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5E Zone of Truth Interrogations

BookTenTiger

Adventurer
Zone of Truth is the kind of spell I love, love, love. It has zero combat use, but adds a bit of crunch to social situations.

For the last few sessions, the characters in my campaign have been assisting Goldberry, a Tortle storyteller and bard who is the servant of a powerful vampire lord. Goldberry wears a magic silver collar that prevents him from speaking ill of his vampiric masters. Otherwise he's a pretty great guy.

After a bunch of treasure-hunting and crustacean combats on an island, the characters made camp and decided to interrogate Goldberry. They cast Zone of Truth and asked him questions about his vile master.

Goldberry failed his saving throw. For 10 minutes, he still couldn't say anything unkind about his master, because of his magic collar, but he also couldn't lie. And his master is not a good vampire.

It was a blast! He had to stop talking so many times because he couldn't say anything bad and also couldn't say anything good. There were a lot of vague answers, and even more fill in the blanks.

PC: "Does your master have any weaknesses?"
Goldberry: "My master has no... er, my master is... My master greatly desires the finest things in the valley..."

My favorite question was:

PC: If your master had a twin who was the exact opposite, what would that twin's greatest strength be?

It was a lot of fun.

What are your group's experiences with Zone of Truth or other social pillar spells?
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I am left wondering why Goldberry put up with that. It may have been fun from an outside perspective, but it was probalby unpleasant for the tortle.

The most common experience I have seen with Zone of Truth is... that it is actually only as trustworthy as the person casting it.

The second most common experience I have seen with it is that people forget that it is an area of effect spell, not targeting an individual. While you can cast it from 60 feet away, folks rarely like to shout their questions across a large chamber, so they stand right next to the subject... and are thus caught in the Zone and fail saving throws when the person asking the questions then wants to say something untrue.
 

BookTenTiger

Adventurer
I am left wondering why Goldberry put up with that. It may have been fun from an outside perspective, but it was probalby unpleasant for the tortle.
Goldberry's a good sport, and also needed a ride off the island. I mean, I've put up with some awkward conversations when I needed a ride somewhere. 😁
 

TaranTheWanderer

Adventurer
I've used it. I tend to use lots of question avoidance techniques, like a politician. I find it useful to cast because I can say, "hey, I'm in it too and I won't lie, so you don't have to."

Are you working for >>bad guy<<?

"You would think so."
or
"I wish!"

Both neutral statements that appear to say 'no' but don't quite answer the question and allow for the use of deception vs insight to pass the comment off as truth.

Using the politician's ability to circumvent the actual question by talking about something else that is, seemingly, related us useful too...and burns the duration of the spell.

Yes and no questions are harder to avoid but can, often, limit the information you get.
 

MarkB

Legend
If you're clever and convincing, you can get away with a lot by speaking in non sequiturs and at cross purposes.

"What is your master like?"
"Simon is a wise and kindly old man. Many times he's given me good advice when I was at a loss. "

You weren't answering the question - you were ignoring it while you reminisced out loud about a friend you knew in your youth. Better still, if anyone does now ask you questions specifically about Simon, you can answer them truthfully while still being deceptive, because they don't know you're talking about the wrong person.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Like a lot of people I have a love/hate relationship with Zone of Truth. On the one hand, it's kind of annoying in an investigation heavy campaign arc. On the other hand stretching my imagination to figure out how to answer questions in ways that are truthful but misleading can be fun.

So like with the "Does your master have any weaknesses" one response would be that "All creatures have weaknesses, but let me tell you about his strengths!" or "He does have a fondness for lace, even though it is so expensive! You wouldn't believe how much of our household budget he spends on fancy clothes. Don't even get me started on his shoe budget."

Of course, people can just refuse to answer and there are a few ways around the spell. In addition, the target of the spell can only reveal what they know. You can also think of it in terms of what that NPC would consider a weakness. They don't know have access to a MM, people may not even consider sunlight sensitivity a weakness, it's just a trait of all vampires.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I don't end up having interrogation scenes (which can sometimes devolve into torture scenes) in my games chiefly because I make sure that a conflict has obvious motivations and NPCs present relevant information before, during, or after a combat without a lot of prying needed. I also don't run a lot of scenarios that involve interviewing quirky, cagey NPCs.

I did recently use zone of truth in a one-shot in which the PCs were trying to obtain the girdle of Hippolyta. Hippolyta used zone of truth on the PCs as they described their great feats of heroism in order to convince her to give them the girdle so she could make sure they were being truthful. Other than that, because of the above, I never see zone of truth used in my games.
 

FreeTheSlaves

Explorer
My PCs were pressed for time doing cool stuff and accepted an official transcript of an interrogation of a cultist they had captured. The interrogation used Zone of Truth.

They thought the answers were very interesting and revealing of new hooks and leads.

Then one PC realized the Cleric that had cast ZoT was none other than the one he was investigating on suspicion of being in that very cult.

When that penny dropped the collective groan was most pleasing, and notes taken, worthless. Ah, good times.
 

Ideally, there should be a specific protocol for employing detect thoughts and zone of truth in interrogation rooms and courtrooms. First, someone writes out a list of twenty yes-or-no questions on a sheet of paper, all tailored to incisively question a subject at hand. For example, "Did you kill Mr. Marcellusine Roberts?", "Were you within a hundred feet of Mr. Marcellusine Roberts at the time of his death?", "Were you aware of any conspiracy to instigate the death of Mr. Marcellusine Roberts?", "Do you believe that if you were outside of [nation] at the time of Mr. Marcellusine Roberts' death, he would have still died on the same day?", and so on. Below each question are three checkboxes, labeled "Yes," "No," and "No meaningful response."

The subject is scanned and stripped of all magic items and active spells, then brought into the interrogation room or podium. A trusted spellcaster repeatedly casts zone of truth on the subject until it takes hold; if the subject resists every time, the process may have to be postponed to the following day. Then, the same magician or a different one casts detect thoughts. The magician with an active detect thoughts is known as the "empath."

A vetted "questioner" steps in, armed with the sheet of questions. The questioner instructs, "Please answer only in strict yes or no responses. Failure to comply is obstructing a legal proceeding at best, and a sign of guilt at worse." Then, the questioner goes down the list. At no point is the questioner ever to fixate on any one query; they should be time-efficient, keeping to a strict time limit of 30 seconds per question and answer exchange. The questioner checks off each box, recording the results.

Concurrently, the empath types out of the subject's surface thoughts. Where zone of truth forces the target to carefully consider a way to circumvent the inquiries, detect thoughts picks up suspicious trains of logic.

Afterwards, the questioner's sheet and the empath's are brought together and carefully studied, whether by law enforcement officials, or by those in the courtroom. The output is combined with other evidence to hopefully paint a picture of the truth. Any serious criminal is quite aware that a crime that can be rumbled by a single detect thoughts or zone of truth spell is a flimsy crime; thus, criminals often use circuitous methods to conceal the truth. These spells are undoubtedly useful in investigation and in practice of law, but they can merely supplement a more thorough analysis of a crime.

This setup could potentially be useful in an interrogation room or a courtroom. For this, I am picturing a more "modern society by way of magic" setting, such as Eberron, or even certain interpretations of Planescape or Spelljammer.
 

BookTenTiger

Adventurer
One thing I forgot to add in the original post is that Goldberry would be very glad to see his vampire master defeated by these heroes! So it was yet another added motivation to the scene: how does this NPC tell the truth without speaking ill of his master, but still give the characters enough info to defeat the vampire?
 

FreeTheSlaves

Explorer
Yep, our main campaign city has a ZoT protocol requiring involvement of at least 2 of 3: the main church, the crown and the wizard organization.

ZoT by itself won't convict or exonerate, just evidence.

There's an tri-inquisitor (counts as 1 member of any of the 3) that oversees the whole thing. Giving cute and otherwise unsatisfactory answers means more time in the cells waiting for the next ZoT.

(One of the PCs got himself arrested for murder. Was innocent, gave convoluted too-clever-by-half answers, languished briefly in jail before the baron pulled strings to discreetly release him. Was told "Hurry up with the damn mission, man!")
 


Dross

Explorer
From DnD Beyond:

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.


I guess the question becomes, at what stage does evasiveness (non-sequitur, cross purpose) become a lie?

"What is your master like?"
"Simon is a wise and kindly old man. Many times he's given me good advice when I was at a loss. "
Can this be a lie? technically this us the truth, but isn't about the master, as the question that was asked.
but since the reply noted someone specifically "Is Simon the Master?" or similar would clear that up strait away.

I'd learn towards (with maybe a large grey area): if an answer (regardless of how many sentences used to answer the question) leave only an erroneous conclusion, then its a lie.
 
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see

Explorer
Yeah, sure, if you're dealing with careless, inexperienced users of zone of truth (like PCs) you can do some cute tricks with indirection.

On the other hand, a skilled and knowledgeable interrogator won't get tripped up that way easily.

Note, one of the darker implications of zone of truth is that it means torture can reliably extract reliable information. The practical problem with torture is that while it's good at making people talk, it's bad at making them tell the truth; they just say whatever will make the pain stop. The practical problem with zone of truth is that, while it makes sure they can't lie, it can't make them talk. The combination?

Welcome to the interrogation chambers of Mulmaster, where the the inquisitor has long experience asking well-worded questions, the torturer makes sure you will talk, and the zone of truth makes sure you don't lie. And at the end, a caster hits you with detect thoughts just before the inquisitor asks, "What did you not reveal in this interrogation session that you're most desperate to keep undiscovered?"
 

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