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5e PHB specifies that mage hand cannot 'activate magical items'.

A magical item (two rocks, which when touched together produce a magical effect) was stowed in a bag on my ally's back during a fight. He had very explicitly specified (many sessions ago) that he stowed them beside each other in his pack, 'separated by a thick piece of cloth, which covered one, but not the other'.

On my turn, in desperation, I used mage hand to retrieve that thick piece of cloth from his bag.

The orbs were then touching together - so technically the magical item activates... So I've used mage hand to activate a magical item, which isn't allowed RAW.

How should this have played out? Does the mage hand fail to pull the cloth? Does it suddenly dissipate as it tries to break the bonds of its creation? Do the magical rocks (or other items which activate in this way) need 'intent' of a person to activate them, to avoid these shenanigans? Or does this loophole work?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this an official magical item or a homebrew one? (If the former, can you share the exact item?) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 11 '17 at 12:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik I believe it is a home-brew item - the effect activates when the two rocks touch, a different effect emanating from each, and is dispelled when the two rocks are moved 60 feet apart from one another. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Dec 11 '17 at 13:50
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Homebrew items require homebrew adjudications

Unfortunately, because this is a homebrew item and there really isn't an equivalent official item to base a ruling off of, you are left with a DM ruling on the action.

If the DM felt that this was an unacceptable action based on the item they created, then that's the ruling.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are there no official magical items that activate by some other means than just 'player holding item activates it'? \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Dec 11 '17 at 16:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Paul Not really. Closest I have seen is the Bag of Beans, which activates upon dumping the contents. But that's still an interaction with a magical object. I get your frustation, but it doesn't really matter what we think should work. The DM created the item and gets to decide how it works. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Dec 11 '17 at 17:05
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Definitely yes in this instance

Removing the cloth would not cause the items to touch automatically. If on a flat surface the items would remain a cloth width apart. What causes them to touch in this case is the effect of the bag pushing them together.

More generally

I have always thought that activate referred to using an item in such a manner as to trigger the magic, such as a wand. Items such as these rocks are in effect always on, and you are simply removing a barrier which prevents the magic rather than specifically triggering that magic.

Even if this general instance is vague the more specific instance of this example is certainly a yes in my eyes. But as always it is up to your DM; especially if they created the item they are more likely to have specific thoughts on how they work / don't work.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While logically this seems possible, these are still magic items - and homebrew at that. Without knowing how the magic works (maybe it requires them to be touched while being held, etc) we can't assume whether or not any non-standard action would work. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Dec 11 '17 at 15:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Quite correct. I tried to end on that note but maybe my use of 'definitely' was a bit presumptuous. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Dec 11 '17 at 15:29

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