections of an adventure. The good news is, unless the adventure was about the PCs being robbed of an item in a small town, that fear is probably baseless (and in many circumstances, there are countermeasures to this spell).

The first thing to note about locate object is its long range. Even 400 feet plus 40 feet per caster level is not very far in a city or overland adventure. Also, PCs cannot specify a unique item as the target of this spell unless they have observed the particular item firsthand (not through divination). In the majority of adventures focused on finding an item, the object is a unique item that the PCs have not observed firsthand. Finally, this spell is blocked by a thin sheet of lead. So any competent thief in a world with divinations is likely to store the object of her larceny within a bag that is lined with a thin sheet of lead, at least until she can get far enough away from pursuit. Precautions like these show the antagonists’ understanding of the nature of magic and the world around them.

Speak with Animals and Speak with Plants: These two spells are useful in that animals and plants often observe plenty of secrets, and even the most meticulous murderer rarely thinks of a houseplant as a witness. However, these entities have either low or no intelligence, and they look at the world in a different way than people do. It’s important to strike a balance with these spells so that they provide useful information that’s worth casting a spell without breaking every mystery. The way to do that is all in the art of roleplaying animals and plants. Have them pay attention to things that are immediate and important for an animal or a plant, but not necessarily to details that the PCs want to know. Use these spells to offer more clues colored by the animal or plant’s worldview.

Zone of Truth: Truth-telling magic often has interesting consequences when combined with intrigue. Even ignoring spells such as glibness that allow someone to lie directly in a zone of truth, a creature can succeed at its saving throw against the spell without the caster ever knowing. Creatures can also simply avoid speaking a direct lie, or even speak an untruth that she thinks is true, potentially through the use of memory-altering magic such as modify memory or false belief. This advice applies for other truth-telling magic as well, such as discern lies.

Other Divinations: A few rare, highly specific divination spells have the potential to disrupt an intrigue-based game.

Blood Biography: This spell offers several options to a spellcaster who gains possession of a creature’s blood, identifying the creature that shed the blood as well as the circumstance and time of the bloodshed, to that creature’s knowledge. In terms of living creatures, beyond a successful Will saving throw, the best protection for a creature against this spell is also generally a good way to prevent penalties against spells such as scrying: try not to leave blood for the PCs to find. Much like in a modern crime drama with DNA evidence, in a game with blood biography, a bloodstain from the culprit is a powerful piece of evidence that can often assure a successful investigation on its own. Of course, a wily criminal can plant the blood of an innocent at the scene to throw off the trail. However, that could cause issues due to the fact that the spell reveals how and when the blood was shed, unless the criminal can manipulate a truly devious frame-up that includes suspicious circumstances and timing. Another option, if cleaning up blood with prestidigitation or similar spells is out of the question, is to scatter blood from so many different sources throughout the area that the mixture makes the search nearly impossible. The other use of the spell, particularly in a murder, is that it can potentially reveal details of the murder, just like with spells such as speak with dead. In addition to the advice for speak with dead below, a murderer could consider killing in such a way as to avoid spilling blood. Or, he could even plant blood from a previous situation that didn’t involve the killer and then use spells such as dress corpse to obscure the time and cause of death to match the earlier bloodshed.

Create Treasure Map: This spell allows the PCs to gain a map to whatever a dead creature considered most valuable. Since the spell indicates that the value is subjective and might include intangibles, such as a mate or a favorite place to find food, the spell usually offers numerous opportunities for other interesting adventures. It does this without forcing the GM’s hand on any particular issue, particularly since it takes an hour to cast, costs 100 gp, and requires the particularly ghoulish task of using a corpse’s skin as the map. Sometimes, however, there is just no way around it: the evil cultist who worships the mad artifact as a god certainly considers it to be the most valuable treasure in the area, for instance. In these cases, one countermeasure that also protects against various other divinations is to ensure that the villain’s underlings have some level of misinformation, or no information at all. For instance, the cult leader might allow her lackeys to believe that the artifact is always housed within their secret but insecure temple, while in reality, she usually switches it for an elaborately trapped fake. Since create treasure map can’t account for inconsistencies or holes in a creature’s knowledge, even blindfolding cult members or using teleportation to bring them to the worship chamber would prevent them from leaking its secret location.

Enchantments

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 157
The main danger with enchantments lies in removing agency from a character, either a PC or NPC, and the main difficulty in running them is adjudicating just how much they do so. As such, they are much easier to deal with than divinations, as they have less variety in the difficulties that arise. In all cases, a DC 25 (or lower) Sense Motive check notices that someone is enchanted. (See Skills in Conflict for more information on using Sense Motive to detect enchantment.)

Charm Person: The main thing to remember about charm magic is that it is not a compulsion (that is a different subschool of enchantment), which means it doesn’t directly force someone to do something. Instead, the spell basically makes someone feel like the caster is a friend, and puts what the caster says in the best possible light. Just like in the Diplomacy section of Skills in Conflict, being someone’s friend doesn’t mean the caster gets to dictate everything they do, and even the opposed Charisma check the spell grants can only go so far; it doesn’t compel them to act exactly as the caster desires.

For instance, an evil necromancer might be willing to allow her friend to sit as her new right hand, but she won’t quit her entire life’s goal just because a friend asked, even with an opposed Charisma check. This advice applies equally as well to other charm spells (such as charm animal and charm monster).

Suggestion: Suggestion and its ilk, on the other hand, actually are mind-controlling spells. The key to suggestion is that it has to be presented in a reasonable fashion—and certain suggestions would simply never be reasonable for the target in question. The more creative the player, or the sharper his understanding of an NPC’s motivations, the more often he can use this spell to his advantage. Players should be rewarded for this type of ingenuity, especially at lower levels when suggestion is one of the most powerful spells available. In mid-level play (or for a resourceful low-level villain), adversaries might start to succeed at Sense Motive checks to notice suggestion effects, potentially using protection from evil or similar spells to either protect against them or end ongoing compulsions.

Illusions

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 158
Illusions are a staple of fantasy, and there are two main things to consider when adjudicating them at all levels of play: first, the different subschools of illusion, and second, disbelief and interaction. Once you are familiar with those, you will be set for handling illusions at all levels of play.

Subschools: The three most easily confused subschools of illusion are figment, glamer, and phantasm. Figment spells, such as silent image, create wholly new sensory effects anyone can sense, even a mindless creature. The similar glamer subschool includes spells that change the way creatures sense something that already exists, such as disguise self and silence. Phantasms, in contrast to the first two, are all in a creature’s mind, and thus don’t work on mindless creatures.

There are other subschools of illusion, such as patterns and shadow, but they tend to be easier to distinguish from each other, since patterns are typically light-based spells that impose conditions on enemies and shadow spells usually create shadows or quasi-real effects.

Disbelief and Interaction: All three of the subschools above tend to have saving throw lines that say “Will disbelief,” but they differ in how those saving throws apply.

Phantasms directly assail a creature’s mind, so the creature automatically and immediately receives a saving throw to disbelieve a phantasm. Figments and glamers, however, have the more difficult-to-adjudicate rule that creatures receive a saving throw to disbelieve only if they “interact” with the illusion.

But what does it mean to interact with an illusion? It can’t just mean looking at the illusion, as otherwise there would be no need to make the distinction, but drawing the line can be a bit tricky. Fortunately, the rules can help to define that difference. A creature that spends a move action to carefully study an illusion receives a Will saving throw to disbelieve that illusion, so that is a good benchmark from which to work.

Using that as a basis, interacting generally means spending a move action, standard action, or greater on a character’s part. For example, if there were a major image of an ogre, a character who tried to attack the ogre would receive a saving throw to disbelieve, as would a character who spent 1 minute attempting a Diplomacy check on the ogre. A character who just traded witty banter with the ogre as a free action would not, nor would a character who simply cast spells on herself or her allies and never directly confronted the illusory ogre. For a glamer, interacting generally works the same as for a figment, except that the interaction must be limited to something the glamer affects. For instance, grabbing a creature’s ear would be an interaction for a human using disguise self to appear as an elf, but not for someone using a glamer to change his hair color. Similarly, visually studying someone would not grant a save against a glamer that purely changed her voice.

Necromancy

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 158
There are a few necromancy spells that are similar enough to divinations that their information-gathering ability is worth considering.

Speak with Dead: This spell—and other similar spells such as call spirit—operate much like spells such as speak with animals, allowing the caster to talk with a witness who is otherwise inaccessible.

This might seem like a surefire way to ruin any murder mystery, but there are mitigating factors that need to be taken into account. First, the corpse’s knowledge is limited to what the creature knew while it was alive. A murderer’s best recourse to avoiding this spell is using a disguise or stealth, so that the victim doesn’t learn the killer’s identity. Second, if the corpse is in no condition to speak, that stops speak with dead (though there are spells that can repair a corpse). Third, the spell allows a saving throw, and whether or not it succeeds, the spell fails for the next week, so a murderer can cast speak with dead herself to forestall future castings. Such precautions on the part of the murderer, however, give the PCs more information about her, so it advances the plot and the investigation in an interesting way. Finally, the corpse’s answers are brief, cryptic, and repetitive; a corpse could provide an interesting clue that furthers the investigation, rather than allowing the PCs to abruptly solve the whole thing.