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Zone of Tedium… The Truth About ZoT!

Recently, I have run two big trial scenes in two separate D&D campaigns.

The first led to one of the most dramatic sessions I have ever run (or so the players who took part told me!), full of twists, turns, revelations and surprises.

The second was full of prevaricating, repetitions, belligerent brow-beating and farcical pretence. I didn’t have to ask what my players thought of it.

The main difference between the two sessions? The first trial was conducted without magic, the second trial was conducted using zone of truth.

Why Is Zone of Truth So Irritating?

I had actually been looking forward to running zone of truth for the first time in a high stakes environment, as somehow it had never come up, in a clutch situation, in any of my many games as player or DM.

In this instance, the players were about to question one of Candlekeep’s Great Readers, before the Avowed community, with the goal of proving that he was responsible for the death of Janussi, their Keeper of Tomes (aka Head Librarian).

You know that I know you passed your saving throw? (Art copyright WOTC).

Naturally, I had done my research and discovered a couple of neat little ‘outs’ for getting around the zone – loopholes that I thought would prove fun, bringing unforeseen complications to the courtroom, and forcing the PCs to make a better case against their prime suspect… not just force an easy confession.

It didn’t play out that way, for a number of reasons. Namely:

  • The spell is really poorly written
  • Players have set (high) expectations on how it should work
  • Regardless how you interpret it, the spell immediately reveals guilty parties to the caster, destroying the inherent drama of any mystery
  • The spell encourages guilty parties to say nothing, or prevaricate in the extreme, making scene resolution very very tedious
  • The spell can be spammed (i.e. recast) until you get the result you need.
  • It would totally change the (fantasy) world as we know it…

Let’s look at these points in more detail

1. It Is Poorly Written

So here is the spell as written in the Player’s Handbook:

Zone Of Truth

2nd level enchantment
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Target: A 15-foot-radius sphere centered on a point of your choice within range
Components: V S
Duration: 10 minutes

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.

Invoking the zone… (Art by WOTC).

Rules as Written, Interpretation 1: If you read that description absolutely literally, then every single round someone begins their turn in the zone of truth they should make a new saving throw… thus rendering the spell utterly useless. If they fail the saving throw they just stay silent for 6, 12, 18 seconds until they pass, and then tell the lie. Ok, not utterly useless as the caster at least knows they are lying, but at a public trial it would be totally crap.

“He is resisting the spell,” says the prosecutor… “No, I am not,” says the defendant. And the pantomime begins.

Rules as Written, Interpretation 2: The player at my table who was casting the spell insisted that the rule was actually stating that once the save is failed the creature cannot speak a lie for the remaining duration of the spell. That would make it an equally poorly-designed spell, as the saving throw is rendered utterly useless… no one can pass 100 Charisma saving throws in a row, so why have a save at all? 

Rules As Intended? While I am far from certain, it would make more sense if the design intent was that each creature in the zone should make one saving throw and, whatever the result, this would be honoured for the entirety of the spell’s duration.

Still, this lack of clarity created a lot of rules checking, and going back and forth, which was a frustrating use of game night.

2. Carries Great Player Expectations

From my recent session, it was clear that the casting player expected his 2nd level spell slot (his character is low enough level for this to be a considerable resource) to act as an unerring lie detector and for his PC to shine as an inquisitor figure bringing light to the end of a murder mystery adventure.

The awkward moment when the defendant passed his saving throw (after a fair bit of going to and fro, we played the spell using my Rules As Intended interpretation above), then publicly claimed to be submitting to the spell, clearly irked him… the exact same thing happened again, on a second casting.

When finally the player ran out of spell slots and had to conduct the prosecution with an NPC’s help (a member of the Avowed cast the spell instead), a different pantomime played out, as the accused tried to step out of the zone of truth (in order to retake the saving throw), go to the bathroom, or use tricks like “I already told you, I didn’t do it.” (Not a lie, but a fairly obvious get around).

The player was determined to see the situation through, and ensure that one way or another the defendant would finally be forced to speak plainly in the zone, no matter how many castings it took. Successful saving throws meant nothing, and the session became a tedious battle of wills.

Obviously this tedious rigmarole was on me to a large extent, as the person controlling the NPC… but then what would you do if guilty and facing a zone of truth? If you are all out of saving throws, then cheap tricks and delaying tactics would be far preferable to admitting your guilt… but they make for terrible gameplay. 

3. It Saps The Drama from the Room

After the success of the aforementioned trial scene in my other campaign, I felt confident I could wring even more drama out of this second trial, which was, after all, the grand climax of what had turned out to be a very long murder mystery adventure.

However, I didn’t fully predict just how tedious zone of truth would prove to be. The second a suspect even attempts to save against zone of truth they are proven guilty to the caster, as, if they had nothing to hide, they would choose to fail (update: a quick check on the rules, and technically you can’t choose to fail a saving throw unless explicitly told you can… but in this case it would make a lot more narrative sense if you could, and I would certainly allow it).

However you interpret the rules, there isn’t a win situation here. Either the zone of truth works as the caster desires and the guilty party is revealed without any skill or drama; or the spell doesn’t work as desired, but it still reveals the guilty party to the caster, thanks to the phrase “You know whether each creature succeeds or fails on its saving throw”. When the spell doesn’t work as the caster intended, the final result of the trial is likely to be the same, but first you have to play out a cringeworthy pantomime of the caster convincing people something they know to be true, to be true. (If the caster is a PC it’s even more cringey as all the fellow players, out of game, know the truth too… these scenes of acting out something in game that has already been established out of game are simply awful).

4. Acting Silent Isn’t Fun

I think I have already shown how ZoT forces guilty parties to be as dull as possible. But, just to bring the topic to a close, if staying silent for 10 minutes, or faking an epileptic fit (only to be subjected to the ZoT at a later date anyhow), is your best policy, you may not have a great RPG session on your hands. In my session, by trying to make the PCs work a bit harder for their victory, all I did was create an even more boring scenario than an unerring zone of truth was delivering. 

“Here’s what you do at the trial… stay completely silent!” (Art by WOTC).

5. It Can Be Spammed

There are very few scenarios in which you really need a straight answer from someone that second and you only have one 2nd level spell slot left at your disposal. In other words, in 99% of scenarios, you can just spam cast the spell until the accused fails their save, thus forcing a certain result.

Forcing certain results go against every good D&D design principle (and a reason why I hope they fuck off with the heroic inspiration nonsense that I am worried is going to make it into the 2024 rules), and against a large part of what makes the game so great. Chance. Luck. Uncertainty. Tension. Drama.

6. It Is Absolutely World Changing

One final reason zone of truth is really annoying is that its very existence breaks the immersion of the fantasy worlds we play in. A mere 2nd level spell, with no material cost, this highly accessible magic would lead to a world with no miscarriages of justice, false players or (planned) betrayals. It’s actually really hard to picture how this would play out, but it wouldn’t be recognisable to us. This post puts forth a few ideas.

Dealing with Zone of Truth

Probably the best solution to zone of truth is to say, in a session zero, that you are not interested in playing out a Ricky Gervais comedy and that the spell doesn’t exist in your world.

But if it’s too late for that, or you want some other solutions here are some techniques I have used…

1. Make It Against Law or Custom

If zone of truth sucked all the drama from the finale of my murder mystery adventure, I was at least careful to stop it ruining it from the start. I extended Candlekeep’s Orders of Accordance (p.7 of Candlekeep Mysteries) to include a rule that casting spells which affect others is against the rules (which makes sense! I think Waterdeep’s Code Legal says something similar), while I made it a practice of the Avowed that zone of truth was not permitted in trials because it had proven to be unreliable in the past (a bit like lie detectors are not used in UK courtrooms. This makes even more sense in a community where a high percentage of folks are high level magic users who could potentially find a way around zone of truth, thus compromising its use…. although annoyingly the D&D rules don’t provide us with a readymade foil for ZoT, as they do with many other game-changing spells. I will pick up on this in a bit).

Later, I relaxed these rules and customs for the final show down, as one of my players had been badgering me, via badgering the NPCs, to use ZoT from the start of the murder investigation. And hence this article was born…

Luckily I designed Candlekeep Murders with zone of truth in mind…

2. Beating the Zone

Given that even attempting your saving throw against ZoT effectively proclaims you to be guilty, and that, unless there’s a massive time constraint, you will eventually fail a save in any case, in order to beat the zone, you have to be able to beat it, having failed your save.

There are a few different techniques to avoid disclosing the truth in a ZoT, and this Reddit post does a decent job of outlining some options, some more convincing than others.

I created my own ‘get out’ by prefacing various lies with the phrase, “I can honestly say.” Eg. “I can honestly say, I didn’t murder him.” The truth within the deception being: “I am capable of saying the words ‘I didn’t murder him'”.

For me this was a totally legit strategy, but, if you employ it, don’t expect your player(s) to agree, either because of the expectations I mentioned earlier, or just philosophical differences of opinion of what would work in a hypothetical magical situation. Indeed, if you look at the comments under the aforementioned Reddit post, you will find plenty of people finding fault in the get out techniques suggested by the original poster. In short, what some people might applaud as smart thinking, others (usually the caster) will consider a lame gimmick.

Rethinking Zone of Truth

There are a lot of ways ZoT could be improved… some small improvements would be making it a concentration spell, reducing the duration to 1 minute, clarifying the saving throw rules, adding a material component cost (to make it harder, or at least costlier, to spam), and possibly even making the result of the saving throw unknown to the caster.

Also, the spell should really have an antidote spell, just like detect magic can be foiled by Nystul’s magic aura, clairvoyance and teleport can be countered by Mordenkainen’s private sanctum, and detect thoughts can be foiled by mindblank (which should be a much lower level spell) etc. etc.

But I wonder if something more out of the box is required, maybe leaning into a design closer to the extremely fun speak with dead spell.

Here’s my freshly-baked house rule alternative for ZoT

Zone Of Truth (Hipster Remix)

2nd level enchantment
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Target: One creature within range
Components: V S M (a sapphire worth at least 25 gp, which the spell consumes).
Duration: 10 minutes (concentration)

Before the spell ends, you attempt to force a creature to answer up to three questions truthfully. Each time you ask a question in a language the creature understands, they must make a Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, they must immediately answer your question in a direct and truthful manner, or take 1d4 plus your proficiency bonus of psychic damage. On a success, they may ignore the question, or answer it as they wish, and they cannot be magically compelled to answer the same question [ever] again, even if it is phrased differently.

For every spell slot above 2nd you use to cast it, the damage of the spell increases by 1d4.

The spell fails if the creature was the target of this spell within the last 10 days, or if it cannot speak any languages. 

———

Limiting the number of questions is a no brainer for me… it makes the players do some thinking and offers no guarantee of getting all the info they want.

The whole spell is going to play a lot cleaner. If you fail your save you have to answer truthfully or take damage (Insight vs. Deception to notice the concealed grimaces of pain). If you pass you don’t… and no amount of recasting is going to change that. This version of the spell is proofed against spamming to the point of success.

It also means the spell is fairly useless on powerful NPCs and big bosses (which is what we want) who can soak up the damage, but still very effective on commoners and minions, who can’t afford to take multiple hits of psychic damage.

It also pairs well with interrogation. First reduce someone to 1 hp, then cast the spell. Great if you have caught some evil marauders, or you’ve worked hard to defeat a BBEG… but not feasible when interrogating an upstanding citizen in court, or if you’re at a party with an evil prince. (Then again, upcast it with a 5th level slot and you might be doing 4d4+4 psychic damage per failed question, which is starting to hurt most folks! I’d rule asking a question uses an action).

Importantly, this version leaves the DM in total control of the information flow to the players. If giving the PC the info they seek is going to prove fun and move the story along, then the baddie prefers telling the truth to taking damage. If revealing the info is going to ruin the adventure, and hours of prep, then the goon would rather die than reveal who employed him. (And being killed by resisting a spell is more dramatic than staying silent for 10 minutes, which is currently the DM’s best option). 

Well, no doubt this remix needs some playtesting, but I will leave it out there and see where it leads us…

Final Thoughts

What with arguments about interpretations, the desolation of drama, and the time wasting tricks, zone of truth was such a fun killer in the campaign’s final sessions that I am left wondering if any good has ever come out of it… I suppose there was the moment when the players asked the newly-elected Keeper of Tomes if she had a crush on the party’s halfling rogue. When she blushed and refused to answer, chants rang around Ceremonial Hall and the Avowed called for a wedding between one of the saviours of Candlekeep and its new head librarian. A small compensation at least for what went on before.

I am sure many of my readers have run zone of truth many more times than I, so I’d be keen to hear more about what happened when they did, and whether the spell added or detracted from the gameplay… please do share your stories in the comments!

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2 Comments

  1. mAc Chaos

    I agree that the spell RAW has problems. But I think most of it can be addressed by how you run the NPCs. Why does every NPC suddenly know a Cleric spell list and what Cleric spells do? A random shopkeep or peasant is not going to know the intricacies of such things and how they work, nor the loopholes involved. They should just be caught off guard. I personally just ignore the rerolling of the saves and let it automatically succeed for the most part; we don’t need the tedium of rolling a new save every turn, and if the players are serious about interrogating the suspect they won’t let them move and just keep forcing them to save anyway, so we might as well cut to the chase and remove that part.

    Regarding your spell, it is a neat idea, but I fear it suffers from the “acting out what you already know” problem. If a creature takes 1d4 damage and is fine, everyone immediately knows they’re a tougher higher level creature, which can tip you off that they aren’t just a harmless regular dude you’re interrogating and give away they’re suspicious. Players shouldn’t metagame this way, but the spell shoves this in your face.

    • duncan

      hi MC, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I agree with you that for getting some info from villagers just let the spell work without a hitch… these are low stakes situations.

      The problems with the spell that I encounter (which sparked this post) occurred when interviewing a murder suspect during a courtroom trial at the finale of an adventure. Given that murder mysteries are rather uncommon in D&D, maybe this is a rather niche usage in the end.

      Btw, in my version of the spell you don’t know if the person passed the save, so you don’t know if they lied, and you need an Insight check to see if they seemed in pain (given Insight checks should be made behind by the DM behind your screen… https://www.hipstersanddragons.com/rolling-insight-dnd-5e/ this means they can’t be sure of what they intuit), so there’s a lot of ambiguity.

      Obviously if someone dies on you suddenly, you know they lied (and that the info they were trying to conceal was worth dying for). Then you have the dilemma of whether you should try to revive them.

      My version is obviously a lot less potent than the official rules.

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