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I'm not entirely clear on how Counterspell works, when trying to counter higher-level spells: the CS description only talks about disrupting a creature you can see, within 60 feet, casting a spell.

However, when trying to counter a higher level spell:

  1. Do I know what spell is being cast?
  2. Do I at least know (somehow intuit, based on VSM components) the level of the spell?
  3. Or can I tell the spell/level of the spell by sensing a disturbance in The Weave? (I.e., if the spell is being cast using Subtle Spell, can I still tell what's going on?)

The point of the question is to determine how fruitful CS can be in combat--if I know what the other guy/gal is casting (or at least the level), I can decide whether I want to spend my L8 slot to counter his/her L8 slot. But if I have no idea, and I end up using a L8 slot to counter a L3 spell... seems a bit painful.

Hope this made sense!

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Do I know what spell is being cast?

Not through the counter spell itself. In general, if there is a specific ability to do X, D&D 5e specifies it through keywords or description. See Specific beats general on Page 7 of the PHB or Page 4 of the D&D 5e Basic rules.

Do I at least know (somehow intuit, based on VSM components) the level of the spell?

The Arcana skill is your best candidate. Unlike spells, feats, and class abilities, the specifics of when and where the various D&D skills are applied are left to the Dungeon Master to decide. On page 175 of the PHB and is 74 of the D&D 5e Basic rules state that the every tasks a character or monster may attempt is covered by one of the six abilities. The following section lists suggested specifics but it is not meant to be taken as a definitive list of everything a character can attempt in game.

The assumed default is the player to describe what they are doing, and the referee comes up with the rulings to resolve it. Sometime this means saying no if it the action is impossible given the circumstance or the amount of time.

Or can I tell the level of the spell by sensing a disturbance in The Weave?

This is considered flavor text and is left completely in the Dungeon Masters to describe how the various ability checks manifest in his campaign. Some would opt for a mundane description, other would do as you did above and use various bits of background to spice up their description.

My advice

To make a ruling you need to consider is how long the identification takes. If you consider it like a search then it would require a character spend his action on his turn to figure out what was cast. If you consider it to be quicker then you may be comfortable in letting a spell identification check occur during the reaction.

You can use the box labeled Improvising an Action on page 193 of the PHB or Page 72 of the Basic rules for guidance in deciding how to handle the check.

My personal opinion is that I would allow a check but the character would have a very high DC of 25 to ID the spell during a reaction. If they get a 20 or higher they get one piece of information during the reaction. Otherwise they just have to cast the counterspell knowing only that a spell is being cast. If done as part of their normal turn I would drop it down to DCs of 15 and 20.

Another suggestion I have is that you could opt to fully describe the material component being used and allow player skill to come into play. I would do this anyway as I find the various description of material components evocative.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A few thoughts (I don't think I can type much here): CS is a reaction, so, presumably it's meant to counter spells that take 1 Action to cast. Anything that takes longer (or has concentration duration) is probably best dealt with by Magic Missile (or some other source of small, repeated damage, like Scorching Ray, etc.) This is just a long-winded way of saying that ID can't take more than a reaction, given that this is the casting time of CS. \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Aug 27 '14 at 4:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ (I agree that an Arcana check is the most intuitive/natural check for IDing. The description of the components sounds pretty cool... off to memorize those spells!) \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Aug 27 '14 at 4:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I submitted as an answer, but I think it's better to add it to this one: A recent Tweet by Crawford, though not a ruling per se: "As DM, I let you ID a spell if you know it (or it's on your class's spell list) and if you perceive V, S, or M." \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Jun 15 '16 at 1:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ The identification issue has been addressed in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, may want to update your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Voromir Kadien Feb 10 '18 at 3:35
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A Tweet by Crawford, though not a ruling per se:

"As DM, I let you ID a spell if you know it (or it's on your class's spell list) and if you perceive V, S, or M."

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    \$\begingroup\$ You want to expand this into a proper answer, explaining whether you think Crawford's house-rule is a reasonable one and how it has worked in your experience. It may also be worth incorporating the optional rules on identifying a spell from Xanathar's Guide to Everything. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 29 at 1:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ (Whoops, meant to type "may want" there.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 29 at 21:31
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There aren't explicit rules for this. The description for Counterspell doesn't say, and there's no guidance under Intelligence (Arcana).

I'm pretty sure this is intentional. D&D 3.x had a "Spellcraft" skill which was specifically used to do this (DC of 15 + spell level, although as with monster identification, I'm not completely keen on that, since it seems like some big famous spells might be easily recognized even by people who can't cast them). This is also because that edition has a general counterspell rule (any spell can be cast as its own counter). By contrast, 4E (by design) didn't have a counterspell mechanic, and apparently correspondingly didn't offer a way to identify spells as they are cast, although in my experience many people play 4E in a very "game-forward" way, with everyone's powers known to everyone automatically as they are used.

I think different groups find it fun to play this in different ways, and so it's left open. Making an Intelligence (Arcana) check based on observation of verbal, somatic, and material components makes sense, but exactly how hard it should be is left to the group. In another answer here, RS Conley suggests a "Very Hard" difficulty class of 25 to identify the spell during a reaction; I'd be inclined to make that much lower — a Medium DC of 15, say. If I were really on the ball, I might lower the DC on the fly for spells on the character's own known list. And, venturing into house rule territory, I might give characters with Wizard levels advantage on the checks — all that institutional learning is good for something.

But again, all of that is open. The game could certainly be played as if each spell is unique each time it is cast, with no possibility of an observer guessing — in that case, Counterspell either works or it doesn't.

(Also in the category of house rules: the spell description says that you can take the reaction when you see a creature casting a spell. I would probably also allow it if you heard a spell's verbal components in a dark room.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The DC 15+spell level check was to identify the spell as it was being cast, so there is no reason big famous spells would be more recognizable. As for those, the fighter can still shout "Fireball" as he ducks from the explosion of fire. But their wizard friend might correctly identify it as a "Channeled Pyroburst, 4th circle spell". The distinction between a fireball and "Fireball, the 3rd circle spell" isn't something the fighter needs to worry about. (Monster identification was stupid—general identification would be better under the 'field of study' part of knowledge.) \$\endgroup\$ – Arkhaic Sep 13 '14 at 18:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ It may be worth incorporating the optional rules on identifying a spell from Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which was published after this answer was originally posted. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 29 at 1:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a good idea. I was just fixing the spelling error but I could also do a content update while I am at it :) \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Apr 29 at 1:16
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Personally, I would be surprised if this isn't a topic elaborated upon in the DMG. In the meantime, however, here's what I've been doing with my players:

First of all, the whole debate comes down to the question "Can I intuit anything about spells another individual is casting?" As a DM, I've been allowing players to use an Intelligence (Arcana) check to determine certain properties about a spell. Restrictions to the check are that the player in question must aware of the casting and not incapacitated. Furthermore, any loss of senses gives the player disadvantage on the roll. I do allow the check to be a part of the reaction/casting process for Counterspell The DC is not fixed for the check, but instead based on thresholds as follows:

Result of 10 or better - Player learns the spell's school

Result of 15 or better - Player learns the spell's base level

Result of 20 or better - Player learns the exact spell name

Result of 25 or better - Player learns the exact level at which the spell is being cast

I would also like to point out that nowhere in any D&D text does it indicate that somatic or verbal spell components are the same from class to class, (or species to species for that matter) even for the same spell. So a wizard's fireball might look and sound completely different from the same spell coming from a Light-domain cleric. Thus, I hesitate to give any advantage to the Intelligence (Arcana) check based on class. Instead, I explain it to my players as though the Counterspell-caster is somehow interpreting the flow of magical energies.

With regard to your last point, about trying to determine the efficacy of Counterspell in combat, as a player I personally only cast it at Lv 3. Augmenting the level of Counterspell confers no advantage on the ability check to manually counter the spell, and I've found that the Lucky Feat gives me a great edge in that regard. That being said, I would consider changing this strategy once I begin encountering Lv8+ spells regularly, as those are less likely to be countered manually even with a re-roll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, casting at a higher level means you don't have to roll to counter the enemy's spell--it's guaranteed. The drive behind my question is that if you can identify a Feeblemind being cast at you, if you're not proficient in Int or have a high Int score (esp. as a Sorcerer, Bard, or Warlock), it might be worth the Lvl 8 slot. \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Sep 16 '14 at 22:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ True, and like I said towards the bottom, if my character starts seeing enemy spells of Lv8+ then I'd certainly start augmenting the level. I don't see my offensive spells at Lv8 as being a massive upgrade over their lower-level counterparts, so I probably won't miss those slots. But basically I'm saying that if I'm pretty sure the spell being thrown at me is level 4, I'm feeling OK about taking my chances with the roll there since I've selected the Lucky feat. I consider that to be a waste of a Lv4 slot. \$\endgroup\$ – The Bardbarian Sep 16 '14 at 22:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah. I think anything below 5, maybe 6, is worth casting at L3. But once Disintegrate, Plane Shift, etc., come into play, it might be worth casting at a higher level. I think I would also house rule that you reduce the DC by 1 per slot increase (to make it less all-or-nothing: if casting at L5 to counter a L7 spell, it should be easier than if casting at L3.) \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Sep 16 '14 at 22:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was considering something along those lines myself. I would also point out that abjurationist wizards get their proficiency bonus on the counterspelling ability check at 10th level, if you're ever trying to optimize a counter-mage. \$\endgroup\$ – The Bardbarian Sep 16 '14 at 22:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ It may be worth incorporating the optional rules on identifying a spell from Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which was published after this answer was originally posted. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 29 at 1:15
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My reading of the rules is: you don't need to identify a spell in order to counter it. The concept of having to I.D. the incoming spell is a hang-over from previous editions.

Your successful casting of Counterspell interrupts spell-casting in general, irrelevant of what the particular spell was going to be.

If the incoming spell is of 4th level or higher, you need to do an ability check to see how good your counterspell is against it.

Make an ability check using your spellcasting ability. The DC equals 10 + the spell's level. On a success, the creature's spell fails and has no effect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless there was a specific reason you needed to know what spell was being cast, you need only cast Counter Spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Night Owl Apr 19 '17 at 10:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't exactly address the question as asked; nothing in the question seems to indicate that they necessarily think you need to identify a spell to counter it, but they're curious nevertheless about what they know when considering whether to counterspell something so they know whether it's worth it. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 29 at 1:15

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