D&D 5E Mysteries, Zone of Truth, and Savvy Players?

Quickleaf

Legend
We've started a new campaign, and after their first session my players are set up to investigate a mystery of a stolen auction item. My group is comprised of experienced, clever, genre-savvy players, and everyone has some DMing experience. They're a joy to DM for but also a challenge! B-)

One of the players has access to the zone of truth spell, and he has the authority/permission to use that spell on multiple suspects (provided it's limited to questions pertaining to the investigation). I thought I had the mystery well designed so that zone of truth wouldn't break it, but now that I have more time to reflect on my players' skill level, I may need to think this through more.

In the past, when I've run a mystery for other less experienced players, I was able to use evasive answers and counter-questioning to trip them up with zone of truth. I even managed to confound one experienced player during his first casting of zone of truth (the questioned killer had given the familiar of a spellcaster poison to sprinkle in the drinks of the murdered, claiming it was tea). Those tricks worked because of lack of experience – either generally or with the spell. However, these players are far too experienced to be tripped up so easily.

For instance, I'm fully expecting "answer in yes/no format only" or "repeat after me" strategies.

Have you successfully run a mystery for experienced genre-savvy players? How did you handle intelligent questioning via zone of truth?

EDIT: Adding the spell description of zone of truth for clarity, emphasis mine:

You create a magical zone that guards against deception in a 15-foot-radius sphere centered on a point of your choice within range. Until the spell ends, a creature that enters the spell's area for the first time on a turn or starts its turn there must make a Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, a creature can't speak a deliberate lie while in the radius. You know whether each creature succeeds or fails on its saving throw.
An affected creature is aware of the spell and can thus avoid answering questions to which it would normally respond with a lie. Such a creature can be evasive in its answers as long as it remains within the boundaries of the truth.


EDIT EDIT: Seems like there was some misunderstanding of my intent in posting this question, so I'll share a quote from Gary Gygax (1978) which elucidates my actual intent: “The DM will have to respond to superior play by extending himself or herself to pose bigger and better problems for the party to solve.”
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Iry

Hero
Partially depends on how violent they are, but one good tactic is to overshare. They can give way too much information, including true but trivial things. Then the players need to roll investigation to notice patterns and discern which things out of 20 are important.

Basically, yammer.

Another way is using riddles or prophecy. The answers are true but still require investigation from the players.

A third option is possession. The party starts questioning the suspect and the BBEG assumes direct control. Maybe the suspect shares one or two critical clues before the BBEG kills them for betrayal.

A fourth option can only be done once. The suspect has a magic item that registers everything as a lie. Even the truth. Even sense motive. It's all comes up as lies.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Solving the mystery is really only the beginning of the adventure (or should be, as I see it). What the PCs do after solving it is more important in my view. So I wouldn't worry about trying to work against their zone of truth spells. Sure, have the guy who clams up and refuses to answer questions or the guy who won't give a straight answer - then the social interaction challenge become how to deal with that. But really what I would do is try to build up the scenario such that sinking all those 2nd-level spell slots is a trade-off against having more resources available for whatever horrible events follow.
 

Big Bucky

Explorer
To be honest I would just ask my players what they want to do. Its reasonable to just say we’re not going to use that spell because solving a mystery that way isn’t as much fun. Or maybe they’ll say they like using it and will still enjoy the adventure if the mystery gets “ruined”. You can handle it in game by the ways you mentioned but that sort of thing always feels like when the BBEG happens to have the perfect resistance to negate your cool ability. It just feels cheap imo.
 

jgsugden

Legend
One approach - put yourself in the perspective of the villain and consider what they know. Then use that information to formulate a plan - and if the PCs can easily circumnavigate it, let them. They're heroes. They should win the day.

If this is a situation in which you want them to fail/struggle, the best options are to:

1.) Have multiple parties refuse to answer questions as it invades their privacy.
2.) Make sure the one being interrogated is not going to lie. If they've been deceived by someone else, they may be saying that is false without knowing it - which does not trigger detection.
3.) The Glibness spell is 8th level, but it is exactly what someone needing to tell a believable lie might rely upon. I do not understand why it is 8th level - seems more like a 4th level spell to me. Modify Memory is 5th level and can also be used to hide lies.
4.) If a creature enters the circle and then replaces themself with an illusion while the spell is in effect, the illusion can lie without detection.
5.) Sometimes a creature in magical disguise can give all the right answers.
6.) Double lies. The PCs ask the questions and the target is lying - and they discover that the being under questioning kidnapped the real person that was to be interrogated! They recover the victim - and may not have cause to resume the questioning even though the victim hired the bad guy through an intermediary to kidnap the victim and take their place.
 

Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
Depending upon the exact situation and setting, there might be legal means to avoid questioning for a time or for select suspects (eg, demanding a lawyer/advocate, "pleading the Fifth" if there's such a thing, requirement that a "cleric of Justice" be present, etc.)

Certain effects like illusions, amnesia, or memory alteration by [a rival, item, etc] might mean an interviewee is telling the truth so far as they understand., but that information is, in truth, false. (Perhaps the stolen item is the thing causing the effect.)

A geas on an interviewee to not divulge the truth on certain topics might present an interesting situation for the questioning, too. (Probably wouldn't explode their head, but it's fun to imagine.)
 

Remember that zone of truth does not compel anyone to talk.

If the person being questioned doesn't like the PCs, or mistrusts them, then it is fair for them to just shut their mouth and shake their head. Or maybe they just like privacy. Or perhaps they are guilty of something else unrelated and don't want to incriminate themself.

It is commonly assumed that anyone who talks freely in a zone of truth is innocent and anyone who doesn't is guilty (the "nothing to hide" fallacy). You could plan for this and use it as a way to misdirect the PCs.

Finally, zone of truth is not a reality-checker. If the person believes something to be true then the spell will always show them telling the truth. Perhaps they are simply mistaken. Maybe they were misled by disguise or illusion. Perhaps they have been brainwashed or hypnotised. Perhaps their memory has been altered (modify memory is a spell in 5E).
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Solving the mystery is really only the beginning of the adventure (or should be, as I see it). What the PCs do after solving it is more important in my view. So I wouldn't worry about trying to work against their zone of truth spells. Sure, have the guy who clams up and refuses to answer questions or the guy who won't give a straight answer - then the social interaction challenge become how to deal with that. But really what I would do is try to build up the scenario such that sinking all those 2nd-level spell slots is a trade-off against having more resources available for whatever horrible events follow.

I completely understand you. I know this topic has been raised before, and I recall reading one of your past posts on it, which was very well articulated.

Maybe this is semantics, but I certainly don't think of it as trying to work against my players. Instead, I'm looking for solutions that have worked in your games which say "yes, and" or "yes, but" to the zone of truth spell while still allowing the (highly experienced) players to enjoy the investigation process. I think of it more like playing up to their level.

For comparison, consider: A player picks the ranger class because they want the thrill of exploration. However, the Natural Explorer feature can actually detract from exploration by trivializing it – or rather, requires some clever thought, adaptation, and work-arounds to make it support an exploration heavy game or session. In other words, Natural Explorer works but it's doesn't "feel" right because it avoids the challenge, rather than engaging with it. I believe this view is reflected in feedback WotC has received and discussion from one of the designers (Jeremy Crawford).

Similarly: A player who picks the Observant feat and the zone of truth spell is signaling they want the thrill of investigation, the triumph of solving a mystery through the powers of their deductive reasoning. They don't want an easy victory that's over in 10 minutes without any actual investigation beyond casting a spell, right? At least, that's the case with my group. In the same way that I found creative ways to accommodate the players' desires with Natural Explorer, I'm looking for creative solutions with zone of truth.

Not that we need to agree, but in case my post was unclear, that's the sort of feedback / play reports I'm hoping to get from you wise sages of ENWorld. :)
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I completely understand you. I know this topic has been raised before, and I recall reading one of your past posts on it, which was very well articulated.

Maybe this is semantics, but I certainly don't think of it as trying to work against my players. Instead, I'm looking for solutions that have worked in your games which say "yes, and" or "yes, but" to the zone of truth spell while still allowing the (highly experienced) players to enjoy the investigation process. I think of it more like playing up to their level.

For comparison, consider: A player picks the ranger class because they want the thrill of exploration. However, the Natural Explorer feature can actually detract from exploration by trivializing it – or rather, requires some clever thought, adaptation, and work-arounds to make it support an exploration heavy game or session. In other words, Natural Explorer works but it's doesn't "feel" right because it avoids the challenge, rather than engaging with it. I believe this view is reflected in feedback WotC has received and discussion from one of the designers (Jeremy Crawford).

Similarly: A player who picks the Observant feat and the zone of truth spell is signaling they want the thrill of investigation, the triumph of solving a mystery through the powers of their deductive reasoning. They don't want an easy victory that's over in 10 minutes without any actual investigation beyond casting a spell, right? At least, that's the case with my group. In the same way that I found creative ways to accommodate the players' desires with Natural Explorer, I'm looking for creative solutions with zone of truth.

Not that we need to agree, but in case my post was unclear, that's the sort of feedback / play reports I'm hoping to get from you wise sages of ENWorld. :)

You can also write the mystery such that it can't be solved just by interviewing NPCs so they have to engage in other forms of investigation. Interviewing NPCs will get you part of the way there, but without finding the bloodstained candlestick in the conservatory, you can't pin the murder on Colonel Mustard, a known candlesticks fiend. And none of these witnesses know about any candlesticks.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Depending upon the exact situation and setting, there might be legal means to avoid questioning for a time or for select suspects (eg, demanding a lawyer/advocate, "pleading the Fifth" if there's such a thing, requirement that a "cleric of Justice" be present, etc.)

Certain effects like illusions, amnesia, or memory alteration by [a rival, item, etc] might mean an interviewee is telling the truth so far as they understand., but that information is, in truth, false. (Perhaps the stolen item is the thing causing the effect.)

A geas on an interviewee to not divulge the truth on certain topics might present an interesting situation for the questioning, too. (Probably wouldn't explode their head, but it's fun to imagine.)

That's tricky, because the player in question is pretty much a "cleric of Justice." ;) Not exactly, but close enough for the setting.

So, there's no memory modification magic present in this case. None of the suspects have that capacity, nor would any of their allies at the auction house.

One of the players previously cast detect magic and viewed all the NPCs – who would soon become suspects – and I didn't describe any of them as radiating enchantment magic, so that rules out geas.

I do have a little trick involving illusion in mind... (spoilers in case my players are on here)
The forest gnome suspect will cast minor illusion before entering the zone of truth, being experienced in synching her lips to the minor illusion mimicking her own voice. Passive Investigation does not apply to minor illusion, because it requires taking an action to make an Investigation check – I interpret this to be the 5e version of the old school "you can actively try to disbelieve an illusion." Obviously, there are several ways this could fail or be countered by the players.
 
Last edited:

Hawk Diesel

Adventurer
Partially depends on how violent they are, but one good tactic is to overshare. They can give way too much information, including true but trivial things. Then the players need to roll investigation to notice patterns and discern which things out of 20 are important.

Basically, yammer.

Another way is using riddles or prophecy. The answers are true but still require investigation from the players.

A third option is possession. The party starts questioning the suspect and the BBEG assumes direct control. Maybe the suspect shares one or two critical clues before the BBEG kills them for betrayal.

A fourth option can only be done once. The suspect has a magic item that registers everything as a lie. Even the truth. Even sense motive. It's all comes up as lies.

There's a really good episode of Burn Notice that demonstrates this technique. Luca the Watchmaker/Bombmaker gives Sam Axe a run for his money by providing too much information, but all of it vague and basically continuous misdirects.

Zone of Truth is an interesting spell that can have a lot of world-building consequences, especially if many people exist capable of casting 2nd level spells. One thing to consider is how effective the spell can be when paired with torture. While the spell certainly doesn't compel the target to speak, torture can be really effective in making them speak, with the spell ensuring everything that is said is true. It was something I hadn't considered until a fellow player/DM pointed it out. In his homebrew game world the Great Churches used the combination to weed out heretics.

One thing that could help is to throw in a changeling. Maybe a pair of them even. Their shapechange is mundane rather than magical, meaning it wouldn't show up with magic or normal illusion detection short of true sight. Then the changeling could be truthful in the interrogation, but not point out their disguise, escape after the interrogation, and then basically it's a misdirect because the players are sure it's someone but that person has essentially been framed.

Or it could be that the person who did it was compelled by someone with leverage over him. A kidnapped kid or wife, or something else, and now not only do the PCs need to find the real criminal, but also save the patsy's loved ones.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
Here's one for your justice cleric: there are so many ways (magical and mundane) that zone of truth can be fooled or subverted that statements made under its effect are inadmissable as evidence. So the culprit could actually confess, but unless you have other evidence or some sort of leverage to make them confess while not under the spell, you have to let them go. It would be like hearing someone confess to a crime on a warrantless wiretap -- you know they did it, but unless you can prove it some other way, you can't prosecute them for it.
 


Quickleaf

Legend
Here's one for your justice cleric: there are so many ways (magical and mundane) that zone of truth can be fooled or subverted that statements made under its effect are inadmissable as evidence. So the culprit could actually confess, but unless you have other evidence or some sort of leverage to make them confess while not under the spell, you have to let them go. It would be like hearing someone confess to a crime on a warrantless wiretap -- you know they did it, but unless you can prove it some other way, you can't prosecute them for it.

Oh, definitely!

So the situation is actually not in a court room. It's at an auction – I hope I mentioned that above – specifically a black market auction. The PC in question is posing as a bidder. But the item everyone was bidding on was stolen. The doors are guarded by the auction's leader, so no one goes in or out without a fight. The auction leader is willing to cooperate with the PCs to make sure the culprit is found, so the zone of truth can be used, provided questions stay relevant to the investigation. Hope that clarifies!
 

Zone of Truth is an interesting spell that can have a lot of world-building consequences, especially if many people exist capable of casting 2nd level spells. One thing to consider is how effective the spell can be when paired with torture. While the spell certainly doesn't compel the target to speak, torture can be really effective in making them speak, with the spell ensuring everything that is said is true. It was something I hadn't considered until a fellow player/DM pointed it out. In his homebrew game world the Great Churches used the combination to weed out heretics.
You don't need torture, you just need command, which is conveniently also on the cleric spell list.
 

I would probably have the villain mess with illusions, in order to pin the crime on someone else. You would end up with plenty of witnesses that blame the wrong person, because they swear they saw him commit the crime. The villain could also just refuse to be questioned, and/or provide himself with a credible alibi so the players see no reason to use Zone of Truth on him. Again, illusions can be used to get witnesses to confirm that the villain definitely was somewhere else at the time of the crime. Eye witness testimonies can be unreliable, even when illusions aren't involved.

These sort of mysteries are usually not solved by just determining who is lying. You need to find actual evidence to support people's testimonies. Witnesses can be mistaken regarding who they saw at the scene of the crime, because they didn't get a good look at the suspect, and their memories are unreliable. Only through proper interrogation and investigation can you find out if their testimony is correct. Even with the aid of Zone of Truth, this is still all going to come down to basic detective work.

So as a DM I would recommend to throw in lots of false testimonies, false leads and unreliable witnesses to complicate matters, along with enough clues to sort this whole mess out.
 
Last edited:

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Sorry, but you said this was a black market auction? Why would any of the usual suspects at a black market auction cooperate with magical questioning? Further, it would seem that some might be rather powerful and would react very poorly to being questioned at all.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Zone of Truth is hardly foolproof, as anyone who fails the save is aware and can still choose not to answer.

Anyway, this is certainly not about the DM being confrontational against the players, but it's about the genre of the story. What is the point of a murder mystery if the solution is one push of the right button away? What is the point of watching a mystery movie and clicking on wikipedia to quickly check who's the murderer before the movie resolves? How lovely is it when someone tells you how a movie ends before you watch it?

If I were a player in that adventure, I supposedly agreed that we're interested in discovering the mystery the hard way, so I would not play a PC capable of spoiling it all with a click, or I would pretend to forget I could click that button.
 

Coroc

Hero
We've started a new campaign, and after their first session my players are set up to investigate a mystery of a stolen auction item. My group is comprised of experienced, clever, genre-savvy players, and everyone has some DMing experience. They're a joy to DM for but also a challenge! B-)

One of the players has access to the zone of truth spell, and he has the authority/permission to use that spell on multiple suspects (provided it's limited to questions pertaining to the investigation). I thought I had the mystery well designed so that zone of truth wouldn't break it, but now that I have more time to reflect on my players' skill level, I may need to think this through more.

In the past, when I've run a mystery for other less experienced players, I was able to use evasive answers and counter-questioning to trip them up with zone of truth. I even managed to confound one experienced player during his first casting of zone of truth (the questioned killer had given the familiar of a spellcaster poison to sprinkle in the drinks of the murdered, claiming it was tea). Those tricks worked because of lack of experience – either generally or with the spell. However, these players are far too experienced to be tripped up so easily.

EDIT: For instance, I'm fully expecting "answer in yes/no format only" or "repeat after me" strategies.

Have you successfully run a mystery for experienced genre-savvy players? How did you handle intelligent questioning via zone of truth?

Use a Geas to counter the zone. The stolen artifact has a hidden property to conceal itself with an advanced form of Geas, preventing the NPC who might know meaningful clues to answer directly to questions about its whereabouts, eve nwhen under the influence of zone of truth or charm spells.
(The NPC will take damage if he tries to break the Geas)


Edit: oh I just saw @Theo R Cwithin came up with that idea already
 

In a Players vs DM contest Zone of truth will be almost useless the DM willingly want to give some clue to the players,

If you use the Npc vs Pc point of view, the same contest can give very interesting result, especially if you allow the Npc to have bond, flaws, doubt and fear, and will to save his ass.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top