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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

Unless the magic item states the owner needs to provide components, I believe no components are needed to cast spells through magic items. This includes somatic and verbal components, making the spell you cast imperceptible and therefore ineligible for counterspell.
The designers have confirmed that you can counterspell a spell that is cast with a magic item, so I'm wondering if there are magic items that still require you to utilize components when casting spells through them.

In any case, I rule that despite not having an explicit material/somatic component when casting a spell through a magic item, the magic item and your usage of it are effectively material/somatic components. If you're waving your wand or staff around, that IMO is enough of an indicator that potentially a spell is being cast and a spellcaster can attempt to cast counterspell.
 

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Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
The designers have confirmed that you can counterspell a spell that is cast with a magic item, so I'm wondering if there are magic items that still require you to utilize components when casting spells through them.
Well, some magic items require you to make perceptible efforts in order to use them. For example, an Instrument of the Bards requires the user to actually play the instrument.
 

MarkB

Legend
Well, some magic items require you to make perceptible efforts in order to use them. For example, an Instrument of the Bards requires the user to actually play the instrument.
That can get awkward when you've got a paranoid spellcaster who's met one too many hostile bards.

"Hellooo Blingdenstone! Y'all gnomes ready to rock? Here we go, a-one, a-two, a-one two three f-"
"Counterspell!"
 

Bolares

Hero
That can get awkward when you've got a paranoid spellcaster who's met one too many hostile bards.

"Hellooo Blingdenstone! Y'all gnomes ready to rock? Here we go, a-one, a-two, a-one two three f-"
"Counterspell!"
Are you calling deep gnomes paranoid? Is it being paranoid if literally everything in the underdark wants to kill you?
 

MarkB

Legend
Are you calling deep gnomes paranoid? Is it being paranoid if literally everything in the underdark wants to kill you?
I was more imagining a party of PCs attending the concert, but I do like the idea of a band starting their performance and just being hit with a cascade of counterspells to make sure they're not trying any Pied Piper shenanigans.
 

Counterspell wars between PCs and NPCs can get interesting in terms of selecting spell level and recognising spells. If you really want to be fair and sneaky, you can have each person write down the spell and spell slot level used and then reveal them at the same time, but hopefully there is enough trust between the DM and players that this isn't necessary most of the time.

I generally rule spells which you know, those that appear on your class spell list, and those you've seen cast before (in game rather than written into backstory) can be recognised without using a reaction. Also, I rule if you try to recognise a spell, you can choose to counterspell as part of the same reaction. If you don't counterspell, the reaction is used anyway.
This is a good alternative. The one based most on common sense. My rule instead is: want to recognize a spell/spell level cause you didn't see it before? Reaction burned. Want to counterspell a never previously aknowledged spell? Ok but you do it blindly without knowing what you are counterspelling and how high is your success probability.
 


Since there was a decent amount of talk about Reactions, will the next Rule Faq topic be about Reaction related stuff like normal reactions and Readying an Action?
 

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