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This question is based on the differing answers on Can the catapult spell be used to move an object?

Choose one object weighing 1 to 5 pounds within range that isn’t being worn or carried. The object flies in a straight line up to 90 feet in a direction you choose before falling to the ground, stopping early if it impacts against a solid surface. If the object would strike a creature, that creature must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, the object strikes the target and stops moving. When the object strikes something, the object and what it strikes each take 3d8 bludgeoning damage.

What does up to 90 feet mean? Does it mean you can choose the distance or that it goes 90 feet but stops early if it hits something? It seems like it is the latter.

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Probably Your Choice, Or Else Just Poorly Worded

If we eliminated the words "up to" the spell would read:

The object flies in a straight line 90 feet in a direction you choose before falling to the ground, stopping early if it impacts against a solid surface.

This would unambiguously leave open no possibility of a non-90 foot travel distance without hitting something. "Up to" does nothing but create an ambiguity for such a reading. The most obvious other possibility for not moving the full 90 feet is that it is intended for the character to have control and choose. This may well not be the intent; if it is not the spell just has suboptimal phrasing.

Perhaps relevant to intent, lead designer Jeremy Crawford tweets:

The catapult spell lets you choose an object within the spell's range and then hurl that object a certain number of feet. The hurl distance is not the same as the range. (The spell's range has been updated in the EE Player's Guide.)

"A certain number" would be an unnecessarily convoluted way of saying "90" in a tweet.

But, obviously the use of unnecessarily vague language is always a possibility.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Probably best a good idea to jump straight to "its poorly worded". There's no way to know if something is poorly worded unless the designer says so, and even then it's RAI at best. \$\endgroup\$ – pwi Dec 17 '19 at 4:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jgn What do you mean "at best"? I didn't realize there was an agreed ordering of "bestness" among various rules interpretations. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Dec 17 '19 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells RAW is best, followed by RAI. When analyzing a rule it is best to read the rule and try and understand it in context. The rules are very carefully written, and everyone has access to them. Assume they are correct. However, if there is problems, you can go to RAI. RAI does not mean second guessing the author, it means looking for specific evidence of how the designer rules. What we have in this answer is some speculation based on a tweet, analyzing the word choice used and trying to figure out what that implies. That isn't RAW, and it is barely RAI - if the argument was very strong. \$\endgroup\$ – pwi Dec 18 '19 at 0:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mark, DM interpretation, word of god, rule as interpretated by community, rules as written, players interpretation. \$\endgroup\$ – cde Jan 26 at 7:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @cde Explain further, please. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jan 26 at 18:16
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Not your choice when compared to other descriptions with the "up to" wording.

Many spells or items have an "up to" in their descriptions and in some of these most people (myself included) assume that the caster may choose to make it less. Two examples are mage hand

You can move the hand up to 30 feet each time you use it.

and a flask of oil:

As an action, you can splash the oil in this flask onto a creature within 5 feet of you or throw it up to 20 feet, shattering it on impact.

I assume we can agree that you may choose in both how far you move the mage hand or throw the bottle.

However note how these spells do not specify that you can choose the direction. Does that mean we cannot choose the direction? Of course we can. It wouldn't really make sense for the direction to be fixed. The flask of oil is here even a better comparison to the catapult spell, because it will also fly in a straight line (unless you can do some cool curve shots). On the other hand the mage hand can move in many directions in one move.

Why is it that these two instances (and others) do not need to specify that one may choose the direction?

The big difference to the catapult spell is, that in these descriptions "you" is the subject of the sentence. This implies that "you" have control over it and can choose the distance and direction.

However in the catapult spell "The object" is the subject of the sentence which implies "you" do not have control over it. That is why it needs the extra clause that "you" can choose the direction.

Ok, but why doesn't the "you choose" part also apply to the distance?

Grammatically you can make a verb refer to two things to avoid repeating it. For example "You choose your colour and group". Here "choose" refers to colour and group. However then when removing one of the things, the sentence still has to make sense with the other (you might have to correct from plural to singular though).

If we leave away the "in a direction" part from the spell description, we get "up to 90 feet you choose before falling to the ground". That does not make any sense. If we were allowed to choose the distance the description would be something like "The object flies in a straight line up to a distance (up to 90 feet) and direction you choose before falling to the ground".

My conclusion is that there is no indication in the description that "you" may choose the distance the object can fly. It will always fly 90 feet unless it hits something.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not saying your conclusion is definitely wrong: but I'm not sure I find the subject of the sentence a compelling argument. It might be more convincing if you can find an example where the object was the subject of the sentence, and the user unambiguously did not have a choice in the distance involved. \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Dec 16 '19 at 17:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a counterexample: consider the spell Water Breathing (PHB, p. 287). The text states "This spell grants up to ten willing creatures you can see within range the ability to breathe underwater until the spell ends." The subject is "this spell" (not "you"). Would you say that you are required to grant this power to 10 people if possible? Like, if your party had 6 people in it but you cast it in a public space, would you be forced to cast it on an additional 4 bystanders? \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Dec 16 '19 at 17:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme interesting point. It might actually. Spells like bless "You bless up to three creatures of your choice" specifically include that it is your choice. This spell does not. It may actually affect people you don't want it to affect. \$\endgroup\$ – findusl Dec 16 '19 at 17:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a neat perspective! And totally defendable in that case (especially since giving passerby's water breathing is unlikely to influence anything). But I think I've found another problematic example. In Thaumaturgy (PHB, p. 282), it states "Your voice booms up to three times as loud as normal for 1 minute." The subject here is "your voice," not "you" (a subtle but present distinction). I'm having trouble picturing what, other than your choice, could cause the voice to boom less than 3 times as loud. Do you think that caster control is implied in this case? \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Dec 16 '19 at 17:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme This is how "up to" is used in real life very often. I would even say the main usage I see. The "up to" is used here because it is not exact what "normal" is. For example battery life of phones is usually given as "up to x hours". Can you control it? Partially. Depends on temperature, age of battery, usage etc. Same with your voice. If you whisper, then 3 times louder is less loud than if you shout. If this "up to" would allow you to control it, you could make your voice very silent (half times louder) and cast verbal spells basically unheard. \$\endgroup\$ – findusl Dec 16 '19 at 17:59

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