For the duration, you can read the thoughts of certain creatures. When you cast the spell and as your action on each turn until the spell ends, you can focus your mind on any one creature that you can see within 30 feet of you. If the creature you choose has an Intelligence of 3 or lower or doesn’t speak any language, the creature is unaffected.
You initially learn the surface thoughts of the creature — what is most on its mind in that moment. As an action, you can either shift your attention to another creature’s thoughts or attempt to probe deeper into the same creature’s mind. If you probe deeper, the target must make a Wisdom saving throw. If it fails, you gain insight into its reasoning (if any), its emotional state, and something that looms large in its mind (such as something it worries over, loves, or hates). If it succeeds, the spell ends. Either way, the target knows that you are probing into its mind, and unless you shift your attention to another creature’s thoughts, the creature can use its action on its turn to make an Intelligence check contested by your Intelligence check if it succeeds, the spell ends.
Questions verbally directed at the target creature naturally shape the course of its thoughts, so this spell is particularly effective as part of an interrogation.
You can also use this spell to detect the presence of thinking creatures you can’t see. When you cast the spell or as your action during the duration, you can Search for thoughts within 30 feet of you. The spell can penetrate barriers, but 2 feet of rock, 2 inches of any metal other than lead, or a thin sheet of lead blocks you. You can’t detect a creature with an Intelligence of 3 or lower or one that doesn’t speak any language.
Once you detect the presence of a creature in this way, you can read its thoughts for the rest of the duration as described above, even if you can’t see it, but it must still be within range.
Casting Time: 1 action
Components: V, S, M (a copper piece)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
School: 2nd-level divination
Player’s Handbook, pg. 231
Detect Thoughts 5e
Detect Thoughts is a powerful 2nd-level divination spell that operates on three levels — detecting, reading, and probing thoughts in the area around the caster. We’re going to cover how exactly Detect Thoughts works, how to use it well, and different ways for dungeon masters to play the spell.
Who Can Cast Detect Thoughts in 5e?
The following classes have Detect Thoughts on their spell list:
The following subclasses get Detect Thoughts for free:
- Sorcerer (Aberrant Mind) (TCoE 67)
Great Old One Warlocks also have access to Detect Thoughts on their expanded spell list (PHB 110). The Telepathic feat (TCoE 81) also allows for players to cast Detect Thoughts once a day, or by expending 2nd-level or higher spell slot, if they have one.
What Does Detect Thoughts Do in 5e?
Detect Thoughts is a self-buff that allows the caster to read the thoughts of a creature within 30 feet that has a language and Intelligence higher than 3. If you can see the creature whose thoughts you want to read, you can immediately focus your mind on that creature and read its surface thoughts (more on what that means in the rules below).
If you choose to probe the creature’s mind, it will become aware of your presence in its mind and make a Wisdom saving throw. If it passes, the spell ends. If it fails, you can probe deeper into its mind (more below).
Detect Thoughts also allows the caster to simply scan the 30-foot radius around them for intelligent thought upon casting the spell and again as an action on their turn for the duration of the spell (1 minute, concentration allowing). After detecting a creature’s thoughts this way, they can read the creature’s surface thoughts, and attempt to probe deeper using the same rules as above if they wish.
When probing a creature’s mind, it can use its action to make an Intelligence check against your Intelligence check (explained below) If it succeeds, the spell ends early.
Now onto the thornier rules of Detect Thoughts…
What Are the Rules for Detect Thoughts in 5e?
The rules for Detect Thoughts in DnD 5e are as follows:
A creature who knows that its mind is being probed doesn’t necessarily know who is probing their mind. Unless the target saw the caster casting Detect Thoughts (it does have verbal and somatic components), they don’t know who cast it. Confirmed on Sage Advice.
It takes 1 action to read a creature’s thoughts if you can see them when casting the spell, and 2+ actions if you can’t. Sage Advice confirmation.
You must see a creature to get it done in 1 action (6 seconds) or 2 actions if you first have to scan (6 seconds) and then focus on its thoughts (another 6 seconds). Note that this represents 20% of the spell’s duration.
A creature is only aware of Detect Thoughts if the caster chooses to probe deeper. Syntax and paragraph structure make this a bit unclear. Let’s take a look at the section of the spell that often gets disputed, with my emphasis added:You initially learn the surface thoughts of the creature — what is most on its mind in that moment. As an action, you can either shift your attention to another creature’s thoughts or attempt to probe deeper into the same creature’s mind. If you probe deeper, the target must make a Wisdom saving throw. If it fails, you gain insight into its reasoning (if any), its emotional state, and something that looms large in its mind (such as something it worries over, loves, or hates). If it succeeds, the spell ends. Either way, the target knows that you are probing into its mind…
The “either way” refers to the two bolded clauses. It does not refer to the shifting attention away to another creature’s thoughts or continuing to scan surface thoughts only. If you attempt to probe deeper into the creature’s mind, the creature knows, regardless of the success of that probing.
You can stay on surface thoughts without forcing any check. The Wisdom saving throw and Intelligence check only come into play if you attempt to probe deeper into the creature’s thoughts. If you are simply scanning for thoughts or reading a creature’s surface thoughts, the creature is unaware and makes no saving throws or checks.
“Surface thoughts” are pretty limiting. This isn’t so much a rule as a helpful reminder for dungeon masters and players. Surface thoughts typically deal with what someone is currently doing, or something completely random. Guiding a person’s thoughts with skillful questions can work, but there’s no guarantee that their surface thoughts will flit to exactly the information you hope to gain.
You must stay in range of the creature whose thoughts you’re detecting, but not line of sight. The last line of the spell’s description often gets overlooked. Detect Thoughts only requires line of sight if you want to read a creature’s thoughts in one action (6 seconds), but you can read thoughts through most barriers in two actions (12 seconds).
Here’s how the Intelligence check works: Both creatures (the caster and the target) roll a d20 and add their respective Intelligence modifiers — the higher number wins. The target winning means the spell ends early, while the caster winning means that the spell continues.
Ties go to the person attacking their mind, since a tie results in the situation remaining “the same as it was before the contest,” which would mean the mind-attack would remain in place (PHB 174).
It doesn’t work on creatures with an Intelligence of 3 or lower and/or no language. Most beasts fall into this category, as well as zombies and a handful of other monsters.
You don’t need to share a language to read a creature’s thoughts. The spell only states that the creature must speak “any language” to be affected — it doesn’t specify whether the caster has to know that language. Yes, this does open up limited translation possibilities.
Some materials block Detect Thoughts. 2 feet of rock, 2 inches of any metal but lead, or a thin sheet of lead blocks the spell. Start crafting your lead hats folks.
The creature needs to speak a language, not only understand it. This rules out most constructs as targets for Detect Thoughts. Funnily enough, this also rules out the super-smart Kraken, who can’t speak a language (despite having telepathy — go figure).
How Do I Use Detect Thoughts in 5e?
There are plenty of ways to use Detect Thoughts to gain an edge for your party. Here are some ideas:
For interrogations. It’s not often that a spell’s description suggests a spell’s use, but Detect Thoughts’ description clearly points out that “this spell is particularly effective as part of an interrogation.” Ask leading questions, or be more subtle and try to surprise someone’s surface thoughts into revealing a hidden secret.
Of course, successfully probing deeper into the creature’s mind can make interrogation a moot point in some circumstances.
Learning motives. The motives of NPCs (quest givers, information-providers, random bar patrons, etc.) are often unclear — heck, it’s often the whole hook or plot of an adventure. Detect Thoughts can help cut through the noise and learn what’s really going on. When used this way, it’s best to keep to surface thoughts, so as not to reveal to the target that you’re wise to their schemes.
Finding invisible/undetected creatures. Another use of the spell that’s suggested in the description. Detecting the presence of thinking creatures within 30 feet can be incredibly useful for finding invisible creatures, shapeshifters who are only pretending to be beasts, or just people who aren’t behind one of the barriers that block the spell.
Cheating at games. From learning what hand a gambler has at a card table to figuring out how low you can haggle a trader down on their wares, Detect Thoughts has a million little uses for gaining the upper hand in social situations.
Learning passwords. Can’t figure out how to get into the super-secret assassins guild? Why not try walking up to the guard, and when she asks for the password, scan her thoughts for the word she’s waiting to hear.
Detecting the Geas spell. Geas is a powerful spell that basically compels someone into carrying out a service, refraining from an action, or taking psychic damage. Clever use of Detect Thoughts might be able to sniff out this compulsion or even help bait them into breaking the spell’s command — which of course would cause that psychic damage and confirm your Geas theory.
One-way silent party communication at a distance. It’s not super for this purpose, but it can come in handy in some cases. If you need to give a silent signal to a party member at a distance, this one-way telepathy is a decent option.
This also works well for a party member or NPC who can’t talk, due to a spell like Silence or just a regular old gag. Extra cool use: telepathically communicating with someone who’s been petrified (if it’s recent enough for them to still be alive, of course).
Translating. As mentioned in the rules section above, the creature only needs to have “a language” not a shared language. This makes it very useful for translation with a willing target, and somewhat useful with an unwilling one.
Get your Intelligence up. This is just a general tip if you plan on using Detect Thoughts to probe deeper into creatures’ minds often. Having a high Intelligence score will ensure that you win more contests, giving you more time to root around in the target’s head.
Probe low Intelligence creature’s minds. Rather than try to probe the mind of the big smart boss lady, go for the dumb underling. You’ll have an easier time successfully winning Intelligence checks that way.
Pair with Hex. Hex is a Warlock-exclusive spell, so you’ll need to multiclass or sync up with a party member for this one, but Hexing a creature’s Intelligence before casting Detect Thoughts will make it easier to win those ability checks.
Pair with Invisibility. A great way to get around Detect Thoughts’ short range is to cast Detect Thoughts, cast Invisibility, and then sneak into the room. Advanced ESP eavesdropping, but a bit expensive on the ol’ spell slots.
Pair with Encode Thoughts. Super niche, but this neat spell from Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica allows the caster to make thoughts into physical strands (a la Pensieve, from Harry Potter). Paired with Detect Thoughts, you can bring back the exact thoughts you read to mull over later or share with others for advice (or gold).
Who Can I Target With Detect Thoughts 5e?
Detect Thoughts doesn’t work on creatures that have an Intelligence of 3 or lower and/or don’t have a language. Common creatures that lack a language include most beasts, plants, oozes, constructs, and undead creatures. Note that while constructs can understand languages, they don’t speak them (which is the requirement of the spell).
Is Detect Thoughts 5e a Good Spell?
Yes, Detect Thoughts is a good spell. It can provide useful information or clues even when just used to scan surface thoughts. Successfully probing deeper into the creature’s mind allows for incredible insight, especially for a spell that only takes up a 2nd-level spell slot.
Detect Thoughts 5e DM Tips
The problem for many DMs is that Detect Thoughts often spoils a great plot point when followed rules as written. If you feel that your players are getting a bit too much mileage out of this second-level spell, keep these tips in mind:
Unreliable narrator. Maybe the person a player is targeting is a pathological liar or someone who doesn’t know the truth. This can make the spell send players on a wild goose chase, so use with caution or keep the stakes of the lie/bad intel relatively low.
Baddies who are savvy with mind magic. If used on a spellcaster or someone who has strong mental fortitude, maybe they fight back. Maybe they hum a mantra or blank their mind or slip thoughts in a purposefully misleading fashion.
Time restraints. Remember that Detect Thoughts only lasts for one minute. Unless the players don’t mind being seen casting the spell (which would definitely arouse suspicion), it takes at least 12 seconds to cast the spell and then move into range to actually target someone/starting reading their thoughts — that leaves 48 seconds of surface thought reading.
The average speaking speed is 150 words per minute — multiplied by the 80% of the spell’s life they have to work with, and you’re left with 120 words of information. (Speaking =/= thinking, but there’s not really definitive data on the words-per-minute of thought).
If they attempt to probe deeper, that’s another 6 seconds. That’s 42 seconds (105 words) of information.
Spell-casting visibility. As mentioned above, casting the spell within sight of others will alert them and probably get their mental guard up.
Stream of conciousness. When a player is reading a creature’s surface thoughts, eat up some of that precious time by throwing a bunch of stream of conciousness BS at them. Maybe they’ll get a few good clues among the word vomit, but at least they’ll have to work a bit harder to parse the important stuff.
Scary minds. Beyond creatures that are savvy of mind magic are creatures whose minds are downright dark places to be (Beholders, anyone?) If you have an extra-spooky baddie, you might even cause psychic pain to a player who dares attempt to pierce their thoughts with a petty second-level spell.
The Mind Blank spell. Or Ring of Mind Shielding (DMG 191) both work as deus ex machina if you really need to keep a creature’s thoughts private for plot purposes.
Cheesing dice. Hey, you can always fudge an Intelligence check roll to kick them out early if you feel the need.
Tinfoil/lead hats. If a player is really abusing Detect Thoughts and making a name for themselves, a humorous response could be that all the townsfolk start wearing lead hats.
Overall, don’t feel too hard that you have to “beat” players who are trying to get an edge with Detect Thoughts — that’s why they picked the spell up in the first place. But if you notice that Detect Thoughts is trivializing social encounters or sucking the fun out of the intrigue-heavy campaign you’re running, these are all options to make the second-level spell feel a little more balanced.
Simple Detect Thoughts 5e Spell Text
Detect Thoughts: (2nd-level, self (30-feet), concentration, up to 1 minute, V/S/M (a copper piece)) For the duration, you can read the thoughts of creatures in range that speak a language and have an Intelligence of 4 or higher. When you cast this spell and as your action for the spell’s duration, you can read the surface thoughts of a creature you can see. You can attempt to probe deeper into the creature’s mind, forcing it to make a Wisdom saving throw. If it succeeds, the spell ends. If it fails, you gain insight into its deeper thoughts, motivations, emotions, and preoccupations. Either way, the creature is aware that you are probing its mind. Unless you shift your attention, it can use an action on its turn to make an Intelligence check contested by your Intelligence check. If it succeeds, the spell ends early.
You can use an action to shift your attention to another creature you can see in range. You can also use this spell to detect the presence of thinking creatures you can’t see within range. Once you detect a creature this way, you can read its thoughts using the rules above.
You can continue to read a creature’s thoughts if you lose sight of it, as long as it remains in range and isn’t blocked by one or more of the following: 2 feet of rock, 2 inches of any metal but lead, or a thin sheet of lead.