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The basic rules include in the description of the Border Ethereal:

Some magical effects also extend from the Material Plane into the Border Ethereal, particularly effects that use force energy such as forcecage and wall of force.

The DMG says (emphasis added):

A traveler on the Ethereal Plane is invisible and utterly silent to someone on the overlapped plane, and solid objects on the overlapped plane don’t hamper the movement of a creature in the Border Ethereal. The exceptions are certain magical effects (including anything made of magical force) and living beings.

Both forcecage and wall of force say that the effect extends into the Ethereal, blocking travel.

The unseen servant spell says:

This spell creates an invisible, mindless, shapeless, Medium force

The force cage and wall of force spell descriptions might lead us to conclude that only effects that say they extend into the Border Ethereal do, which is okay as far as it goes, except for that phrase in the DMG, "including anything made of magical force". That is pretty broad.

So, my question is:

Does an Unseen Servant on the Prime Material extend into the Border Ethereal?

Now, my initial reaction is to say that's ridiculous, of course it doesn't, and what kind of cheese is that, anyway? But then I thought, well, if not, why not? Is it because:

  • The unseen servant spell doesn't say it doesn't extend into the Border Ethereal? -- Okay, but what about that phrase in the basic rules? Is it just meaningless?

  • Or is it because the unseen servant is "a force", but not "made of force"? -- Maybe, but that seems like a distinction without a difference.

  • Is the phrase in the DMG just a mistake? -- Maybe, but they've had ample opportunity to clarify in Sage Advice, and haven't.

  • Or maybe the distance between right here and the Border Ethereal is "more than 60 feet". -- I think the distance between here and the corresponding spot on the Ethereal is infinitely small, not infinitely large, but that's debatable, so maybe?

  • Or is it because if unseen servants extend into the Ethereal then complete shenanigans ensue? -- Maybe there's a point to this argument, I can't find one better.

Or some other reason?

So, finally, given that phrase in the DMG, "including anything made of magical force", if an unseen servant doesn't extend into the Border Ethereal, why not?

This isn't just theoretical. If I have an argument to stand on I'm going to discuss it with the GM. The "Maximally Cooperative GM" might allow it, but mine's probably just going to give me that look and say, "hard no", but it's worth a shot. I'm sure an unseen servant extending into the BE has to be good for something.

For instance, maybe it can be used to transfer or hide items in the Ethereal. Perhaps using see invisibility I've spotted something interesting, a chest perhaps, and the unseen servant could open it.

Or maybe it's a distinction without a difference, and there aren't any shenanigans. Living beings in some sense extend into the BE, and it doesn't seem to matter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless you tell us why this matters, it’s a theoretical question and you saying it isn’t doesn’t change it. To make it a practical question, please tell us the issue you are trying to solve where the interpretation makes a difference. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Mar 22, 2022 at 23:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Can I have my Unseen Servant fetch an item in the Border Ethereal" or "If an area is warded against ethereal travel, does that keep Unseen Servants out" could be use cases. Are these the kind of scenario you're running into that prompt this question, and if not, what is? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 23, 2022 at 0:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ This might be more focused as "Is unseen servant made of force (as forcecage and wall of force are), and if so, what are the ramifications?" The answer to that would answer this question, and be slightly more general. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chemus
    Mar 23, 2022 at 1:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another spell that creates a magical force not explicitly extending to the BE, and thus covered by the DMG quote, is Tiny hut. Related, possible duplicate: Can I leave Tiny hut while in the Border Ethereal? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Mar 23, 2022 at 4:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Chemus I wouldn't mind phrasing it like that, but it seems like the ship has sailed, and that phrasing might prompt even more theoretical complaints. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Mar 23, 2022 at 9:12

1 Answer 1

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It's a force, but is it a magical force?

All magical forces are forces but it doesn't follow that all forces are magical forces. Gravity is a force but, unless you are playing in some very weird campaign worlds, it isn't magical.

Forcecage is explicitly "composed of magical force" and Wall of Force is quite literally a Wall "of Force". Both of these spells are explicit in that they extend into the Ethereal plane, are impossible to move through and cannot be damaged - the Unseen Servant has none of the qualities. The other famous magical force, Magic Missile, is also explicit about what it is.

The Unseen Servant is simply described as "a[n] ... force".

So, is it a magical force?

Well, yes.

How do I know if an ability is magical?

  • Is it a magic item? No.

  • Is it a spell? Or does it let you create the effects of a spell that’s mentioned in its description? Yes.

  • Is it a spell attack? No.

  • Is it fueled by the use of spell slots? No.

  • Does its description say it’s magical? No.

Since it's a force created by a spell it is, ipso facto, a magical force. QED.

What shenanigans does this allow?

Not much.

  • The servant can interact with things on the material or the Ethereal planes but it can't move them from one plane to the other because no such power is given to it. So it can pour a cup of Ethereal tea from an Ethereal teapot but it can't bring it to the material plane.

  • It cannot move through solid objects because although they don't exist on the Ethereal plane, they do on the Material - and so does the servant.

  • It can be damaged by both material and Ethereal opponents; which is probably not advantageous.

As an aside, even though the border Ethereal has a 1:1 correspondence with the material plane it is not meaningful to speak of a distance between them. The Ethereal is as far away from the material as any other plane. We can talk of "the width of a shadow", "the opposite side of a Mobius strip", "the distance between the top and bottom of an Esher staircase", "their not being on the same page", or "the distance between estranged lovers" but we can't talk about feet and inches.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "So it can pour a cup of Ethereal tea from an Ethereal teapot but it can't bring it to the material plane." I think that's a pretty reasonable conclusion. Unfortunately not exploitable to give me infinite power (yet), but reasonable. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Mar 23, 2022 at 9:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can it look for Secret Chests? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Mar 23, 2022 at 19:54

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