Use Magic Missile to determine whether a statue is an Object or a Creature?(!)

Last night, I was DMing an old Basic D&D adventure, updated for 5E. And discovered a curious use of the Magic Missile spell.

The party had a tough fight with a Living Rock Statue, which they defeated, and then...around the next corner was another statue. They ran into the room, and a player asked "roll for Initiative?" I'm like: "Yes."
So they roll Init and I have them go, and they are all wailing on this statue, which hasn't even moved yet. The wizard tries to cast "Magic Missile." And I'm like..."For some reason, you're not able to target it." The spell isn't even cast. The player is spooked. He's thinking there's some sort of Anti-Magic field. And then, bottom of the order...it's the statue's turn.

But, it's just a statue.

I say: "Well, y'all pounded it. It's all bent of of shape. It's not moving. Apparently it never even had a chance to move."

And the party is so proud that they got the jump on this monster. High fives all around.

But...it was just a statue.

Then I realized that Magic Missile can be used as a utility spell to determine whether something that looks like an Object (such as a statue, icicle, or stalactite) is really just an Object or whether it's a Creature (a Golem, Living Statue, Animated Object, Ice Mephit, Gargoyle, Piercer, or Mimic). Is that y'all's understanding as well?
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Then I realized that Magic Missile can be used as a utility spell to determine whether something that looks like an Object (such as a statue, icicle, or stalactite) is really just an Object or whether it's a Creature (a Golem, Living Statue, Animated Object, Ice Mephit, Gargoyle, Piercer, or Mimic). Is that y'all's understanding as well?
Yes, though arguably in a lot of these situations the creature might have False Appearance which makes it indistinguishable from an object. The DM could rule, based on that, that magic missile does not work while the creature meets the requirements for False Appearance (usually when it remains motionless). This makes it somewhat less reliable as a means to identify such creatures. Some DMs may also rule that the spell slot is spent even if it has no effect.

I think the chief issue in the above example though is calling for Initiative when this wasn't actually a clash between two or more sides in conflict. Essentially, you established by the call for initiative that the statue was a creature, only it was not. This isn't a judgment as to the outcome, which you say your players enjoyed, only that this might be something worth thinking about in future games.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
A cheaper version is eldritch blast, a cantrip which only targets creatures.

I can't find anything in the rules that say what happens when you try to cast a spell at an invalid target. Some DMs may rule that the spell is still cast and appears normal, but does not create any effect, e.g. the magic missiles hit the object but deal no damage. Other DMs might rule that the spell has some alternate effect, like reduced damage, or that it requires an ability check to work properly.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I can't find anything in the rules that say what happens when you try to cast a spell at an invalid target.
Xanathar's Guide to Everything (p. 85-86): "If you cast a spell on someone or something that can't be affected by the spell, nothing happens to that target, but if you used a spell slot to cast the spell, the slot is still expended."

This section is presented as an expansion on the spellcasting rules in the PHB and DMG. If the DM isn't aware of it or the group doesn't use this book (or the relevant section thereof), then obviously it may not apply.
 

ccs

39th lv DM
I think the chief issue in the above example though is calling for Initiative when this wasn't actually a clash between two or more sides in conflict. Essentially, you established by the call for initiative that the statue was a creature, only it was not.
Oh bull. It was merely determining in wich order the party was acting in. That can be important to know in more instances than just when there's a foe present.
And btw the OP didn't call for the initiative roll. The players asked & he just said Ok. So it was the players themselves sorting out what order they acted in.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Oh bull. It was merely determining in wich order the party was acting in. That can be important to know in more instances than just when there's a foe present.
And btw the OP didn't call for the initiative roll. The players asked & he just said Ok. So it was the players themselves sorting out what order they acted in.
This is another reason for having initiative pre-rolled at the end of the previous encounter to avoid the combat swoosh mode change and attendant expectations. The DM could have have simply asked each player what they do in initiative order without calling for initiative.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Oh bull. It was merely determining in wich order the party was acting in. That can be important to know in more instances than just when there's a foe present.
And btw the OP didn't call for the initiative roll. The players asked & he just said Ok. So it was the players themselves sorting out what order they acted in.
According to the OP, the PCs had just fought a "living rock statue." They saw another statue. A player asked if they should roll initiative. The players' belief that the statue was more than it seemed may have been encouraged by the DM's assent.

"A typical combat encounter is a clash between two sides..." (PHB, p. 189)
"Initiative determines the order of turns during combat." (PHB, p. 189)

While it's fine to use initiative for other purposes, the players can be forgiven for thinking that this was the DM implying the statue was indeed a foe to be defeated in combat. So however this scene turned out (positively, according to the OP), it's a good meditation for DMs to consider what they say and how it could be interpreted by the players.
 

Hawk Diesel

Explorer
I typically don't worry that much about the distinction between creature or object with regard to spells. How would a spell be able to determine that any better than the caster? It would be like saying a gun or a bullet knows whether it's being fired at a person or a wall. Or, for the sake of a D&D discussion, a bow or a sword knowing this.

Now, I can see a case being made for a gun/sword/bow having less effect. There might be only a scratch, for instance, if such weapons were used on a stone wall. But it doesn't stop them from being used.

I feel the same way about spells. It doesn't stop them from being used. A magic missile used on a section of stone wall may just mark the surface. But that alone doesn't tell you if the target was a creature.

But then, for example, if you cast charm person on someone, how do you know if it works? Do you get a mental ping that it was successful? I would posit that instead, you know it works when the person starts listening to you and treating you friendly. If you cast it on a statue, you would likewise know the spell didn't work not because of some intuition of success or failure, but rather because the statue doesn't change how it reacts to you. Then it's up to the player to decide if this is because it's a creature that saved, or is just not a creature.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
I typically don't worry that much about the distinction between creature or object with regard to spells. How would a spell be able to determine that any better than the caster? It would be like saying a gun or a bullet knows whether it's being fired at a person or a wall. Or, for the sake of a D&D discussion, a bow or a sword knowing this.
Magic missiles are much more like heat-seeking missiles though. They are self-guided, but only toward creatures. Given that the darts are created and then directed, if there were no creature targets, I imagine the darts would dance about for a bit and then fizzle out, costing the caster a spell slot.
 

Hawk Diesel

Explorer
Magic missiles are much more like heat-seeking missiles though. They are self-guided, but only toward creatures. Given that the darts are created and then directed, if there were no creature targets, I imagine the darts would dance about for a bit and then fizzle out, costing the caster a spell slot.
Sure, but heat seeking missiles don't just plummet out of the sky when launched in the absence of targets without a sufficient heat signature. They can still be aimed at a target and destroy that target as intended. They just don't correct course without that thermal input (I imagine. I don't know much about military weaponry).

You can certainly make a case for magic missile behaving in this way. But for me, it is problematic because it requires a couple of assumptions:

1) There is a real and objective distinction between what is living and what is not.

2) The magic utilized by spellcasters is able to intuitively or automatically sense this objective trait.

3) If the distinction between living and not living is not objective, then the magic employed by a spellcaster is capable of making these judgments without input from the caster. Meaning magic has a sort of limited artificial intelligence.

For me in my games, these assumptions bother me. I typically like to play in worlds that are more subjective or relative as opposed to concrete and objective. Good and Evil are not clearly defined or objective realities, but rather very much exist in the greys that we know and understand. The difference between life and death, or at least life and not-life is likewise blurry and ill-defined.

In such a world, it doesn't make sense to have magic innately able to sense and thus define what is alive and what is not.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
In such a world, it doesn't make sense to have magic innately able to sense and thus define what is alive and what is not.
I dunno, there's a bunch of spells that target different types of creatures: living, undead, dead, celestials, demons etc. Magic does seem to be able to distinguish between them?
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Sure, but heat seeking missiles don't just plummet out of the sky when launched in the absence of targets without a sufficient heat signature. They can still be aimed at a target and destroy that target as intended. They just don't correct course without that thermal input (I imagine. I don't know much about military weaponry).

You can certainly make a case for magic missile behaving in this way. But for me, it is problematic because it requires a couple of assumptions:

1) There is a real and objective distinction between what is living and what is not.

2) The magic utilized by spellcasters is able to intuitively or automatically sense this objective trait.

3) If the distinction between living and not living is not objective, then the magic employed by a spellcaster is capable of making these judgments without input from the caster. Meaning magic has a sort of limited artificial intelligence.

For me in my games, these assumptions bother me. I typically like to play in worlds that are more subjective or relative as opposed to concrete and objective. Good and Evil are not clearly defined or objective realities, but rather very much exist in the greys that we know and understand. The difference between life and death, or at least life and not-life is likewise blurry and ill-defined.

In such a world, it doesn't make sense to have magic innately able to sense and thus define what is alive and what is not.
This is just a matter of brainstorming to come up with an in-world reason for why the mechanics work as they do and settling on one or more explanations that satisfy your particular requirements. You could say, for example, that magic suffuses all things in the world and certain spells can only work by drawing upon the magic that already exists in creatures (or objects). See "The Weave of Magic" (PHB p. 205) for an example of this sort of explanation and tweak according to your needs.
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
I typically don't worry that much about the distinction between creature or object with regard to spells. How would a spell be able to determine that any better than the caster? It would be like saying a gun or a bullet knows whether it's being fired at a person or a wall. Or, for the sake of a D&D discussion, a bow or a sword knowing this.

Now, I can see a case being made for a gun/sword/bow having less effect. There might be only a scratch, for instance, if such weapons were used on a stone wall. But it doesn't stop them from being used.

I feel the same way about spells. It doesn't stop them from being used. A magic missile used on a section of stone wall may just mark the surface. But that alone doesn't tell you if the target was a creature.
I tend to feel the same. Also, sometimes you want to use spells on inanimate objects--to break down a wall, for example. I would let a magic missile do force damage on a wall in a case like that.
 

Hawk Diesel

Explorer
I dunno, there's a bunch of spells that target different types of creatures: living, undead, dead, celestials, demons etc. Magic does seem to be able to distinguish between them?
I think there is a difference there though. Many of those creatures have some common relationship. Demons, celestial, they are planar beings and are tied to a particular abstract concept manifested into a specific form. Undead are described often as powered by a particular kind of negative energy.

But how would a spell be able to determine if those things are creatures versus objects? How could a spell know that a golem, animated object, or even purely mechanical automaton is somehow different than a rock? What is inherently different about a boulder or lake of lava versus an earth elemental or fire elemental? These distinctions, at least for me, are qualitatively different and distinct.

Additionally, a spell that normally targets celestial can still be cast on a demon or person. I don't think the caster inherently knows if the spell was successful or not, but this only emerges if there is an observable change that is intended. Using a spell meant to charm celestials to target a demon may still have some noticeable effect. It may cause smoke to rise from the demon, cause it mild pain or irritation, drive it to anger, or any number of effects or non-effects. The important thing is that the spell does not cause the demon to be charmed in the way that the caster expects. A DM may say that such a spell instead overwhelms the demon and causes damage. Or maybe it works, just not as long or effectively. Or maybe it works too well and turns the demon to stone.

A bow fired at a bale of hay won't kill or harm the hay as far as we can tell. If it is alive or dead afterwards doesn't matter. The effect that we see is the arrow embedded within the hay. If the hay was alive (mimic hay bale?), it might respond. Or if it died instantly, it might not respond. The point is that the archer doesn't know anything about that bale of hay except that an arrow is poking out of it. I think spells should function in a similar manner. The caster doesn't intuitively know what it means when the magic missile hits a selected target. Only that they see it hit, and they observe any change following the strike which may correlate with the use of the spell. But correlation is not causation.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
Avoiding the pitfall of how one should be playing the game traps, one of the things I think 5e screwed thebpooch on was damage/spells and creature/objects.

When they doubled down on "whether it says creature orb object is intended and matters" they blew it. (Paraphrase)

Imo, the more logical and reliable approach is to define which "effects" can affect creatures only, which can affect objects only and which can affect both.

It makes zero sense that some "takes force damage" or "takes radiant damage" or worse "takes fire damage" can affect creatures only but dome can affect objects too.

This division creates the "creature-dar" effect and a lot of ambiguity or rather inconsistency in gameplatpy.

Imo it violates my "stupid rule" to have at cantrip to 3rd level for wizards alone spells causing fire damage that really on the surface "seem to be" just different shapes and sizes of "burn them" but we see examples of three categories - creature and objects (targets), creatures and "flammable objects" (not the same as can burn) and creature only (no objects) with no obvious rhyme or reason.

Imo they should have added to the list of damage types they provided already a tag for "default affected by" and a note that some spells may specify exceptions.

My off the cuff guess is that would have been significantly lower word count and also a lot better as a consistent presentation.

But, telling my player, no, your chromatic or of fire cannot set the wooden fence post ablaze or light your campfire or even affect it - but you can use it to shoot that tree's branch." definitely violates my "stupid rule."
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
[MENTION=59848]Hawk Diesel[/MENTION], not sure I'm convinced but you make a good argument. Magic missile though... :)
 

Hawk Diesel

Explorer
[MENTION=59848]Hawk Diesel[/MENTION], not sure I'm convinced but you make a good argument. Magic missile though... :)
Swanky! Not trying to convince anyone, just viving my point of view and hopefully it stimulates others to think about why they do things the way they do. There is not right or wrong answer, just whatever is most fun for a person's table.
 

the Jester

Legend
According to the OP, the PCs had just fought a "living rock statue." They saw another statue. A player asked if they should roll initiative. The players' belief that the statue was more than it seemed may have been encouraged by the DM's assent.
Yes. They jumped to a conclusion and the DM did not dissuade them- which is both a time-honored tradition in D&D and one of the joys of DMing.

While it's fine to use initiative for other purposes, the players can be forgiven for thinking that this was the DM implying the statue was indeed a foe to be defeated in combat. So however this scene turned out (positively, according to the OP), it's a good meditation for DMs to consider what they say and how it could be interpreted by the players.
Sure! It's always good to watch for opportunities to let the players give themselves the rope, tie the noose, put their necks in, and hang themselves.

It would be different if the players were acting on knowledge or information that they didn't have, or metagaming. Or if they jumped to a conclusion that flied in the face of the knowledge and information that their characters had. But they didn't and weren't. They were playing perfectly appropriately to the situation they were in and the encounter they had just had.

In my mind, this is an amusing anecdote and a great example of a party's paranoia when it doesn't pay off (vs. the many instances when it will), nothing more. This is no gazebo incident.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Yes. They jumped to a conclusion and the DM did not dissuade them- which is both a time-honored tradition in D&D and one of the joys of DMing.
In this case, not only did the DM not dissuade them, but according to the information we have, he or she fed into their assumptions by assenting to initiative in my view.

Sure! It's always good to watch for opportunities to let the players give themselves the rope, tie the noose, put their necks in, and hang themselves.

It would be different if the players were acting on knowledge or information that they didn't have, or metagaming. Or if they jumped to a conclusion that flied in the face of the knowledge and information that their characters had. But they didn't and weren't. They were playing perfectly appropriately to the situation they were in and the encounter they had just had.
I would say part of the reason they carried on with their assumption was the DM agreeing that initiative should be rolled here which, depending on your preferred definition, could be seen as metagame thinking. It just happens to have also been in the context of a recent, similar encounter.

In my mind, this is an amusing anecdote and a great example of a party's paranoia when it doesn't pay off (vs. the many instances when it will), nothing more. This is no gazebo incident.
I make no judgment as to the outcome and believe the OP when he or she says that everyone had a good time with it. I still think the assent to roll initiative in this case is worth examining.
 

the Jester

Legend
I make no judgment as to the outcome and believe the OP when he or she says that everyone had a good time with it. I still think the assent to roll initiative in this case is worth examining.
I agree with that. And I also acknowledge that how cool or not-cool it is depends on the group's playstyle preferences.

From the perspective of my playstyle preferences, the real question here is this: in the in-game fiction- to the pcs in the game- what's the difference between how this went down and "living statue loses initiative and hasn't done anything yet"? At least sometimes, the two instances are indistinguishable from the perspective of the pcs. So the issue is whether you want to give the players information that the characters don't have by telling them not to roll initiative.
 

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