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Imagine the following situation: Bobby and Tommy, 2 characters with the Counterspell spell prepared, face against Freddy, an evil priest (who does not have Counterspell). Freddy casts a high level spell. Bobby attempts to counterspell it (and must roll to do so) and Tommy does not react, believing that Bobby will be successful in his roll. But Bobby rolls too low and his Counterspell fails. At that moment, Tommy wants to attempt a Counterspell himself, after seeing his friend fail.

Considering that the reaction must be taken precisely when the spell is cast, is it possible for Tommy to actually wait for another Counterspell to fail before attempting his own Counterspell ?

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Maybe - it's basically up to DM fiat

You've hit upon a genuinely contentious question. Let's work this one through...

Why you shouldn't allow a second counterspell

Counterspell uses a reaction, and a reaction is:

an instant response to a trigger of some kind (SRD p. 91)

If counterspell has to be cast as an instant response to a trigger then once someone decides not to initially cast Counterspell, they cannot choose to do so later, the instance has passed.

There is no rule suggesting that a failed Counterspell has lengthened the time that it took the opposed caster (Freddy) to cast that spell (due to mental interference or whatever). So the instant trigger, that Tommy needs to respond to, has not been lengthened by the failed attempt to Counterspell (made by Bobby).

Let's look at this another way. The trigger for Counterspell is:

when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell

So, when Freddy begins casting his spell, provided they can see him, both Bobby and Tommy meet the conditions to cast Counterspell. However, if Bobby chooses to cast it initially and Tommy doesn't, once Bobby's attempted Counterspell has failed, does Tommy still meet the trigger condition in order to now attempt his own Counterspell? Is Freddy still casting a spell or has he, in the elapsed time, already successfully cast it? The rules are unclear. The casting time of most combat spells (1 action, or 1 bonus action) is pretty abstract, but neither of these periods of time is long (arguably significantly less than six seconds, as one character could cast up to three spells in one round of combat, if they used action (cantrip), bonus action and reaction to do so).

It could be argued that the only non-meta sign that Tommy would see, that Bobby's attempted Counterspell had failed, would be Freddy successfully casting his spell, at which point it is obviously too late for him to attempt to counterspell.

Why you should allow a second counterspell

Counterspell reads:

You attempt to interrupt a creature in the process of casting a spell (SRD p. 131)

Combat is an abstraction, so while in-game both counterspells would be rationalised as being resolved simultaneously, they in reality are not resolved that way at the table.

The first attempted Counterspell (Bobby's) will be resolved, at the table, before the casting of the antagonist Freddy's spell has been resolved. As soon as the first Counterpsell has failed Tommy (the second caster) could attempt to cast Counterspell, using his own reaction, in response.

As Rubiksmoose said in his answer:

Only after the spell completes and begins to take effect is the spell no longer a valid target for counterspelling.

Taking this to it's logical conclusion, if Tommy's Counterspell also failed, a third caster could then also attempt to counterspell, and then a fourth, and so on.

This might seem extreme but allowing it is arguably balanced. Each Counterspell attempt consumes a reaction and a spell slot, so the more characters that try to Counterspell the same spell the better it is for their enemy, who has always used only one slot to cast their own spell.

So, how should you rule?

Well, that's entirely up to you. Both approaches seem to have benefits, I'd consider which you think your players will find more fun.

Would you players enjoy the drama when the second caster comes through with an important save, at a crucial moment, after the first attempt at Counterspell had failed? Mechanically this might to be the higher tension and more exciting option.

Or, would your players prefer the jeapoardy of having to decide what their PCs would do in that situation simultaneously, before either counterspell is resolved? They'd run the risk of a wasted spell slot if both succeed. This seems like it could be the more realistic roleplaying decision, and narratively satisfying, and also gives both players a meaningful decision to make.

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Yes, you can decide to counterspell after someone else's reaction

Every reaction spell has a trigger. Counterspell's is:

when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell

As long as a trigger is still present, a reaction can act upon it. So if you can see a creature that is in the process of casting a spell (within 60 feet of you) you can cast counterspell on them. Only once the casting of the spell completes and begins to take effect is the spell no longer a valid target for counterspelling.

So let's look at your example.

Freddy starts to cast a spell and is now "casting a spell". Since casting a spell is a trigger for counterspell, Bobby decides to take it, but his counterspell fails.

At this moment, only two questions matter:

  • Is Freddy, still in the process of casting a spell? Yes.
  • Can Tommy see Freddy and is he within 60 feet of him? Yes.

Thus, Tommy can use the same trigger to cast his own counterspell.

If the spell had said something like "when a creature starts to cast a spell" then the counterspell perhaps would not be valid.

It is also worth noting that Freddy isn't "deciding not to react" to the spell in this case, he's just deferring on the decision until the first reaction resolves. Nowhere does it say that letting another reaction go before you decide robs you of the opportunity to decide to react or not.

For an analogous situation, when a creature provokes opportunity attacks from multiple creatures, they can take them one after the other. It doesn't make sense to force the creature that takes their OA second to complete their attack if the first OA already killed the creature. So, of course they can decide after the first OA whether or not to attack for the same reasons I have outlined above.

However, it is up to the DM whether Tommy knows that the first counterspell failed

Nothing in the rules says that casters know if their spells succeed or not. Also, spells have no visible effects until they are completely cast. Thus, there is likely going to be no true indication that the spell was successfully broken.

The one way it might be possible is that, since counterspell actually interrupts the casting of the spell, the caster would physically noticeable stop casting the spell as a sign that it was successful (or the reverse if not). Nothing in the rules explicitly says this is the case though, so it is up to the DM what clues to provide, if any, to the second caster.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion and all 25 have been deleted. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica May 5 '18 at 4:10
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Depends on the DM's playstyle

The tactical wargame playstyle

Nothing in the rules limits the order of reaction. If one character's Counterspell has failed, another one can make an attempt too — it would be absolutely correct by rules as written.

The simulationist playstyle

The character did not see the dice roll. He only knows his friend's Counterspell was failed because it doesn't counter the enemy's spell. That means the enemy already successfully cast their spell, and the trigger "a creature casting a spell" is already gone.

See these questions for more information:

Long story short, a caster can say if their spell was successful only based on the actual result, unless the spell description says otherwise. This is also applied to a person who watches the spell being cast.

The DM being nice playstyle

There is nothing wrong in stretching rules in players' favor (unless the players themselves are against that practice). If the player feels bad about wasting a spell slot — don't force him to play the game the way he doesn't want to play.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, that's just if you're very strict about players not being permitted to use table knowledge to make decisions about how their characters act; Certainly there's nothing in the rules about the character knowing that the counterspell failed, but there's nothing preventing them from attempting a counterspell after the other failed (leaving the issue of how or if they know the other attempt has failed aside). \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic May 4 '18 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Cubic You are correct, this will be determined by how much Meta-Game a DM allows at his table. I have played with both extremes of the spectrum. This has made me wonder about whether I will do it this way at mine, as it has logical basis from a character's POV. I tend to not like Meta-Gaming as much as humanly possible but it is a game and it happens... even some of the rules are Meta-Game oriented like rerolling dice and such. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth May 4 '18 at 15:54
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Yes because it is only using your reaction to do so. So if someone fails their counterspell with their reaction then the other person just uses their reaction to attempt to counterspell it.

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This answer lacks any citation or explanation on how the action economy could allow this. I definitely see DMs allowing it because it is a game but from a rules stand point and wording seems to contradict some things. Consider adding weight by citing where in the rules you get your conclusion. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth May 4 '18 at 14:18

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