Wall of Force and Sight-Based Spells

One of the most common and divisive arguments we see is how cover applies to spells that require line of sight. Specifically, in the instance when such a spell is turned against a target positioned on the other side of a wall of force. This article explains what the rules as written actually say would happen. Those who stand by Jeremy Crawford’s opinion on this matter be warned: JC’s opinion is not infallible law to us here. Fear not, however; we have a better solution.

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Adjudicating Cover (Jeremy Crawford’s Solution)

The following section of this article deals with the official ruling provided by Jeremy Crawford on Sage Advice (which is not RAW, see below) and how it is not supported by the rules.

The Targets section of chapter 10, “Spellcasting”, in the Player’s Handbook (page 204) explains that you need a clear path to the target in order to affect it. The section specifically notes that the target can’t be behind total cover (described on page 196 of the Player’s Handbook in chapter 9, “Combat”). A wall of force spell (page 285) creates an invisible barrier in a space, which provides cover against attacks of a physical nature. But does that mean that wall of force provides cover against spells which target a creature or object “you can see within range”, such as telekinesis? In this, the definitions provided are of insufficient guidance.

For his part, Jeremy Crawford has offered up as advice for this that cover need not be visible and also an encouragement to check whether the spell says it can target creatures behind cover. For instance, sacred flame specifies that targets cannot gain benefit from cover. This is a sensible solution from someone who is trying to provide a reasonable answer that doesn’t involve re-writing what’s in the book. However, it ultimately falls short of our standards, for reasons we will explain below.

Jeremy Crawford’s solution relies on applying the restriction of cover on spells that are clearly unaffected by it. While we accept that the rules say that someone or something that has total cover from you cannot be the target of “an attack or other effect”, we find enforcing this to be problematic. There are two primary reasons for this.

Firstly, there is no definition offered for “other effect”, nor even an example to help guide the reader. Does sound pass through? What about air? Can you cast this spell as a dome with the very minimum radius and let the target asphyxiate over the next 10 minutes? Somehow we doubt that’s the intention. But we know that the wall has one obvious effect it does not block: light. People can see through it, and so it is not impermeable to at least part of the electromagnetic spectrum. To put it in other words: non-physical substances can pass through.

Secondly, the wording is too vague to be read that it prevents spells cast by an outside force to manifest inside. Chill touch, for example, creates a hand “in the space of a creature within range”. It isn’t like fire bolt, which creates a physical effect which travels from the caster to the target, this is a magical effect that originates in that creature’s space. Therefore, cover would not be involved at all at this point, because “A target can benefit from cover only when an attack or other effect originates on the opposite side of the cover” (PHB 196); the hand is not on the opposite side of the cover, it’s in the creature’s square.

Even if you are of the mind that magic requires a physically unobstructed path to work (a requirement that is mentioned nowhere in the Player’s Handbook nor in the Player’s Handbook Errata), we just demonstrated that non-physical effects can clearly pass through the wall. No matter how you look at it, the wall does not function as a barrier against non-physical magic. The shortcomings of this spell in blocking magic become especially apparent when you compare wall of force with spells like Otiluke’s resilient sphere and globe of invulnerability, which are clear in how they interact with magic.

Altogether, Jeremy Crawford’s solution is not adequate in our view. This is unfortunate, as it would do quite a bit to tame this ugly mess of a spell. Nonetheless, we still would advocate that you convince your group to adopt this ruling if you are not open to using our solution (below). Otherwise, this spell just gets completely out of hand.

A note for people who insist on clinging to JC’s tweet: Sage Advice is not RAW; it “is meant to give DMs, as well as players, tools for tuning the game according to their tastes”. Sometimes JC will tweet direction to a rule written in the book, which is generally accompanied by a page number or a section and chapter. But unless it appears in the books, his comments are his own interpretation of what is written and is not binding on the game. This is why we say that the rules do not support his ruling—what he says isn’t written in the book, it’s his personal opinion. For most people, that’s enough, and we’d be satisfied if everyone followed it in this instance. This article, however, is not about what JC thinks, it’s about what the rules say and how to make sure this spell can’t be abused. 

If you are still confused about what Sage Advice is, read more here.

Specific vs. General

If you are still hung up on the rules about cover, another important matter consider is the wording of sight-based spells.

A central tenet of adjudicating the rules, laid out on page 7 of the Introduction in the Player’s Handbook, is that “specific beats general”. This was included when the designers recognized that many game elements would bend or break the general rules in some way. Essentially, a specific rule always prevails over a general one.

This is important, because cover is a general rule which is being subverted by the specific wording of these sight-based spells. Spells like chill touch and telekinesis are not asking if the target has cover; the only factors the spell descriptions say they require are: a) the space or target must be visible, and b) the space or target must be in range. That’s it.

If the spell descriptions said, “a target that you can see within range that is not behind total cover”, this would be an entirely different story. But they don’t.

Conclusion

Sorry, but Jeremy Crawford’s advice here isn’t supported by the rules. Cover is not some “magical” status, it’s an incidental condition determined by your environment. Cover and lines of effect are based on where an effect originates, not where you are standing. A fire bolt is a physical manifestation which travels from the spellcaster to the destination, and so a wall of force would grant cover to a target standing on the other side of the wall. On the other hand, charm person and other such effects originate at the target and have no physical nature—cover obviously does not apply.

Until an errata is published that specifies that all magic must have a direct physical path from the caster to the point it originates, wall of force does not by RAW block non-physical spells.

That’s It?

No, not really. This is Dungeon Master’s Workshop; we don’t tolerate unacceptably broken effects to stand unchallenged. And, as written, wall of force is so very, very broken. Notwithstanding all of the above, the spell can trap Large or smaller creatures in an impenetrable, invulnerable force field for an entire fight with no saving throw. It is what we like to call a “save vs. suck” spell, but without the save. Even if we follow Crawford’s suggestion, we still end up with an issue with this spell, since apparently sacred flame (which ignores cover and has no verbiage that excludes total cover) would still work. In this case, a 9th-level wizard who took the Magic Initiate feat to learn sacred flame (or a 9th-level wizard with a level of cleric added on) would be able to lock a creature down and then spam sacred flame for 2d8 damage a turn. Over 10 minutes, that wizard could probably chip away any Large or smaller creature that lacks teleportation or a decent Dexterity saving throw. As far as broken spells go, it’s up there with silence and contagion. It must be fixed.

Now, we revised those and other spells in Arcane Emporium, Vol. 7 back in June 2017. However, being the perfectionists we are, we playtested the changes and decided that we could improve upon them. And so we provide to you now our new, revised version of the spell that we encourage you to present to your table for play in place of the version that appears in the Player’s Handbook. Hopefully, it will eliminate all conflict over this spell for your group.

Wall of Force
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: V, S, M (a pinch of powder made by crushing a clear gemstone)
Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes

An invisible wall of force springs into existence at a point you choose within range. The wall appears in any orientation you choose, as a horizontal or vertical barrier or at an angle. It can be free floating or resting on a solid surface. You can form it into a hemispherical dome or a sphere with a radius of up to 10 feet, or you can shape a flat surface made up of ten 10-foot-by-10-foot panels. Each panel must be contiguous with another panel. In any form, the wall is 1/4 inch thick. It lasts for the duration. If the wall cuts through a creature’s space when it appears, the creature is pushed to one side of the wall (your choice which side).

Nothing—not physical objects, energy, or other effects—can pass through the barrier, in or out. The wall grants cover as though it were an opaque surface and disrupts any attempt by creatures on one side of the wall to target creatures, objects, or spaces on the opposing side with magic, causing the spell to fail and the spell slot to be wasted. If the barrier is in the shape of a dome or a sphere, creatures within can breathe, provided there is air in the environment. The barrier also allows sound to pass through normally. The wall also extends into the Ethereal Plane, blocking ethereal travel through the wall.

The wall is immune to damage, but not invulnerable. Each panel has an AC of 15. If a panel would be dealt 10 or more damage in a single attack, you know the amount of damage and can choose to allow that panel to dissipate or use your reaction to sustain it. If you choose to sustain it, you must make a Constitution saving throw. The DC equals 10 or half the damage the panel takes, whichever number is higher. You take half the triggering damage as psychic damage on a failed save, or no damage on a successful one. The psychic damage cannot be reduced through resistance or immunity. If a panel of the wall is dissipated, you can use a bonus action on your turn to rematerialize it.

The wall can’t be dispelled by dispel magic. However, a disintegrate spell destroys the wall instantly. The wall can be destroyed in this manner without being specifically targeted, as long as it is the first obstacle in the path of the disintegrate spell.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the minimum damage which would dissipate a panel of the wall increases by 2 for each slot level above 5th.


Have your own thoughts on this spell? Share them in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Wall of Force and Sight-Based Spells”

  1. “The wall grants cover as though it were an opaque surface and disrupts any attempt by creatures on one side of the wall to target creatures, objects, or spaces on the opposing side with magic.”

    This passage is a good rewrite based on– ahem– Jeremy Crawford’s RAI clarification. 😉 As rule designer, he gives rulings about unclear RAW, not “advice” (although DMs are free to follow the rulings or not; in that sense, his rulings can be considered advice, I guess). Crawford did specify in tweets and Sage Advice podcast segment total cover need not be opaque (a window can provider cover) and that *all* spells need a clear (i.e. physically unobstructed) path to the target, unless spell description says otherwise.

    The words “disrupts any attempt” can lead to some confusion as well, however. If you try to cast suggestion at a target behind wall of force and your spell is disrupted, what does that mean? Spell fails but you keep spell slot? Spell fails and you lose spell slot? Disrupting a fireball and disrupting an enchantment spell would have two different results.

    I do strongly agree the clear path rule for spells and the wall of force spell could have been better worded to avoid confusion. I also have done a revised version of the spell in my game.

    Perhaps in the upcoming errata for the deluxe core books set this will be addressed.

    I don’t personally feel as DM there *needs* to be a way to damage and break out of the wall (it is after all a 5th leve spell that requires Concentration spell). But your solution is creative.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I have added wording to clarify that disrupted spells automatically fail and their spell slot is wasted. I appreciate you bringing this up and giving me the opportunity to clarify the spell effects.

      One thing I will re-iterate is that Sage Advice is not necessarily RAW. Sometimes, JC tweets a rule. This is usually accompanied by a page number. Otherwise, it’s his opinion. That’s the situation here; JC’s words are not found in the book, they are his attempt to clarify his intention when he wrote them. That is called “rules as intended”, or RAI. If we go by RAI, this spell is only about 100% broken (as opposed to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,000,000%). Which brings me to my last point.

      We will have to agree to disagree about whether having an invincible trap with no save is balanced. I look at spells like maze, which is an 8th-level spell that also is concentration based, up to 10 minutes, and yet also allows a creature to make an Intelligence check on its turn to escape. Seeing this, I think, “And yet a 5th-level spell makes a trap with no non-teleporting escape? I call shenanigans!” Hence I have added that mechanic in order to further reduce how obnoxiously broken the spell is.

      Best,
      – the Archmage

  2. Official rulings are in fact RAW, not RAI. JC’s comments in the official Sage Advice Compendium and on his Twitter account are official rulings as the D&D rules manager (as stated in the compendium). Other WoTC staff comments are just opinions and RAI, but JC’s comments are in fact official RAW. The only thing that trumps it is a newer comment of his that overrides an earlier statement he may have made.

    I don’t agree with that being an official rules process, but that was implemented by the makers of the game, so our opinion on the process doesn’t change it. All that said, we still have the liberty w/in the game framework to make houserules such as you have presented to clarify existing rules or replace official rulings we disagree with.

    1. Hi Christopher,

      This is a common misconception, so I’ll be as clear as possible: Sage Advice often references RAW, but it is not automatically RAW. RAW is what is written in the books.

      I’ve prepared a flow chart because this is not the first time this question has come up.

      But don’t take it from me. Here are Jeremy Crawford’s words on the matter:

      @JeremyECrawford Does something become RAW simply because you say it on Twitter, or is RAW only what’s actually in the books?

      — Nathan Atkinson (@atkinsonnathanj) August 8, 2017

      Official rules are in rulebooks. On Twitter and in Sage Advice, I give rulings and clarifications. The DM decides what to do with them. #DnD https://t.co/LMNcsqpGxR

      — Jeremy Crawford (@JeremyECrawford) August 8, 2017

      I trust this matter is now settled. Nobody is denying that Jeremy Crawford is the lead rules designer of the game or that his solution isn’t worth considering, but it is not RAW and we find it insufficient. This article is about why the rules for this spell are a mess—from the conceptual design of the spell to the wording—and how we propose to fix it.

      Best,
      – the Archmage

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