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This came up last night in-session, and RAW, I do not believe the verbiage of the Message Cantrip matches RAI. The issue arises due to the fact that the spell seems to be two spells in one.

You point your finger toward a creature within range and whisper a message. The target (and only the target) hears the message and can reply in a whisper that only you can hear.

The word "target" here has a specific meaning, as does how that target is acquired, ie, you "point your finger toward a creature". It is assumed you must be able to see it to target it, as established elsewhere in the rules.

However, this is partially overridden in the second usage context:

You can cast this spell through solid objects if you are familiar with the target and know it is beyond the barrier. Magical silence, 1 foot of stone, 1 inch of common metal, a thin sheet of lead, or 3 feet of wood blocks the spell. The spell doesn't have to follow a straight line and can travel freely around corners or through openings.

There is nothing in the second paragraph that says explicitly that you no longer need to "point toward" the creature to identify the target; only that you don't have to "see it", and must be "familiar" with it, and that the spell can find it's own path if there is one. Are we to just assume that EVERYTHING in the first usage context is moot? 'Cause the way rules stack, we shouldn't, right?

That's the crux of the issue: do you still have to "point toward"? If so, that very much changes how this spell works in the field!

One interpretation is that the spell still intends that you know the location of the target behind "the barrier" (singular, and important note!). You know it's behind that table it flipped for cover. You know it's behind the bar it dove behind. You can't see it, but know that it's behind "the barrier", and can target it, purely because you are "familiar" with it. So, if there is a SINGLE barrier in the way, and I know they are behind it, I can target them by pointing at them behind the barrier, if I am familiar. That seems logical that the spell is clearly at least this powerful, and reasonable for a Cantrip.

But, what if the creature ran around a corner, down an unknown twisty corridor, perhaps several corners away (ie multiple barriers, but still an open path to target)? It could easily be within 120' range, but I would have no idea where to "point toward". Yes, I know the target (ie I'm "familiar"). Yes, there is a path to them. Yes, they are 120' in range. But I honestly don't have a clue where they are. They could be anywhere within a 180 degree arc on a battlemap from the caster's relative position, ie, impossible to "point toward" so as to target with 100% certainty. But, they could be within 120', and while there may be 30' of solid rock separating us as the crow flies, the spell says that the magic will go around corners if there's a path to target!

That seems a bit powerful for a Cantrip...essentially turning it into a 120' Sending spell if there's a clear path to target.

I can see really good arguments on both sides saying that this spell should or should not work in this case. I'm torn, so wanted to post the question here and let the community vote an answer to the top!

So, can I use Message if I don't really know where the target is, and therefore can't "point toward" them? Or is the fact that I'm familiar with them, they are in range, and I have a path to target around the barrier (or barriers) blocking us, enough for this Cantrip?

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6 Answers 6

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It's the DM's call

Seeing

First off, the spell at no point cares about "seeing" the creature. If the target was invisible, but you would know its location as it was not also hidden, you could point towards an unknown creature and message it. The spell does not state you need to see the target, like many others. For example, Polymorph states:

This spell transforms a creature that you can see

Message does not require you to see the creature, or it would say so.

Obstacles

The spell doesn't have to follow a straight line and can travel freely around corners or through openings.

So as long as there is an unblocked route to the target, you can reach it. It does not explicitly say this is limited to familiar creatures. There is merely contextual evidence from this sharing the paragraph talking about familiar creatures. So it will be important if we think context matters. If it does, then this only works on familiar creatures.

You can cast this spell through solid objects if you are familiar with the target and know it is beyond the barrier.

If there is no unblocked route, which you otherwise could take, you can still reach it with the spell, "trough solid objects" (plural), which constitute a barrier blocking such an open path. So a familiar creature could be behind a closed door, or even behind multiple closed doors. Only if the total is thicker than 3 feet of wood, 1 foot of stone, etc. this will not work.

Pointing

There are three ways the spell text can be read:

  1. There are no two different modes (paragraphs do not matter). All the text always applies. You always have to point towards a creature, and can reach any unfamiliar creatures behind corners if you point at them; if the creature is familiar to you, you can reach it even if it is behind obstacles.

    The downside for this reading is that in many cases you would not know where to point to. While pointing "toward" a creature is maybe not as strict as pointing "at" a creature, after they went around multiple corners, they might well be behind you without you knowing it. Would this make the spell fail? That cost is not that high as you can retry, but it clearly is the weaker version. It also feels a bit rules-lawyerly.

  2. There are two different modes (paragraphs matter): First, for any creature, you can point toward it if no object is in the way or they are not behind a corner. Second, for a familiar creature you can message them without pointing, even if there is an obstacle in the way or it is behind corners.

    The downside of this reading that there is only contextual indication from pointing being in a different paragraph.

  3. Pointing at the creature is part of the spell effect and happens automatically. (Thank you, Non-Novelist!). The magic of the spell makes you do that. This would then only leave the question whom you can target behind corners open to context interpretation.

There unfortunately is no Sage Advice or even tweet from Jeremy Crawford to clarify the intent. Since one can argue for either reading, this is one of the cases where the DM must adjudicate.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Even if you read the 2nd paragraph separately, as not having to point, you do have to know a general direction to the target. Because that's implied by knowing they're "beyond the barrier". Unless you're surrounding by one contiguous circular "barrier" and just know your target is outside it. (e.g. you're trapped in a hamster ball). Then arguably you could know your target is outside without knowing their direction to be able to point anywhere near them. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29 at 21:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Non-novelist yes I had thought of that and discounted that as there is no precedence for that, but I do agree it's a clean solution. If that was indeed the intent, I'd love to see it errata'd to be made clear. Or, dropped if it's just meant to be flavor text. That's one thing I hate about flavor text, it VERY OFTEN muddies spells....and this may be one of those cases where flavor text is doing exactly that. If the intention was that the caster knows where to point, just drop the pointing verbiage, or, add "instinctively" or "innately" or something. \$\endgroup\$
    – RhinoTX
    Mar 31 at 9:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the best answer!!! It breaks it down elegantly. It comes down to intent of the author, and since they did a poor job of writing the spell, we as DM's have to adjucate what their intent was. In the session, I went with option A, and made the player point on the battlemap, and they weren't even close. Spell failed. But honestly going forward (until we get a SA or Tweet) I think I'm going to use Option B, because now that I've had more time to think about it, I honestly think that was RAI. \$\endgroup\$
    – RhinoTX
    Mar 31 at 10:25
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It seems like you're overthinking this.

'Pointing towards' does not require accuracy in the Merriam-Webster definition.

to stand or sit with the face or front toward

'Front towards' nearly always means either a 90' degree of accuracy or a 180' one. That's a very wide field.

Much more importantly, the spell doesn't state you need to see the target, doesn't require an attack roll, or any kind of roll to 'hit' the target. It actually goes out of its way to say that it can bypass barriers (including those that block line of sight - most characters cannot see through an inch of lead or three feet of wood). Assuming from 'point your finger towards' that you would need to see the target (and accurately laser-like target them with your finger) is a massive leap that is not supported by the text.

The second paragraph is also fairly clear. The first sentence has the necessary information on when you can use the spell if you can't see the target. The rest is just clarifying what barriers can stop the spell (and that keyholes and the like can bypass such barriers).

You can cast this spell through solid objects if you are familiar with the target and know it is beyond the barrier.

Not 'know it's exact location'. 'Know it is beyond'. I know my friend is beyond that door - they went through it. If they've teleported behind me after that without my knowledge, I might be wrong, and send the Message in the wrong direction. That's the degree of specificity the spell is asking for in every single part of the writeup - 'a rough direction'.

It also requires you to know the target. If you send a message to 'someone' behind a door or whatever, it will fail. If you send it blind in the wrong direction, it will likely also fail as well. Other than that, more abstruse situations are up to the GM to decide (and/or coinflip) in line with the general design of D&D 5e which explicitly hands any complex situations (or any situation where there is any disagreement) entirely up to the GM to make a judgement call (or houserule).

As a final note, I've found this kind of extreme extrapolation of English words to be commonly a situation where someone does not like the utility or strength of an ability and would like it to be weaker - especially in 5E, for some reason. If you are the GM and feel an ability is too strong - weaken it. If you aren't, make your case to the GM. Trying to 'reinterpret' the rules to weaken abilities generally leads to a lot of wasted time, confusion, and rules-lawyering that tend to suck the fun out of a game. Ultimately, the rules are guidelines to create fun and not perfected or absolute. Trying to stick to the exact letter of the law or interpret that letter to something you consider more reasonable is going to be a huge hassle and is not what the rules were created for.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yup, it's up to the DM how accurately you need to point. You might need a few tries to connect and get a reply back, as you change direction, if you have no idea of their position relative to you, or if the DM requires something like a 30 degree cone instead of your 90 or 180 arcs. Especially if vertical (2nd floor vs. basement) might be part of the problem. Fortunately it's a cantrip, so this is normally only a problem if time or stealth are a factor. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29 at 20:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Pointing toward something with your finger is different than pointing toward something with your face, though. Because your finger is smaller, you are expected to be more precise. I just pointed my finger at the trash can in my room My dog is about 45 degrees away from that. I would not argue I pointed toward the dog. But if I turn my (swivel) chair to face the trash can, my face does point toward the dog. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    Mar 29 at 20:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ 90 degrees? No way mate, even pointing to something 10 degrees off will have people asking "what are you pointing at?". This answer is not vibing for me at all, seems like a massive stretch. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 30 at 4:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Non-novelist: "Pointing at" is not the same thing as "pointing toward." The latter strongly implies a lack of precision. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Mar 30 at 15:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ For those who say a finger needs more precision: You need to user perspective. The further the target of your pointing towards is, the more things get closer to that target, the more things you can point towards, with a single finger. 120ft is enough distance to not have to be that precise. Example: 3 dogs up close and you can not point at them with one finger. 3 dogs 120ft away can just be a pack and you could be pointing at any of them with your one finger. Imho, 120ft away you could be pointing at a whole room. \$\endgroup\$
    – Marina M
    Mar 31 at 7:33
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It reads to me that this is one spell with two allowed targeting mechanisms.

  1. "You point your finger toward a creature within range". No need to be "familiar" with the target. No need to even "know" that it is there. It looks to me that the creature you point to gets the message (accuracy counts!)

  2. "You can cast this spell through solid objects if you are familiar with the target and know it is beyond the barrier." In this case, targeting requires that you are "familiar" with it and "know" that it's beyond the barrier that we're presuming is blocking sight.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree this is the crux of the question: are these two immutable methods, or do they stack? Thank you for honing in on the obvious which I bought up. It seems others got bogged down on semantics of "point toward' when I don't even think that is the bigger question. I think this was the intention RAI, but it is not how most people interpret it RAW. If this was the intention, it should be reworded in an errata. \$\endgroup\$
    – RhinoTX
    Mar 31 at 10:04
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Being able to see the creature isn't necessary

You can cast this spell through solid objects if you are familiar with the target and know it is beyond the barrier.

Most solid objects are not transparent. You can cast the spell through solid objects that block line of sight as nothing says otherwise.

You point your finger toward a creature within range

Within range is the only requirement for targeting a creature. If the spell required you to see the creature, it would have said "a creature within range you can see"

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Another example of how this is a terribly worded spell. The spell says you cast through solid objects, yes, to an extent, and yet they also say that the spell casts around obstacles and barriers, providing alternative paths to target. And no, "within range" is not the only requirement. "point" and "toward" are also a requirement, unless you suggest those are simply flavor text (possibly the intent!)? In which case, just remove them, or clean them up to adds words like "innately point" or "automatically point". They are muddying the issue, clearly, based on the responses!!! \$\endgroup\$
    – RhinoTX
    Mar 31 at 10:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Case in point: somebody could be 30' away, through 25' of stone. Well within the 120' range, but the magic cannot penetrate that. However, the magic can reach the familiar target if there is a path to it, as per the spell. But what if it needs to travel 30' up this long corridor the caster in, 25' over, and 130' down? Does that work? That magic has to extend beyond the 120' range to work? Does it? To my knowledge, there's nothing in D&D rules that says it does or does not to my knowledge. The target is in range, but the entire path to target is not. \$\endgroup\$
    – RhinoTX
    Mar 31 at 10:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ To conclude, if the INTENT here was to make this second form work like a Sending spell with 120' range, they should have dropped all of the extra verbiage, and made that clear. They did not, which tells me it either was not their intent. It tells me that they intend it to be a bit more restrictive than that, but it's still far too vague IMO. Again, the crux of the issue is does this "point toward", which makes TONS of sense when SEEING the target is a requirement, still apply to the SECOND form of targeting? That is the crux of question, and I have not seen a convincing answer either way. \$\endgroup\$
    – RhinoTX
    Mar 31 at 10:19
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Minor frame shift: the probable intent of the author becomes much more apparent if you start from the mindset of "the cantrip is 'a thing' that does a job for you in a quasi-intelligent way".

Consider if you were asking someone to deliver a message for you. One of the things that they are going to need to know is "who to deliver it to". If the target is someone familiar to you, then you would be able to provide your messenger with a description that would allow them to recognize the target, but if they aren't familiar, you can still point and say "that guy, right there" (or even potentially "that guy behind that table").

Note that trying to target someone who isn't known to you and whom you can't point toward with reasonable accuracy (GM's call on "reasonable", or for that matter "accuracy", of course) would mean that there was potentially so much ambiguity that the magic could not decide who the target was, and would thus fail to deliver the message.

This has a potentially interesting side effect: if there is more than one unknown target in that direction, you might have to point more precisely… or settle for whichever person it decided you meant.

A useful rule of thumb for this, from past experience, is "if you would have to say more than a short sentence to describe the target to a person who knows the people you know, it is complicated enough that it will probably fail." Unless for some reason it desperately amuses the Will of the Universe to allow it (usually because Murphy gets to come out to play if it does).

So as a GM, just ask the player to describe the target (succinctly) from the character's point of view. If their body language involves pointing, that's a good sign that they'd point as part of the spell. If they just say "Jimbo, our tank" then it probably won't.

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I think the only really contentious bit here is the word 'familiar', and the general targeting of something that you can't see by pointing.

I'd rule that you are familiar with the target if you had seen it once (so you can't message randomly behind locked doors for instance, which is the type of situation I think this clause is to prevent), and that as per the descriptions example I would adjudicate just so long as you point in the general direction, just not in the opposite direction :)

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    – Community Bot
    Apr 27 at 17:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks bot, but I don't think the question really needs a larger answer. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 27 at 17:21

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