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The wizard is chased through the woods by a bandit. The bandit is 50 feet behind the wizard and continuously throws javelins at him. The wizard then readies a Catapult spell. The trigger is "after the bandit releases the next javelin". Of course, the bandit throws another javelin.

Now comes the strange part ... do I really have to roll for the bandits attack? Because it seems to me, that no matter if the bandit would hit or miss, the Catapult spell will pluck the javelin from the air and hurl it right back at the bandit.

The trigger is perceivable. The reaction (= casting the Catapult spell) occurs after the trigger (but before the javelin hits?). And the javelin seems to be a valid target for the Catapult spell: its weight is between 1 and 5 pounds, and at the moment when the spell is actually cast, it is neither worn, nor carried.

My players like it, I'm not a fan.

Does this work RAW? Is this an intended use of the Catapult spell?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Do reactions interrupt their triggers or not? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz May 9 '18 at 13:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor : For just a level 1 spell, negating an enemy attack, plus potentially dealing damage seemed cheesy to me. \$\endgroup\$ – hohenheim May 9 '18 at 13:36
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The contentious part of this question is the trigger for the Readied Action

The relevant rule for setting the trigger for a Readied Action is as follows:

When the trigger occurs, you can either take your reaction right after the trigger finishes or ignore the trigger. (PHB p. 193)

Xanathar's Guide to Everything elaborates further:

If you’re unsure when a reaction occurs in relation to its trigger, here’s the rule: the reaction happens after its trigger completes, unless the description of the reaction explicitly says otherwise.

So, does 'when the bandit throws a javelin, but before the javelin hits' work as a trigger?

It's not really clear, RAW.

It could be argued that, if someone sets this trigger as 'when the bandit throws a javelin' then the trigger is finished or completes as soon it leaves the bandits hand, in which case the Readied Action will interrupt the bandit's Action and potential damage from it will be avoided before the roll is resolved to know whether it would have hit or not.

However, it could also be argued, that the trigger completing or finishing in this case means the bandit's Attack completing or finishing (i.e. both hit and potential damage being resolved) before the reaction is triggered. Ruling this way would make readying the Catapult spell basically useless, as Casting Catapult on your next turn and keeping your reaction free would always be more efficient.

Which way you rule on this is up to you.

I personally, would want to reward creative thinking, and so would rule as follows in my own game:

It works, for the reasons you've stated:

  • The Javelin is light enough to be catapulted (2 lb).
  • The trigger for the readied Action is perceivable (the javelin being thrown).
  • 3d8 might seem like a lot of damage (especially as the javelin itself would normally only do 1d6) but the enemy has a chance to save against it and it's no more damage than the caster would do by catapulting a rock they run past on their own turn. Readying the action just has the added bonus of doing the damage while also intercepting an incoming attack.

And I'd allow it, because I don't think doing so is overpowered:

In most situations Shield (also a first level spell) would be a better solution:

  • Shield doesn't deal damage but would allow you to deflect multiple attacks (if you had multiple pursuers, or a pursuer with multi-attack) as it lasts until the start of your next turn. Catapult could only be cast once per round and the potential to deal damage (on a failed save) is only useful if reducing the attacker to 0 hp is likely.
  • Shield doesn't consume your Action, meaning you could dash on your turn and cast Shield as a Reaction, therefore escaping any enemy that couldn't dash as a bonus action and kept throwing javelins. At 50 ft they'd already have disadvantage on javelin throws.
  • When you Ready an Action to Cast a Spell (like Catapult) you effectively cast it on your turn (as a Cast a Spell Action) but then release it as a Reaction. That means you'd use the spell slot even if your trigger was never met. After the first time you catapulted a javelin back, an intelligent enemy might, rather than throwing another javelin, instead Dash to melee range. Then you'd have not only wasted an Action and burnt a spell slot for no gain, but you'd also provoke an Attack of Opportunity if you continued running.
  • Finally, when you use Catapult, the enemy has the chance to save against your attack, and take no damage. So even in the fringe situation that you have only one pursuer, who can only make one attack per turn, who is near death and stupid enough to keep thowing javelins that you're firing back at them, you still risk burning actions and spell slots for little long term gain.

P.S. An interesting aside, that hasn't been covered by this answer or any other, is that Catapult would probably break the javelin it was cast upon. Catapult deals 3d8 damage not only to whoever it hits, but also to the projectile itself. So, a DM would have to rule on how many hp a javelin had, but Catapult-ing it would almost certainly break it (for comparison, a Chain has 10 hp, a Rope only 2 hp).

This would prevent the same javelin being thrown back and forth, and mean that a pursuer would eventually run out of javelins in this situation - despite the fact that they are being 'returned to sender'. Whether a broken javelin could then be thrown as an improvised weapon is up to the DM (though it would still be a lesser damage die than an unbroken javelin, and have a smaller range).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't say that shield is better in most situations. You can still be hit with a shield, so against a single primary threat automatically disabling an incoming attack by using an offensive spell can be incredibly powerful. daze413 discusses this power level. I'd allow it as a creative exception, but if it became used repeatedly I'd have the caster make a check. On success, they defend and launch the attack. On failure, they take the attack, and if it hits they fail to cast. This makes a higher risk/reward. \$\endgroup\$ – Samthere May 10 '18 at 12:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would agree that this tactic would be better than Shield in that specific situation. I stand by the fact that Shield is more generally useful, however. I think the strongest argument for that is that Catapult must be readied in advance. If no one throws anything at you your whole round and a spell slot has been wasted - that's the risk. \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous May 10 '18 at 13:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems plausible because javelins are relatively slow-moving. However, by extension of that logic, couldn't you say the same about arrows? Even siege weapon projectiles with the levitate or telekinesis spells? I was going to ask a question about siege weapons, but it seemed more appropriate to post a comment here rather than a new question. I tend to agree with your conclusion, but the question does lie in whether any time passes between a successful attack and damage. \$\endgroup\$ – Kakuna Rattata Oct 12 '18 at 1:10
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By RAW, the trigger must finish as per the PHB:

When the trigger occurs, you can either take your reaction right after the trigger finishes or ignore the trigger. (PHB 193)

You get to finish the Bandit's attack and then the wizard can use Catapult.

Allowing Catapult to disrupt an attack is too strong for a first level spell. Consider another 1st-level spell, Shield, it also disrupts an attack but the attack still has a chance to hit you. If you allow Catapult to be cast this way, you not only disrupt the attack, but you also let it do damage. You are opening your game up to all sorts of projectile deflecting shenanigans, as fairly-large 5 lb rocks can be deflected back with just a readied spell- it's better than the Dodge action!

As always, DM has final say. If you allow it, then it goes. But be prepared to consistently allow it all campaign long.

P.S. Remember that if the Javelin hits, the Wizard needs to make a Concentration check as readying a spell requires concentration (PHB 193)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel this is the correct answer. Breaking down triggers too granularly gets ridiculous and the system was not designed for it. The bandit's action was to use the Attack action so once that is resolved (hit or miss and damage possibly taken) the Catapult would be cast. @hohenheim \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth May 9 '18 at 12:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ An alternative view point is that while this increases the effectiveness of the Catapult spell (which is a little lackluster to begin with) it isn't as dramatic as you make it out to be. The player has to give up their action to accomplish this. If no enemies use a ranged attack, they've wasted their turn. Furthermore, you might ask the player to specify an enemy that they are watching to attack. This means they have to sacrifice their turn to watch for a single enemy's attack and attempt to negate it. This is not nearly as powerful as Shield as far as negating attacks. I think it's balanced. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshu's Mu May 9 '18 at 18:29
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It works and you should roll

While the attack is "essentially" made moot by the spell there is a thing you have to keep in mind. The javelin is not thrown until the bandit attacks.

From a in-world view, the bandit is most likely unaware of anything but the wizard running. He would simply keep on throwing javelins.

From a narrative point the result of the bandit's 'useless' attack can become a neat little tool. Just imagine the chill running down your player's spine when you tell them the javelin would have hit them, or even crit! It was by their own wits they evaded damage. Even a miss or critical failure* on the side of the bandit is a narrative tool.

* via the critical failure variant rule on DMG p242

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This is akin to "I ready my attack to break the javalin as it is in the air after it leaves the enemy's hand". After all, a broken weapon isn't an effective one, so if the sword deals enough damage to the javalin the defender won't take damage.

In a game where that flies (which will depend on the style of the table), so should readying a spell to target something in mid-flight being thrown. The same kind of difficulty and/or checks should be applied.

However, by RAW, there is nothing that happens between a Javalin being thrown and it hitting its target. You throw a Javalin, and part of that is checking if it hits and dealing damage. The wording of ready an action is vague enough that you could add additional steps in there, but so would "I ready an action to move away from the enemy when the enemy starts to swing their sword" to cause an attack to fizzle.

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