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GameMasterY: Adjudicating Rules - Scrying

Updated on November 4, 2013
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My hobby is World Building. Unusual, but rewarding. I wish to give of my learning and experiences.

Gaze into the future....
Gaze into the future.... | Source

Scrying... what is it?

Scrying is an old concept, involving gazing into something and perceiving images and visions. The things looked into were usually translucent, reflective, luminous, and/or in motion - such as fire, water, crystal, a mirror, or smoke. Scrying is generally considered a specific kind of divination - the practice of learning about the past, present or future by magical or other means.

In RPGs scrying exists mostly in fantasy and sci-fi settings, as a magical ability, or as a strange kind of technology that is so alien as to be pretty much the same as magic, or as a psychic ability.

  • Hint: If you are not familiar with some of the gaming specific terms used in this article, then look them up in theGamer's Glossary!

  • Bonus Point: The concept of using something that has been in contact with the desired target in order to affect (in the case of scrying, view) someone or something is referred to as the "Law of Contamination". Simply put, it states that once two objects have come into contact with each other, they remain connected in some fashion.

  • Bonus Point: Interestingly enough, quantum physics uses this same principle, called "quantum entanglement", to perform real-life teleportation of individual atoms.

Some forms of scrying in RPGs require some sort of connection with the place being scried upon, such as a stone, piece of a tree, some dirt, or some water from the place.

While scrying on a person, a piece of hair, skin, nail clippings, or perhaps some long held possession belonging to the person, might be required to make the scrying work.

Depending on the game rules in question, the scrying attempt may be noticable to anyone in the location being viewed, or by the person being viewed. Many is the story that depicts some sort of reflective surface being the focal point for scrying attempts, such as a mirror or a basin of water.

Other kinds of scrying in RPGs do not require anything more than something to gaze into, and the exertion of will and/or the expenditure of energy.

The last few types of scrying in RPGs are commonly associated with psychic phenomena and are sometimes collectively referred to as 'remote viewing'. The various forms of remote viewing are clairvoyance (vision), clairaudience (hearing), precognition (future), psychometry (past), sensory linking (using another creatures senses to perceive), and astral projection (out of body experiences).

  • Bonus Point: Psychometry is sometimes referred to as Object Reading. This is because the most commonly reported form of psychometry is where the psychic will handle something, or stand in a location, and report perceived impressions that happened around that object or at that place in the past.

Scrying does not always use a crystal ball....
Scrying does not always use a crystal ball.... | Source

Why is scrying problematic in gaming?

Scrying is a staple of the fantasy genre, and even has a strong place in science fiction. By most definitions, it is the ultimate spy tool. Scrying allows one to see into unreachable locations, peruse the contents of locked containers, observe secret chambers, overhear clandestine meetings, find hidden or lost things, spy on rulers, thieves, enemies, friends, and even the neighbors. It can not only circumvent the most common security protections and spy defenses, it can even potentially see into the past and the future, against which there is seldom a defense offered, even in the context of the game system.

Unless one is an experienced designer, it is all too easy to overlook the potentials and possibilities of information gathering via scrying. It is even easier to forget or to ignore the implications of such an ability on societies and governments. In any world where scrying is possible, every ruler and governmental body, not to mention spymasters, thieve's guilds, the rich, the powerful, all major organizations, and many minor, will ensure that they have access to a means of scrying, as well as protections against it.

Scrying is the fantasy equivalent to modern industrial and government espionage, hacking computers, tapping phone lines, intercepting cell phone signals, and hiding sound and video bugs on people, objects, and at important locations.

Many designers unconsciously design the obstacles and challenges in an adventure to the limitations of normal people, and fail to review all the abilities of the characters that the players will be using or may gain when they next level up.

  • Hint: For more advise on how to work with abilities that change how an RPG is played, see myGameMasterY article on that topic!

Example: How to adjudicate a ruleset:

As an example for adjudication, we will pick out the rules for Scrying from a popular open source game: the Dungeons and Dragons™, 3rd edition, System Reference Document (SRD), which can be found here. While it is not the last version of that edition of the game, nor the latest version of the game itself, it has the benefit of being Open Source, and thus can be quoted in full. As required by the Open Gaming License under which the game may be copied, modified, and redistributed, please find a copy of the OGL here.

The following text is the section describing Divination and Scrying magic:


Divination spells enable you to learn secrets long forgotten, to predict the future, to find hidden things, and to foil deceptive spells.

Many divination spells have cone-shaped areas. These move with you and extend in the direction you look. The cone defines the area that you can sweep each round. If you study the same area for multiple rounds, you can often gain additional information, as noted in the descriptive text for the spell.

Scrying: A scrying spell creates an invisible magical sensor that sends you information. Unless noted otherwise, the sensor has the same powers of sensory acuity that you possess. This level of acuity includes any spells or effects that target you, but not spells or effects that emanate from you. However, the sensor is treated as a separate, independent sensory organ of yours, and thus it functions normally even if you have been blinded, deafened, or otherwise suffered sensory impairment.

Any creature with an Intelligence score of 12 or higher can notice the sensor by making a DC 20 Intelligence check. The sensor can be dispelled as if it were an active spell.

Lead sheeting or magical protection blocks a scrying spell, and you sense that the spell is so blocked.

The next quote is of the two scrying spells themselves:


Divination (Scrying); Level: Brd 3, Clr 5, Drd 4, Sor/Wiz 4; Components: V, S, M/DF, F; Casting Time: 1 hour; Range: See text; Effect Magical sensor; Duration: 1 min./level; Saving Throw: Will negates; Spell Resistance: Yes

You can see and hear some creature, which may be at any distance. If the subject succeeds on a Will save, the scrying attempt simply fails. The difficulty of the save depends on how well you know the subject and what sort of physical connection (if any) you have to that creature. Furthermore, if the subject is on another plane, it gets a +5 bonus on its Will save.

Type of knowledge and Will Save Modifier: None** +10, Secondhand (you have heard of the subject) +5, Firsthand (You have met the subject) ±0, Familiar (you know the subject well) -5.

Connection & Will Save Modifier: Likeness or picture -2, Possession or garment -4, Body part: hair, nail etc.. -10.

** You must have some sort of connection to a creature you have no knowledge of.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...
Mirror, mirror, on the wall... | Source

If the save fails, you can see and hear the subject and the subject’s immediate surroundings (approximately 10 feet in all directions of the subject). If the subject moves, the sensor follows at a speed of up to 150 feet.

As with all divination (scrying) spells, the sensor has your full visual acuity, including any magical effects. In addition, the following spells have a 5% chance per caster level of operating through the sensor: detect chaos, detect evil, detect good, detect law, detect magic, and message.

If the save succeeds, you can’t attempt to scry on that subject again for at least 24 hours.

Arcane Material Component: The eye of a hawk, an eagle, or a roc, plus nitric acid, copper, and zinc.

Wizard, Sorcerer, or Bard Focus: A mirror of finely wrought and highly polished silver costing not less than 1,000 gp. The mirror must be at least 2 feet by 4 feet.

Cleric Focus: A holy water font costing not less than 100 gp.

Druid Focus: A natural pool of water.

Scrying, Greater

Divination (Scrying); Level: Brd 6, Clr 7, Drd 7, Sor/Wiz 7; Components: V, S; Casting Time: 1 standard action; Duration: 1 hour/level

This spell functions like scrying, except as noted above. Additionally, all of the following spells function reliably through the sensor: detect chaos, detect evil, detect good, detect law, detect magic, message, read magic, and tongues.

What does it all mean?

Thus the effects of the of the scrying spells, and therefore scrying in general can be summarized as follows:

  • Scrying at lower levels takes some time to get setup and you must have access to and use a large mirror, font of holy water, or natural pool of water, depending on what type of spellcaster the scryer is.
  • Scrying creates an invisible magical sensor that functions as an independent remote sensory organ.
  • It has the same visual and auditory capabilities as the scryer normally does, including any magical spells or effects active on the scryer, though the range is limited to ten feet from the target creature.
  • It can be created at any distance from the spellcaster, even across planes of existence, though the latter is slightly more difficult.
  • Scrying allows a chance for certain spells to be function through the sensor.
  • Despite being invisible, creatures that are intelligent enough can still notice the sensor somehow.
  • Scrying only works on creatures, therefore, cannot be used to target objects, though you may be able to see objects that the creature is using, holding, or are otherwise nearby.
  • Scrying is blocked by enough lead sheeting, or by magical protections, and the scryer knows whenever that happens.
  • Having some knowledge of and or connection with the target creature makes it easier to scry upon said creature. You can even scry on a creature you know nothing about, but you must then have a connection as specified by the table given.
  • Scrying (unlike other forms of peek-n-pry spells) does not allow for the sensor to be moved or adjusted by the spellcaster once successfully cast, which means that the sensor cannot 'hide' or take up advantageous positions. It does allow the sensor to 'automatically' attempt to follow the target, so long as they do not exceed a certain speed.

In other words, you can spy on anyone, anywhere, at anytime, so long as they don't have magical protections or a lot of lead handy, and they fail their save versus scrying. But even if they do fail the save, they may still notice the sensor.


How will this affect my game?

If one is playing with these rules, or rules very similar to them, there are a number of implications to be taken into consideration:

  • Scrying allows almost anyone, anywhere to be spied upon.
  • Scrying comes into play during the early mid-levels of D&D (~7th-9th character level) and drastically increases the information gathering capabilities of the PCs.
  • Opponents of the PCs (who are typically higher level than the group average) will have been potentially able to scry upon the PCs for some time. If the PCs have come to their attention as major opponents, they should already have been spying on them. Furthermore, savvy opponents would have long since had scrying protections in place whenever skullduggery is afoot.
  • If scrying ignores disguises (see Special Cases below) then such magical and mundane means of hiding ones self would never be used in really important situations.
  • Depending upon the nature of the setting, local governments and organizations, and competitors, scryers may be licensed, limited, illegal, indentured, conscripted, well paid, in high demand, bonded, or some other method used to control or solicit scrying.
  • Acting through intermediaries would be the rule, and someone who does not want to give anyone else a reason to scry on them would avoid meeting that person, if at all possible. They would never confront an opponent to deliver a mysterious message or warning, they would never disguise themselves, they would never be present at the location of any important, suspicious, or illegal act that they do not wish to be linked with.
  • Entire cultures would incorporate habits with regards to scrying: they would be exceedingly careful about who cut and styled their hair, who their servants cleaning up after them are, where they leave their nail clippings, how teeth from children are handled, how refuse is disposed of, how old clothing is destroyed, and so forth. A lock of hair might be an offering of supreme trust given to special individuals. There would be no charitable organizations re-distributing cast-off, as old clothing might be used against someone. Calling cards might incorporate a strand of hair to facilitate mutual scrying.
  • Advanced societies, such as those using a mythal, might even have scrying cafes much as we have internet cafes, and scrying channels (youball instead of youtube?) where people have special rooms that they allow scrying in.

The degree to which any given society is affected by scrying will depend upon how common and/or powerful magic generally is. In D&D the default setting is a high level of magic which is fairly commonly available. Scrying will not only be commonly used, but commonly protected against. There will likely be thriving businesses in lead and magical enchantments to governments, guilds, any group, organization, or individual which has information to protect, and anyone who does not wish to be spied on.

It is very likely that private chambers such as secret rooms, toilets, changing rooms, bed rooms, meeting rooms, office rooms, private studies, exclusive restaurants and clubs, and more, will be protected by one or the other preventative measures, if not both.

Furthermore, each country may have laws that control, limit, or even prohibit scrying. Detection spells are typically very low level and easy to cast or cheaply craft into items. A Detect Scrying spell or item may be a popular protective charm. In a country where personal privacy is protected, scrying without a license or warrant may be illegal. In a country that seeks to control all information disseminated to the public, scrying may be the exclusive province of the government, and anyone else who attempts it or protects themselves against it is automatically arrested if caught.

By contrast, in a world where magic is rare, uncommon, or simply weak and ineffective, it might be rare enough that there is no real point in making protections against it, save by the most paranoid of individuals. Conversely, in such a world, scrying becomes a potent and nigh unstoppable tool which can reveal incredible amounts of information to anyone with the time and patience to use it well.

  • Can you think of a special case that I have missed? Or possible implication of the rules that I did not cover to your satisfaction? Please comment below!

Special Cases

All too often, rules text is ambiguous, unclear, or has multiple possible meanings. The most common argument is between what a rule says (or seems to say), and the interpretation thereof. This is referred to as RAW vs RAI (Rule As Written vs Rule As Interpreted).

Regardless of how a rule is written, there will come a time when some specific case will arise that does not quite fit, the square peg for the round hole. In the case of scrying:

Disguises, magical or otherwise: The table given above states a modifier to the scrying save based on if you have met the person. The question arises where if they are disguised and/or give a false name, can you scry upon them? If the spellcaster attempts to scry upon "that mysterious person who accosted us last night with a cryptic message..." what will happen? They know very little about the person, but they have technically met them.

The RAW of the rules will technically permit this, and if the person is not in a safe location, nor still disguised, at the time of scrying, they will be revealed to the PCs, assuming that the mysterious person failed their save despite the 'have met' bonus. The RAI would look at the heading of the table, and take that to imply that if the players/characters have no knowledge of who the mysterious person was, then meeting them in disguise will have effectively prevented them from counting that person as having been 'met'. Despite this, should the mysterious person still manage to fail the save despite the even larger 'no knowledge' bonus and assuming that the PCs managed to get a piece of the person or their disguise, they will still be revealed to the PCs.

Obviously, which result will occur in the above example will boil down to how the DM defines the word 'met'.

Such a possible result requires the DM to remember these facts during their preparations, and to give a little more thought as to how someone in a society where these facts are known would prepare and act to protect themselves from being revealed when they are trying to hide.

Complete Transformations: There are a few special methods in D&D whereby a character may be completely transformed into an effectively new person. Most of the methods in question do not address continuity of identity in such cases, usually stating that they have memories of being their previous self, but they no longer have access to previous racial and class features. The few that do address the matter indicate that the former person is effectively destroyed, which is a pretty clear cut answer. The question arises then, if they have been completely transformed to the point that they are effectively 'starting over' as a new person, but retain memories about being their previous self, do they still count as their previous self for purposes of scrying?

The rules about scrying also do not specifically address the question. However, the RAW indicates that the only thing needed is to know the person well and/or have some sort of physical connection to them. Lacking any other guidelines or modifiers, the RAW would allow scrying no matter how someone has changed. By RAW, there is no allowance for changes of heart, transformational magic, or even complete alterations to the character, to allow use such effects to avoid scrying.

This might be a case where most people will feel and prefer that a complete transformational experience will sever or weaken the link between an old self and a new self. Such a RAI interpretation is not strictly according to the rules, but feels more in line with literature and does seem more realistic.

Death: Given the lack of limits on distance, planar or otherwise, it is completely possible to scry on individuals in their afterlife, no matter how long ago they passed. This particular case is not a challenge in the D&D game, though other games with slightly different rules will handle this quite differently.


DMs Corner

One common design flaw that a DM overlooks when personally crafting an adventure or campaign is the affects of scrying upon the party, and upon anyone the party has an interest in.

Most fantasy game systems postulate a specific demographic distribution of class types and class levels through the various races in each of the countries, cities, towns, and villages of the world. The vast majority of NPCs are usually slotted into very low levels. Small towns rarely have anyone in the mid-levels, even major metropolises will seldom have a large numbers of mid to high level NPCs. Most high level NPCs are unique and are tied directly into the setting storyline canon, and as such are generally regarded as "untouchables".

The PCs are postulated to be the heroes of the game, gaining fame, notoriety, wealth, and power as they progress to eventually save the world(s)/plane(s)/universe(s). In other words, just as celebrities are watched, VIPs are tracked, the rich and powerful are monitored by governments and organizations, the PCs are going to become the same sort of person, and everyone will be keeping tabs on them.

In any case, the typical progression of leveling quickly results in the PCs quickly becoming more powerful and capable than most of the people in the entire world. However, almost all DMs continue to play the game as if they PCs were low level, unconsciously ignoring the logical changes in game play as the players level up their characters, still designing plots, adventures, story elements, and obstacles for lower level play, as well as the natural consequences of various actions the PCs take. This transmits to the players, who then will typically respond with a disregard for the consequences of their actions, ignoring all moral sense, ethical sense, and even common sense.

The typical end scenario is that the PCs blow through each obstacle with ease, and turn the story on its metaphorical ear; to which most DMs will respond by either ending the game, or escalating into rocket tag in an attempt to keep the PCs in check. In almost every case, the blame for this is laid upon the game itself (it's broken at high levels), or maybe upon the PCs (they are power-gaming munchkins), but almost never is the real culprit found... the DM.

Scrying is one of those areas that has lots of natural consequences. If the PCs can scry upon it, so can the villains and various countries. Have the PCs taken precautions against scrying? If not, their powers, abilities, and plans are likely known to their enemies, friends, opponents, and any other party interested in what a certain powerful group of individuals might be up to. Has the DM considered the logical implications of the PCs becoming a rapidly improving powerhouse in the world? What happens when someone wins the lottery - which is pretty much the same thing as when the PCs loot the dragon's horde? Does their plot, campaign, adventure, encounter take these abilities into account? What about word of mouth, boosted by magical means - how widely known are the exploits of the PCs?

These are all questions that every DM should be asking.

"Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology", to borrow a phrase, and this is how every DM should treat scrying. Scrying is the cameras in all public access areas, it is the security systems in private buildings, it is corporate, industrial, and government espionage, it is phone tapping and computer hacking. In any society with advanced magic, the society itself must advance to assimilate and adapt the changes advanced magic force upon it, or that society itself will be destroyed, often by the very magic it sought to use, and join the ruins that litter the annals of history.

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