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Magic items like the Staff of the Magi let you cast certain spells from it as an action, including Conjure Elemental which normally has a minute long casting time.

The Staff of the Magi is not the only exception; a more extreme example is the Staff of Woodlands which can cast Awaken this way, which is normally an eight hour long spell.

Is there any resolution to how these different rules interact?

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The rules for how to use each staff and their capabilities are contained within the item descriptions. For the Staff of the Magi, we see:

Spells. While holding the staff, you can use an action to expend some of its charges to cast one of the following spells from it, using your spell save DC and spellcasting ability: ...

Emphasis mine.

For each item, you will need to read on a case by case basis to determine what the casting time is for the spells it allows you to cast.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The problem is that it can be read also as "you use the action to expend the charges", but that it does not necessarily means that the spell is going to be releases at the same time. As if it were bullets with different "casting time"; you can use an action to pull the trigger, but the bullet is going to take its sweet time. The thing is, that that is also a correct reading and it does not break the general rule from casting spell from items. \$\endgroup\$ – Chepelink Dec 17 '16 at 14:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chepelink The problem with that reading is that it insists that it takes two turns to cast a spell that has a normal casting time of one action from the staff: one action to expend the charges and a separate action to cast the spell. I don't see a case for that to be the correct interpretation when following 5e's KISS principle. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Dec 17 '16 at 16:02
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This is a great example of a specific rule which over-rides a general rule. This is covered on p. 7 of PHB:

Remember this: If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

In this case, the magical properties of the staves are spelled out in their item descriptions in the DMG as you point out, and must be combined with the descriptions for spells covered in the PHB. These are specific rules that serve to modify the existing descriptions of the spells contained in the staves. In this case, the descriptions of the spells and of general magical items are the general rules that are subject to modification.

The general rule for magic items that cast spells is on p. 141 of the DMG (emphasis mine).

Some magic items allow the user to cast a spell from the item. The spell is cast at the lowest possible spell level, doesn't expend any of the user's spell slots, and requires no components, unless the item's description says otherwise. The spell uses its normal casting time, range and duration, and the user must concentrate is the spell requires concentration.

Since NONE of the staff descriptions in the DMG (pp. 201-207) modify the casting of spells contained within them, the default casting times called out in the PHB must be used.

Two final comments to this:

  1. This is clearly a design philosophy choice. Whenever the authors of the stock magical items in the DMG wished to alter the performance of a spell, they made it an inherent function of the staff, and not an attached spell (e.g. the Staff of Thunder and Lightning's Lightning Strike power, DMG p.203 is not the same as the Lightning Bolt spell on PHB P. 255).

  2. It certainly is within the cognizance of the DM to create a magical item that alters the casting time of a long-casting time spell. This would (in some contexts) be a very powerful item and should be balanced accordingly.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, in response to the staff of thunder and lightning, there are two reasons why it would be worded this way. First, it's not a spellcaster only staff, so having it cast spells is a problem; it also would have to say "4th level version", adding confusion for non-casters. Second, it can't be counterspelled if it's not a spell. Other examples might work better. \$\endgroup\$ – MrCharles Dec 18 '16 at 20:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MrCharles that was my point. That is clearly a design choice for those items. Balance in the game sense is always relative to party level (that's a very rare item). A better example for that item would be the thunder and lightning effect, which bypasses the single spell and gives you two effects in one action. \$\endgroup\$ – tillmas Dec 18 '16 at 20:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I understand now. If I may make a suggestion though, after a quick read-through of the magic item section the better example might be the Elemental Gem, which behaves as if you cast conjure elemental but does not actually cast it. The current example confuses the issue a bit, given that the design choices in question don't relate to casting time. \$\endgroup\$ – MrCharles Dec 18 '16 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ No argument, but as I point out, I couldn't find an example of where casting time was modified in an item. I found many examples of where other properties of the spell were modified (including Thunder and Lightning bypassing allowing the casting of two spells in one action). \$\endgroup\$ – tillmas Dec 19 '16 at 13:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ While this isn't a bad answer, I am having trouble reconciling the reasoning with ring of spell storing. I am thinking the scope of the question might have been better being confined to staffs/staves. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 14 '18 at 19:22
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Yes, magic items can and do allow you to cast spells with long casting times as actions

If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

Here, you are giving examples of items that are giving specific rule that contradicts the general rule on casting times.

The DMG even states that some magic items can modify the casting times:

[A spell cast from a magic item] uses its normal casting time, range, and duration, and the user of the item must concentrate if the spell requires concentration. Certain items make exceptions to these rules, changing the casting time, duration, or other parts of a spell. (DMG p. 141)

The Staff of the Woodlands is indeed one of those exceptional items. It says:

You can use an action to expend 1 or more of the staff's charges to cast one of the following spells from it [...]

The rule for this staff says that you use an action to cast a spell. The fact that one of those spells is awaken (normal casting time 8 hours) does not matter. That casting time is now superseded by the effect of the magic item.

Thus, any similar magic item that has some effect in it that modifies the casting time, will similarly override the general rule. In this way, magic items can indeed allow you to cast spells using a shorter casting time than normal.

Other effects can modify casting times as well

Spells (eg Wish), metamagic, and other features already exist to modify the casting times of spells. So magic item use is far from the only example of a specific effect overriding spells' casting times.


Jeremy Crawford also explicitly agrees with this:

The staff of the woodlands allows you to cast the awaken spell as an action, superseding the spell's normal casting time of 8 hours. Some magic items make exceptions like that, as noted on page 141 of the Dungeon Master's Guide (see the "Spells" section on that page).

And he also agrees in the very similar case of the necklace of prayer beads:

A necklace of prayer beads lets you cast a spell it contains as a bonus action, regardless of the spell's normal casting time. For more about how the necklace works, see page 182 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

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I would also note on Staff of the Magi that all the spells that use charges use an equivalent amount to their spell level, except Conjure Elemental, which uses 2 more charges than you would expect. Based on that, it seems like the designers realized that it would cast quicker. There's some precedent for 2 similar spells where the low level one takes a minute but the high level provides a similar effect in an action. Tiny Hut versus Magnificent Mansion.

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