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A Magic Missile is visible, a Wall of Force is invisible, and a Tenser's Floating Disk is... which? Specific beats general, but what's the general rule for visibility of magical force?

Magic Missile. You create three glowing darts of magical force.... (PHB p.257)

Wall of Force. An invisible wall of force springs into existence.... (PHB p.285)

Tenser's Floating Disk. This spell creates a circular, horizontal plane of force.... [No mention of (in)visibility follows.] (PHB p.282)

This came up at my table when a monk perched on my Tenser's Floating Disk in lotus position; we both believed the disk to be invisible and thought it'd appear to be a nifty monk-ish trick. Others at the table assumed the disk was visible and that it was a pointless waste of a spell. We discovered that some of us had operated for decades, through multiple prior editions, under the assumption that TFD was obviously visible, while others had likewise assumed for decades it was invisible.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Please answer in answers, not comments. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 12 '15 at 18:55
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I can't find a general rule, but most things that do force damage are visible based on flavor text. Most magic in general have descriptions of a visual appearance.

Tenser's Disk is probably visible:

  • In 4e art from the books, the disk is visible.
  • How can you set things on it, if you don't know where it is.
  • 5e even made Mage Hand visible -- even though the spell itself doesn't say so. This is evident from the Rogue Arcane Trickster subclass. Which has a class feature that specifically says you can turn it invisible, meaning it is visible by default. I'd assume the same to be true of other force spells that don't mention visibility.
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    \$\begingroup\$ The mage hand spell does explicitly say it's visible: “A spectral, floating hand appears…” That ‘appears’ is unambiguous by itself, but even were it not enough it's supported by the visual description word ‘spectral’ (which means “having the appearance of a spetcre”). And obviously the writer of the Rogue feature recognised that sentence's visual-description meaning. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 14 '15 at 18:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that some spells that produce invisible force specifically mention invisibility, while other spells don't specify whether the spell is invisible or not. This might be inconsistent writing, but I suspect it instead reflects an assumed default that the invisible forces violate. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Nov 15 '15 at 23:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ What you're calling "flavor text" isn't — it's the spell description. Usually the physical manifestation of the spell, just not for Tenser's Floating Disk (and a few others). \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Mar 10 '16 at 23:38
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If a spell has a shape or another visual description,it is not invisible unless explicitly stated so.

Some spells in dnd5 are described as invisible or making something invisible. They are defined that way because invisibility is very strong. An invisible Eldrich Blast has tremendous implications behind how it can be used. You are suggesting that any spell that has a shape and does not mention it is visible is invisible. But, that's not true at all from a RAW standpoint. The absence of A doesn't mean not-A. The norm in the rules is that everything with a visual description is visible unless stated so. The same holds true in basically any literature ever, everyone assumes something described is visible because that's how you know what it looks like. The same can be assumed here. Describing visual characteristics like shape, color, element type, etc, means you can see it unless it says you can't. Obviously effects like Power Word: Kill that aren't described visually can be assumed to be without a visual effect.

However, as always, your DM has complete control over the setting and how spells look or don't look. Bear in mind that invisible things are very powerful.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the argument that "invisible would just be too strong" might be compelling. But I'm struggling to think of the example for TFD being overpowered due to its invisibility, where visibility would have brought it back to 1st-level--do you have one in mind? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Nov 14 '15 at 1:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sneak an invisible familiar through a window, comes to mind. \$\endgroup\$ – GMNoob Nov 15 '15 at 7:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the OP is suggesting "any spell that has a shape and does not mention it is visible is invisible." The question is "what does force look like?" The force of gravity is invisible, so why not this magical force to counter gravity? \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Mar 11 '16 at 1:50
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Magical force is transparent and colorless. But sometimes visible.

Background:

The paradox is that sometimes force energy is invisible, but sometimes it isn't:

Wall of Force creates an invisible effect.

Mordenkainen's Sword, which creates a "sword shaped plane of force" that is clearly visible. It makes normal attacks (without advantage) so we can conclude it's not an "unseen attacker."

Visible Yet Transparent

The solution to this paradox is that force is transparent and colorless, yet often visible, just just as water and glass can be. In physical terms, the force-filled air is a denser medium than normal air.

Shape and Light

It's the shape that makes the difference: a wall of force will look like a perfectly clear, unreflective sheet of glass. In other words, it's quite invisible.

A sword-shaped, or disk-shaped area of force can interact with light like glass or water. Edges will be apparent, and objects seen through them will be distorted, like viewing a pencil in a glass of water. The edge can look like the surface of water, or perhaps more like a halocline.

A sword shape is a well-recognized danger, so all observers will quickly be aware of the threat.

Confusion about Tenser's Floating Disk

In the case of Tenser's Floating Disk the case is a little more subtle. Adventurers familiar with them won't have trouble spotting or keeping track of one. But the shape is less obtrusive than something like a sword, and they might go unnoticed. This has caused a lot of conflicting eye-witness accounts over the years about whether the disk is "visible" or not.

(Example: If peasants witness a wizard standing on one, they are more likely to report a wizard hovering in mid-air than a wizard standing on a transparent disk.)

Concentrated Force Energy

Magic Missle creates glowing manifestation of force energy. This is a much more concentrated form of force, which is evident because mere contact with this energy damages most creatures.

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There does not appear to be an explicit general rule.

From circumstantial evidence, it looks like Floating Disk is visible.

  • Look back at 3.x (because that was the version which most thoroughly defined and systematized magic), and every other effect intended to be invisible is explicitly marked as such.
  • Same source, compare with the Bigby's Hand series of spells, which are also evocation(force) constructs and which are more clearly intended as visible.
  • As a general rule, everything is visible unless described otherwise (e.g. nothing explicitly says dragons are visible)

Otherwise, I vaguely recall an earlier edition (AD&D 2E?) explicitly describing Tensor's Floating Disc as translucent, but can't cite a source for that recollection.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Look back at 3.x (because that was the version which most thoroughly defined and systematized magic), and every other effect intended to be invisible is explicitly marked as such." How do you figure on, say, Dominate being visible? Do people's heads glow when they're dominated? Do you picture an intangible but visible string or line connecting them to the one dominating them? Pretty much any sort of visibility seems to trash Dominate's use as a plot spell, and many published adventures seem to assume it to be invisible, but the spell description for it doesn't specify that. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Najmon Nov 14 '15 at 1:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're right. Do you like "magically created entity" better? \$\endgroup\$ – fectin Nov 14 '15 at 1:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Though, on further thought, I can tell you exactly where you would see a TFD if it were visible. Where wound you see Dominate? Say, for example, it was visible inside the target's brain. What would change? \$\endgroup\$ – fectin Nov 14 '15 at 1:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ok, then, what about Detect Evil or Detect Magic? Both have a clear indication of the zone they take place in, which is mostly out in the open and plainly visible (not inside someone's skull). Yet plenty of published works clearly assume the scan to be invisible, but none that I can identify assume the reverse. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Najmon Nov 14 '15 at 2:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see what you're saying when we don't specifically call out dragons as being visible. However, dragons are an instance of "creature", and our experience with creatures is that they're generally visible. Magical force, on the other hand, would seem to be an instance of "force," and forces generally aren't visible.... \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 24 '16 at 14:38
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You ask, "what's the general rule for visibility of magical force?"

The general rule is . . . there isn't one.

I've quoted the descriptive phrases of 15 spells below, plus a couple of items in the DMG.

In most cases, there's a visual description. In two cases, mage armor and Tensor's floating disk, the visual description is ambiguous as to whether the force can be seen or not. In one case, Mordenkainen's Sword, the force is by definition visible, but completely without visual description.

It is also ambiguous as to what the force would feel like. Clearly Mordenkainen's sword is sharp on one edge. Does the flat feel . . . flat? Is the the hut a bit flexible, like a well-inflated balloon? Are the bars of the forcecage hard as iron? It isn't defined.

From the PHB:

  • Armor of Agathys - "protective magical force surrounds you, manifesting as a spectral frost"
  • Banishing Smite - "your weapon crackles with force"
  • Bigby's Hand - "shimmering, translucent force"
  • Eldritch Blast - "a beam of crackling energy"
  • Forcecage - "invisible, cube-shaped prison"
  • Leomund's Tiny Hut - "opaque from the outside, of any color you choose, but it is transparent from the inside"
  • Mage Armor - "protective magical force"
  • Magic Missle - "three glowing darts"
  • Mordenkainen's Sword - "sword-shaped plane of force", "the sword appears"
  • Otiluke's Resilient Sphere - "sphere of shimmering force"
  • Shield - "invisible barrier of magical force"
  • Spiritual Weapon - "floating, spectral weapon"
  • Tenser's Floating Disk - "circular, horizontal plane of force"
  • Unseen Servant - "invisible, mindless, shapeless force"
  • Wall of Force - "invisible wall of force"

From the DMG:

  • Bead of Force - "sphere of transparent force"
  • Cube of Force - "barrier of invisible force"
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