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Can the spell feather fall be used to stop you/others falling at any point in the fall, or just at the start of the fall?

For example, could a character jump from a very large height, descend rapidly at freefall (which as we know from Xanathar's Guide to Everything, is 500 feet/round), then cast feather fall once they are 60 feet above the ground?

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The Rules are Unclear

Your question is reasonable, because Feather Fall's casting time might lead you to conclude that it can only be used at the start of a fall:

Casting Time: 1 reaction, which you take when you or a creature within 60 feet of you falls.

The issue at hand is that "fall" has two relevant definitions (as a verb):

1. move downward, typically rapidly and freely without control, from a higher to a lower level.

2. (of a person) lose one's balance and collapse. "she fell down at school today"

(Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

If we use use the second definition, then the "fall" only happens "when" the creature begins descending. But if we use the first definition, then someone "falls" whenever they are still descending under the influence of gravity (e.g. "during this round, the creature falls").

The spell has considerably reduced utility if it can only be cast at the start of a fall. For example, since it only lasts a minute, it could not save a creature from a fall of more than 600 feet. And since it has a range of 60 feet, it also could not be used to save a creature that falls from higher than that above a spellcaster. It seems likely that a DM would rule that it can be used during a creature's descent, to stop it from being an extremely niche use spell, but it is up to the individual DM.

Using once you are 60 feet above the ground

Let's assume, for the moment, that your DM permits you to cast Feather Fall during a fall, not just at its start. Your example (casting it when you are within 60 feet of the ground) still may not work as you intended.

If you want to cast the spell when you are within 60 feet of the ground after falling normally for an extended period, you are essentially asking to cast it when you will spend exactly one round falling gently, and then still be able to use your full movement on the ground (an understandable goal). But while you fall, you do not have an accurate readout of their current height at your disposal. And if you have been falling for 500 feet, you are moving very fast (realistically, you will have less than half a second to cast the spell while you are within 60 feet of the ground: and if you are moving 500 feet in 6 seconds, the timing is similar). You might cast the spell too soon, and be more than 60 feet above the ground, or too late (and splat).

A DM could call for any type of check (Perception, for example) with whatever DC they wished if you wanted to attempt a HALO style jump with the Feather Fall spell. Although "rule of cool" could certainly grant you some leeway, you might want to check with your DM before you attempted this tactic.

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The casting time part was already quoted, so here's the text of the spell:

Choose up to five falling creatures within range. A falling creature’s rate of descent slows to 60 feet per round until the spell ends. If the creature lands before the spell ends, it takes no falling damage and can land on its feet, and the spell ends for that creature.

Since OP didn't ask RAW, I think this clearly conveys the intent: indeed, already falling people can be targeted by this. Since people's speed when they start to fall is 0, it couldn't "slow" to 60 feet per round.

It's another question that the 60 feet range might prove too small if you want to save people.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice point on the initial speed of a falling object/creature! You might also want to point out that the tense used in "falling creatures" is the "present progressive" tense, which describes something ongoing (which began in the past). \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Oct 1 '18 at 18:51
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Yes

Requiring it to be cast only at the beginning of the fall would make the spell useless for falls over 600 ft.

To avoid falling damage, the spell must be cast when the creatures are no more than 600 ft from the ground because it slows their falling speed to 60 ft/round and lasts for 10 rounds.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is not when feather fall must be cast to avoid falling damage, but whether it can only be cast at the point that a creature starts falling, or at any time as long as there is a falling creature in range. This answer doesn't address that. \$\endgroup\$ – Vigil Oct 1 '18 at 9:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not useless if you can cast it twice: you could be considered to "start falling" again when the first feather fall ends, if your DM takes that interpretation of the wording. I think that sucks, and you should be able to cast it as an action or bonus action during a fall, if you choose not to use your reaction to cast it right away as someone falls. But the rules don't explicitly say you can do that. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Dec 2 '18 at 5:53

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