Understanding Divination Magic
The School of Divination is home to magic that reveals information. I like to think of it as the Google of magic. It’s like saying, “Hey, Siri!” and being answered by the Weave itself. This could look like reading a target’s mind to learn something, or it could be letting the Weave bring that knowledge to you from the world around you.
Of course, this school of magic does more than just gather information. Divination magic allows you to know how to do things you wouldn’t normally be able to do, such as understand languages you haven’t studied or speak to animals.
Some spells allow you to commune with the divine and get glimpses of the future. While these spells don’t usually do direct damage themselves, some of them allow the user to gain a greater insight into their target’s abilities and defenses so that their attacks will hit harder and more frequently.
If you are lost, looking for something or someone, searching for secrets long forgotten, or just curious about what might happen if you take a certain path, this is the school of magic for you. Boundless information is at the tips of the fingers of the mage who has mastered divination magic.
What makes Divination Magic Different from other Schools
The School of Divination is one of the least aggressive schools of magic out there. Although it can be used to do great harm, it’s generally what you do with the information you’ve gleaned rather than the spell itself that does that harm. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, but that is how the majority of the spells are designed.
Like the School of Enchantment, divination magic is magic of the mind. But where the School of Enchantment seeks to establish mental connections and influence the intentions of the target, the School of Divination uses the Weave to connect and communicate.
It does not charm, frighten, or influence other creatures in any way.
For example, spells such as beast bond or speak with animals don’t make the animal like you, they only allow you to communicate with the creature. It’s up to your own natural charms to make friends.
Because of the nature of Divination magic, these spells tend to be less flashy than spells from some of the other schools of magic. However just because they don’t have as much razzle-dazzle to them doesn’t mean you have nothing to work with when it comes to creating vivid descriptions for your world.
When a caster uses a Divination spell, they are glimpsing the Weave itself, tugging it into their mind to comprehend the impossible. The way you convey this divine knowledge is limited only by your own imagination.
How to Use Divination Magic in your World
On a mechanical level, the School of Divination can cause your games some serious problems. There are few things that kill intrigue in my game faster than spells like detect magic, detect evil and good, or even identify.
It is hard to create mystery when a player can use a spell slot to circumvent it. So when it comes to using divination magic, you’ll need to learn to walk the line of suspense and while still being fair to the player who was clever enough to use the right spell at the right moment. Here are some things to bear in mind when dealing with these spells.
First, know what the spell says it does, and do it. Unless you have established a homebrew rule ahead of time, your player is casting the spell and expecting the results to pan out exactly as the spell description says it will. They won’t appreciate a mystery if their spell should have solved that mystery for them.
On the other hand, every spell has its limits.
Find traps, for example, only detects hidden and harmful environmental effects that were put there on purpose. It does not sense natural wear and tear on a rickety bridge over a chasm of darkness in a dungeon.
Commune allows your player to speak directly to their character’s deity but points out that deities are not omniscient. So even though you must give a truthful answer, there are some things the deity may not know, forcing it to give an “unclear” answer.
And of course, just because certain spells reveal answers about the future doesn’t mean that those answers are set in stone. Destiny is something that is malleable in D&D. There are many things that can alter the course of fate, including the choices your players make and the roll of the dice. Something that is true in one moment may not be true in the next, depending on how things have changed.
These ambiguities are the areas in which your intrigue will thrive, but there are other ways to hide things from divine sight. Some magic items, such as the Amulet of Proof against Detection and Location (see my article all about Abjuration magic and how it can protect the mystery of your campaign!) will protect the wearer from Divination magic.
Other things, such as enough stone or metal, will block the effects of spells like detect magic. These are important details to remember, not so you can thwart your players with the rules, but so you can build the narrative and setting of your world.
If you stop and think about it, the School of Divination is home to some scary spells. Anyone with enough talent, determination, or money, can just...know things about you. Deeply personal things, such as your inner thoughts and your exact location. This is creepy on a personal level, and potentially catastrophic on a global level.
As you fill your world with powerful NPCs and world influencers, consider how they might protect themselves from magical spying.
Monarchs don’t want just anyone to be able to listen in on their council rooms. How do they protect their important secrets from unscrupulous wizards? Is it more feasible to employ other magical means of defense or good old-fashioned lead-lined walls? It all depends on the setting you create, and the resources your NPC would have access to.
Of course, divination magic doesn’t only have to be a problem for you as the DM to solve.
The School of Divination can be used to reveal hidden mysteries that you do want your players to know, but don’t have an easy way for them to discover. Allowing the players to have access to knowledge or experience visions from beyond the Material Plane can create easy plot hooks or motivations for characters to act on.
Perhaps there is a “prophet for profit” who can say just enough to interest your players in a certain course of action without giving the whole story away. Or maybe the use of detect thoughts during an interrogation reveals the target is worried about far more than just what is about to happen to them if they don’t talk.
In a world where the “internet is magic,” there is no reason you can’t put this magic to work to bolster your story and move your plot along.
Common Divination Spells
The School of Divination is home to 32 spells according to the D&D 5e Spells app, but that doesn’t mean this school is less impressive than the others. What these spells lack in damage-dealing they make up for in utility. These spells tend to fall into one of 4 categories.
The most common use of the School of Divination that I have seen in my games is in the casting of spells such as detect magic, detect evil and good, and find traps. All of these spells use the Weave to sense something that is otherwise hidden from the mortal eye.
These spells make dungeon crawling and adventuring just a little bit safer, allowing your characters to sense and prepare for danger before they fall into it.
Other spells which would fall under this category are things like locate object or locate animals or plants, which allow you to find things you are familiar with by concentrating. These spells may not always be helpful in a fight, but they are certainly helpful during travel scenes or when you run low on a resource you need to find.
Divination spells that let you “know things” are spells such as detect thoughts, identify, comprehend languages, and clairvoyance. Each of these spells works differently, but all of them give the caster knowledge magical knowledge they did not previously possess.
Detect thoughts, for example, allows the mage to read surface-level thoughts of a target or even delve a little deeper if the target fails their saving throw.
Identify is a spell that reveals the exact nature and use of magical objects. Great for avoiding cursed items!
Comprehend languages allows the user to understand languages they haven’t studied, though it does not allow them to speak it.
Finally, clairvoyance creates an invisible sensor that can either see or hear whatever is around it as if you were in the location yourself.
Another spell I would add to the list of “knowing” spells is mind spike, which is one of the few spells in the School of Divination that does direct damage.
If the target fails its wisdom saving throw, it takes 3d8 psychic damage (more at higher levels). In addition, for the duration of the spell, the caster always knows the location of the target so long as they remain on the same plane of existence.
The target cannot hide from the mage or turn invisible.
It’s a brutal way to play Hide and Seek.
Communing with things:
Many of the spells on the School of Divination list allow you to gain knowledge by communing with other forces or beings. These are spells such as speak with animals, beast bond, augury, commune, and commune with nature.
Both speak with animals and beast bond allow the caster to connect with animals either verbally or mentally, and communicate with them in their respective ways.
In the case of speak with animals, the user learns to speak a language the animal can converse with them as though they were conversing with a person, though the animal’s knowledge is limited by their own intelligence and the DM’s discretion.
Beast bond only allows for the transference of simple concepts and emotions, though it does give the animal advantage on attacks within 5 feet of you.
Augury is an example of spells that contact higher beings for insight on future plans. In the case of augury, the mage uses some sort of divination tool, such as jeweled rods or tarot cards, to receive an omen of good or bad fortune.
Interested in how to use this kind of divination in a game? Curse of Strahd is a great example! Check out my article of Card Readings in Curse of Strahd and use it as a guideline for creating fortunes in your own game!
There are other spells like augury, such as commune, which create a direct link between the caster and their deity for more specific input.
Commune with nature is like commune, except instead of contacting a deity the user becomes “one with the force of nature.” This spell gives knowledge of the surrounding territory and landscape up to 3 miles or 300 feet if you are underground.
Not only does it reveal the topography, it also tells you what is on the land, such as people, fey, fiends, and notable resources.
Getting Insight on things:
The last notable subset of the School of Divination can be described as spells that give insight. These are spells like guidance, true strike, and gift of alacrity.
Guidance and true strike are both cantrips that give the target of the spell an advantage over their circumstance or enemies.
In the case of guidance, the term “advantage” is used as a flavor term, not a mechanic term. The willing creature affected by this spell can add 1d4 to an ability check of their choice. Because of the name of the spell and the school of magic it is categorized as I like to think of this effect as the result of divine insight imparted by the magic.
In the case of true strike, “advantage” is a mechanical term. When cast, the user gains magical insight into their target’s defenses, which gives them actual advantage on their first attack roll against the target.
As for gift of alacrity, this might seem like an odd spell to place under this category. All it does is grant a willing creature an extra 1d8 to their initiative roll. But because initiative is how fast one responds to danger, I would argue that the effect of this spell is some sort of divine insight that allows the target of the spell to react faster than normal.
Common Divination Items
Although magic items in D&D 5e don’t belong to any particular school according to the rules, there are several items that are clearly meant to belong to the School of Divination. Some of them are items that literally cast divination spells, while others just follow the rules of divination magic by revealing information. Here are a few of my favorites.
Medallion of Thoughts (wondrous item, uncommon):
The Medallion of Thought is an item that simply casts one of the spells from the School of Divination. It carries with it three charges of detect thoughts, and regains 1d3 expended charges at dawn.
This item would be a great gift to your player who likes to do the interrogating or investigating but didn’t pick a high charisma character or a caster with access to the spell. It adds a new level to that aspect of the game that they could really dig into.
Lantern of Revealing (wondrous item, uncommon):
The Lantern of Revealing is a hooded lantern that can burn for six hours. It sheds 30 feet of bright light which reveals all invisible creatures or objects.
This item would be a great gift to your players if you are planning to send them on fey adventures, as many of the fey creatures are able to turn invisible.
It would also be helpful in Underdark situations where darkness naturally hides an enemy. The lantern can be used to reveal things to those who lack dark vision while also adding the extra benefit of revealing anything that hides in more than the dark. The lantern can also be dimmed so that any of the players who want to take advantage of invisibility are still able to do so.
Crystal Ball (wondrous item, very rare or legendary):
While this item isn’t exactly “common,” it is the first item that comes to mind when I think of divination items. Even the item’s description assumes that, by describing the item as a “typical crystal ball.” You know, just your average, daily, run-of-the-mill very rare magic item. Everyone knows that.
Mechanically, the Crystal Ball allows the user to cast the scrying spell with a DC17 save. There are three legendary variants of the ball, all of which fall into the divination school of magic.
The first is the Crystal Ball of Mind Reading, which allows you to cast detect thoughts while scrying. While using the spell this way, the user doesn’t need to maintain concentration on detect thoughts to keep it active.
The second legendary variant of this magic item is the Crystal Ball of Telepathy. This item lets the user cast telepathy through the scrying. While the spell telepathy is itself an evocation, there are several telepathy-like spells on the divination list to keep this magic on brand.
Not only does the Crystal Ball of Telepathy let the user commune with others through the use of its magic, it also allows you to cast suggestion once a day, again with a DC17 save. Talk about a seriously scary item!
The third variant is the Crystal Ball of True Seeing, which does exactly what it sounds like. While scrying, the caster has true sight within 120 feet of the spell’s sensor. After the flare of the telepathy ball, that might not seem like much. But there is something to be said for being extra sure what is in the Big Bad’s lair before you go marching in.
There are LOTs of varients to the Crystal Ball, so feel free to create your own! A unquie one I really like is the Crystal Ball of Thieving from Dungeon Strugglers on Patreon. They make really cool homebrew items with unique art, so be sure to check them out!
The Crystal Ball and all of its variants are obviously extremely powerful magic items. I would be very cautious about giving it to players, and would perhaps be more prone to lend it or allow them to pay an NPC for the services of one.
If you do want to allow one to fall into the hands of your players, bear in mind that these are very high level spells that the ball can cast. I would save it as a reward for late-game, high level players who are facing incredibly tough challenges.
Describing Divination Magic in Your World
Since Divination magic is mostly invisible magic, it can be more difficult to describe the way this magic appears in your world. That being said, one of my absolute favorite descriptions of magic found in the Player’s Handbook (page 205) is in regards to describing spells from this school of magic.
It reads, “When characters use divination spells such as detect magic or identify, they glimpse the Weave.” What an incredibly beautiful way to describe the interface between spell casting and the Weave! With that in mind let’s take a look at some ideas for describing magic from the School of Divination.
As quoted above, those who use divination magic have the ability to glimpse the Weave. We’ll take detect magic as an example for visual uses of divination magic.
Imagine that your players have used detect magic on an interesting ring they have just found. They are delighted to discover that it is, indeed, a magic ring, and they naturally want to know what school of magic is associated with it.
Now, magic items are not actually required to have a school of magic in D&D 5e. So if you have something like a Ring of Warmth and on the spot you can’t decide if it belongs in the School of Evocation (because it manipulates the Weave to keep you warm) or the School of Abjuration (because it protects you from the cold) you could just say it doesn’t have a school.
But that could be disappointing to the wizard who wants to know more about this cool magic item they just found. So instead of just saying “it’s from the School of Evocation” or “there’s no school associated,” you have the opportunity to describe how the ring is interacting with the Weave.
Perhaps you can describe how the threads of the Weave are pulled into the gem of the ring and pulse out in shimmering waves, like heat waves in the desert. Or, perhaps you see the Weave twisting around the ring and emanating as a protective shield, repelling the cool air away from the item or attuned user.
If that seems like too much detail to give the players unless they cast identify, you can always simplify it. The evocation item just changes the effect of the Weave around it, whereas the abjuration item forms a barrier.
There’s no need to go into detail of what precisely the barrier seems to repel. Either way, it creates a much more interesting encounter than a simple, “yep, it’s magical. Feels abjuration-y.”
Since most of the effects of divination magic are described as invisible, sound descriptions are a great way to add flavor to this school of magic. So much of the way we learn and process information comes from what we hear.
There is more to the sound of the School of Divination than just the silly voices we create whenever our druid casts speak with animals. Consider describing the sensation of a player casting clairvoyance.
They are suddenly being able to hear in another room as if they stood there themselves. There could be a little crackle or pop as ‘connection’ gets established. Or, in a less serious game, maybe the whole dial-up internet spiel. (provided your group is old enough to know what that is….gosh, I am getting old..)
From the ethereal whispers of the otherworldly murmuring knowledge into your mind to the way a comprehended language manifests to the ear of those under the influence of the Weave, there are countless creative ways to describe the sound of this invisible magic!
Scent is another great way to describe divination magic. I like to use this sense when it comes to describing spells such as Detect Evil and Good or Detect Poison or Disease.
Since Detect Evil and Good senses specific types of creatures, it’s easy to describe the knowledge obtained by an aura of scent. A room might reek of rot or brimstone when a fiend or undead is nearby.
Or, the pleasant scent of nutmeg and spice could accompany the presence of a fey. The Paladin’s built in version of this spell, divine sense, actually describes the knowing of evil as a noxious odor.
Just like Detect Evil and Good, I also use scent to describe the different types of poison or disease a creature is suffering from. Depending on the effects, I flavor the scent to give as much helpful information as I can. A feverish disease will smell acidic, a wasting disease will smell like decay, etc.
Some poisons come from certain creatures, like the toxins of a vibrant colored frog from the jungles. In those case, I would tell the player the recognize the scent of the exoctic flowers and know that this toxin came from that specific type of creature.
Feeling is probably the easiest descriptor of divination magic to describe, because so much of what is learned through this art is based on “feeling.” You get a sense of the thoughts or emotions shared between others.
You gain divine “insight” to the weaknesses or locations of your target. While these senses are different from the traditional way we describe the sense of touch, they might still translate into touchy-feely adjectives.
For example, let’s look at commune with nature. This spell gives information about the lay of the land. In this spell alone, you could lend your description to all five senses. The smell of fresh water, the sound of marching enemies. You could describe the sight of it all as though the player were having an out of body experience.
But for me, the real gem of this spell is describing the way the land feels. The caster becomes one with nature, according to the spell description. This leaves it open to rich interpretation. Instead of feeling their own flesh and blood, the player is suddenly engulfed in the sense of being made from stone and earth.
They feel the valleys and mountains as the contours of their own bodies, get the sense of the cool streams running along their skin. The cool breeze might cool their own temperature. Or, a magma pit might make them feverish. Whatever the land looks like, you can use the sense of touch to personify the experience to your caster.
Taste is always a hard sense to describe, especially when it comes to intangible magic such as divination. But though it might take a little more creative effort on your part, the extra dimension it brings to the game will be well worth it.
Our sense of taste is so closely related to the sense of smell that the descriptions could be very similar. Perhaps the scent of noxious fumes that accompanies evil might bring with it the taste of iron in the mouth.
If the scent of spices indicates a fey is in the room, perhaps the bitter taste that accompanies it tells you the fey might have nefarious intentions whereas a sugary sweetness might put you less on edge.
Combining these two senses this way is a fun way to give more vivid flavor (all pun absolutely intended) to your games. If you wanted, you could even create a whole flavor pallet for magic, so that detect magic and identify reveal their schools of magic by giving the caster an impression of taste. Just make sure your players are aware of the magic pallet you’ve established for the game, and even invite them into the fun of helping you to create it.
Until next time, my friends,
May your game have advantage!