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This passage from the description of the Border Ethereal (DMG p. 48) says that anything made of magical force can affect ethereal creatures:

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.

Per the description of the magic missile spell (PHB p. 257), it is made of magical force; therefore, it should be able to affect ethereal creatures:

You create three glowing darts of magical force.

But in the description of the etherealness spell (PHB p. 238), it says that only things with a special ability or magic can affect ethereal creatures:

While on the Ethereal Plane, you can only affect and be affected by other creatures on that plane. Creatures that aren't on the Ethereal Plane can't perceive you and can't interact with you, unless a special ability or magic has given them the ability to do so.

Magic missile has no text allowing it to affect ethereal creatures, and instead relies on the general rule for affecting ethereal creatures.

Which is right? Is etherealness just restating the rule in the DMG, or is it an explicit exception to how ethereal travel normally works?

Moreover, even if magic missile can affect ethereal creatures, does that mean that other spells which deal force damage can also affect ethereal creatures? Magic missile is explicitly made of "magical force", but eldritch blast, which also deals force damage, is described as "crackling energy". Is it also made of "magical force"?

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No, force damage does not affect creatures on the Ethereal Plane.

As quoted in the question, the DMG states that:

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.

This specifically relates to movement. Force damage is not the same thing as a "thing made of magical force." This is confirmed in an unofficial tweet by Jeremy Crawford addressing this specific question:

Q: Do Magic Missile and Eldritch blast, which do force dmg., affect creatures on the ethereal plane, if they can be perceived?

A: No general rule causes force damage to pass from one plane of existence to another.

So even if you can perceive a creature on the ethereal plane, you cannot damage them with force damage.

Here is a later tweet response which states the case even more explicitly:

Q: Then what is the intent of DMG p. 48 "including anything made of magical force"? If no damage, would EB push cross planes?

A: Ethereal Plane: the DMG refers to things, like wall of force, made of force, not to the force damage type

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All etherealness does is put you into the Border Ethereal, and its details restate the DMG — it doesn't somehow create a unique, different physics paradigm for just the spell user.

Normally magic missile can't be used to attack ethereal creatures, because it cannot be used without being able to perceive the target. However, if the ethereal user of etherealness could be perceived by the physical caster of magic missile, then it could affect the ethereal creature, because it is made of magical force and “anything made of magical force” is explicitly called out as affecting creatures in the Border Ethereal.

Reading the section on force effects in the description of etherealness in the PHB as if it is only concerned about movement is clearly an incorrect reading, when the whole spell is read. In particular:

You ignore all objects and effects that aren’t on the Ethereal Plane, allowing you to move through objects you perceive on the plane you originated from.

That's an independent clause with a dependent clause attached. Reading it to only apply to movement is inverting the logical relationship of the words, flipping around which is independent and which dependent, and sentences simply don't work that way. You can move through things because you ignore objects and effects on the originating plane (except for some magical effects, as alluded to in the paragraph before that, and detailed in the DMG); ignoring them is a fact, and being able to move through them is a consequence. The fact has all normal consequences as described in the DMG, not only the consequence highlighted in the spell description.

Similary, reading the DMG as if only movement is affected by force effects, etc. is incorrect. The whole paragraph containing the statement is modified by it, since it is the causal explanation for the other statements, so both statements beginning with:

  • Normally, creatures in the Border Ethereal can't attack creatures on the overlapped plane…

  • solid objects on the overlapped plane don't hamper the movement of a creature in the Border Ethereal…

… are modified by

The exceptions are certain magical effects (including anything made of magical force)

That modifier is not limited to solely the sentence right before it. If it was, the first sentence in the paragraph would be semantically and logically disconnected from any explanation, and language doesn't work that way either. The explanation for these effects is clearly the third sentence of the paragraph, covering both the first and second sentences prior in the paragraph.

The description of etherealness merely restates the description of the Border Ethereal in the DMG. Furthermore, Occam's Razor is firmly on the side of “etherealness caused by a spell works just like all other etherealness.”

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for explaining the consequences of the phrase "You ignore all objects and effects that aren't on the Ethereal Plane" \$\endgroup\$ – Evil Cole Macgrath Sep 7 '15 at 1:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ So am I correct in understanding from this answer that both "magical force" and "living beings" can interact with ethereal creatures uninhibited? \$\endgroup\$ – Strill Sep 7 '15 at 10:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ No, that would be silly. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 8 '15 at 14:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Your second paragraph doesn't match Crawford's tweet presented in keith's answer. Would you mind editing it, since it's the most upvoted answer, in order to not spread this misconception (at least as if it was an official rule - obviously any DM could house rule differently). \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Aug 6 '18 at 3:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint I honestly think Crawford is wrong. I don’t see how that DMG passage isn’t exactly the rule he’s saying doesn’t exist. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 6 '18 at 5:56
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Force Damage does indeed affect Ethereal creatures

As you stated in your question (DMG, p. 48) "certain magical effects (including anything made out of magical force)...", but what is "magical force"? Well the answer to that is found in page 196 of the PHB:

Force: Force is pure magical energy focused into a damaging form.Most effects that deal force damage are spells, including magic missle...

So any attack or spell that does force damage can affect ethereal creatures (like Eldritch blast).

Etherealness

Etherealness is simply repeating what the DMG says. If in doubt, it also states: "unless a special ability or magic has given them the ability to do so." In this case that magic or special ability being force damage.

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RAW, it depends on how the creature in question got to the Ethereal Plane.
Etherealness spell or a Ghost's Etherealness ability, no.
Succubus/ Incubus/ Night Hag's Etherealness ability, Nightmare (and friends)'s Ethereal Stride ability, or Phase Spider's Ethereal Jaunt ability, yes.

Rules as Intended: not according to a tweet by Crawford.

Page 48 of the DMG referring to the Border Ethereal (aka the fun and interavtive part of the Ethereal Plane):

Normally, creatures in the Border Ethereal can't attack creatures on the overlapped plane, and vice versa. 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.

If the target got to the Ethereal Plane through an ability like the Night Hag's Etherealness, then yes. If she can be seen, she can be targeted and damaged by Magic Missile because (even if it's just for flavour) the missiles are RAW made of "magical force". The DMG explains this point saying "The exceptions (referring to trans-planar attacks and freedom of movement hampering from its previous two sentences) are certain magical effects (including anything made of magical force) and living beings." These Magic Missiles are only present on the Material Plane, but their force is present and felt through both planes.

What this means is that not only can the Night Hag be damaged by Magic Missiles from the caster, but she can also damage the caster with HER OWN Magic Missiles! Furthermore, if a fighter has the Night Hag grappled, she can use her Etherealness ability to blink into the the Ethereal Plane, but the grapple will not be broken because a living being is still hampering her movement, regardless of whether or not the fighter can see into the Ethereal Plane. And of course, by extension, an ethereal Night Hag can grapple the fighter later and exact her revenge because he is a living being. This trans-planar touching is further evidenced by the Night Hag's 'Soulmonger' flavour text and Nightmare Haunting ability (MM pg. 178).

Eldritch Blast and Spiritual Weapon, etc. are not "made of force" and so do not qualify for the exception. Just because something deals a damage type, does not necessitate that it is made of that thing (i.e. not all fire-damage sources are made of fire, some are just hot). More to the point, force damage is non-trans-planar as defended by Jeremy "Inadmissible in Rules Court" Crawford.

Where the real fun starts is with the Etherealness SPELL.

Keep in mind that specific rules ALWAYS beat general rules. The Basic Rules state that

many racial traits, class features, spells, magic items, monster abilities, and other game elements break the general rules in some way, creating an exception to how the rest of the game works. Remember this: If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

Because the Night Hag simply "enters the Ethereal Plane from the Material Plane, or vice versa." (MM pg. 178), she is beholden to the limitations of the general rules on page 48 of the DMG.

Etherealness the SPELL however, gets a whole bunch of fun specific rewrites!

You step into the border regions of the Ethereal Plane, in the area where it overlaps with your current plane. You remain in the Border Ethereal for the Duration or until you use your action to dismiss the spell. During this time, you can move in any direction. If you move up or down, every foot of Movement costs an extra foot. You can see and hear the plan you originated from, but everything there looks gray, and you can't see anything more than 60 feet away.

While on the Ethereal Plane, you can only affect and be affected by other creatures on that plane. Creatures that aren't on the Ethereal Plane can't perceive you and can't interact with you, unless a Special ability or magic has given them the ability to do so.

You ignore all Objects and Effects that aren't on the Ethereal Plane, allowing you to move through Objects you perceive on the plan you originated from.

When the spell ends, you immediately return to the plane you originated from in the spot you currently occupy. If you occupy the same spot as a solid object or creature when this happens, you are immediately shunted to the nearest unoccupied space that you can occupy and take force damage equal to twice the number of feet you are moved.

This spell has no effect if you cast it while you are on the Ethereal Plane or a plane that doesn't border it, such as one of the Outer Planes.
(PHB pg. 238)

The second paragraph of the spell refers to creatures explicitly. This means that the caster is not beholden to the GENERAL rule of 'not being able to pass through living things' (DMG pg. 48), because the spell's SPECIFIC rule states that the caster can only be affected by other creatures on that plane. Not only does this mean that the caster is immune to trans-planar wrestling matches, but it also means that the caster can stroll through packed markets and mosh pits unhampered. The spell's creature-specific freedom of movement is also necessitated by the fourth paragraph which requires you to be in a creature's space- something a Night Hag cannot do at all. What she can do however, is move straight up and down at normal-movement, whereas the caster can only do so at half-movement. The Night Hag also sees 30ft into the Material Plane in lo-fi blurry colour, whereas the caster will see in high-definition black and white for 60ft.

The third paragraph of the spell refers specifically to all Objects and Effects that aren't on the Ethereal Plane. As per the Basic Rules, "A spell is a discrete magical effect", and since the caster is able to ignore all Objects and Effects that aren't on the Ethereal Plane, this means that the caster is unaffected by......... Magic Missile!
This is because the spell's specific rule of ignore all Objects and Effects that aren't on the Ethereal Plane beats the DMG's general rule of magical force exceptions.

Ignoring objects and effects through Etherealness does not extend to Wall of Force, Forcecage, etc. because those spells specifically state that they block ethereal travel. They are specifically intended and written in a way that counters/ makes an answer to ethereal travel getting through walls. This was an explicit design choice to keep out Succubi, Ghosts, and nosey 13th level casters.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I changed your larger quotes to blockquotes because it's much easier to read. You might want to go over the text yourself and reduce the amount of bold because it's quite confusing what exactly you mean by it. I'd also heavily advice you use italics for emphasis rather than capitals because it often gets taken for shouting and there's no need to shout, is there (I wouldn't be surprised if someone else comes through and makes that change). \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jun 5 at 23:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jun 5 at 23:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil Thanks for the edit! I don't know the formatting etiquette yet, so I appreciate the help. I was using bold to refer to rules text, but I definitely see now that it is confusing and I'll change it later. I used capitals for emphasis because I was trying to keep italics for spells/abilities, but I'll use your method from here on out. \$\endgroup\$ – BigBurgerBoy Jun 6 at 20:36
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The PHB and DMG describe only effects crossing from the prime material to the border ethereal. Presumably effects that work in one direction across planes also work in the other direction (whether true or false, I would like to have seen the rule books explicitly address this scenario).

Thus, if wall of force cast on the prime material limits movement on the border ethereal, then wall of force cast on the border ethereal limits movement on the prime material. Also, if magic missile cast from on the prime material can affect an opponent on the border ethereal (assuming the caster can observe the ethereal foe - e.g. see invisibility), then magic missile cast from on the border ethereal can affect an opponent on the prime material (and the ethereal caster doesn't need a see invisibility spell if the material foe is within 60').

I think I just found a quick way for my warlock equipped with oil of etherealness to level up in a hurry.

If you're not keen on this implication, one remedy would be to rule that spells can pass from the prime material to the border ethereal, but not the other way. That's all that the PHB and DMG describe, though that appears to be just an oversight.

Another solution is to distinguish between force effects (e.g. forcecage, wall of force) and force attacks (e.g. magic missile, eldritch blast), and rule that only force effects cross the planes. That distinction seems to be consistent with what Jeremy Crawford tweeted on his Sage Advice response.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Things on the border etherial normally do not affect the Prime. That is the whole point of the plane—matter and creatures on the border etherial can pass through walls and whatnot on the Prime. For the same reason, a ghost on the border ethereal standing in a doorway will not block movement on the Prime through that doorway. Ditto a magical wall of force on the ethereal will not block movement on the Prime. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 11 '17 at 4:52
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No, it does not affect ethereal creatures unless the spell or ability producing it explicitly says so.

Border Ethereal DMG page 48: 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.

DMG page 48 is not a general rule for interacting with ethereal creatures. It is referring specifically to effects which "hamper movement", such as Forcecage and Wall of Force. Both of these spells also explicitly mention that they extend into the ethereal plane.

This is further reinforced by the fact that "living beings" are also an exception. This makes sense in the context of hampering movement. Ethereal creatures still can't move into another creature's tile. However, if it were in respect to any and all interaction, it would imply that Ethereal creatures are susceptible to grappling and unarmed strikes, which is entirely thematically inconsistent.

The Etherealness spell is not restating the DMG, rather it is providing separate rules for general interaction with ethereal creatures. Unless a spell or ability has an explicit exception allowing it to affect ethereal creatures, such as the explicit exceptions which Forcecage and Wall of Force have, they cannot affect ethereal creatures.

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