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D&D 5E Detect Thoughts as an interrogation tool

Nebulous

Legend
PCs have the baddie tied up and questioning him while the bard has Detect Thoughts going. What is the difference between surface thoughts and deeper probe that should allow a save to resist? They're asking him detailed stuff, such as "Who do you work for?" The baddie doesn't want to answer them, but of course he thinks "Mr. Redbeard." Said baddie is also a wizard familiar with magic and knows the PCs have magic.
 

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turnip_farmer

Adventurer
PCs have the baddie tied up and questioning him while the bard has Detect Thoughts going. What is the difference between surface thoughts and deeper probe that should allow a save to resist? They're asking him detailed stuff, such as "Who do you work for?" The baddie doesn't want to answer them, but of course he thinks "Mr. Redbeard." Said baddie is also a wizard familiar with magic and knows the PCs have magic.

If you don't want to just hand over all the info too easily, then the familiar is trained in this kind of stuff; so he's keeping his surface thoughts focused wholly on something innocuous. Perhaps a puzzle or some repetitive mantra. Give him his save; and remember that then he gets a contested intelligence check to stop the spell.
 

Dioltach

Legend
"Ohshitohshitohshitohshit, I hope I don't tell them anything otherwise the boss is going to be sooooo angry, don't think about the boss he's going to hurt me so bad like he did with the others, chopped off their toes and their ears and their fingers and then summoned a swarm and healed them with the insects still inside, I hope I don't tell them anything otherwise the boss will do the same to me ..."
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Detect thoughts is useful for interrogation when the target doesn't know they are being interrogated, or the target knows little about magic.

So, how smart, knowledgeable, and paranoid is the target?

The GM gets to answer those questions, but if it figures out this spell might be used, it should be singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or something to itself over and over any time the PCs are asking it questions, completely ignoring what they PCs say, so that its surface thoughts are not steered in any direction. Singing it very loudly, in fact, may help the target to not hear the questions in the first place.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I have one player who uses detect thoughts not exactly as an interrogation tool, but as a way to ... make sure the information he gets is the correct information. He casts detect thoughts on himself, then engages the target in a casual conversation that is at least adjacent to what he wants to know about. He keeps to surface thoughts only, and is mostly interested in inconsistencies between the surface thoughts and the spoken words. These days, while we're gaming on Discord, the spoken conversation is audio while the surface thoughts are in a text channel. It's a little slower (because I cannot type something different than what I'm saying, while I'm talking) but it works pretty well.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
Questions verbally directed at the target creature naturally shape the course of its thoughts, so this spell is particularly effective as part of an interrogation.
True, but this really depends on the baddie.

A flunkie may well give away the game with their thoughts.

But a seasoned operative, in a world where this kind of tactic is expected, could very well "think" false information. Say one thing and think something else, for example, so the characters assume they really have something. It would be kind of lie detector tests are now, not nearly as reliable as many people think!

Familiars can be pretty cunning, and this one knows its way around magic. It could certainly think false thoughts because it suspects this would throw the PCs off. Bonus is the PCs are likely to think the familiar isn't cunning enough to misdirect like that, and if they do - well good on them!
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Questions verbally directed at the target creature naturally shape the course of its thoughts, so this spell is particularly effective as part of an interrogation.
Yep, so I'm inclined to give the interrogation the benefit of the doubt and give up information as it comes up in the target's mind, unbidden.
That said, the target does know they're being probed and can take an action to try to expel the unwanted mental eavesdropper. So the spell may be effective for a while, but may not be counted on for long. So, ask the important questions right up front rather than trusting to maintain the connection.
 

Nebulous

Legend
Familiars can be pretty cunning, and this one knows its way around magic. It could certainly think false thoughts because it suspects this would throw the PCs off. Bonus is the PCs are likely to think the familiar isn't cunning enough to misdirect like that, and if they do - well good on them!
It's not a familiar; it's a wizard. I said earlier it was a wizard "familiar" with magic, as in acquainted.
 

Nebulous

Legend
I will offer a bit more detail for people. Remember, I'm trying to figure out for myself and my players (them especially) what is the fine line between surface thoughts and probing thoughts. Once they dig deeper the spell can end with a Wis save and/or Int. Just probing too deep ends the spell.

1) What is the chain of command in your organization? 2) Who do you report to?

Merely asking the question provokes a mental image in the interrogee. If you say "Don't think of pink elephants" you would instantly think of a pink elephant. The wizard doesn't want to divulge any of this, but the players are saying that their line of questioning evokes a surface thought the spell picks up on. I'm just trying to find some clarification so that as the group moves forward we're on the same page. The player himself wanted to make sure we're doing it right.
 

Yes, saying certain questions out loud might provoke something to appear in surface thoughts. In a modern context I might say, "What's the PIN for your bank card?" and it might pop up your mind.
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
The player himself wanted to make sure we're doing it right.
Ah, well. That's where you're going wrong. There is no right. Either the information is there in the surface thoughts because he's being reminded of it; his thoughts are distracted by something else and he's not really focusing on their questioning; or he's consciously focusing on something (like Umbran's nursery rhyme) to intentionally avoid this kind of approach. This is up to you to decide.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
A couple of thoughts.

1) It kinda sounds as though you're wanting to run it as a set of opposed checks of some kind. That's ... plausible, especially since the subject knows the spell has been cast. I'd think there's be some sort of advantage (or maybe even Advantage) for being able to read the surface thoughts.

2) If this technique is well-known in the setting, it seems as though organizations wishing to remain covert will develop ways of working around it. Cut-outs, disguises, and similar approaches seem probable. If someone doesn't know who his boss is, he can't tell anyone.

Neither of those thought may be relevant to OP, of course.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
I will offer a bit more detail for people. Remember, I'm trying to figure out for myself and my players (them especially) what is the fine line between surface thoughts and probing thoughts. Once they dig deeper the spell can end with a Wis save and/or Int. Just probing too deep ends the spell.

1) What is the chain of command in your organization? 2) Who do you report to?

Merely asking the question provokes a mental image in the interrogee. If you say "Don't think of pink elephants" you would instantly think of a pink elephant. The wizard doesn't want to divulge any of this, but the players are saying that their line of questioning evokes a surface thought the spell picks up on. I'm just trying to find some clarification so that as the group moves forward we're on the same page. The player himself wanted to make sure we're doing it right.
Ok:

1. So with surface thoughts - no WIS save in play yet;
2. The wizard knows/understands this kind of spell;

I would think the wizard is "on guard" and could very well interject false or misleading thoughts. Sure, normaly when you say "who's your boss" he might think it, but here he might very well misdirect and similar for other questions.

I still think the type of target matters. And a wizard, familiar with this magic - you believe at your own risk.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
A couple of thoughts.

1) It kinda sounds as though you're wanting to run it as a set of opposed checks of some kind. That's ... plausible, especially since the subject knows the spell has been cast. I'd think there's be some sort of advantage (or maybe even Advantage) for being able to read the surface thoughts.

2) If this technique is well-known in the setting, it seems as though organizations wishing to remain covert will develop ways of working around it. Cut-outs, disguises, and similar approaches seem probable. If someone doesn't know who his boss is, he can't tell anyone.

Neither of those thought may be relevant to OP, of course.

That's true: This is exactly where skills like deception (for the WIzard) and insight, for the characters would come into play.
 

Dausuul

Legend
I ban this type of spell in my own games, but if I were running a campaign that allowed them, I would say a subject who is familiar with detect thoughts can "guard their thoughts," filling their minds with repetitive surface thoughts (per @Umbran) and forcing a save to get any information at all.

To prevent "I'm always guarding my thoughts!" I would rule that doing this requires your whole attention. Your ability to make conversation is limited to absent, automatic responses--anyone talking to you can easily tell that you aren't listening--and you have disadvantage on all ability checks.

(However, this is not concentration and cannot be disrupted like disrupting a spell. If you hurt somebody who's guarding their thoughts, it actually helps them, because now they can focus on the pain.)
 


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