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A Rod of Alertness has the Protective Aura property, which can be activated once per day by planting the half end of the rod in the ground.

But what if you're in an area where the ground is too solid to be pierced, such as a floor of obsidian? Can you still use the Protective Aura property in this case (making the Rod stand vertically or something), or no?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ But what if you're in an area where the ground is too solid to be pierced, such as a floor of obsidian? Which property is more important to you: that the ground be too solid to be pierced, or that it be made of Obsidian? Obsidian is more brittle than you may be aware, and unless it's been enchanted, it's not going to fulfill your "too solid to be pierced" criterion. \$\endgroup\$
    – Xirema
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Heh, bad example then. Ehhh, brick ? \$\endgroup\$
    – Gael L
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 18:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the exact material matters here, what matters is that it is un-piercable. It could be a wall of force if you really want to find an example. \$\endgroup\$
    – GreySage
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 19:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Historical note: In earlier editions, the rod's description was worded in a way that made it clear that "planting the head of the rod in the ground" was what you needed to do to activate that property of the rod, rather than one of the effects of that property. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented May 4 at 22:50

4 Answers 4

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By a very strict RAW reading (possibly overly strict), you probably wouldn't be able to activate this feature

If the ground cannot be pierced, then you'd be unable to "plant the rod in the ground", per the requirements of the Magic Item.

It's not clarified by the item description whether this requirement is about drawing power out of the ground, a'la "Drawing on the natural power of the Earth", or if it's just a matter of keeping the rod upright. In the latter case, a DM would probably permit you to simply prop it up with a stand or some other object. In the former case, probably not.

Ultimately, you'll have to ask your DM how they would rule in this situation. The fact that this technicality could result in a relatively powerful magic item being unable to use its signature feature may be enough to persuade them to make an exception, or at least give you a work-around. On the other hand, sometimes it's okay to have situations where a magic item just won't work.

From my perspective, it's probably okay to just let the rod be propped up by a stand or some other object. But that's not guaranteed to be your DM's perspective.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Wedge it in a crack? It feels like the restriction is to stop it being used inside a man-made structure type dungeon. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kieveli
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 20:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ You could argue that the rules let you plant it in the ground regardless of what it's made of, so long as it's 'ground' and not 'floor' because the spell text says you can. Specific beats general, after all, and the Spell Text says 'plant it in the ground', which is more specific than 'Obsidian is hard' \$\endgroup\$
    – user47897
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 22:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkTO I don't think this interpretation is right. For example, Acid description says "you can splash the contents" and I'm pretty sure it does not override things like being tied. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 0:16
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No it cannot

The rod is a magic item, and tells you how it works. It says

Protective Aura. As an action, you can plant the haft end of the rod in the ground, whereupon the rod's head sheds bright light in a 60-foot radius and dim light for an additional 60 feet.

Normally, the "as an action" triggers for magic items are of a less physical nature. They typically include

  • Speaking a command word
  • Expending a charge

While there is little outside something stopping you from taking actions (like incapacitation) that could keep you from expending a charge, you also would not expect someone to be able to trigger a magic item ability that needs speaking a command word when they are gagged or in an area of silence.

Likewise, the physical action here is part of the trigger to use the ability, it is not part of the magical effect it causes. Therefore, if you cannot do it, you cannot create the effect.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this a joke answer or is this really what you think it means? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4 at 9:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or maybe a better question, do you really think a magic item that says “you can” means you can do the thing in any and all circumstances without exception? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4 at 10:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov I did not intend it as a joke answer. But I now went and compared it to various other as an action triggers, and I think the answer to your second question is no, so I‘ll revise my answer here. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4 at 11:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is now a really good answer. That last sentence is chef’s kiss. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4 at 11:16
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DM call

As is so often the case, there is a gap of ambiguity between the text of the rules and how they are implemented in the game, so the DM decides.

Some help for a DM ruling

The item description says:

As an action, you can plant the haft end of the rod in the ground

I present two options. One is not more RAW than the other, the DM decides.

One option: you have to push it into dirt

The DM may wish to interpret both "plant . . . in the ground" extremely mundanely, and rule that the rod must be shoved ("planted") by the muscle power of the wielder into a yielding surface composed of malleable material, likely mostly dirt, probably outside ("the ground").

Another option: it's magic, and it works

The DM may wish to interpret "plant . . . in the ground" more magically, and rule that the wielder plants the rod, and the surface doesn't matter. It's magical. Magic's weird. You're standing on a marble (or whatever) floor, and you plant it right in the floor, and, because it's magic, it just gets planted and stands there.

Almost any ground is too hard or too soft to plant the rod, without magic

Try it. We don't know the exact size of the rod, but the DMG describes a rod as typically about an inch wide and 2 or 3 feet long. You might have some real-world object about that size available to you. A broom is probably too long, but maybe about the right width. If you have one to spare, cut off 3 feet. Go outside and stick it in the dirt. You're almost certainly not going to be able to in one motion stick it in the dirt and have it stay upright. The dirt is likely to be either too hard to get the rod into the ground or too soft for it to stay standing.

Note that the description doesn't even say it has a pointy end. It doesn't say you have to be especially strong. It doesn't say the ground has to be soft.

So, lacking other description, we have to assume the rod is generally a a blunt pole, an inch in diameter. If so, it's going to be really quite difficult to just stick it into most "ground", so that it stands upright.

There are magic items that specifically require the user to plant them

The [staff of the woodlands][1] says:

You can use an action to plant one end of the staff in fertile earth

It is clear the intent is that the surface the magic item is being embedded in is malleable, although even so, fortunately the staff will turn into a tree, because without magic it's unlikely to stay upright, and stays standing.

The [bag of beans][2] says (of a bean):

plant it in dirt or sand

This is much more specific than plant it in the ground.

Implications

The more mundane option precludes the rod functioning in that particular way in a great many environments that adventurers find themselves in. Other than that, there's no particular implication. Neither option will have game-breaking repercussions.

In some ways, the "ground" issue is more important than "plant". However, in looking at the many ways the word is used in the rules, they are not consistent. Furthermore, "ground" is not particularly germane to the spell, as it might be if actual plants were involved, and using the term as "the surface you're standing on" does not violate any theme of the item.  

How to decide

The DM should decide in whichever way seems most fun, and move on.

How I would decide

This DM would rule that it's magic and it just works.

You use an action to strike the rod onto the surface you're standing on, and it's planted. When you use an action to pull it out, there's no hole.

That would generally work. If the surface were in some way magical or otherwise deeply weird (as is so often the case in D&D), that might require reexamination.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure why this got downvotes, it distilled everything down pretty well. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented May 4 at 16:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't get the down vote either. Good exploration of how to rule this. As a DM, I appreciate this kind of thoroughness. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 6 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, since they don't say, I don't know why they downvoted, either! I think some people don't like answers like, "up to the DM", so they judge the answer "not useful". \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented May 6 at 18:33
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Yes.

Specific beats general, and the spell text 'Plant it in the ground' supersedes the much more general durability of any substance whatsoever. However, it must be 'ground' and not 'floor' which means it won't work on the roof of a castle, for example.

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