[RPG] Should the DM describe NPC spellcasting so that players can use Counterspell


Going into battle, standing in front of a medusa and 2 nagas. I have line of sight on all 3. The DM says to make wisdom saving throw, without describing why.

After failing the saving throw, I'm mind controlled by a naga. When I question why, the DM tells me the naga cast a spell (but wouldn't tell me what one, I assume dominate person, or charm person). To which, I respond, "okay I would use counterspell when I see the naga casting a spell in front of me though."

The DM claimed I should have used counterspell earlier.

Considering that I could see the creature, am I correct in assuming there should have been a description of "you see the naga wave it's arms" or "you see the naga begin to chant" before being asked to make a wisdom saving throw? Something to indicate this was a spell and not a effect of the room or something I couldn't avoid?

P.S. He knows I have counterspell in a ring of spell storing ready.

Follow up: I have always been under the impression that a counterspell needs to be used as a reaction to noticing the components of a spell(VSM) being used; and cast before making a saving throw roll. According to my DM it can be used after the roll, and I should have said "counterspell" as soon as he said "take control"

Best Answer

The DM should convey "the naga is casting a spell"

Counterspell has a casting time of 1 Reaction...

which you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell

Counterspell says "casting" not "casts", indicating that once the spell is actually cast, it is too late to counter. Your impression of the order of operations is correct:

  1. Casting (for 1 Action spells this involves several seconds of chanting, arm-waving, etc.)
  2. (Optional) counterspell
  3. Cast
  4. Saving throws, attack rolls, etc.
  5. Effects

In order for you the player to know when your character can use counterspell, the DM will need to indicate that spellcasting is occurring. However, the DM is (probably) human, so they can make mistakes.

From the beginning of "Playing the Game" in the Basic Rules, the game follows the following steps:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of their actions.

Spellcasting typically involves verbal, somatic, and/or material components, the first two of which are quite obvious and should be described. The spell dominate person requires verbal and somatic components. (Though a spirit naga only needs the verbal components.)

  • Verbal components involve the "chanting of mystic words ... with specific pitch and resonance".
  • Somatic components involve "forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures".
  • Material components involve "particular objects", but may be replaced by a spellcasting focus (so they may or may not be obvious).

This may seem like unnecessary fluff, but counterspell relies on you seeing those components being performed.

From one of your comments, it sounds like the DM had the naga roll Stealth to avoid counterspell. There are no explicit mechanics for using Stealth to conceal spellcasting, and there are a couple of problems with allowing it:

  1. Every spell will start with a Stealth roll. If it's free, why not do it every time?
  2. Verbal components are "chanting of mystic words ... with specific pitch and resonance". I take this to mean that spellcasting is largely at a fixed volume.
  3. It gives every spellcaster the Subtle Spell metamagic from sorcerer - without the resource cost.
  4. It increases the value of the already-powerful Perception and Stealth skills for spellcasters. If you knew about these houserules at character creation, you may have made different choices. The Observant and Prodigy feats are more desirable, for starters.

Due to the DM not describing the environment (that is, the components) accurately, you and your DM have different perspectives on what occurred.

From your perspective

DM: Make a Wisdom save.

You: Must be some kind of ability the naga has, since spellcasting would be obvious. Can't counter non-spells. (You roll the save.) I got a 12.

DM: You're now mind controlled.

You: That's no good. I'd better double-check that it wasn't a spell. That wasn't a spell, right?

DM: It was a spell.

You: Then I would have used counterspell.

DM: It's too late!

You: This is like falling in a hole that the DM forgot to describe. That's not fair!

From the DM's perspective

DM: This naga is going to use dominate person on that character. I'll make a Stealth check to hide the spellcasting. That beats the wizard's passive Perception. Make a Wisdom save.

You: (You roll the save.) I got a 12.

DM: You're now mind controlled. The player didn't yell "counterspell" here, so they missed their chance.

You: That wasn't a spell, right?

DM: It was a spell.

You: Then I would have used counterspell.

DM: This player is trying to take advantage of the situation. They want to conserve their counters by waiting until they see the result. It's too late!

You: That's not fair!

Resolving the situation

Your goal should be resolving those differences in perspective.

You need to talk with your DM outside of a session (just before or after one works). Present your perspective and ask how the DM wants to handle counterspell in the future. Include the fact that many monsters have non-spell abilities that force a saving throw, and that counterspell is triggered when you see a creature casting a spell. Your DM may not understand the issues with easily-concealed spellcasting.

If your DM wants to keep Stealth spellcasting, be sure you know how this houserule works. In order to follow the rules reasonably well, though, I would recommend one of the following two paths:

  1. Announce the name of all spells as they are being cast. The (N)PCs shouldn't technically know that dominate person is being cast (without a check), but this speeds everything up. If the (N)PC wants to counterspell, they declare it then, before everyone rolls saves.
  2. Announce that (unnamed) spellcasting is occurring, then pause. If the (N)PC wants to counterspell, they do so before the name, saves, or effects of the spell are described.

I prefer the second choice, as it's not much slower than the first, and it encourages tactical play. I recommend that you use the same method for both PCs and NPCs: either you both counterspell knowing the spell, or you both counterspell blind.

As Mark Wells points out in the comments, this may have been avoided by asking "is the naga casting a spell" as soon as possible (barring any Stealth shenanigans). I frequently play AL games with various DMs, so I have adopted a more proactive approach to using abilities. If you explain why you're asking, most DMs will have no problem explaining the situation.