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I'm looking at various spells like Ray of Exhaustion that have effect:Ray and you make a ranged touch attack with the ray. I'm also looking at spells like Mark of the Reptile God and Reach enhanced Inflict Wounds spells which just say you make a ranged touch attack.

My question is: Is there a difference between these? As follow-ups: Is the attack roll modified differently? Can I treat ranged touch spells as if they were rays? Can I take weapon focus: non-ray ranged touch attack?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It had special meaning in 3.5, but I can't find anything similar for Pathfinder. I'd speculate it is a legacy of 3.5 that wasn't fully cleaned up. Hopefully someone can find some evidence and turn this into an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Quentin Jun 11 '15 at 17:57
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Strictly speaking, yes, there is a difference, though some speculate that even the authors neglect it

So rays are a specific thing. All rays require ranged touch attacks, but not everything that requires a ranged touch attack involves a ray: ray-effects are a subset of ranged-touch-attack-effects.

Thus, if something applies some benefit or penalty to a ray, it applies to ray of exhaustion but not to mark of the reptile god or to spells improved by Reach Spell.

Without such a bonus or penalty, though, there is nothing inherently special about rays vs. other ranged touch attacks. The attack roll is made in exactly the same way and so on.

As for Weapon Focus, the feat allows a special exception to the general requirement that you pick a weapon for the feat, to allow you to pick rays. Only rays (and unarmed strikes and grapples) are mentioned as being allowed, not other sorts of non-weapon attacks, including non-ray ranged-touch-attack spells, or melee-touch-attack spells for that matter. Thus, strictly speaking, you could take Weapon Focus (rays) and get a +1 to the attack roll made when casting ray of exhaustion, but you would not get that benefit with mark of the reptile god, nor is there any option for Weapon Focus that does let you get that bonus.

However, many tables just treat all ranged-touch-attack-effects as ray-effects and that works fine, and might even be what the authors intended. There is circumstantial evidence that authors used the terms fairly interchangeably, and cases where something is never called a ray-effect, but seem like they’re supposed to be. This thread on Weapon Focus and ranged touch attacks confirms this confusion, and has many suggest that they treat the two as the same thing.

Note that in 3.5, Complete Arcane specified that all attack-roll using spells were considered “weapon-like spells” and “touch attack” and “ranged touch attack” were considered the two categories of such weapon-like spells for the purposes of Weapon Focus (presumably the spells that used regular, non-touch attacks like iron scarf were also included despite the name). While the same confusion about whether or not rays were synonymous with ranged-touch-attack existed in 3.5, the fact that 3.5 ran things this way without problems suggests that it is generally safe to do so.

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Rays and ranged touch spells have three important differences.

There are three major differences between ranged touch spells and rays: Who you can target, what potential penalties there are, and what feats and abilities you can take to help.

Who you can target.

The rules on aiming a spell say:

Some spells have a target or targets. You cast these spells on creatures or objects, as defined by the spell itself. You must be able to see or touch the target, and you must specifically choose that target. You do not have to select your target until you finish casting the spell.

They then go on to say for rays:

You aim a ray as if using a ranged weapon, though typically you make a ranged touch attack rather than a normal ranged attack. As with a ranged weapon, you can fire into the dark or at an invisible creature and hope you hit something. You don't have to see the creature you're trying to hit, as you do with a targeted spell. Intervening creatures and obstacles, however, can block your line of sight or provide cover for the creature at which you're aiming.

In other words, if you can't see your target, whether due to fog, invisibility, or otherwise, you can't choose them as the target of a ranged attack. However, you can try to target them with a ray, the same as you can fire an arrow at where you think they are.

What potential penalties there are.

Going back to the ray description, you'll notice that rays are aimed "as if using a ranged weapon" and that creatures can block your sight or provide cover. In other words, if your allies are standing between you and your target, a ranged touch spell won't have a problem, but a ray will give the target +4 to their touch AC. Likewise, the concealment miss chance applies to rays if you can only partly see your target, but not ranged touch attacks.

What feats and abilities you can take to help.

As KRyan noted, you can take Weapon Focus to help with your ray attacks, but not your ranged touch attacks. According to the FAQ, you can also take Weapon Specialization and Improved Critical for rays. Presumably, other weapon-specific feats would also be applicable, although that's not explicitly called out anywhere.

Additionally, things that boost weapon damage like inspire courage will also boost HP damage from a ray but not a ranged touch. You can also sneak attack with a ray, but not a ranged touch, although when you do, you only add the damage to one ray.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Huh, I have never played with anyone who used that ruling about seeing the target on ranged-touch-attack spells (only for targeted spells that involved no attack roll). Interesting. +1 from me, this looks to be right. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 15 '15 at 14:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan - my table ignores it too, as well as (usually) the cover penalty for ranged attacks. Mostly due to forgetfulness and our ranged characters always taking the feats to negate them. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jun 15 '15 at 14:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ This difference might also be important vs Swarms. Although, there is a huge lack of clarity on this issue; paizo.com/threads/rzs2nbcr?Final-word-on-swarms \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Jul 9 '15 at 15:10

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