25
\$\begingroup\$

This question asks what happens when a single-target spell has an invalid target. (A target that is not legitimately permissible, not a target that is weak from illness or injury).
The answer to that question appears to be: that depends on whether one wishes to implement an older Sage Advice segment of a Dragon Talk podcast, or the more recent but optional written rules in Xanathar's Guide to Everything.

Assume for this question that I prefer XGtE.

The optional rule for resolving invalid spell targets states (XGtE, p. 85-86):

If you cast a spell on someone or something that can’t be affected by the spell, nothing happens to that target, but if you used a spell slot to cast the spell, the slot is still expended.

Now consider the chain lightning spell, whose description says:

You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range. Three bolts then leap from that target to as many as three other targets, each of which must be within 30 feet of the first target. A target can be a creature or an object and can be targeted by only one of the bolts.

Suppose my primary target for the spell is invalid, because it is not a creature or an object. If an example must be given, suppose it is an illusion. However, each of the three secondary targets of the spell are valid, being either creatures or objects.

Do I spend the spell slot with nothing happening at all?
Or does the slot get spent as the chain lightning impacts the illusion but does nothing to it and then leaps to the three valid targets (with the full effects given in the spell description)?


Note: I am assuming that an illusion is not an object, based largely on my interpretation that an illusion is not an "item" and on the text of the 14th-level School of Illusion wizard feature, Illusory Reality.

I am open to frame challenges that demonstrate that illusions are, in fact, objects - but such answers will be better if they then either provide a more appropriate example of something that is not a creature or an object, or demonstrate that the question is moot since everything is at least either a creature or an object.

\$\endgroup\$
2
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW there is at least one thing that is neither a creature nor an object. The Shepherd Druid's Spirit Totem: "The spirit creates an aura in a 30-foot radius around that point. It counts as neither a creature nor an object, though it has the spectral appearance of the creature it represents." \$\endgroup\$
    – Medix2
    Jan 7 at 4:47
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 Excellent, thank you. Anyone who doesn't like the illusion example can assume the spirit is the invalid primary target, then. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 7 at 4:49
25
\$\begingroup\$

I would definitely rule that the chain lightning continues on to its other targets. It does nothing to the invalid target (though in the case of the illusion this would be an “interaction” that could allow a save to see if you buy the illusion faking its reaction to being electrocuted), but the valid targets are affected exactly the same as they would be if the initial target is valid.

And frankly, if I was playing in a game where a DM ruled differently, I’d pretty strongly reconsider playing at that table.

It’s not that they don’t have a decent argument to make, based on the rules as written. It does say that it hits the initial target, and then continues on to the other targets. Xanathar’s does say that nothing happens to that target, which you could argue would include sparking the additional links in the chain. I’ve certainly played video games that have implemented things that way.

But I wouldn’t in D&D. It’s just finicky and counter-intuitive and an unnecessary “gotcha” moment. The game just does not need that. You’re already missing out on your primary attack, that’s a big loss. Compounding it by causing it to drop all the secondary attacks is just cruel, I think.

And arguing that “this is what the rules say!” is, I think, besides not really relevant—we care much more about a good game—also not totally accurate. The rules say that the spell does nothing “to” an invalid target. OK! Sure. Continuing on to target other individuals is not a thing done to the original target. Xanathar’s does not say that the spell fails as a whole, or that the invalid target is somehow no longer targeted—only that they aren’t affected. I think it’s a real stretch to nullify the rest of the spell on this basis. Not an impossible interpretation, but it is by no means a certain situation. And that only increases my feeling that ruling this way—bending over backwards to do so—is simply bad for the tables overall. You could rule that way, but you really, really don’t have to—and there’s a lot of good reasons why you shouldn’t.

\$\endgroup\$
2
  • 11
    \$\begingroup\$ <mod note: I'm going to try to pre-empt having to remove comments disagreeing with playstyle or consequence consideration displayed in this answer. If it is sufficiently disagreeable to you to warrant a downvote, do so, but comments to that effect are unlikely to be productive> \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jan 7 at 15:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jan 12 at 19:29
10
\$\begingroup\$

I would rule that the chain lightning has nothing to chain from, and thus does not chain to the secondary targets. The spell specifically states that the lightning arcs from the first target to the secondary targets, and there is no first target.

\$\endgroup\$
5
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Rather than say the spell has nothing to chain from, I think the spell does not have the intended target to chain from. Since a valid target is an object, could it not strike the nearest real object and chain from there? Does the intent of the caster matter as long as it hits something? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 7 at 20:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is incorrect; there is still a first target, it is just one that cannot be affected by the spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – TylerH
    Jan 8 at 16:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer sounds reasonable, but it strikes me as very house-rule-y. To me it looks like the interpretation of "primary" and "secondary" targets is not actually RAW. Chain lightning establishes effects that happen to four targets, in a certain order. It does not--at least by my reading--establish that any of them are dependent on the others. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8 at 16:24
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ There is nothing wrong with this answer. The spell specifically says creature or object. Unless you plan to rule that a illusion is now a creature or object. It also explicitly says "then leap from that target" If there is no target then there is nothing to leap from. It explicitly says the first target is being hit for the chain to happen. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8 at 17:06
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @GrandOpener While I agree there is not necessarily a strong 'then' dependence, what gives me pause is 'each of which must be within 30 feet of the first target'. The secondary targets are dependent on the position of the first target. How far away is 30 feet from something that is not there? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 8 at 22:13
8
\$\begingroup\$

This is a really good question, mainly because of player expectations as I will explain below.

The spell description answers your question:

You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range. Three bolts then leap from that target to as many as three other targets, each of which must be within 30 feet of the first target. A target can be a creature or an object and can be targeted by only one of the bolts.

The word "then" means that the prior condition is required. The last sentence specifies what is a valid target. The primary target isn't valid, so the first sentence never happens. If the first event never happens, the following event(s) don't either.

So, the corollary question is whether the spell would even reveal the illusion. The two rules quoted when combined say that it shouldn't. There is no "arc towards" and no "impact" occurring, so the caster may end up thinking the target has some weird immunity.

On the other hand, this will be difficult for the DM to do without confusing or even angering the players. If I was a player and my spell just fizzled without any clear cause, I'd be pretty annoyed! Even if it had to be explained afterwards, it'd feel like the DM was using an unfair and round-about method to punish my class choice.

On the other hand, if your players are already familiar with the strategy and concept, and they can do the same to enemy spell-casters (and succeed in doing so at some point), I think this would feel fair.

\$\endgroup\$
4
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this could be usable even if the players are surprised by the results. This could be a part of a puzzle - why didn't it have any effect? Of course, that should also mean that the players should have time to think about it and maybe try other things. If the failed cast means that they're overwhelmed and killed in the next two turns then it's probably not a good idea. The player's response should be "Huh, that's weird. Let's take a closer look" rather than "OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT". \$\endgroup\$
    – Vilx-
    Jan 7 at 20:50
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ The XGtE rule simply states "nothing happens to that target" -- lightning arcing towards a target is not something that is happening to the target. Plus, the rest of the rule is "If the spell normally has no effect on a target that succeeds on a saving throw, the invalid target appears to have succeeded on its saving throw, even though it didn’t attempt one (giving no hint that the creature is in fact an invalid target). Otherwise, you perceive that the spell did nothing to the target." So that implies that any "lead up" effects still occur, otherwise it would reveal the target as invalid. \$\endgroup\$
    – Herohtar
    Jan 7 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think than the Leap from has a remarkable importance in this interpretation: If an illusion is not a valid target, the bolt will simply go straight through the illusion, it will not hit it, and therefore nothing will leap from the illusion! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8 at 11:20
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This is interesting, but by my reading, the word "then" establishes an intended order, it does not by itself establish causality or requirement. Imagine a fireball spell that was worded like "does X damage to everyone in the area, then flammable objects catch fire." We wouldn't expect those to be causally linked. I would want to see stronger reasoning on why "then" here establishes a requirement. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8 at 16:32
2
\$\begingroup\$

The spell does nothing

Per Xanathar's Guide, when casting at an invalid target:

If you cast a spell on someone or something that can’t be affected by the spell, nothing happens to that target, but if you used a spell slot to cast the spell, the slot is still expended.

An illusion (or totem) would be considered "something" (so no worry about creature/object debate). which means the chain lightning spell is cast and the spell slot is used, but nothing happens to the target.

The second part of the spell says:

You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range. Three bolts then leap from that target to ...

"Then" is a conditional statement meaning that something happened prior. In this case, your target was a phantom of some kind. But it cannot be a "target" as it was not a valid target to begin with, which means there is nothing to "leap from".

The last line of the first paragraph even says:

"A target can be a creature or an object and can be targeted by only one of the bolts."

So the spell description itself disqualifies the illusion from being a target from which bolts can leap.

\$\endgroup\$
7
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ May want to note that Xanathar's bit there is an optional rule and not a standard one. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Jan 7 at 16:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ claiming that an illusion is not a valid target seems to me a strange way to approach this question; how do you rule for Mirror Image, I wonder? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7 at 16:19
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Mirror image is a whole other ball of wax. Requires an attack roll, not a dex save. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Jan 7 at 16:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch the issue being 'target' but yes, the mechanics are discrete for MI \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7 at 16:35
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @KilrathiSly I disagree pretty strongly that the designers know better. We know our tables better than they do, and I present their recent releases as evidence that their balancing isn't good either. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Jan 17 at 15:54
1
\$\begingroup\$

Nothing stops you from casting chain lightning at an illusion.

"A target can be a creature or an object and can be targeted by only one of the bolts." "Can", not "must". Generally, a spell's target can be a creature, object, or point in space; chain lightning additionally requires that you see the target so you arguably couldn't target an empty point in space. But an illusion is an empty point in space that you can see.

Contrast a spell like fire bolt which says "You hurl a mote of fire at a creature or object".

(Before anyone asks, the second clause in that sentence is different: "can... only" implies that it is meant to be restrictive. It doesn't say "can only be a creature or an object".)

\$\endgroup\$
4
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Can you provide examples of other spells that "suggest" rather than "restrict" targets in this manner? I'm not sure what the purpose is of listing some, but not all, possible targets. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 7 at 20:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ XGE clearly indicatesd the opposite. i downvoted. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17 at 13:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KilrathiSly Does it, really? It says that you can't cast chain lightning at a point in empty space? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Jan 17 at 18:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes it does. A space or point in space is not amongst the authorized target. Rules do what they say they do. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 19 at 19:37
0
\$\begingroup\$

Nothing happens, but the spell slot is still expended

From XGtE, pg. 85-86 "Invalid Spell Targets"

If you cast a spell on someone or something that can’t be affected by the spell, nothing happens to that target, but if you used a spell slot to cast the spell, the slot is still expended. If the spell normally has no effect on a is target that succeeds on a saving throw, the invalid target appears to have succeeded on its saving throw, even though it didn’t attempt one (giving no hint that the creature is in fact an invalid target). Otherwise, you perceive that the spell did nothing to the target.

Nothing happens to the illusion, and you expend a spell slot.

You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range. Three bolts then leap from that target to as many as three other targets, each of which must be within 30 feet of the first target. A target can be a creature or an object and can be targeted by only one of the bolts.

It requires the bolt of lightning to strike the primary target, and the primary target is invalid. So, no lightning bolts leap to any additional targets, since there was no "first target."

However..

A benevolent DM may rule that the lightning continues through that creature until it strikes another object or creature, and consider that the primary target of the attack; but doing so would be a house rule.

In conclusion..

By RAW, an illusion is an invalid target for any spell, so it cannot be the target of chain lightning. The spell specifically names the target as the origin of the secondary lightning bolts, but lightning never struck the illusory target in the first place.

\$\endgroup\$
0
-1
\$\begingroup\$

No effect at all, no chaining, nothing the spell is wasted.

As per Spell casting and targets requirement are intentional and strict. THis is documented in the PHB and was further confirmed in the Sage Advice compendium

Spells cannot effect in any ways invalid targets, if you do cast a spell at an invalid target (either because you think it is a valid one but actually an illusion or some other reasons)

Supporting Evidence by the game designer supporting my concluions and that this is what the designer intended.

Note: if unsure what 'suppressed' means, game designers indicate it is what a normal english dictionary says it means.

Ref: XGE Rule book page 85 (copied below)

*

A spell specifies what a caster can target with it: any type of creature, a creature of a certain type (humanoid or beast, for instance), an object, an area, the caster, or something else. But w hat happens if a spell targets something that isn't a valid target? For example, someone might cast charm person on a creature believed to be a humanoid, not knowing that the target is in fact a vampire. If this issue comes up, handle it using the following rule. If you cast a spell on someone or something that can't be affected by the spell, nothing happens to that target, but if you used a spell slot to cast the spell, the slot is still expended. If the spell normally has no effect on a target that succeeds on a saving throw, the invalid target appears to have succeeded on its saving throw, even though it didn't attempt one (giving no hint that the creature is in fact a n invalid target). Otherwise, you perceive that the spell did nothing to the target

So in Conclusion

the spell has no effect and is lost. So there would not even be lightning launched at the illusion in the first place, let alone the possibility to chain it somewhere else.

It would at least indicate that this is not what you think it is and allow you a second saving throw against the illusion with likely advantage to the save.

\$\endgroup\$
14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ You should cite this quotation; you’re the only one on the page referencing it, and I for one do not know, offhand, where it comes from. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jan 12 at 18:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kryan good point.. done it was so obviously clearly written in one of the rule books that I did not think it necessary.... \$\endgroup\$ Jan 14 at 18:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ At the time of that comment’s writing, the “first” quotation was the one you now have last. Which, as I understand things, isn’t a quotation from anywhere, and should not be formatted as such. It’s misleading and deceptive. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 21 at 12:21
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The use of the quotation box suggests that the material therein is a quote from somewhere else, not just your own words. The purpose of a quotation is to back up your statements with actual evidence from an actual authority; making it look like you have a quotation, and thus more evidence and more authority, is deceptive. This isn’t a “rule,” this is simply how quotations work. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 23 at 23:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree—I do not believe the written rules actually say that this is how it should or must be played, because the text you quote is, I believe, ambiguous and doesn’t necessarily mean what you claim it does—but that’s fair enough. Appreciate the edit to clear up the quotation issue. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 25 at 14:46
-1
\$\begingroup\$

Spells do what they say they do, no more and no less

Say you were casting chain lightning at a "creature" which was actually just the product of a major image spell. The major image spell description has the specific details about how you can determine that it is an illusion:

Physical interaction with the image reveals it to be an illusion, because things can pass through it. 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. If a creature discerns the illusion for what it is, the creature can see through the image, and its other sensory qualities become faint to the creature.

The options for revealing it is a fake are listed there. Having a spell fail because you aren't targeting a real thing isn't amongst them.

As such, your chain lightning will appear to strike the illusion, then continue on the the secondary targets.

\$\endgroup\$
7
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ So you would rule that throwing lightning at something does not constitute a "physical interaction"? What about a firebolt? Or a mundane projectile via e.g. Catapult? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7 at 10:17
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ So you suggest you can still target the illusion even though the spell can only target a 'creature'? Your answer reads like you skip over that part \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 7 at 10:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Allan, your headline and your answer don't seem to match; chain lightning's text says this You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range I'll suggest revising the answer such that the header points to the issue you are raising more clearly - which seems to be "the result is that CL chains from the illustion to the other available targets" if I understand you overall answer correctly. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7 at 16:14
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I doesn't only target a creature, per the spell's text. A target can be a creature or an object and can be targeted by only one of the bolts \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7 at 16:16
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The spell description lists some common ways an illusion can be revealed as fake. There's no indication it's supposed to be an exhaustive list. (The whole point of having a DM is to rule on special cases that come up during play, so D&D rules are often like this: here are some ways it can work. Some parts of the rules are more rigid / codified, e.g. action economy, but usually they leave open other ways to do things.) Absent a word like "only", this doesn't rule out discovering an illusion as fake. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8 at 1:35
-2
\$\begingroup\$

The key word in the spell is target.

You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range.

...

Three bolts then leap from that target to as many as three other targets.

...

A target can be a creature or an object and can be targeted by only one of the bolts.

This pretty clearly defines everything affected by the spell, including the initial part of the spell, as a target, and very importantly, that the target must be a creature or an object.

As a DM, I would rule that an illusion is neither a creature nor an object, and therefore not a valid target - assuming your character believes the illusion is real (which I would call a saving throw for before the spell is cast), the spell would be expended, but find no purchase on the initial target of the spell, wasting the spell slot as per XGte (Meaning - it would not affect the additional targets afterwards).

However, as with most rulings, the final say is up to DM discretion.

\$\endgroup\$
0

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.