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Rules FAQ How Does Counterspell Work in D&D 5E?

Counterspell is a 3rd-level abjuration spell on the sorcerer, warlock and wizard spell lists, which allows you to attempt to interrupt the casting of a spell. Its description can be found in the Player’s Handbook.

This is the part of a weekly series of articles by a team of designers answering D&D questions for beginners. Feel free to discuss the article and add your insights or comments!


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Spells in D&D allow casters to solve problems with a word, to destroy battlefields with swathes of fire, or remake reality itself! But even the most powerful archmage can have their wish undone by a lucky level 5 wizard! Fair or not, counterspell is has a reputation of ruining fun, but most wizards won't leave the inn without it prepared. So how does it work?

It’s a spell
It might seem obvious, but counterspell is a spell, and follows the spellcasting rules in Chapter 10: Spellcasting of the Player's Handbook.
  • It can be interrupted by another counterspell, because you can see it being cast.
  • While casting a spell that uses an action, you can use your reaction to cast counterspell in response to a counterspell being cast.
  • Casting a bonus action spell prevents you casting another spell on your turn, unless it’s a cantrip that takes one action (Player's Handbook page 202). This includes reaction spells such as counterspell. Once your turn is done, you can cast counterspell on other turns.
There’s a spell being cast and I want it to stop!
To cast counterspell, you must meet the following conditions:
  • You have your reaction available - counterspell uses your reaction, competing with any other options or features you have that use a reaction, including Readying an Action, and other defensive spells such as shield and absorb elements.
  • You expend a 3rd-level or higher spell slot - counterspell uses spell slots, competing with other cool spells you might want to cast, and limiting the number of spells you can cast in a day.
  • You can see the caster - if you can’t see the creature casting the spell, you can’t cast counterspell. A creature obscured behind a wall or in thick fog can cast without fear of counterspell.
  • You can see the spell being cast * - you react to seeing the spell cast, perceiving its verbal (V), somatic (S) and/or material (M) components.
  • You must be within 60 feet - if the caster is further away, counterspell doesn’t have the reach to interrupt their spell.
  • It is a spell being cast - counterspell can only interrupt spells, not other magical abilities. It can’t stop a dragon's breath weapon, a medusa’s petrifying gaze, or beholder’s eye rays.
Compare your spell slots!
Once you’ve cast counterspell, compare its spell level to the spell level of the spell you’re attempting to interrupt. A spell’s level is determined by the spell slot used to cast it (Player's Handbook page 201).

If you cast counterspell at its lowest level using a 3rd level spell slot and your opponent cast their spell as a cantrip, or using a 1st, 2nd or 3rd-level spell slot, then counterspell causes their spell to fail. Their spell slot is spent with no effect. When you’re up against spells of higher levels (4th-level and higher), you must make an ability check to see if it succeeds. Roll a d20 and add your spellcasting modifier to the result. The ability check DC is equal to 10 plus the level of the spell being cast. If you meet or beat the DC, counterspell interrupts their spell! It’s spent with no effect. If you fail on the DC, counterspell does nothing.


A quick example: Dani the druid is casting blight using a 5th-level spell slot. Wimbles the wizard, sees this and is within 60 feet of Dani, so uses her reaction to cast counterspell using a 3rd-level spell slot. Because Wimbles’ counterspell level is lower than Dani’s blight spell level (3rd-level against 5th-level), Wimbles must roll an ability check. Her wizard spellcasting ability is based on her Intelligence, an 18, giving her a +4 to her Intelligence ability check. The DC is based on Dani’s blight spell: 10 + the spell’s level (5) = DC 15. If Wimbles rolls a 11 or higher on a d20 for a total of 15 or higher, Dani’s blight will be interrupted by counterspell. If Wimbles rolls a 10 or lower, the blight spell will be cast as usual.

Casting at higher levels
Unless you use a spell slot equal to or higher than the spell slot of the spell being cast, you make an ability check. The check isn't affected by the level at which you cast counterspell.
  • A 9th-level spell has a DC 19 ability check to interrupt, whether you counterspell using a 3rd or 8th-level spell slot.
  • A 9th-level counterspell will interrupt any spell cast without requiring an ability check roll.
*When can’t you see the spell?
Spellcasting is perceived by the combination of verbal, somatic and material components used when casting spells. If a spell is cast without any components, you can’t respond with counterspell, because you can’t see it being cast.
  • Subtle Spell metamagic - sorcerers can choose Subtle Spell metamagic, allowing spell casting without verbal and somatic components. They can avoid their spells being interrupted by counterspell (including counterspell itself) as long as the spell has no material components.
  • Innate Spellcasting - some monsters have innate spellcasting defined in their stat blocks. For example, the mind flayer has Innate Spellcasting (Psionics): “requiring no components.” (Monster Manual page 222). The pixie also has Innate Spellcasting: “requiring only its pixie dust as a component.” (Monster Manual page 253). A pixie’s innate spells can be countered because you can see them casting the spell using their pixie dust, whereas the mind flayer’s spells can’t be seen.
  • Invisibility - Many invisibility effects, including the 2nd-level spell, invisibility, and the potion of invisibility state that “the effect ends early if you attack or cast as spell”. Considering that if you cast a spell that uses concentration, the invisibility spell ends before you start to the new spell, I think it's clear you can't use this type of invisibility to avoid being seen casting the spell and counterspell. The 4th-level spell greater invisibility does allow you to cast spells without being seen, so long as they don't require concentration.
Spells cast using magic items
Spells cast from magic items are described in the Dungeon Master's Guide page 141: "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." (My emphasis). Unless the item says the spell uses components, there are no visible components and the spell can't be interrupted by counterspell. (Edit: Thanks Asisreo for the correction)

For interest, some magic items further avoid the possibility of being interrupted by counterspell:
  • Items that describe the effect of a spell, without casting the spell. For example, Necklace of Fireballs says “You can use an action to detach a bead and throw it … When it reaches the end of its trajectory, the bead detonates as a 3rd-level fireball spell.”
  • Sentient magic items that cast spells themselves. As they’re not creatures, they don’t trigger counterspell. For example, "Blackrazor can cast the haste spell on you once per day.”
 
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Will Gawned

Will Gawned

Mort

Legend
Hmm, it's not as clear-cut as I thought. Certainly, the Bonus Action rule precludes casting another non-cantrip spell on the same turn that you cast a bonus-action spell, even with a reaction, but there's nothing that specifically precludes casting a spell as an action and also casting a spell as a reaction on the same turn. Good spot @Stalker0

I think the confusion, one I was making myself, is between rounds vs. turns.

If the ability precluded a reaction until the caster goes again it would have said either "that round" or "until the beginning of your next turn." It doesn't say that it says 'during the same turn."

So as written, you can't counterspell a counterspell on your turn (or another reaction like shield or absorb elements). But casting a counterspell against the mage who goes after you, that's fine.

This seems similar to sneak attack. A rogue only gets one sneak attack on his turn, but there are situations (such as an AoO) where he might ALSO get a sneak attack as a reaction.

Edit: Ninja'd by one post!
 

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MarkB

Legend
Reactions are not on your turn, they take place on another creature's turn.
That's not the case. Reactions are something you can use when an appropriate trigger occurs, regardless of whether or not it's your turn. So, as a for-instance, if a wizard walks into a room and an opponent uses their readied action to shoot the wizard now that they can see him, the wizard can use his reaction to cast shield even though the attack happened on his turn.

Once you've used your reaction, whether on your turn or someone else's, you can't use another reaction until the start of your next turn.
 

maceochaid

Explorer
It's kind of interesting to think that perhaps instead of the old school "V,S,M" component system, there could be a system that is "subtle" "conspicuous" and "spectacular" (or something similar) that determines how hard it is to perceive a spell is being cast. Not only would that help with an alternative way of setting a DC for counter-spell, but also disambiguate during social/exploration scenes whether you can sneak cast a spell. Just a musing, go ahead and tell me why I'm so freaking wrong :p
 

Rabulias

Hero
That's not the case. Reactions are something you can use when an appropriate trigger occurs, regardless of whether or not it's your turn. So, as a for-instance, if a wizard walks into a room and an opponent uses their readied action to shoot the wizard now that they can see him, the wizard can use his reaction to cast shield even though the attack happened on his turn.

Once you've used your reaction, whether on your turn or someone else's, you can't use another reaction until the start of your next turn.
Fair point for your given (rare) example. Let me amend my statement to say that in most cases, reactions are not on your turn.
Edited to add: The point of the discussion here is not the timing of reactions per se, but whether or not casting a bonus action spell on one's turn precludes one from casting a reaction spell.
 
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MarkB

Legend
Fair point for your given (rare) example. Let me amend my statement to say that in most cases, reactions are not on your turn.
Edited to add: The point of the discussion here is not the timing of reactions per se, but whether or not casting a bonus action spell on one's turn precludes one from casting a reaction spell.
Yeah, I think we're disagreeing more in terms of nomenclature than our understanding of the actual situation. Still, I'd say that the wording of the Bonus Action restriction would prevent you from casting counterspell as a reaction on your turn, but would have no impact on you doing so once your turn has ended.
 

Bolares

Hero
Just to make it clear. If you cast a spell with your action you can counterspell in your turn. If you cast a spell with a bonus action you can't. We make a common mistake of interchanging action and bonus action in the casting multiple spells per turn rule. I think this would be a great topic for an article @gelf
 

Stalker0

Legend
Let me use some examples:

Greg casts a bonus action spell, and then:

Scenario 1: Bob casts a spell. Greg can counter spell because it’s Bobs turn.

Scenario 2 bob counterspells Greg’s bonus action spell. Greg cannot counterspell this counterspell, because it’s still Greg’s turn. This would remain true if bob used any spell that was a reaction, not just counterspell.

the morale is, if an enemy wizard uses a bonus action to cast a spell, you can counterspell it and know you will face no counter in return
 

NotAYakk

Legend
Of course, I personally find the bonus action spell restriction rules a bit over complex.

Simplified:
Spellcasting
On a given turn, you can cast at most one spell with a level. This spell can be cast as an action, bonus action or reaction. Using a magic item that casts a spell counts; but a magic item that creates the effect of a spell does not prevent you from casting other spells.

This is very close to how DMs in practice end up using the "no two spells on one turn" rule anyhow, and is simpler and less fiddly.

It also means a sorcerer can cast a cantrip as an action, then quicken a leveled spell as a bonus action, instead of being forced to do it the other way round or it won't work. Wait, was it the other way around? Yes it was; a sorcerer cannot cast a spell as an action, then quicken the cantrip. Wait, is that right? Can you tell without checking the rules text?

With the above simplified rule, it is obvious. It also makes action-surge wizard not be able to double-tap force cage someone, which I figure is a net plus.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
I've always let players use the same free hand for both spells, but I see your point. This is a valid reading of the spellcasting rules.
Sure, but in my opinion, counterspell counterspell spam gets old fast.

The fun thing with restricting S to actually occupying the hand is that it makes some of the details of the spell you are casting matter in a somewhat interesting way. If you want to counter their expected counter, you have to either drop your other stuff (to free up hands), or carefully pick which spells to cast. Then there is the entire spell slot level poker game, the counterspell radius game, and (for sorcerers) use of cantrip-baiting followed by a quickened real spell. Oh, and potions of invisibility.
 

gelf

Explorer
Reactions are not on your turn, they take place on another creature's turn. So reaction spells can be cast even if you had cast a bonus action spell on your turn. See the rulings on the rogue's Sneak Attack damage applying "once per turn," but it can also be applied on an Opportunity Attack, a reaction on someone else's turn.
This is incorrect.

Player's Handbook page 190: Reactions. "A reaction is an instant response to a trigger of some of some kind, which can occur on your turn or on someone else's."

Edit: I see that this has been responded to already, but I've included it to show the relevant reference in the PHB.
 

gelf

Explorer
Oh, and potions of invisibility.
I don't think a potion of invisibility prevents counterspell, since the act of casting a spell ends the invisibility. I'm not sure I agree with the interpretation, but I believe that is the most accurate Rules as Written interpretation.

And this is what I expected the most controversy to be centered around!
 

aco175

Legend
Invisibility - Many invisibility effects, including the 2nd-level spell, invisibility, and the potion of invisibility state that “the effect ends early if you attack or cast as spell”. Considering that if you cast a spell that uses concentration, the invisibility spell ends before you start to the new spell, I think it's clear you can't use this type of invisibility to avoid being seen casting the spell and counterspell. The 4th-level spell greater invisibility does allow you to cast spells without being seen, so long as they don't require concentration.
I can see letting the concentration on a spell start after it is cast and allow invisibility to work. It has never come up in my game, but I would likely allow it unless it gets out of hand.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't particularly care for the guess-which-spell-this-is game when it comes to counterspell. I'll tell the player what spell it is freely and they can decide which level of counterspell to employ.
Ditto regarding the guess-which-spell piece; but instead of telling them what's being cast (and thus potentially giving them info they wouldn't otherwise have) I'd just have counterspell work the same regardless of what spell it's trying to counter. (i.e. in game-physics terms, counterspell interrupts the flow of magic to and-or through the caster without regard for what the caster is trying to make that magic do).

==============

The one aspect of 5e's counterspell rules that is completely unacceptable to me is that one counterspell can be interrupted by another. Even though the rules don't say so, sheer logic dictates that every spell takes some amount of in-fiction time to cast; thus by the time the second counterspell resolves the first one has to have already resolved.

Yet the designers decided they instead wanted it to work last-in first-out, like an MtG "stack"; which is fine for game-only MtG but not fine for a role-play setting that wants to have consistent physics and timing.
 

MarkB

Legend
Ditto regarding the guess-which-spell piece; but instead of telling them what's being cast (and thus potentially giving them info they wouldn't otherwise have) I'd just have counterspell work the same regardless of what spell it's trying to counter. (i.e. in game-physics terms, counterspell interrupts the flow of magic to and-or through the caster without regard for what the caster is trying to make that magic do).
I don't think that's in dispute. You certainly don't need to know what spell is being cast in order to counter it.

Where it tends to get controversial is when you don't know whether the spell your opponent is casting is their high-level nuke that you absolutely have to prevent them from using, or a cantrip that's just provoked you into wasting a spell slot.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't think a potion of invisibility prevents counterspell, since the act of casting a spell ends the invisibility. I'm not sure I agree with the interpretation, but I believe that is the most accurate Rules as Written interpretation.
For recognizing that a spell is being cast, however, it's very relevant whether invisibility ends when you start casting or when you finish casting; as if invis doesn't end until you finish then you can't be seen during the casting process; and thus can't be countered.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't think that's in dispute. You certainly don't need to know what spell is being cast in order to counter it.

Where it tends to get controversial is when you don't know whether the spell your opponent is casting is their high-level nuke that you absolutely have to prevent them from using, or a cantrip that's just provoked you into wasting a spell slot.
That's not controversial to me at all; rather it's simply a risk of playing the counter game - do you get suckered in to countering a squib or not?
 

gelf

Explorer
For recognizing that a spell is being cast, however, it's very relevant whether invisibility ends when you start casting or when you finish casting; as if invis doesn't end until you finish then you can't be seen during the casting process; and thus can't be countered.
The only concrete information I can find about this timing is to do with concentration, one concentration spell ends the moment you start casting another spell that uses concentration.

Since invisibility is concentration, it will end the moment you start casting another concentration spell, making the new spell visible.

I think, for consistency, it's easier to treat all spell casts the same, regarding when the invisibility effect ends.

Greater invisibility still lets you avoid counterspell (for spells which don't use your concentration).
 

AriochQ

Adventurer
Counterspell is stupid. It is rarely fun to stop things from happening, especially at such a low cost (reaction + spell slot). Most often Counterspell plays out as Cast, Counter, Counter, original spell goes off. Basically, the original action occurs, just after wasting precious table time. I removed it in my campaign and replaced it with something I feel is better for the type of game I run.

It is still possible to counter a spell, it just takes more planning and foresight. Players can ready a Dispel Magic (taking their spell slot, action, reaction, and concentration). If the spell being countered is above the spell slot used to cast Dispel Magic, the ability check roll is still required. The second method is a simple reaction casting, of the same spell being countered (i.e. cast fireball to counter fireball). This means you must have the spell prepared, but that you also recognize the spell for the very same reason. This is sort of you negating the magical energy with your own magical energy.
 

The only concrete information I can find about this timing is to do with concentration, one concentration spell ends the moment you start casting another spell that uses concentration.

PHB pg 203 disagrees with you
You lose concentration on a spell if you cast another spell that requires concentration. You can't concentrate on two spells at once.
"The moment you start casting a spell" doesn't exist; it's when you cast a spell. By RAW concentration would end the moment the new spell begins (is cast) because you can't have two spells at once. There isn't a break between the two spells.
 

Rabulias

Hero
PHB pg 203 disagrees with you

"The moment you start casting a spell" doesn't exist; it's when you cast a spell. By RAW concentration would end the moment the new spell begins (is cast) because you can't have two spells at once. There isn't a break between the two spells.
Xanathar's Guide to Everything (p.5) clarified the timing between concentration and spellcasting.
Concentration
As soon as you start casting a spell or using a special ability that requires concentration, your concentration on another effect ends instantly.
 

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