I was running a campaign the other evening, and I ran into a problem. One of the players wanted to cast 'color spray' on a creature. The player did not know that the creature was undead, but suspected that it might be. After looking it up, I realized that undead are immune to mind-affecting spells, so the spell should have failed.

Does a caster know why a spell failed? For example, can a caster tell the difference between a successful save, spell resistance, inapplicability, or some other effect?

This seems like a simple question, but I couldn't find anything in the SRD or in the Rules Compendium.



4 Answers 4


"Your colour spray lights up the crypt for a moment. You've caught the horror cleanly in its fan… but it continues to advance as if the spray of blinding light didn't exist."

Players are there to experience a world and events, with their characters in the middle of it, solving problems by their wits and kicking tail with their characters' abilities. Describing that world in a way that they can engage with it directly, instead of abstractly via the rules, is vital for many groups to maintaining the roleplaying part of "roleplaying game". The suggested narration above, or something like it, helps your players stay in the head-space of your imaginary world. Players should not be told why something unusual happened, by default—there's not much fantasy and wonder in exploring a fantasy world if everything fantastic is explained right away!

The player will already be puzzling at the discrepancy: "Why didn't that work? Is it resistant to other spells? There's no light in this crypt… does it not need its eyes to see? The chance of it being undead is pretty good if so…" For most people, this is fun! Don't interfere with that fun by immediately handing players the answer to every unknown they run into.

Of course, there are things that won't be unknown to the characters, things that naturally call for giving the players more information.

If the character does have special knowledge, such as Knowledge: Religion (which covers undead's abilities and weaknesses) or Knowledge: [local area] (which might give relevant rumours of the creature's behaviour), then ask for a check and follow up a success with the sort of information that would give them: "The colour spray failed to affect it, and you know that undead are immune to spells that confuse the mind…" or "You remember a story once about a young man who'd disturbed its lair being followed by the creature through a blinding, deafening storm as if the weather wasn't there."

The only time you should just tell (instead of show) your players why something is happening with no justification in the game world (like Knowledge skills, or reminding them of the last time they encountered a similar creature) is if it would directly interfere with what your group thinks is fun about the game.

Some groups play for the tactics and the efficient combat-plays. Further, some of those groups won't be interested in puzzling out the nature of fantastic things through the clues in your narration. If you're playing in this kind of group, by all means lay as much information on the table as you've got and move on with the fun parts of the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @7SD: But don't play the "Gotcha!" card on an inexperienced player. I would call shenanigans if I played a superhumanly intelligent wizard and it only occured to me after wasting a spell slot that the spell wouldn't have worked in the first place (even more with something basic as undead and mind-affecting effects). Also, considering how harsh a wasted spell slot is at low levels in 3e I'd at least allow an appropriate Knowledge check before the spell/ability/whatever is used to give the player a hint that using spell/item/ability X on monster Z may not have the desired effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – user660
    Mar 28, 2011 at 20:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Baelnorn We play differently. I see allowing players to make mistakes as giving them the opportunity to learn by directly interacting with the fantasy world. I am as informative as possible (and not a killer DM), so it works without frustrating them. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28, 2011 at 20:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would agree with @SevenSidedDie -- In the campaign I recently finished I usually didn't explained a failure. The player chalks it up to experience/lesson learned and if they want to go study in an arcane library or collect a couple dozen undead to experiment with at a later time, that's up to them in character. Answers such as "You feel like your spell had no effect" or "You're uncertain if it was affected" when a spell failed were common. I once told a player when they asked if it worked: "I don't know, do you stop in the middle of combat and go ask the creature if your spell worked?" \$\endgroup\$
    – BBlake
    Mar 29, 2011 at 18:30

I don't have the PHB in front me so can't confirm this but I think to determine why the spell failed it would be a Knowledge: Arcana check. Nothing requires that the spellcaster automatically knows why their spell didn't work other then previous experience. From a story perspective it makes a good deal of sense. A spell failing due to spell resistance probably looks different then a spell failing due to a successful save but only someone who has seen/read/experienced both failures could definitively explain the differences.


By the Rules, Only in 1 Case

The Player's Handbook says on page 177 in the paragraph Succeeding on a Saving Throw: "[I]f a creature's saving throw succeeds against a targeted spell... [the caster] sense[s] the spell has failed."

So if the why of the spell failing is that the target of the spell (not just a creature who happens to be in the spell's area) made a successful saving throw, the caster knows that. If it's not because of that, the caster knows nothing.

That's because the rules are sadly silent about immunity except that an immune creature is "never harmed" (MM 310) by an effect its immune to.

Further, the rules are silent about spell resistance, too. As a house rule, I extrapolate from the Player's Handbook description of how "spell resistance is like an Armor Class against magical attacks" (PH 177), going so far as describing it in much the same way as armor when a spell fails to penetrate spell resistance, so PCs know after a failed caster level check that a creature possesses spell resistance.

None of this helps in the case of the spell color spray whose area of effect includes skeletons. Knowing that the color spray's gonna fail comes from experience or identifying the creature via a Knowledge (religion) skill check.


I believe the player learns why the spell failed, but I can't recall where the rule would appear one way or the other. Regardless, it is generally considered good form to let the players know why their spells and effects don't work.


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