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Going into battle, standing in front of a medusa and 2 nagas. I have line of sight on all 3. The DM says to make wisdom saving throw, without describing why.

After failing the saving throw, I'm mind controlled by a naga. When I question why, the DM tells me the naga cast a spell (but wouldn't tell me what one, I assume dominate person, or charm person). To which, I respond, "okay I would use counterspell when I see the naga casting a spell in front of me though."

The DM claimed I should have used counterspell earlier.

Considering that I could see the creature, am I correct in assuming there should have been a description of "you see the naga wave it's arms" or "you see the naga begin to chant" before being asked to make a wisdom saving throw? Something to indicate this was a spell and not a effect of the room or something I couldn't avoid?

P.S. He knows I have counterspell in a ring of spell storing ready.

Follow up: I have always been under the impression that a counterspell needs to be used as a reaction to noticing the components of a spell(VSM) being used; and cast before making a saving throw roll. According to my DM it can be used after the roll, and I should have said "counterspell" as soon as he said "take control"

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    \$\begingroup\$ And welcome to our stack! Please take the tour to learn more about how we operate and you can also visit the help center for more information. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 13 at 16:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch There is an actual question here: "Am I correct in assuming there should have been a description of 'you see the naga wave its arms'", etc. It's a bit buried but it is in there. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Apr 13 at 16:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ How does your DM normally narrate spellcasting? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 13 at 16:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ When you have fought them, how did the DM narrate their casting? Have you fought anything that's counterspelled you? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 13 at 16:37
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The DM should convey "the naga is casting a spell"

Counterspell has a casting time of 1 Reaction...

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

Counterspell says "casting" not "casts", indicating that once the spell is actually cast, it is too late to counter. Your impression of the order of operations is correct:

  1. Casting (for 1 Action spells this involves several seconds of chanting, arm-waving, etc.)
  2. (Optional) counterspell
  3. Cast
  4. Saving throws, attack rolls, etc.
  5. Effects

In order for you the player to know when your character can use counterspell, the DM will need to indicate that spellcasting is occurring. However, the DM is (probably) human, so they can make mistakes.

From the beginning of "Playing the Game" in the Basic Rules, the game follows the following steps:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of their actions.

Spellcasting typically involves verbal, somatic, and/or material components, the first two of which are quite obvious and should be described. The spell dominate person requires verbal and somatic components. (Though a spirit naga only needs the verbal components.)

  • Verbal components involve the "chanting of mystic words ... with specific pitch and resonance".
  • Somatic components involve "forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures".
  • Material components involve "particular objects", but may be replaced by a spellcasting focus (so they may or may not be obvious).

This may seem like unnecessary fluff, but counterspell relies on you seeing those components being performed.

From one of your comments, it sounds like the DM had the naga roll Stealth to avoid counterspell. There are no explicit mechanics for using Stealth to conceal spellcasting, and there are a couple of problems with allowing it:

  1. Every spell will start with a Stealth roll. If it's free, why not do it every time?
  2. Verbal components are "chanting of mystic words ... with specific pitch and resonance". I take this to mean that spellcasting is largely at a fixed volume.
  3. It gives every spellcaster the Subtle Spell metamagic from sorcerer - without the resource cost.
  4. It increases the value of the already-powerful Perception and Stealth skills for spellcasters. If you knew about these houserules at character creation, you may have made different choices. The Observant and Prodigy feats are more desirable, for starters.

Due to the DM not describing the environment (that is, the components) accurately, you and your DM have different perspectives on what occurred.

From your perspective

DM: Make a Wisdom save.

You: Must be some kind of ability the naga has, since spellcasting would be obvious. Can't counter non-spells. (You roll the save.) I got a 12.

DM: You're now mind controlled.

You: That's no good. I'd better double-check that it wasn't a spell. That wasn't a spell, right?

DM: It was a spell.

You: Then I would have used counterspell.

DM: It's too late!

You: This is like falling in a hole that the DM forgot to describe. That's not fair!

From the DM's perspective

DM: This naga is going to use dominate person on that character. I'll make a Stealth check to hide the spellcasting. That beats the wizard's passive Perception. Make a Wisdom save.

You: (You roll the save.) I got a 12.

DM: You're now mind controlled. The player didn't yell "counterspell" here, so they missed their chance.

You: That wasn't a spell, right?

DM: It was a spell.

You: Then I would have used counterspell.

DM: This player is trying to take advantage of the situation. They want to conserve their counters by waiting until they see the result. It's too late!

You: That's not fair!

Resolving the situation

Your goal should be resolving those differences in perspective.

You need to talk with your DM outside of a session (just before or after one works). Present your perspective and ask how the DM wants to handle counterspell in the future. Include the fact that many monsters have non-spell abilities that force a saving throw, and that counterspell is triggered when you see a creature casting a spell. Your DM may not understand the issues with easily-concealed spellcasting.

If your DM wants to keep Stealth spellcasting, be sure you know how this houserule works. In order to follow the rules reasonably well, though, I would recommend one of the following two paths:

  1. Announce the name of all spells as they are being cast. The (N)PCs shouldn't technically know that dominate person is being cast (without a check), but this speeds everything up. If the (N)PC wants to counterspell, they declare it then, before everyone rolls saves.
  2. Announce that (unnamed) spellcasting is occurring, then pause. If the (N)PC wants to counterspell, they do so before the name, saves, or effects of the spell are described.

I prefer the second choice, as it's not much slower than the first, and it encourages tactical play. I recommend that you use the same method for both PCs and NPCs: either you both counterspell knowing the spell, or you both counterspell blind.

As Mark Wells points out in the comments, this may have been avoided by asking "is the naga casting a spell" as soon as possible (barring any Stealth shenanigans). I frequently play AL games with various DMs, so I have adopted a more proactive approach to using abilities. If you explain why you're asking, most DMs will have no problem explaining the situation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate your breakdown of the player's/DM's perspectives. I'll mention that the player did have the chance to stop the situation from progressing to "you blindsided me with this spell" / "you are trying to metagame based on the results of the saving throw", which is to stop and ask for clarification before rolling the saving throw. The DM says "Roll a Wisdom save", you say "Against what?" \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Apr 13 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ OP mentioned in a comment to another answer that the Naga made a Dexterity (Stealth) roll in conjunction with casting the spell, meaning the character did not actually "see the creature casting a spell". If this is the case, did the DM not portray the situation accurately? \$\endgroup\$ – FerventHippo Apr 14 at 12:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FerventHippo Is there a game mechanic in 5e that allows a spellcaster to try and hide his spellcasting like that? Whether such a mechanic exists, whether the naga is eligible to use it, and was it actually used correctly would be required to say if the DM used it appropriately or not. The obvious counterargument would be "it might be a house rule" - and that's certainly a possibility - but then we, the internet, can't answer the question at all, because whether or not it was portrayed accurately depends entirely on the house rules in play at their table. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve-O Apr 14 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Plichard123 In that case, the DM is effectively removing counterspell from the game and you should talk about that. The point is, though, that the game state hasn't changed in any irreversible way until the player rolls the saving throw. (It's still reversible after that, but only in the way that a tattoo is still removable after you get it.) So they shouldn't roll the die until they're clear on what's at stake. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Apr 14 at 16:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RedOrca You should clarify the Stealth rules. A Stealth check is not something that can be freely done. The Hide Action is required to make a Stealth check in combat (PHB 192). Unless the NPC is subclassed as a rouge (for Cunning Action), they can't normally use another action to cast a spell in that turn. Furthermore, the Stealth check automatically fails for enemies that have line of sight on you or if you make noise (verbal components) (PHB 177). The description that Devon Grover provided indicates that they had line of sight. The Stealth would've failed without cover. \$\endgroup\$ – CertainlyNot Apr 14 at 19:06
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Yes, you need to talk with your DM

Unfortunately, how a DM decides to narrate/do things is really entirely up to them. In this particular case, the outcome of the situation was clearly suboptimal for you. You had a mechanic that could have been used had you been given the necessary information, but you weren't and you feel like your agency was taken away from you.

In these cases, you need to talk directly with your DM about what happened and how you felt about it. What the DM opts to do with that conversation may tell you more about how to move forward, or not, with the playing at their table.

But having said that, spellcasting should start off with the description of the caster casting with whatever components are visible/audible and/or telling the players that there is a spell being cast in order to trigger any game mechanics the players may have. In this specific case, the Naga can cast with verbal components only, but they still must use a verbal component (unless the DM has altered their stat block, which they are free to do.)

NB: Players should also do this to the DM in case the NPC has any mechanics that are relevant as well.

I've personally found counterspell to be problematic

The issue that I've always encountered when players or NPCs have this is that whomever is on the other side needs to be clear that they are casting a spell, but not necessarily which one. If this spell is used at the table, then the table needs to come up with a method for how they announce spellcasting and make sure everyone adheres to it.

But I've personally found that such methods make playing really awkward and slow. Every caster's turn is "I start to cast a spell, do you want to do anything?" And that gets old after awhile of never any reactions, then it's dropped, and then you're back in the same situation when it is used.

Give the benefit of the doubt

When you do talk with the DM, please go in giving them the benefit of the doubt and not accuse them of doing something as a bad actor. It may have been a mistake. It may have been a custom monster. It may have been an unnamed surprise round (or a regular one, I don't know how your table treats surprise.) But either way, this is a good discussion to have and will help clear things up as long as you go in friendly and stay friendly (and hopefully the DM does as well.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "But I've personally found that such methods make playing really awkward and slow. Every caster's turn is "I start to cast a spell, do you want to do anything?" And that gets old after awhile of never any reactions, then it's dropped, and then you're back in the same situation when it is used." - I think once it's established that someone on a side has counterspell, then it should be pretty quick - just a matter of "the enemy starts casting a spell" or "I start casting a spell", wait a beat, then continue. You just need to make sure the counterspeller is not given too much time to decide. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 14 at 0:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Yes, theoretically you are correct, but my experience shows that it quickly gets forgotten when there aren't casters on the other side where it matters. That section of my answer is a practical example of when and where it often goes wrong at the tables I've played at. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 14 at 12:29
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It would definitely be worth talking to your DM about this.

Now with that said, I don't want to simply repeat what everyone else has already said. Instead I would suggest how we run things at our (virtual) table. What you can do in this situation going forward is when the DM says "make a [whatever] save" ask "Did [monster] cast a spell? And if so could I detect that they were casting one? If so I use my reaction to cast Counterspell." Your DM is not obligated to tell you which spell was cast of course but they do need to communicate everything relevant that your character can perceive.

The likely responses you'll get when you ask your question are "[monster] did not cast a spell.", "You cannot tell if a spell was cast.", "Yes, a spell was being cast; but after a quick gesture from you, the magic falls away." (or something similar for a spell of 3rd level or lower), or "Yes, [monster] is casting a spell, roll a [spellcasting ability] check." (if the spell is 4th level or higher)

Fortunately, my DMs have been kind enough where (with only a little bit of reminding) if they know we have a potential reaction to whatever trigger they ask if we want to use it. So in addition to some occasional reminding that you as the player do have possible countermeasures; if they don't ask you, it falls to you to ask them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a follow up, I discussed it with my DM. He claims that he rolled stealth against my passive perception so I didn't hear the naga casting anything. So going forward i will be checking every single saving throw he asks us to make is a spell or not because I now have to assume (since this is not a special ability) every one of his creatures will be doing this in or out of combat. \$\endgroup\$ – Devon Grover Apr 13 at 22:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DevonGrover I have updated my answer to cover Stealth spellcasting. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Apr 14 at 16:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DevonGrover: Note that even knowing which kind of saving throw is information about the spell that you technically shouldn't have before you decide to CounterSpell or not. You have to CS during casting, not as a reaction to being hit with the effect. If your DM rules that a creature did manage to hide the spellcasting from you, you won't be able to CS. (But in practice they might still let you CS at that point if they just forgot to describe the casting). But the real problem is that unreasonable-seeming ruling about stealthy verbal casting in plain sight / sound. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Apr 15 at 16:47
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I agree with NautArch's answer that this seems more an issue about how your DM is adjudicating as opposed to the rules they should be adjudicating. However, with regards to the rules, there are a few things to unpack in your question.

  • How can I tell whether an enemy is casting a spell?
  • How can I counterspell it?

How can I tell whether an enemy is casting a spell?

Spells in 5e can have up to 3 components: Verbal (spoken), Somatic (movement), Material (items required to focus the spell, which may be consumed). There are few things that negate these (Sorcerer's Subtle Spell: When you cast a spell, you can spend 1 sorcery point to cast it without any somatic or verbal components.) So, if you can see a creature that is casting a spell, unless a more specific rule negates the need, they will have to carry out these components.

Case in point, in a comment to @NautArch's answer, @MikeQ has linked to examples of Naga that states they "need only verbal components to cast its spells."

How can I counterspell it?

Counterspell has a casting time of 1 Reaction "which you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell".

If you have not used your reaction and it is available to you, you can cast counterspell. It may not be available to you if, mechanically, you are surprised, then "you can't take a reaction until that turn ends."

At this point I would suggest, as per @NautArch's answer, to talk with your DM about how you run spellcasting, counterspell and combat in a way that seems and is fun and fair for everyone playing.

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