Magic vs. Supernatural in D&D

Can you counterspell a dragon’s breath weapon? Does a banshee’s wail pass through a wall of force? Can the paladin use Lay on Hands in an antimagic field? If you’ve been confused about such questions, don’t worry: it’s not uncommon. In this article, we’ll explain the history and nuances of the rules surrounding magical abilities in D&D to help you understand how to handle their interaction with spells.

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Magical Worlds

It’s important to remember that the worlds of D&D are innately magical. The mystical forces are as real in Greyhawk and Faerȗn as air pressure, gravity, and electromagnetism. Such raw magic is pervasive and no more dispellable than the wind. It is this kind of magic that allows for the existence of magical creatures like basilisks, undead, and dragons, as well as the various fantastica of D&D worlds—earthmotes, planar crossings, consecrated/desecrated ground, and whatever makes lava just ‘very hot water’ in the official D&D adventures.

Magic is not something called forth by spellcasters. It’s always there in a form we here at Dungeon Master’s Workshop have dubbed the ‘cosmic magic background’ (patent pending). Spellcasters have devised one way to use it, but it’s active in many ways even without spellcaster activity.

Spells and the Weave

The most common way for a player character to interact with magic is through spells. Spells are discrete magical effects that are produced by manipulating the Weave of magic—a kind of interface between the chaotic, raw power of magic and the mortal spellcaster. Each time a mortal spellcaster casts a spell, they set the Weave into certain patterns and resonances that changes the way magic behaves in the locality. More information on this can be found in the The Weave of Magic sidebar in chapter 10, “Spellcasting”, in the Player’s Handbook.

Spells can be dispelled or otherwise negated, and non-innate spells can be countered (as with counterspell). They don’t function in an antimagic field and can’t penetrate total cover (such as that granted by a wall of force spell).

Supernatural Abilities

Back in Third Edition, there was a specific classification for abilities that relied on magic but were not considered magical. These were called supernatural abilities.

Supernatural abilities are magical and go away in an antimagic field but are not subject to spell resistance, counterspells, or to being dispelled by dispel magic. [… They] do not provoke attacks of opportunity and never require Concentration checks. 

Even though this term hasn’t been carried forward into Fifth Edition, we can see clear evidence of its enduring influence. Many monster abilities make no reference to the mechanism by which they are achieved (e.g. ‘the creature magically polymorphs’ or ‘the creature magically teleports’). Instead, they simply do something obviously magical, such as breathe fire or petrify a creature. These effects, while reliant on the existence of magic in the world, are not considered spells for the purposes of spells that negate or dispel other spells. This means that they can’t be countered (as with counterspell) or dispelled, function just as effectively inside an antimagic field as outside, and can possibly penetrate total cover.

For the sake of clarity, we at Dungeon Master’s Workshop have brought this term back to Fifth Edition in our games, and we encourage you to do the same.

Magical or Supernatural?

You can tell if an effect is magical or supernatural by applying the following test, presented by Sage Advice:

  • Is it a spell or does the ability’s description state that it allows for a spell to be cast? (e.g. a lamia’s Innate Spellcasting feature)
  • Does it require a spell attack roll? (e.g. a lich’s Paralyzing Touch action)
  • Does it use spell slots (or spell points)? (e.g. an archmage’s Spellcasting feature)
  • Is it a magic item? (e.g. a staff of withering)
  • Does the description specifically state it’s magical? (c.f. a harpy’s Luring Song action, the chuul’s Sense Magic feature)

If the answer to any of the above questions is “Yes”, then it’s magical. Otherwise, it’s supernatural.

Putting it all Together

The worlds of D&D are magical places filled with spellcasters conjuring fire and bringing back the dead, but also flumphs, earthmotes, fey crossings, and other magical phenomena that transcend spells. Unlike previous editions, Fifth Edition lacks the terminology to properly emphasize the difference between something you can counter and dispel and something that is simply a part of the world’s nature—the explicitly magical versus the merely supernatural. A beholder’s flight, a dragon’s breath weapon, and a cloaker’s Moan are all dependent on the presence of magic in the world, but can’t be countered or dispelled any more than the sunshine and winter cold. It’s important to read a creature’s abilities and features carefully to know how they will interact with other effects. To alleviate confusion, it may be worthwhile to reintroduce Third Edition’s term ‘supernatural’ to your game as a label for special, nonmagical abilities.

Feature Image: Island Relativity by Rahll (via DeviantArt)

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