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In a D&D 5e game that I'm in, I play an arcane trickster rogue. We recently added a new player to the session, specifically a bard. In character, we try to one up each other all the time. It just seems to be how our characters interact.

So, one morning the bard was performing in an inn, and I decided to cast invisible mage hand to mess with the strings on the lyre he was playing. Our DM informed me that I took 5 psychic damage (after he rolled for damage). When I questioned it, I was told that the bard's instrument deals psychic damage when played by someone not attuned. I can't find anything about that when I tried researching, so I conclude that this lyre is a special kind of bard instrument. I accept the DM's ruling on the matter and that won't change.

However, out of character, I'm really curious if that was the correct ruling? Here's my argument: if I use mage hand to set off a magical fireball trap from a distance, and my mage hand get's hit, I do not take damage (unless that's being played incorrectly). So in my mind, the psychic damage from the instrument should have been directed at the mage hand, and not me. My logic may well be way outside RAW at this point, but it seems to me that the instrument couldn't have known it was me messing with it. On the other hand perhaps it could because it's obviously a magical instrument.

So, when an arcane trickster tries using mage hand to play an instrument that deals psychic damage to anyone not attuned who plays it, should the trickster take damage? Also, is this a special kind of instrument, or does this apply to all bard instruments and I just missed that feature in my research?

Clarification: I'm interested in the interaction of mage hand with this instrument, knowing that my rogue as the caster of mage hand was not attuned to the instrument. I accept that if my rogue had walked up to the instrument and tried to play it, he would take psychic damage. I didn't roll a saving throw.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you have to roll a WIS save before taking the damage? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 22 '17 at 15:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch No, I did not. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Nov 22 '17 at 16:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I just clarified it. I see a big debate over that below. Apologies for being unclear. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Nov 22 '17 at 17:26
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Yes. Given the nature of the item and spell, and given that how they interact isn't explicitly written and therefore the rules put it on the DM's shoulders to decide, how your DM handled it was correct.

The item

Without spoiling too much, a bard's instrument that:

  • involves “attunement”
  • is able to cause psychic damage to unattuned players

… matches a specific magical item in the DMG's list of magic items.

For those who want to be spoiled, they can read about it in

the DMG on page 176.

The interaction

Whether using a mage hand to play the instrument counts as personally playing the instrument, at least enough to suffer the damage, is in the realm of DM's judgement. There are no rules for how the item interacts with "indirect" playing, so the game falls back on the basic rule that the DM decides based on their best judgement.

Since it's psychic damage and the mind doing the playing is the rogue's mind operating the spell, I would agree with your DM's call. In another game with another DM though, the damage might just fizzle out with no available target instead. Another method of indirect playing may also have a different result — for example, building a machine to strum it would seem (to me) to not count as the builder playing it, but using a stick to play it would. Again, this is explicitly down to DM's judgement, so your DM's call is supported by what the rules say is up to the DM, and I think the call is pretty reasonable.

(And aside, isn't it way more interesting to discover this? That's another, separate reason to appreciate the DM's call here!)

A saving throw

Normally a saving throw is required before suffering this particular damage. If the DM skipped it entirely, that isn't (normally) their call to make and a save should have been rolled.

It's possible that the DM forgot, or maybe rolled the save for you. (I'm generally fine with making rolls for players when it's done to preserve a good mystery. If it was me that would be likely why you didn't roll, but I don't know your DM's habits.)

If the DM simply left the save out, that's something that could be corrected next time. A nice non-intrusive way to do this is to ask "don't I get a saving throw or something?" This nudges the DM if they forgot, without the player engaging in "backseat DMing".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Saying the page number is a spoiler? \$\endgroup\$ – Malkev Nov 22 '17 at 16:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Malkev Perhaps more accurately, “temptation”? This appears to be a new D&D player who hasn't had all their wonder of the unknown spoiled by reading through the non-player books yet. I remember my own beginnings with D&D, before I studied all the available manuals, and I treasure the sense of discovery I enjoyed during games then. I wouldn't want to cut that time unnecessarily shorter for a new player, while trying to help them. :) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 22 '17 at 16:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ To me the question reads more like "does using the instrument with mage hand qualify as playing it" and less "can a magic instrument hit me with psychic damage". \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Nov 22 '17 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Szega, is correct, I'm more interested in the interaction of using mage hand to play the instrument combined with the fact that my rogue was not attuned to the instrument. I understand that this item would deal psychic damage to my rogue if he had used his own hands to try to play it. I'm sorry if I wasn't clear on that. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Nov 22 '17 at 17:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chris Thanks for clearing that up! I've edited the answer to suit that question better, now that I know my first guess was wrong and Szega was on-point. (Thanks Szega for making it an issue and prompting the clarifying comment!) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 22 '17 at 17:36
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After reading the question and existing answer I felt it might provide additional understanding to think about this from a narrative perspective.

So in my mind, the psychic damage from the instrument should have been directed at the mage hand, and not me. ... but it seems to me that the instrument couldn't have known it was me messing with it

I would say this really depends on the nature of that psychic damage. For example, if the instrument lashes out with a telekinetic attack, that might target the hand. If that were the case though, the damage probably would have been described as force damage rather than psychic damage. Psychic damage evokes more of a mental assault. I could easily understand the logical leap of your DM, as my own logical leap is as follows:

  • psychic damage will target a mind, not a thing
  • you are actively controlling the mage hand, so your mind is in a sense connected to it
  • thus the psychic damage would target the connected mind, namely yours

Anyway, those are just my thoughts on one way that magic might work in the campaign world where this is taking place. Remember, when magic is on the table, nothing is off the table.

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