[RPG] What’s the difference between a ranged touch attack and a ray

combatmagicpathfinder-1e

I'm looking at various spells like Ray of Exhaustion that have effect:Ray and you make a ranged touch attack with the ray. I'm also looking at spells like Mark of the Reptile God and Reach enhanced Inflict Wounds spells which just say you make a ranged touch attack.

My question is: Is there a difference between these? As follow-ups: Is the attack roll modified differently? Can I treat ranged touch spells as if they were rays? Can I take weapon focus: non-ray ranged touch attack?

Best Answer

Strictly speaking, yes, there is a difference, though some speculate that even the authors neglect it

So rays are a specific thing. All rays require ranged touch attacks, but not everything that requires a ranged touch attack involves a ray: ray-effects are a subset of ranged-touch-attack-effects.

Thus, if something applies some benefit or penalty to a ray, it applies to ray of exhaustion but not to mark of the reptile god or to spells improved by Reach Spell.

Without such a bonus or penalty, though, there is nothing inherently special about rays vs. other ranged touch attacks. The attack roll is made in exactly the same way and so on.

As for Weapon Focus, the feat allows a special exception to the general requirement that you pick a weapon for the feat, to allow you to pick rays. Only rays (and unarmed strikes and grapples) are mentioned as being allowed, not other sorts of non-weapon attacks, including non-ray ranged-touch-attack spells, or melee-touch-attack spells for that matter. Thus, strictly speaking, you could take Weapon Focus (rays) and get a +1 to the attack roll made when casting ray of exhaustion, but you would not get that benefit with mark of the reptile god, nor is there any option for Weapon Focus that does let you get that bonus.

However, many tables just treat all ranged-touch-attack-effects as ray-effects and that works fine, and might even be what the authors intended. There is circumstantial evidence that authors used the terms fairly interchangeably, and cases where something is never called a ray-effect, but seem like they’re supposed to be. This thread on Weapon Focus and ranged touch attacks confirms this confusion, and has many suggest that they treat the two as the same thing.

Note that in 3.5, Complete Arcane specified that all attack-roll using spells were considered “weapon-like spells” and “touch attack” and “ranged touch attack” were considered the two categories of such weapon-like spells for the purposes of Weapon Focus (presumably the spells that used regular, non-touch attacks like iron scarf were also included despite the name). While the same confusion about whether or not rays were synonymous with ranged-touch-attack existed in 3.5, the fact that 3.5 ran things this way without problems suggests that it is generally safe to do so.