Detect Magic – DM’s Pocket Guide
Welcome to DM’s Pocket Guide, where we discuss the rules, spells, and monsters of Dungeons and Dragons, 5th edition.
Rachel: Okay, so today we’re going to be talking about Detect Magic, which is a spell that can be found on page 231 of the Player’s Handbook.
Tricia: This is my least favorite spell.
R: Yeah, one of mine too. It’s definitely one that, as a DM, suddenly comes with a lot of things that you have to know.
T: Let’s hear what some of those things are.
R: Okay, so read the spell first of all. This is a first-level divination ritual. So it’s first level. So your players might have this very, very early on and sometimes want to spam it.
T: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, because they can.
R: Because they can. Absolutely. So the casting time is one action. The range is something that you cast on yourself to try and detect the magic around you. It has a verbal and-
T: So what is the range?
R: The self.
T: Oh. Is it of what you can see?
R: You cast it on yourself to be able to detect the magic around you. And has a verbal and a somatic component, so you have to be able to speak in order to cast this, and you have to be able to make whatever movement it is that allows you to spell it, so if you are restrained in some way, you might not be able to cast Detect Magic. The duration is concentration up to 10 minutes, so this is a spell that can last a bit of time too.
T: They could like literally walk through an entire building, looking at everything and detecting any magic.
R: Yeah, an experience that I might have had once was a player that did cast Detect Magic, and then just runs around as much as they can. That really kind of can mess with your plan as a DM, you know, things that you need to reveal. And suddenly, the only thing you can focus on is trying to reveal all of the magical things to this player as they are, you know, running around like a crazy – or like, remember those 90s point-and-click games where you couldn’t find the trigger.
R: And you just clicked literally everywhere on your screen. Yeah, that’s how I think players behave sometimes with this spell.
T: Yes. Click, click, click, click, click.
R: Okay. But let’s get into the description. For the duration, you sense the presence of magic within 30 feet of you. If you sense magic-
T: Oh within 30 feet. I knew there was something.
R: Yeah, yeah, it’d be nice to have that somewhere a little bit early on but do you have to get into the description to work out how far they can see the magic. If you sense magic in this way, you can use your action to see a faint aura around any visible creature or object in the area that bears magic. And you can learn its School of Magic if any – so two things there. Faint aura. DMs, get ready to describe what kind of aura it looks like. And you might want it to be thematic for the School of Magic.
T: It can go really deep, really fast. But I think some of the important things there are it is visible things. So if you want to hide something, like in a drawer, or like in a secret compartment, you wouldn’t be able to see it with Detect Magic.
R: The spell could penetrate most barriers but is blocked by one foot of stone, one inch of common metal, a thin sheet of lead, or three feet of wood or dirt.
T: Okay. So it’s literally you’d have to be buried underground, but you could see in like desk drawers and things because it’s not enough wood.
R: Yeah, unless you had an inch of like a lead-lined drawer or something.
T: So yeah, so I guess that’s in like world-building as a DM. If you really want to hide something from your players with Detect Magic, you have to prepare for it. I just find this spell so tedious. I hate it so much. Literally, I’ve read it many times, and I’ve already asked questions that are answered in the spell because my brain just refuses to learn it. I hate it.
R: Yeah, it is – I’m not gonna say it’s a game-breaking spell, because it’s definitely useful for the players. But I guess the thing I’m thinking about it is: if you have it, it makes any kind of searching the room for the hidden secret magical thing, super easy. But if you don’t have it, then your players might not find it. It’s one of these things that just like, it’s like switching the difficulty mode down when you’re stuck in a part of a video game or something.
T: Yeah, yeah. And maybe that’s thing. Before I played with people who knew about this spell and used it often, I think we kind of addressed these situations by using perception checks or arcane checks of like, “Oh, I’m looking for magical things. Do I see an arcane energy?” and just as a DM it was like, “Yeah, I’ll help you out. You notice this or that.” But what I hate about this spell too is – the players that I’ve played with who, who knows things, they’re like, “Oh, well, don’t forget that my magical amulet would show up and that person’s magical weapon, and their, like, familiar that, like, all of literally every magical thing!” And it’s just like, ahh!!!
R: Yeah, it’s so much information to hold in your brain as a DM when that is cast, because yeah, probably the biggest thing that’s gonna show up on Detect Magic are the other members in the party and you know, all of their different things. And if there’s some sort of magical item that somebody is trying to keep secret from the rest of the party, that’s going to show up.
R: So yeah, so let’s add this to the DM’s mental juggling list. You’ve got all of the rooms and the things that are in the dungeon that you’re trying to run, all of your players and their various items and different things and oh, they want to keep this hidden – is this thing going to be a surprise? So congratulations, your player has cast Detect Magic, time to do some mental gymnastics. Or have to retcon like a whole bunch of things.
T: Yes. So some ways to get around this would be to turn it back on the players. “Okay, you detect magic? Who’s got magical items on them?” Make them do the work for you.
R: Describe how you show up; what kind of auras your character gives off under Detect Magic. That’s a good way to do it.
T: Another way to save time and energy is because the aura is just one part. The other is you can determine the School of Magic of each thing.
T: We’re gonna do a separate episode on Schools of Magic because that’s a whole thing. But something you can do if you, like us, are not super confident in knowing the Schools of Magic for every magical item in existence – turn it on the players as well. The one who casts Detect Magic say, okay, “So which Schools of Magic are you familiar with?” Because it’s not like it’s going to appear with a sign saying “Boop bo doo! School of Abjuration!”
R: Here’s something you know nothing about.
R: So for wizards, this makes sense, because in the wizard section of the Player’s Handbook, it sort of describes that you are a knowledgeable scholar with, you know, knowledge of all of these different Schools of Magic. They are going to be familiar with the different Schools of Magic, but if I’m playing a cleric or a bard-
T: Or a fighter!
R: Yeah, the fighter class that could get a bit of magic, like, what are they going to know about Schools of Magic? Like, would they care? Or is it just going to show up as magic of some kind?
T: Yeah. So, this spell sucks. I mean, I think to be fair, there’s probably some cool ways to do it. Like magically revealing something that a character’s wanting to keep secret is kind of cool. You could do some fun stuff with that. But it basically just does require so much mental work for DMs to remember, basically everything. It’s very difficult, and I don’t like it.
R: Me either, but that’s Detect Magic on page 231 of the Player’s Handbook. May it never appear in your games.
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