Rules Grand Jury: Magic Missile v. Oscar The Grouch

2008 August 4
by Vanir

A long time ago, I remember reading a strange letter to the editor in Dragon magazine asking for a rules clarification of a very personal nature — specifically, whether a woman could regrow her hymen through the use of a ring of regeneration and, more importantly, would a unicorn then once again be so inclined as to put his head in her lap. I do not know why this article stuck with me so, probably because it is the most exposure to sex 13 year old Vanir could get at the time, but regardless it did.

Ever since then, I have always loved considering strange cases such as these. And so it is that I unveil to you, our dear readers, the next revolutionary concept in RPG blogging:

Rules Grand Jury

The concept is simple: a weird (and hopefully amusing) D&D rules question is posted, and its fate is then thrown to the wolves. And by “to the wolves”, I mean everybody dogpiles on the comments section to determine what is just via trial by combat.

If you have a burning rules question troubling your sleep, please do not hesitate to email it to us so that justice may be served.

Our first case:

Magic Missile v. Oscar The Grouch

In 3.5e, the Magic Missile spell never misses its target.

Suppose one was hiding in a trash can, and had the lid barely open so one could peek outside. If a 20th level wizard 300ft away (100ft + 10ft/level) were to cast Magic Missile on this person, and the person was ready for the attack, could this person get the lid down in time before the missile struck him?

I’ve heard several theories as to what would happen in this case. One is that the missile would simply pass right through the trash can because it never misses. I’ve heard some say the trash can would take the damage. I’ve heard that this is impossible because the spell’s duration is instantaneous. However, the spell description mentions the missile “darts forth from your fingertip”, which implies to me that it does not reach its target instantly.

Personally, I’d like to think that the missile would hover over the trashcan and blast the target as soon as he opened the lid. And if there was a tunnel through the world at the bottom of the trashcan and the target were to escape, the missile would spend the rest of its days searching for its target, glowing sadly, crying 1d4+1 tears night after lonely night.

But I digress. Cry “Havoc!”, and let slip the dogs of JUSTICE!

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Berin Kinsman permalink
    August 4, 2008

    Of course, the question is moot, because Oscar is a Grouch, and Grouches are immune to charm spells and energy attacks. This assumes the magic missile is an energy attack, and not a conjured physical object.

  2. Asmor permalink
    August 4, 2008

    Complete Rules Lawyer Answer: The spell still hits.

    Rules Lawyer answer: Did Oscar have an action readied to seal himself in if the wizard casts a spell? If so, then Oscar is no longer a valid target for the spell (as he is no longer in line of sight). If not, then Oscar can’t seal himself in.

    Commen Sense Answer: As rules lawyer answer, except rather than the action being completely wasted, the magic missiles strike and damage the can, likely penetrating the thin aluminum and still dealing full damage to the grouch.

  3. ChattyDM permalink
    August 5, 2008

    We need assumptions here people.

    Assumption one: Magic Missile, being a force effect, is akin to a laser and travels at the speed of light

    Fact: You can’t fire the spell at a target if you don’t have line of Sight and line of effect.

    Assumption two: The Grouch has either prepared an action to close to lid or not. If it did, it triggers the action while Wizard is casting spell, not when invisible bolt fires.

    If an action to close the lid was prepared, it interrupts the spell and it ‘fizzles’

    If the action was not prepared, bang, fried Grouch.

  4. Asmor permalink
    August 5, 2008

    I'm going to have to disagree with the honorable Chatty DM's assumptions.

    Point of order the first: A force effect, in my mind at least, is about the least laser-like energy blast possible. A force effect is literally a magical force with physical substance, as opposed to a laser blast which is highly concentrated energy lacking any kinetic power.

    Point of order the second: It is established in name, canon, video games and common sense that magic missile produces just that: missiles of magic. D&D 3.x already has a mechanic for spells which act like a laser beam– rays.

    Having established that magic missiles are not instant hit laser weapons, the question of speed comes up next. In my mind, a magic missile is clearly visible as a glowing something or other. I suspect that it moves somewhere around the speed of an arrow, as any faster and it would simply be imperceptible.

  5. DNAphil permalink
    August 5, 2008

    My argument was the same as Chatty’s. If Oscar had prepared an action to close the lid, then the attack fails.

    Damn you Chatty….we Phil’s think too much alike.

  6. Dave The Game permalink
    August 5, 2008

    We’ll need to know the air-speed velocity of the magic missile, and whether it’s African or European.

  7. Jeff Rients permalink
    August 5, 2008

    I always like more lasers in my magic, but I agree with asmor that magic missile is not a great example of a laser.

    At my table Oscar would be hosed, as I consider "magic missiles alway hit" to be as sacred as tenet of D&D as "5th magic-users can lob fireballs" and "clerics suck".

  8. Asmor permalink
    August 5, 2008

    Wow, Jeff, you must hate 4th edition then. 😀

  9. Porter Woodward permalink
    August 5, 2008

    I'll go with Asmor and Chatty – it matters little whether the magic missiles travel at the speed of light or less… If Oscar had an action readied to close the lid – that interrupts line-of-sight, which invalidates him as a target.

    On the other hand that really does beg the question as to what really constitutes line of sight? From 300 feet away, with a garbage can lid lifted about an inch so that Oscar can peer out… What can the Wizard really see of Oscar?

    Or does it really matter? The spell does say it "always hits". Since the round-based combat system in D&D is just an approximation so that game play can simulate combat which occurs in real-time, and simultaneously… It's possible that it just presents a good case for some narrative description:

    Firing the spell at just the right moment, the wizards' magic missiles dart into the gap when the creature inside the garbage can lifts the lid to peer out.

    As opposed to trying to figure out the physics of a spell – after all it's a spell, you've already thrown physics out with the bathwater – just use clever action descriptions.

  10. ChattyDM permalink
    August 5, 2008


    Are you trying to invoke… Relative Narrative Causality on us?



  11. Donny_the_Dm permalink
    August 5, 2008

    What is the average air/speed velocity of an arrow?


  12. Asmor permalink
    August 5, 2008

    Slowly enough that you can see it travel, particularly from a side view.

    This is from personal archery experience with a recurve bow.

    Not sure of the actual numbers, though.

  13. Jeff Rients permalink
    August 5, 2008

    Wow, Jeff, you must hate 4th edition then. 😀

    Fortunately the Mother Box helps me contain my cosmic rages.

  14. Stupid Ranger permalink
    August 5, 2008

    I have to believe that mages aren’t stupid enough to attempt to cast magic missile into a 2 inch slit.

    Okay, well, maybe they are stupid enough to try, but they know it would waste a spell given the improbability of success.

    That said, if they really did attempt it, I don’t believe the barrier posed by the garbage can would actually stop a magic missile from it’s target; armor doesn’t stop it from hitting a fighter.

  15. Scott permalink
    August 5, 2008

    In my mind, there’s one question that needs to be answered here:

    Can the wizard, standing 300 feet away, see Oscar, who’s peering through an inch-wide gap?

    If so, then he has line of sight and line of effect. The spell is instantaneous, so Oscar cannot act after it was fired and avoid it, any more than he could drop prone behind a waist-high wall had he been standing behind one.

    (A readied action might change this, but it would occur before the missiles were fired, which renders the question moot.)

    If the wizard cannot see Oscar, he cannot target Oscar with the spell.

    The wizard’s Spot check penalty at 300′ is -30. Assuming the wizard has a Wisdom of 30 and the maximum 11 ranks of cross-class Spot training, that’s still a net -9 to his roll. If Oscar is hiding in the can, there’s very little chance he’s a valid target, unless the wizard’s got other magic operating. If Oscar is not hiding, but simply difficult to see, the wizard’s chances are better.

    Assuming the wizard sees Oscar and casts the spell, though, Oscar is toast.

  16. Your G(rinning) M(asochist) permalink
    August 6, 2008

    I agree with the view of if he has a readied action to close the lid, they can’t hit him. The assumption I have is that if he didn’t, then he either wasn’t fast enough to close them, or he was distracted by his other actions. If he did, then he’s no longer a valid target for the spell. Since 3.5 magic missile can’t target an object, the spell cannot be cast at Oscar. The question of whether the mage can select a new target or if the spell is wasted is left as an exercise to the reader.

  17. thanuir permalink
    August 6, 2008

    Assuming no readied actions on either side: Osacar gets a reflex save to have the missile hit the garbage can due to the mage not being fast enough at casting the spell to target Oscar.

    When in doubt, roll the dice.

  18. Asmor permalink
    August 6, 2008

    That just seems silly. For that matter, why not give the fighter a reflex save every time he’s attacked to block with his shield? Or give the barbarian a reflex save before every will save so that he can stop thinking about shiny things and try to concentrate on erecting mental barriers?

  19. Noumenon permalink
    August 7, 2008

    Commen Sense Answer: As rules lawyer answer, except rather than the action being completely wasted, the magic missiles strike and damage the can, likely penetrating the thin aluminum and still dealing full damage to the grouch.

    Rules Lawyer comeback: Magic Missile doesn’t deal damage to inanimate objects. That doesn’t really make sense for a pellet or a laser, does it?

  20. A. W. Wright permalink
    August 8, 2008

    3.5e rules say you cannot damage inanimate objects with Magic Missile, so the trash can cannot take damage. How about applying quantum physics: A world in which Magic Missile is cast, and one in which the target takes cover, cannot co-exist.

  21. Nick permalink
    August 11, 2008

    Oh crap. I was totally on board with this then StupidRanger said, [I don’t believe the barrier posed by the garbage can would actually stop a magic missile from it’s target; armor doesn’t stop it from hitting a fighter.]

    And it got me thinking about armor and line of sight. If a character is completely encased in armor a mage would still have line-of-sight. Naturally, you don’t have to see someone’s skin to target them.

    No I have never seen Oscar outside of his garbage can (which brings up the question if the garbage can is part of him, but I’m not going there). I would assume that it would function just like a suit of armor, regardless the spell would hit him if the lid was open or not, just as a spell would hit a fighter in field plate wether the visor was open or not.

  22. John permalink
    August 13, 2008

    Is Oscar a PC or NPC? if NPC, MM hits

    If Oscar has a readied action to “close the lid” when “wizard starts casting”, how does he know when to close the lid? When he hears the spell? When he sees the wizard twitching his fingers and making odd gestures?

    How about if the spell is cast with Metamagic feats Still Spell and Silent Spell? What triggers the readied action?

    Is there any more beer in the fridge?

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