The party will soon be negotiating with an enemy; if they are smart, they will make sure that it happens at a neutral location. One of the enemy's henchmen can cast Symbol, and he would like to bring a precast one, possibly more, to the negotiation to use offensively if things go bad (one minute casting time means it is unwise to cast during a fight, but it does not require concentration and lasts until dispelled or triggered, so it is a perfect spell for precasting).

I have never used Symbol before (as a player or DM) or had it used at my table. The spell offers two options, but I can't understand why anyone would ever choose the second one, so I suspect my understanding is incorrect.

The Symbol spell says:

When you cast this spell, you inscribe a harmful glyph either on a surface (such as a section of floor, a wall, or a table) or within an object that can be closed to conceal the glyph (such as a book, a scroll, or a treasure chest). If you choose a surface, the glyph can cover an area of the surface no larger than 10 feet in diameter. If you choose an object, that object must remain in its place; if the object is moved more than 10 feet from where you cast this spell, the glyph is broken, and the spell ends without being triggered...You decide what triggers the glyph when you cast the spell...You can further refine the trigger so the spell is activated only under certain circumstances...Once triggered, the glyph glows, filling a 60-foot-radius sphere with dim light for 10 minutes, after which time the spell ends. Each creature in the sphere when the glyph activates is targeted by its effect, as is a creature that enters the sphere for the first time on a turn or ends its turn there.

My thought is that the enemy's henchman will prepare a Symbol using the 'surface' version on a small object that can be easily thrown (though not a bouncy ball), and set to trigger under the circumstances "activate as soon as I and all of my allies are more than 60 feet away". In fact, he could potentially prepare multiple of these symbol-bearing objects (with different symbols to avoid them suppressing one another), with the only limitation being the financial resources I as the DM assign to the NPC to cover the material component cost. While a 7th level spell is his highest cast, these seem pretty safe to carry around as long as they are not misplaced, so this could have been done days in advance, and not for this particular negotiation.

The spell can be cast either "on a surface" or "within an object", but the "within an object" version ends if the object is moved (like a glyph of warding). Since the caster wants to bring these to the negotiation, he will obviously choose the first option - "on a surface", but the surface of an object that can easily be moved and thrown. The examples for "on a surface" (a section of floor, a wall) might imply that this version can't be moved either, but "a table" can obviously be moved and is in fact one of the stated examples of "an object". Further, while the "on a surface" version has a maximum size, it does not have a minimum size, so it seems like that version can be placed on as small and transportable an object as desired.

My current understanding is that the "on a surface" version of the spell is clearly superior to the "within an object" version, not just for my desired use case, but in just about any case. The surface version could be on an object but doesn't have to be, but the within version must be on an object. The surface version could be on the surface of an object that can be closed to conceal it but doesn't have to be, but the within version has to be on an object that can be closed. Neither version has a lower size limit, and while the surface version has an upper size limit so does the within version when factoring in that it must be placed on an object that can close. The surface version can be moved without deactivating it, but the within version cannot.

Given the clear disparity in usefulness between the two versions, I have to wonder why anyone would use the within version. And wondering that makes me wonder whether I am understanding the surface version correctly and can have my NPC use it the way I plan, RAW.


3 Answers 3


Moving either version should break the spell, at a DM's discretion

As Jack points out, Glyph of Warding used to have the same language. The designer intent of this language (for Glyph of Warding) as shared by Mike Mearls in a tweet was:

if you can move it, it's an object can can't [sic] go more than 10 feet from casting point

Presumably this means; "If you can move the thing it is cast on, then it is an object and thus cannot go more than 10 feet from the casting point"

As Thomas inferred, in practical terms the surface is the option that cannot be moved, so you need the movement clause for only the object case. However, a table qualifies as an object in the game, and can be moved (with some difficulty as it is unwieldy), and this caused problems and confusion with the wording.

Glyph is much more heavily played1 and thus has been a source of questions. Consequently, its language has been errata'ed in 2016 to include the following sentence:

If the surface or object is moved more than 10 feet from where you cast this spell, the glyph is broken, and the spell ends without being triggered

The errata solved the issue by making sure movement breaks the spell regardless of what it is cast on, instead of explicitly declaring surfaces only as those that cannot be moved. Now, why did they not apply the same errata to Symbol?

One could argue that Symbol is much higher level, and therefore moving it is an option that was consciously left in. Because frankly, you can upcast Glyph to any level and cause effects with it that are just as nasty as Symbol's, so what is the point of Symbol at 5 times the gp cost, to conserve an extra slot when prepping the effect?

Or, leaving out the movement clause could simply have been an oversight, as Symbol did not come up in player questions. We cannot know for sure.

Strictly as written, you could move it if you chose the surface option. That makes little logical sense, as you point out yourself. So, you as the DM need to decide how you want this to play out.

Personally, I think the lack of errata was just an oversight, and you should play it as if it would also break on surfaces when moved, but you can decide against it and follow the text.

P.S. If you really wanted them to bring pre-cast symbols along, they could cast them on the surface walls of a portable hole or Demiplane. I think these are pretty "gamey" tactics, though.

1 90% of play happens in tier 1 and 2, where players can use Glyph but not yet Symbol.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Note though that nothing keeps the players from going to the meeting place the night before, casting it on a stone or something else inconspicuous, and leaving it lying around there. It will be ready to be picked up and thrown / used the next day... \$\endgroup\$
    – Aganju
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 4:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suspect the intent was to allow casting on a surface like the deck of a ship. (Things like this and "immovable rod" become problematic if you give any thought to reference frames like moving train vs. ground outside.) Moving relative to whatever nearby characters would be standing or or using as a frame of reference is what allows exploits, generally. Of course then you have to draw the line somewhere, maybe at a Symbol on a cart or wagon or even a one-person chariot. Or just disallow if it smells like an exploit, on a case-by-case basis, if that works for your table, perhaps. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 4:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, Neil Slater already commented on another answer about that, linking Would a moving ship break glyphs of warding? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 4:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes, fully agree -- I cannot fathom why they chose to use a table as an example instead of a ship, that would have been a much better choice. They also could just have said if the object is large or smaller and you move the object, it breaks. Sure someone would have come up with a plan to build a Gargantuan war machine full of symbols, but for practical play, that would have solved the problem too. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 4:58

The idea is that the surface option doesn’t move.

When the spell describes the surface option, the idea is that you are inscribing the glyph on an immovable or mostly immobile surface:

such as a section of floor, a wall, or a table

You cannot bring a section of floor along with you, and even the somewhat movable table generally would not be moved outside of the room it is in. The reason the “10 foot rule” doesn’t apply to surfaces is because the intent is that you can’t move the surface anyway.

You are misapplying the surface portion, and that’s why you’re confused. Given the reading of the spell outlined in the question, the following would both be true:

If I inscribe the glyph on the outside of a book, I can move it around freely with no restrictions.

If I inscribe the glyph on the inside of a book, I cannot move it more than ten feet or the spell ends.

This disparity of function, which you have observed, is abundantly obvious and should tell us we are misunderstanding something. Even worse, we could just say “I’m choosing the ‘on a surface option’ for anything’.” You are always inscribing it on a surface, even for the “within an object” option. There would be no circumstances where you would ever choose the within an object option. But these are the observations you have made as well. So we work backwards through our initial assumptions and find the squeaky wheel. In this case, the glyphs aren’t supposed to move more than ten feet under any circumstances.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This. Really the point of the 10 foot rule is to prevent precisely the thing he wants to do: wizards running around with backpacks full of Symbols. Of course if the players agree to meet at the location "tomorrow" then the henchman has plenty of time to sneak over there.... \$\endgroup\$
    – JamieB
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 14:40

The spell is poorly worded.

Note that glyph of warding uses the same language.

If you assume the surface be unmovable and exposed while the object is something small enough to be moved and closed, then it makes sense.

Admittedly, that is not what the spell says. You can dissect the phrasing however you want, and it just doesn't say that. The way it is worded, the "surface" can be moved.

Limiting the stored spell to a location significantly limits the spell. Allowing the stored spell to be cast on the surface of an object and then taken some place dramatically increases the power of the both spells.

We've always interpreted both of these spells this way, in games I've been in, as a DM or a player. Whether that's "interpretation", or "home rule", I'm not sure, but it's worked.


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