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In a recent game session, a player wanted to become invisible and then use a phantom steed to quickly and stealthfully pass through the enemy camps surrounding a besieged city. This began a discussion of whether the phantom steed summoned could be transparent, or nearly so. The spell says:

A Large quasi-real, horselike creature appears on the ground in an unoccupied space of your choice within range. You decide the creature’s appearance...The creature uses the statistics for a riding horse

So what are the limits to the appearance of the steed? While "quasi-real", can it be made to appear so real that an observer would believe it to be a real horse? Can it be made to appear so unreal as to be seen through and receive a bonus on Stealth?

For the limit on how transparent it can be I thought the important restriction is that it has the stat block of a riding horse. Any permanent bonus to Stealth would be included within this block, and a riding horse does not have one. Thus, for me the mechanical limit to transparency would be that it could get a DM-assigned circumstantial bonus (advantage to Stealth checks depending on situation) but not a permanent bonus irrespective of circumstances (modification of stat block).

For the limit on how real it can appear, I looked to the spell Major Image, as an Illusion spell of equal level, whose illusions have the following property

A creature that uses its action to examine the image can determine that it is an illusion with a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check against your spell save DC.

Thus if the steed was summoned to appear real, it would fool any observer who was not explicitly trying to determine its nature, and even some of those depending on the roll. This approach of comparing the spell to same-school spells of equal level comes to me from 1e, with which I have more experience, and in which spells are much less clearly defined in terms of their limits. 5e, on the other hand, has the general principle that "spells do what they say they do". Is such a comparison to another spell then valid?

1. What are the limits to the appearance of a phantom steed? How real or unreal can it appear?

2. When deciding (1), is it useful to compare the spell to Major Image?

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    \$\begingroup\$ For what it's worth, even being invisible provides no bonus to Stealth, so I'm not sure how being transparent would. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Aug 5 '20 at 19:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @David Coffron Thank you for thank link. So, being invisible does not give one advantage on stealth, but it does make one function as heavily obscured, which would make anyone trying to visually perceive one automatically fail. Being lightly obscured would give disadvantage to those trying to perceive one visually. So, I guess the question would be, if a phantom steed could be made nearly transparent, would that count as lightly obscured, and thus impose disadvantage on those trying to perceive it visually? And does the steed by itself make noise, and is that up to the caster as well? \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Aug 5 '20 at 21:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron See also. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Aug 5 '20 at 21:56
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The limits of the creatures appearance are that it must be horse-like.

Other than that, it can look like whatever you want it to, a standard horse, a Large boar of some sort, or perhaps a bull or an elk, although some DM's might be more restrictive than that.

How real the "horse" looks is pretty subjective as well. To a seasoned adventurer, who's fought everything from Beholders to living puddles of slime, a horse with a flaming mane and wings might look relatively mundane by comparison, but for a poor farmer, who's only even know his draft horse Swanson, and even so much as the wings alone might be more than he would believe.

As for whether it can be transparent, probably, yes it can, but that won't give it any bonuses. Spells only do what they say they do, and the spell doesn't say that it gets a bonus to stealth (or any other skill or stat) so it doesn't. It only has what a regular horse has.

Major Image is not a good comparison for how this spell works.

The spells are completely dissimilar, outside of both being in the Illusion school. Conflating the functions of one to the functions of the other is erroneous.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't understand why you think that a boar looks more like a horse than an elk does \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Aug 6 '20 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt No, what I meant was that some DM's might not let you make it appear as a different animal at all, and make it look strictly like a regular horse, not that they might only restrict you from making it look like an elk rather than a boar. \$\endgroup\$ – RevanantBacon Aug 6 '20 at 15:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RevenentBacon Ah, then you need to move your "perhaps" to earlier in the sentence \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Aug 6 '20 at 15:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Negative, as this is a clear list of things, separated by commas (as is normal for listing things), that is then codified by a comma placed just after the last item on the list, namely, the elk. This then tells us what the list consists of, namely a) a horse, b) a boar, c) a bull, and d) an elk, with the succeeding statement "[...]might be more restrictive[...]" describing the entirety of the list, not just the last item to occupy it. The perhaps is not actually relevant to the list, or the succeeding qualifier. \$\endgroup\$ – RevanantBacon Aug 6 '20 at 17:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ If [might be more restrictive] describes the entirety of the list, it describes (a) standard horse, the first item. What DM would say that for a spell which makes the steed appear horse-like, appearing as a standard horse is going too far? You wrote this, and you know what you intended to say. But common usage includes the idea of a successively more extreme list. By having the "perhaps" be in the same clause as bull or elk, but not boar, it appears to some readers that you are saying a DM would of course allow a horse or boar, but would only perhaps allow a bull or elk. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Aug 7 '20 at 17:50

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