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Last session, my Arcane Trickster was faced with some murky water and we needed to know how deep the bottom was. I decided to use mage hand to try to locate the bottom of the water without putting my own hand in there, but then we were stuck with the question: would my mage hand just float straight through the bottom?

Another way of wording this question would be "does mage hand go through walls"?

The spell says:

A spectral, floating hand appears at a point you choose within range.

But exactly what the hand is is not described any further. Does spectral mean "float through walls" like an incorporeal ghost, or is it spectral only in the sense that it's not a creature or an object? Either way, if the caster sent the hand through a wall or the floor, would it go through or just bump up against the wall?

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No.

We know for sure that the mage hand is physical, since it can interact with objects and for that it has to "collide" with them.

It doesn't state anywhere that it can become ethereal (much like ghosts), so we can only assume that it isn't possible for it to phase through solid surfaces.

The hand is not incorporeal. "Spectral" refers to its appearance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ People have no problem conceiving of ghosts which can phase through things but also can pick things up. Plus there's the principle that, if the rules don't include a restriction, it does not exist. \$\endgroup\$ – trlkly May 11 at 5:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ That makes sense to me, and it is what my DM eventually ruled at the time also. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS May 11 at 9:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Refering to the other answer, both spectres and ghosts have explicitly written how exactly they can phase through solid objects, the Mage Hand cantrip doesn't. So, RAW, by omission, I would say it can't do it \$\endgroup\$ – Educorreia May 11 at 12:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with that part; I suppose it's just that your last sentence could do with a bit more backing, since as it stands, it's implying that it merely looks spectral, but is not, whereas I believe it's saying that it really is spectral, although this doesn't allow it to move through things, as you have already said. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS May 11 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GcL, Yes, agree on all of that, but I don't think any of it is obvious to all -- and certainly not to the OP. That is, I think content from your comments could improve the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant May 11 at 17:14
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TL;DR: No, a Mage Hand does not move through creatures or objects.

One of the key principles of 5e rules is that there are no hidden rules.

As per @illustro's answer both the Specter and Ghost have a special movement mode:

Incorporeal Movement. The specter can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.

Incorporeal Movement. The ghost can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.

The Mage Hand spell, however, has no such exemption:

A spectral, floating hand appears at a point you choose within range. The hand lasts for the duration or until you dismiss it as an action. The hand vanishes if it is ever more than 30 feet away from you or if you cast this spell again.

You can use your action to control the hand. You can use the hand to manipulate an object, open an unlocked door or container, stow or retrieve an item from an open container, or pour the contents out of a vial. You can move the hand up to 30 feet each time you use it.

The hand can't attack, activate magic items, or carry more than 10 pounds.

That's it!

In the absence of exemption, the more general rules apply, and the general movement rules do not allow one to move through other creatures and objects.

Ergo, a Mage Hand cannot move through other creatures and objects.


As for the use of spectral, it follows that as Educorreia mentioned it only concerns the appearance of the hand.

Specifically, I would expect the Mage Hand to be see through, as per the illustration from fandom.com:

Mage Hand
(Original Source = Xanather's Guide to Everything, p. 127)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS: I like it! Unfortunately I was editing concurrently and there's no merge functionality. I added it back. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. May 11 at 13:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Cool. Also, that image is from an official book, give me a moment... Xanathar's, p. 127. There's also a picture on p. 63 of a mage hand, although the one you found is better... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS May 11 at 13:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Be careful relying on "there are no hidden rules". The rules don't actually say "The hand cannot pass through solid objects" so if you're making this argument at all, you're inferring the existence of a hidden rule. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells May 11 at 15:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells: I think we can agree that in general, hands cannot pass through solid objects. Spells rules describe how things change from our expectations, not how they don't change (those would be long rules indeed). \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant May 11 at 16:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimGrant I would agree with that in general, with the caveat that I have little experience with spectral floating hands. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells May 11 at 18:20
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The Mage Hand can pass through solid objects

The word spectral isn't defined as a game term, and thus takes on it's regular idiomatic English meaning. That meaning is defined as:

Merriam-Webster:

1: of, relating to, or suggesting a specter : GHOSTLY

We felt a spectral presence in the old ballroom.

No ghost stood beside me, nor anything of spectral aspect; merely a motherly, dumpy little woman, in a large shawl, a wrapping-gown, and a clean, trim nightcap. — Charlotte Brontë

Oxford-English dictionary:

spectral adjective (GHOST)

coming from or seeming to be the spirit of a dead person:

a spectral figure/presence

dictionary.com:

adjective

of or relating to a specter; ghostly; phantom.

resembling or suggesting a specter.

All of these definitions specify that spectral is a synonym for ghostly, or being of a ghost. In 5e, we have two creatures which are strongly related to the word spectral, the Spectre and the Ghost.

Both of these creatures have the Incorporeal Movement feature:

Incorporeal Movement. The specter can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.

Incorporeal Movement. The ghost can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.

As a result, the specification of the hand as spectral, does have a mechanical implication, namely that it has the ability to be incorporeal. As a point to this, both of these Incorporeal Movement abilities use the word can not must, implying choice in whether or not they pass through the creature or object, or interact with it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does this imply that you can choose whether it does or does not pass through solid objects? Is it something the caster can choose to "switch on and off"? Just looking at the reasoning of the other answer; if it always passed through solid objects, then it wouldn't be able to do anything. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS May 11 at 11:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS I've updated my answer to expand on that point. By virtue of the fact that the hand can interact with objects (as a result of the explicit text later in the spell description), the caster must make the choice whether or not to pass through an object of interact with it. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro May 11 at 11:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ One slight comment; when those two Incorporeal Movement quotes say "can", are they not just referring to the fact that the ghost could simply choose not to move in that direction at all? Does that really imply that a ghost can choose to bump into you as opposed to float through you? Also, I've made some minor formatting edits, but they are purely just my preference so feel free to roll back if you preferred it how it was \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS May 11 at 12:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ On the other hand, on the principle that there are no hidden rules, I would argue that should the Mage Hand be able to pass through object, then the spell description would have the specific Incorporeal Movement. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. May 11 at 12:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ "As a result, the specification of the hand as spectral, does have a mechanical implication" On the contrary, as a result, we see that spectral means nothing as ghosts and spectres only have Incorporeal Movement by virtue of it being described in their stat block. If the word spectral meant something more than just flavor / appearance, it would be described somewhere else. \$\endgroup\$ – Joran Dox May 11 at 12:56

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