Monday, March 2, 2020

Going Through the Spells: Detect Evil

Artwork by Jeff Easley

Up next are the 1st level detect spells, Detect Evil and Detect Magic. I was going to combine them, but I've separated them for a reason. Detect evil is an interesting spell because it is a judgement spell. And in this case, alignments, if you use them, don't come into play. Only the immediate intentions. 

Old School Essentials Mechanics
Duration: 6 turns
Range: 120'
Objects enchanted for evil purposes or living beings with evil intentions are caused to magically glow.
-Intent only: it does not grant the caster the ability to read minds
-Referee must decide what is 'evil'.

An interesting line in the B/X description "The exact definition of 'evil' is left to the referee, and players should discuss this point so all are in agreement; Chaotic isn't always evil."

I'm not sure when this conversation is to occur. Different factors come into play each time Detect Evil is cast. I might explain my interpretation to my players (I might not to be honest). I remember only a few times when this spell was used.

The objects sentence is something I hadn't taken too close a look at until now. It specifically states 'enchanted for evil purposes'. Further description of the spell, traps are not considered good or evil. In the B/X description it states that poison is neither good nor evil. Huh? So I'd interpret this spell as only evil 'magical' items are detected. I would also include obvious evil artifacts from an evil god.

However, I find this description confusing. Interpreting intentions is difficult, even though most everyone on the internet deems themselves experts in this area. Let's say an evil cleric uses this spell. He sees a mother or three standing in a crowd and he is about to select a stone from a bag to determine which child is to be sacrificed to the god of death. She glows. She wants to protect her children and imagines herself slitting the priest's throat. Are her intentions evil? I'd argue no, because it's to protect her children. But the priest would consider her intentions 'evil' because he'd prefer to keep his throat uncarved.

Then there is this bit about glowing. It doesn't specify if it glows for the world to see or if it is only to the caster. As a referee I tend to side with whatever would give my players the advantage, but I rule this one, as in most of the detect spells, only the caster can see the glow. 

Let's take a look at the AD&D version. There are slight, but significant differences.

AD&D Mechanics
Duration: 1 turn + 1/2 turn/level
Range: 12'
Discover emanations of evil, or good in the case of the reverse of the spell, from any creature or object. For example, evil alignment or an evilly curse object will radiate evil, but a hidden trap or unintelligent viper will not. Followed by about 5 sentences giving examples of the duration.

Okay, first of + 1/2 turn/level...really. Come on Gary! But I do enjoy 'evilly'. 

The AD&D version makes a distinction, this spell focuses on the alignment or an evilly object. It is not based on intention. No interpretation needed. Or at least no group confab is needed. And because it is reversible and detects goodly people and objects removes the shades of gray. And there is no glowing. 

But we lose the subtleties. Let me give you a scenario where a neutral NPC loathes one of the PCs. Maybe the PC "accidentally" pissed in his Cheerios or something. The PC being paranoid cast his Detect Evil spell. No evilly detected. Eats his dinner and dies from the poison the Neutral guy slipped in. You could argue that would make the NPC evil, maybe. But not necessarily. Maybe he honestly considered the PC a threat to his safety. Nothing detected, but now the player is throwing d4s across the room because his spell did not warn him. 

I think that version is a little to colored in the lines. Too black and white. I like my gray. 

Here's something you don't hear often. GURPS has a simple solution. Sense Foes.

GURPS Mechanics
Cost: 1(minimum 2)
Range: Area
Tells the caster if the subject has hostile intent, and to what degree. It can be cast on one person or an area. If cast over an area it only detects someone is hostile, but not who. 

Boom. Ambiguity gone. Subtlety remains. There is no need for philosophical discussions about the essence of good and evil. And I like that it tells the caster the degree of hostility. Like the difference of "Fucker took the last jelly doughnut" compared to, "He poisoned my dog."

Sense Foes gets my vote. It fulfills the need that Detect Evil doesn't fulfill.

What say you dear reader? Thoughts? Concerns? Or are you the evilly one in the corner who wants to keep it a secret?


  1. I've never liked the idea of detecting intent for detect evil (at least as a first level spell). That is really what the second level spell ESP is designed for in my book.

    Instead I generally use the definition of "evil" from the AD&D spell protection from evil, as a supernatural being, such as undead, summoned, and conjured beings. And yes, detect evil actually detects "good" as well, but the feeling is quite different. But most clerics are on the look out for evil rather than good, hence the name of the spell.

    In my current game I have Unholy and Holy elemental energies, and detect evil basically detects Unholy energies in a thing, creature, or spell. Holy energies do extra damage against unholy things, and vice versa. [And in keeping with my original interpretation, Holy energies as well.]

    Even if a mortal character is the most homocidal chaotic-evil psychopath imaginable, they won't detect as "evil" unless they have some item, spell effect, or curse that has some sort of unholy connection. Of course if they are that evil then they probably do have some sort detectable effect about them (even if it's just the curse of their victims made manifest). [Or made a bargain with a demon for unholy weaponry that screams as it destroys the souls of it's victims.

  2. Great in depth response. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. That GURPS solution is so elegant. Seems like a no-brainer now.

    1. Yeah, it just makes more sense to me. Easier interpretation.

  4. "Hostile intent" is a good way to go. Determining "Evil" is an issue in a highly individualistic, nominalist society.

  5. When using any of the clerical spells that reference "Evil" I define that in the terms of the Cleric's religion, so different clerics would detect different things. Obviously it comes with a little front end work but anything i can do to make the Cleric feel like a different thing than just a mage with a different spell list feels worthwhile.