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Volo's Guide to Monsters says that you may play an Orc character, which gives you the following trait amongst other things:

Aggressive. As a bonus action, you can move up to your speed toward an enemy of your choice that you can see or hear.

My question is: what can be considered as an enemy for this trait to apply?

  1. Anything I want
  2. Any living creature, including non-hostile ones
  3. Only creatures that are hostile to me (actual enemies)

For example, can I choose a tree as my enemy, justifying it by a "Me find tree insult my race, me hate tree, me ANGRY!", and then bonus-move toward said tree?

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Rules as written, an enemy is anything your DM allows you to consider an enemy.

What is an Enemy?

Enemy is not clearly defined, so there is no clear definition of what is and is not an enemy. It is up to your DM to decide. If you want to give justice to the intent of the rules, then I would say an enemy can only be a creature. Throughout the PHB "enemy" is used only as a descriptor of a creature when we're looking at the rules of a given mechanic or ability.

Some examples of this:

Warding Flare (PHB 51) Also at 1st level, you can interpose divine light between yourself and an attacking enemy. When you are attacked by a creature within 30 feet of you

Holy Nimbus (PHB 86) Whenever an enemy creature starts its turn in the bright light, the creature takes 10 radiant damage.

Elder Champion (PHB 87) Enemy creatures within 10 feet of you have disadvantage on saving throws against your paladin spells and Channel Divinity options.

And finally, a non-mechanical use of enemy. Flavor text uses enemy in the way you'd expect.

Ranger (PHB 89) Clutching a shortsword in each hand, he becomes a whirlwind of steel, cutting down one enemy after another

When is a creature an Enemy?

A creature is considered an enemy when you consider it one. And, you can only do so if your DM allows you to. More on that later. Enemies and allies are defined by one creature towards another. A creature cannot define its relationship from the perspective of another creature. I cannot define that Charlie considers me an enemy, because I'm not Charlie. Charlie might well agree with me that we are enemies, but Charlie is the one defining how he feels towards me. In that sense, any creature can be an enemy.

There are even instances where a creature is not aware that you consider it an enemy. Would that mean you can't treat it as an enemy for abilities? Absolutely not, that would destroy any predication for stealth and deceit, since you wouldn't be able to cast spells or abilities that target enemies without first making that known to them.

Furthermore, enemy is used in the rules to differentiate who the targets of harmful spells are. "Friendly" spells are never predicated by only being able to target friendly creatures. They can target all creatures. The phrase enemy creature is used in spells so that your actual friends can, for instance, enter your aura of menace without being frightened.

By contrast, a fireball doesn't hit "enemies" it hits "creatures", meaning everyone. When enemies are singled out, it is only used to differentiate that your allies and non-enemies are not affected. As such, based on the rules as intended, I wouldn't allow you to use Aggressive on friendly or non-hostile creatures, as the intent is for you to get closer to your enemies so you can hurt them, not for you to run away or move quicker towards an objective.

Your DM will define what it means to consider a creature an enemy, since the rules do not. Your DM may say

"You may use Aggressive on that NPC, but he will become hostile to you because of your body language and expression."

He may even ask you to justify it, and could even shoot down your attempts.

"You can say your Orc sees this squirrel as an enemy, but I don't believe he can flip a switch that easily."

The onus is on your DM to keep this ability in check for you. Can your character really, honestly say a tree is his enemy? Even if you say "Me find tree insult my race, me hate tree, me ANGRY!" is it actually true? This takes us into the the realm of defining your character and what your DM deems to be reasonable. I would shy away from defining a character on the basis of mechanics, although it's not against the rules. If you've a convincing backstory as to why you hate trees, then by all means a tree can be your enemy.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Incredible answer! I'll wait a bit by principle, but i'm strongly inclined to accept this one. \$\endgroup\$ – Gael L Nov 14 '17 at 20:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ I broke up that overly large block of text in paragraph 3, and added a few italics for emphasis. (And a humorous link at the end). Please review to make sure you like the edit. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 14 '17 at 20:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good enough for me \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Nov 14 '17 at 20:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ And for me! I accept your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Gael L Nov 15 '17 at 14:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ So squirrels are out, but what if it's a Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog? \$\endgroup\$ – phyrfox Nov 15 '17 at 19:30
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Unless a word is specifically given a special meaning in the rules (which "enemy" is not), 5e uses standard English. Dictionary.com defines an enemy as "a person who feels hatred for, fosters harmful designs against, or engages in antagonistic activities against another; an adversary or opponent."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless the tree is awakened, I don't see how it can be engaging in any activity. \$\endgroup\$ – Derek Stucki Nov 14 '17 at 19:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ According to the rules of logic, no. The truth value of the converse has no relation to the truth value of the original statement. \$\endgroup\$ – Derek Stucki Nov 14 '17 at 19:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ My answer doesn't seek to address specific situations. I gave what rules exist, and it's up to your DM to interpret those rules in specific situations that arise. \$\endgroup\$ – Derek Stucki Nov 14 '17 at 19:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I loved that last comment Derek, but I would have ended it with "(But, yes, that is the rational conclusion of the rules)." ;) \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Nov 14 '17 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a DM, I would think that a farmer would probably hate anything trying to kill them, thus making them a valid enemy. The farmer is also likely to act in defense, which would also qualify. However, the farmer may have a death wish and welcome the orc with open arms, in which case they would not qualify as an enemy. Thus, I avoided a specific answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Derek Stucki Nov 14 '17 at 20:07
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I think there's some spirit of the law here that's required. The trait is called Aggressive so being aggressive makes you an aggressor, which would justify you initiating the hostile action rather than being restricted to retaliation. I suspect the inclusion of 'enemy' as the target of aggressive is a shortcut to the fact that the majority of valid targets will be hostile creatures.

As a DM, I would permit the use of the bonus action to move towards a non-enemy as long as you combine it with a subsequent hostile action (i.e. the bonus action must come first and both actions must be declared at once). This provides some balance against using the action in a beardy way and forces you to commit to the aggression against a non-enemy target.

So that'd be no to charging a tree and then quaffing a potion, but yes to charging a tree and punching it (for whatever perceived slight against your Orc).

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I concur with @Premier Bromanov's description and explanation of an enemy as a creature that your character thinks of as an enemy. It is a matter for DM adjudication. If you want a particularly convincing argument to offer about something being an enemy, I'd suggest that you take a swing at them once you get there. The intent of the power is to help you get to the foe so that you can hit them really hard. As long as you follow through on that, it seems like RAI would be taken care of. Of course, doing that means that you can't use Aggressive to more efficiently run away, but....

For clarity, the point here is that edge case questions for this trait largely arise from two sources - trying to game the system, and entertaining roleplay.

  1. If you're using aggressive on a tree as a weak justification because it lets you run away from something else, that's trying to game the system, and clearly not RAI.

  2. If you're using it on the tree because you legitimately hate that tree, that's entertaining roleplay, and should be allowed (and in most games, would be allowed).

    The question of which it is, then, is pretty clear. (Yes, there are edge cases of the edge cases, but the general rule should provide a decent guideline of intent).

    If, upon arriving at the tree, you take a standard action to take a swing at the thing, then you're pretty clearly not using it to exploit the action economy, because you could have just used that standard action to sprint.

    If you get to the tree and keep going without pause, then you probably are cheesing it because your desire to move towards the tree didn't have anything to do with actually hating on said tree.

Since it calls for DM adjudication, the RAI here is actually pertinent, and the correct answer is to build yourself in alignment with it, rather than trying to subvert it. Even if you get away with it a few times, having your DM annoyed at you for rules-abuse is way more expensive than a few discounted move actions are worth.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What does this answer add that’s not already in that answer? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Nov 15 '17 at 3:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk Further explanation of the point added. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Nov 15 '17 at 15:06

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