I’ve been wondering, as all D&D players wonder from time to time, which school of magic is the most powerful. After wandering the internet, I found the majority (at least the majority that has a presence on the net) seemed split between one of two schools: transmutation or conjuration. This didn’t surprise me; for years I had heard the virtues of these two schools extolled. However, looking more closely at the information provided, I found some dissent in the gamer ranks. Ameron, over at dungeonsmaster.com, wrote something called “Divinations – Is Some Magic Just Too Powerful for PCs?” in which he argues that divination is by far the most powerful school when it comes to affecting game play. He argues that divination in RPGs in general is difficult to control, and in some cases, game-breaking.
After reading Ameron’s article, I went back to all those posts regarding the most powerful magic school, to see what the gamer community at large had to say about divination specifically…and a trend began emerging. Almost all of them, when mentioning the divination school of magic, provided a caveat similar to this: unless your DM is big into mysteries this school is weak, or, unless you have a lenient DM don’t expect much out of the divination school, or better still, if your DM’s a jerk (insert more colorful language in place of “jerk”) divination is useless to you.
This intrigued me enough to break open my Pathfinder Core Rulebook and take a gander at some of the spells in the divination school.
The first thing I noticed – there aren’t that many divination spells. The Core Rulebook only has 49 divination spells, the fewest of any school.
The second thing I noticed is this: unlike all the other schools of magic, divination is the one school I think would be impossible to remove without causing major problems to D&D magic mechanics. Detect magic and read magic are pretty much the bread and butter when it comes to spell-casting. If you haven’t heard an overweight man say, “I cast detect magic,” you obviously haven’t been playing long enough (you noob).
The third thing I noticed – the spells I would call true divination spells* all required major judgment calls on the part of the DM.
As I read through some of the spell descriptions, the gamer commentary on this subject really started to sink in. I understood why so many people put divination low on their lists of most powerful magic schools. While the ominous Rule Zero always lurks in wait to shutdown player dreams, it rarely has the opportunity to rear its ugly head so much as in the divination school.
As an example of what I’m talking about, let’s take the spell augury. Now, the spell is completely dependent on how a DM interprets an upcoming encounter, which, if done incorrectly, is not only misleading for PCs, but downright deadly. If, for example, a player asks, “should we (the PCs) proceed through the door to the north,” and the DM decides that, while the Red Dragon behind the door is a nearly impossible encounter, if the PCs somehow defeat the beast they’d have access to an unbelievably massive hoard, and gives the PCs the “Weal” (meaning likely good results), the PCs will proceed through the door with confidence…to their deaths. You can see how that might cause a bit of tension between the DM and the players.
The above example is a rather ridiculous one (even by my standards). I doubt many players have ever experienced quite that level of douchebaggery. Most DMs have the presence of mind to not send their players to their certain deaths; no, some dickery goes much further.
Allow me to use the same example: augury spell, dragon behind door, certain doom; now, instead of the DM of my previous example being an ignorant asshole…what if instead they’re just an asshole? As you’ll recall, the PCs asked, “should we (the PCs) proceed through the door to the north?” and should the DM say to themselves, there are several doors in the world, many of which are to the north of the PCs. I think they must have meant one of those other doors, and gives the PCs the “Weal” answer to just outright teach them a shitty lesson (not that they should be careful with their phrasing, but that their DM is a twit), the result is the same – very dead PCs (this example I’ve seen, in lesser forms, many times).
–C, over at Hack & Slash, did an article called “On Why You Have Bad Players,” in which he address what he calls unacceptable purposes of play that certain players bring to the table. While –C was talking about players, I think the same is true for DMs. If you’re running a game because you’re seeking, as –C puts it, catharsis at the expense of other players then you need to hand in your DM card.
I think Ameron summed it up best with this:
I must admit that I’m not a big fan of divinations at the game table. I like them a lot when I read about them in the various D&D novels, but at a live gaming table they just become too unpredictable.
As a DM, I understand that unpredictability can be a problem, but I don’t think that gives carte blanche to relegate divination to the kiddy table of magic just because you don’t like dealing with it. It’s also clear to me now why divination is ranked so low on many gamer’s magic lists: it’s not worth dealing with obstinate DMs. The problem is not that divination is weak, the problem is that it’s disruptive, so much so, that after years of vague answers, blatant misdirection, and outright refusals, gamers got tired and, by sheer Pavlovian association, started believing divination to be inferior.
I am now of the opinion that the divination school isn’t a weak school of magic; in fact, if properly utilized, I believe that divination is by far the most powerful. It has the ability to look into the future and allow the PCs to do something rare and truly magical…plan.
* A true divination spell directs player’s actions by revealing future events rather than simply providing a bonus, or detecting the presence of some such thing.