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Some spells allow to target willing creatures and specify what unwilling ones should do (usually, a saving throw) to avoid the magical effect (see Scatter, for example).

Other spells use wording such as "up to \$X\$ willing creatures", "You touch a willing creature" and similar, but they do not have any rules for not willing ones.

Is there any standard/common way to handle spells belonging to the latter case? Does the magical effect take place?


Most of these spell are buffs, hence usually the targets are willing creatures. Down below I report a couple of example situations in which a creature may want to avoid the spell's effect.

Catnap

You make a calming gesture, and up to three willing creatures of your choice that you can see within range fall unconscious for the spell’s duration. The spell ends on a target early if it takes damage or someone uses an action to shake or slap it awake. [...]

The party is fighting a group of 3 ogres and they are heavily injured, they want to run away from combat: the bard casts Catnap and the ogres fall unconscious even they are not willing to do so.

Water Walk

This spell grants the ability to move across any liquid surface--such as water, acid, mud, snow, quicksand, or lava [...]. Up to ten willing creatures you can see within range gain this ability for the duration.

If you target a creature submerged in a liquid, the spell carries the target to the surface of the liquid at a rate of 60 feet per round.

A group of enemies cast Water Breathing for fleeing under water from the party. The wizard casts Water Walk to force them to emerge from the water: now they are easy targets for the ranger.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you just asking if you can bypass spell requirements or is there something I'm missing. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Dec 16 '20 at 23:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I am curious to understand why some spells differentiate between willing and unwilling creatures, allowing a ST for the latters, while some spell use the wording willing creature without providing rules for unwilling ones. \$\endgroup\$ – Eddymage Dec 16 '20 at 23:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related, for the reverse, see this question about telekinesis. It requires a Strength Check, even if you're trying to move a "willing" party. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Dec 17 '20 at 22:00
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Spells only do what they say they do

A spell's description lists everything that the spell does. The spellcasting section on targets reads:

A typical spell requires you to pick one or more targets to be affected by the spell's magic. A spell's description tells you whether the spell targets creatures, objects, or a point of origin for an area of effect.

The targets for a spell are listed in the spell's description. If it only lists willing creatures as targets, it can only target willing creatures. If it does not specify, or lists both willing and unwilling creatures as targets, then it can target either.

There are no rules for allowing a spell that only targets willing creatures to also effect an unwilling creature.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, because the alternative is often ridiculously, if situationally, powerful. Using Water Walk as an example, tag a pod of Killer Whales and watch them flop on the surface for an hour while you casually riddle them with arrows \$\endgroup\$ – Punintended Dec 16 '20 at 23:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would change "If it lists willing and unwilling creatures as targets" to "If it does not specify" to be more accurate, since most spells do not make this difference. Some other spells, like enlarge/reduce, specify a difference for willing and unwilling targets. Also might be worth mentioning that an unconscious creature is never considered willing. \$\endgroup\$ – Kogarashi Kaito Dec 17 '20 at 1:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KogarashiKaito the "If it lists willing and unwilling" bit was in reference to the first part of the question when OP brings up specifically spells that treat willing and unwilling targets differently. If it does not specify, then it can obviously just target any creature. As far as whether an unconscious creature is considered willing, that seems entirely irrelevant to the question. \$\endgroup\$ – smbailey Dec 17 '20 at 4:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KogarashiKaito I have reworded it a bit to make it clear that the "lists willing and unwilling" case is the same as the "it does not specify" case. I still think whether an unconscious creature counts as willing is outside the scope of this question. If people want answers to that there is already a question for it: Can unconscious characters be unwilling? \$\endgroup\$ – smbailey Dec 17 '20 at 15:56
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I agree fully with smbailey's answer, but wanted to add a secondary reason that wouldn't really fit in a comment:

Because you're casting the wrong spell

In your example of using Catnap on ogres, you should actually be casting Sleep. It has a similar end result (as far as putting the Ogres out of commision) and already has the mechanics for "unwilling" targets.

For casting Water Walk, you should be using Levitate instead (for one target); or Reverse Gravity (for multiple targets). They would both force the target up through the water the same way and have a saving throw for the "unwilling".

So I would give points for creativity, but generally you are just trying to make one spell be a substitute for another.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There were just a couple of examples, I didn't say that those spell were the optimal choices. But regarding yours: Sleep has a duration of 1 minute, Catnap of 10, and the former depends on the HP of the targets. Even as a 5th level spell, the expected number of HP is 41, which after a couple of rounds it is maybe sufficient to put to sleep just one ogre. Not to mention the case in which the enemies are more powerful than ogres. Levitate targets just one enemy, and Reverse gravity is a 7th level spell. Moreover, it depends if you have those spell prepared/available. \$\endgroup\$ – Eddymage Dec 18 '20 at 8:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaveB, Catnap is a 3rd level spell, not a cantrip \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Dec 18 '20 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh right - I don't know what I was thinking there! \$\endgroup\$ – Dave B Dec 18 '20 at 19:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eddymage. That's part of the whole checks and balances. Yes, the spells I suggest don't work as well, or be of a different level, but they are designed to accomplish what you're asking for and have a saving throw for the unwilling. Whereas your spells are not. So Sleep doesn't work as long as Catnap because Catnap is for creatures that want to sleep. As for being prepared/available, that's a consideration for all spellcasters when they determine their spells. They make tradeoffs and weigh usefulness in their selection and if you end up with the wrong spell, you deal with it. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Dec 21 '20 at 16:55

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