Confession: I hate Zone of Truth.
It’s a spell you cast to make a target tell the truth. Here’s how it works:
- If they pass the save, nothing happens.
- If they fail the save, you have to torture them.
Why? Well, if the target wasn’t already forthcoming with information, why would they be now? There’s nothing compelling them to answer. Zone of Truth doesn’t make them talk. Plus, they know they’re under its effects, which means they’re likely to just stay silent. At least for 10 minutes.
Getting an Answer
So, how do you make them answer?
Clerics and paladins get access to the 1st level spell Command:
You could ask your question and then cast Command to make the creature answer. But, you only get one answer per cast. And, you’re relying on the target to fail yet another saving throw to get that answer. That’s going to burn through spell slots with a quickness.
At higher levels, bards (and some Cleric Domains and Paladin Oaths) get access to the dominate spells (Dominate Person and Dominate Monster):
You can use dominate to get answers. But, you could also pilfer all the information you want from a dominated creature without a Zone of Truth.
If you don’t have a supplementary spell or the slots to cast it, there’s not much else you can do to coax words out of a creature who doesn’t want to talk.
Does torture really fit with your character theme? As a cleric? As a paladin? As a bard?
Even if you stoop to that level, what do you get? Success is subject to DM fiat. The DM can still decide not to answer.
Any information the party can coax out of the victim with a social check should have already been resolved without wasting a 2nd-level spell slot or making the characters do abhorrent things.
So how can we change it?
We need a spell whose modus operandi is not pushing the players to torture. Even if you have spell slots to supplement your Zone of Truth, judicious gamesmanship pushes you towards getting what you can for free.
The disconnect with this spell is the lack of a mechanic to compel a response. If we can add that, we remove the pressure for the characters to torture the target.
To activate an effect, we need to exist within the action economy. Let’s make it an action to get information.
What issues does this have?
- Easy. It’s too easy to get what you want. We need a more push-and-pull feeling to emulate the difficulty of extracting information from an unwilling subject.
- Duration. The spell lasts 10 minutes. That’s 600 rounds of questions.
Making it Harder
The spell already affects creatures within it’s range, if they fail a save. But, one-and-done is a little too powerful if we’re going to add an activated ability that gives us something extra. It doesn’t fit the narrative that the subject would instantly become compliant. We need some push-and-pull. We’ll keep the original save as a gate to use the action rider. So, you can only target an affected creature.
For our activated effect, let’s steal a limited form of Command (“Answer”). It takes an action, so we keep that action economy. We’re flipping the Wisdom save to a Charisma save, since that’s what Zone of Truth operates on. Two different saves tells a certain kind of story, but it’s a little bit kludgy for 5e.
We also need to impose some kind of reasonable restriction on the kind of questions we can ask. After all, we’re only talking about a 2nd level spell. Locking the questions down to yes-or-no answers has multiple benefits:
- Keeps the DM sane.
- Makes the players think cleverly about their phrasing.
- Works within the framework of action timing. Long responses suggest the DM tick off time from the Zone of Truth duration, which is a pain to adjudicate.
- Preserves a niche use for Command to obtain a more detailed answer.
If the players use their action every round to ask a question, the players are going to die before the end of the interrogation. No, not the characters–the players. Probably at the DM’s hand.
So, how do we limit this?
Duration. I don’t like the idea of reducing the duration to 1 action or 1 minute. In the scope of the narrative, that’s a really short period of time to extract information. You’ll barely get your witness sworn in. We’re leaving the duration at 10 minutes.
Temporary Immunity. Lots of monsters have an “immune for 24 hours” clause once you save against their special abilities. But, that kind of stops the line dead once they pass the save. And we’re already technically giving the NPCs advantage by requiring two saves, so it’s only fair we give the character multiple shots at getting answers. Just like we didn’t want a one-and-done mechanic to make the target roll over, we don’t want a one-and-done mechanic to make them clam up. We want the push-and-pull to feed the narrative of a tense discussion.
So, on a successful save, the target becomes immune for 1 minute. So, players can extract information so long as the NPC keeps failing the saves. When the NPC passes, the character suffers a setback, and has to work on establishing that rapport again. At the very least, they’ll have 9 chances to get an answer.
Here’s Zone of Truth rewritten with the new effect:
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