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When a character casts a spell, a number of decisions need to be made. Some spells, like Conjure Animals (who decides the exact creatures), Major Image (who decides the exact appearance of the image), or Misty Step (who decides the exact destination), leave the decider ambiguous.

In the case of summoning creatures, the Sage Advice Compendium gives an official interpretation, under the question "When you cast a spell like conjure woodland beings, does the spellcaster or the DM choose the creatures that are conjured?":

...The DM decides what creatures appear that fit the chosen option (amount and CR).

Does this interpretation extend to other ambiguous spells like Major Image or even Misty Step? When a spell requires a choice, and the decider is left ambiguous, is that choice ultimately made by the DM?

I realize that in most situations, a reasonable DM would enact the preferences of the spellcaster, barring certain abuses. However, I'm curious about what the Rules as Written have to say about this.

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The DM resolves rules ambiguities

You're right that the spell doesn't explicitly give either DM nor player agency over which location is chosen. How to choose a location then falls to the DM (system default).

I would expect the player to choose the location. Firstly, this is the interpretation when read casually. If meant to be uncontrolled, a casual reader would expect there to wording to that effect. Secondly, choosing the location as a DM for my player suck. For the example of misty step: The two options would be moving the caster where they wanted (in which case they chose) or arbitrarily moving them elsewhere. That is cruel and uninteresting — I choose to only be cruel when it is interesting, your mileage may vary.

If you are really worried ask your DM how they want to run it. Ideally for choosing the spell, but at least before casting it (relevant for AL).

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It is often up to the spell description

From a pure RAW point of view, if the spell doesn't state that the caster can choose, then it defaults back to the DM.

But that doesn't mean the caster can't choose, it just means they need to work with the DM. On the surface, this isn't a bad thing.

Communication is paramount

The key point to remember for the DM is to communicate how those types of spells will work ahead of time. Players will need to talk with their DM prior to picking those spells so they understand how it will work.

And it's also important to remember as a player that narrative can be just as important as optimization. Working with the DM to create effects that everyone at the table enjoys is what 5e is all about.

While we don't know the intent behind these spells, we do know that the intent of 5e is to provide rulings over rules and allow both players and DMs to create fun environments and stories.

If either side isn't enjoying the ruling, then they must communicate to figure out what to do so that fun is back on the table.

Many tables do permit the caster to decide

Having said the RAW, many tables do generally permit the caster to pick effects. Usually, that results in optimal decision making for the encounter. Whether or not that works for the table is up to the table.

My tables generally do this, and optimal choices are usually made. That can make encounters 'easier', but if that's fun, then that's fun! And a DM has more levers to introduce that can keep the challenge going while still permitting the players to pick what they want.

Not only does stackexchange support a plurality of playstyles, 5e does as well.

Adventurer's League

Specifically for AL, you may need to do this whenever you sit down with a new DM. Even with the stricter rules positions that AL requires, this is still loose enough that you should talk to the DM before you try it. That way, everyone is on the same page before the game begins.

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"The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions."

It says it right there in the rules (PHB p.6, Basic Rules p.4). Any decision that is not explicitly given to the player is explicitly the domain of the DM.

This answer has excited some comments so I will add 2 points:

  1. One of the explicit design goals of D&D 5e was to enable the DM to use “rulings over rules” - harking back to earlier editions rather than the stricter structures of 3e & 4e.
  2. If your DM is abusing this power - find a different DM.
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    \$\begingroup\$ The consequences of this interpretation do seem... extreme. Transport Via Plants, for example, now takes you to any plant you've previously touched, of the DM's choice. It feels like if the DM rules this way, some spells just become useless. \$\endgroup\$
    – 1600hp
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 1:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @1600 I don't think Dale is saying the DM can't work with the player. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 1:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Still, this interpretation implies that the DM could choose to send the druid to any plant they've seen or touched instead of their intended destination, and that would still be considered consistent with the spell's normal function. I don't know if I agree with that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 2:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch To put it another way, I think this answer may be technically correct, but not in a way that provides a useful guidance on how to resolve such situations in practice. At least not without additional elaboration. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 2:10

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