If a creature is under the condition Charmed, can they cast the spell Burning Hands and orient the cone such that their charmer is within the area of effect?

The argument I've seen for "yes" is that Burning Hands is not an attack by the definition in Chapter 9, and creatures within an AOE are not targeted by the spell. Is this correct?


References:

Charmed

  • A charmed creature can’t attack the charmer or target the charmer with harmful abilities or magical effects.

Basic Rules V.0.3, Appendix A, pg. 105 (emphasis mine)

Burning Hands
1st-level evocation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self (15-foot cone)

Basic Rules, V.0.3, Chapter 11, pg. 85 (emphasis mine)

If there’s ever any question whether something you’re doing counts as an attack, the rule is simple: if you’re making an attack roll, you’re making an attack.

Basic Rules V.0.3, Chapter 9, pg. 73

A typical spell requires you to pick one or more targets to be affected by the spell's magic. A spell's description tells you whether the spell targets creatures, objects, or the point of origin for an area of effect.

Basic Rules V.0.3, Chapter 10, pg. 80 (emphasis mine)

Spells such as burning hands and cone of cold cover an area, allowing them to affect multiple creatures at once.

A spell’s description specifies its area of effect, which typically has one of five different shapes: cone, cube, cylinder, line, or sphere. Every area of effect has a point of origin

Basic Rules V.0.3, Chapter 10, pg. 80 (emphasis mine)

  • What makes you believe that Burning hands are exempt from the "or harmful abilities or magical effects" part? – kviiri Apr 16 at 20:50
  • 4
    @kviiri: I believe it is the "target with" part that is in question. – Rubiksmoose Apr 16 at 20:53
  • @guildsbounty, comments are not for answers. Deleted. – mxyzplk Apr 17 at 22:06
up vote 17 down vote accepted

No, burning hands targets the creatures in its AOE

Burning hands is noted as having targets specifically in the DMG

The DMG specifically calls out the creatures affected by burning hands to be targets in an example:

For example, if a wizard directs burning hands (a 15-foot cone) at a nearby group of orcs, you could use the table and say that two orcs are targeted...

In the PHB there is even more support for the fact that creatures in an AOE are intended to be considered targets (more generally):

If a spell or other effect deals damage to more than one target at the same time, roll the damage once for all of them. For example, when a wizard casts fireball or a cleric casts flame strike, the spell’s damage is rolled once for all creatures caught in the blast.

Flame strike is a cylindrical AOE spell that does not call the creatures caught in its affect "targets". However, the rules here clearly designate those same creatures as targets regardless.

Either way, the rules are clear: Creatures caught in burning hands' AOE are targets. And since the charmed creature would be targeting the charmer with a harmful spell effect, this is not allowed.

The Rules As Intended agree

Jeremy Crawford also seems to agree with this conclusion:

Dragon's breath has two sets of targets: the creature you give the breath weapon to and the creatures in the area of effect created by the spell.

Dragon's breath is a touch spell that does not specify in its effects that the creatures in the AOE are targets explicitly (just like burning hands). But according to Crawford, the intent is that those creatures are considered targets of the spell.

Also he gives more support here:

A typical area of effect has more than one target: the effect's point of origin and one or more creatures/objects.

The cheese factor

The point of the charmed condition is that the creature views the charmer as a friend and cannot/does not want to do any harm to them. As such, this whole argument seems like a really cheesy way to get out of the intent of this condition.

A charmed creature can’t attack the charmer or target the charmer with harmful abilities or magical effects.

Why is the character wanting to hurt the charmer in the first place? How does the charmed character justify deciding to purposely hurt their "friend"? How does the character know that this spell will work and not others?

As such, regardless of RAW above, I would not allow a player to purposefully pull off this idea at my table.

  • 1
    Totally agree with the cheese section, I don't care about the rules on this one as that is nit picking against the spirit of the spell. Of course they could be targeting a baddie and accidentally hit the charm caster but i would want a pretty good excuse why they did that. – WendyG Apr 17 at 22:15

No. Even AoEs target every creature inside their area of effect.

In chapter 9 of the PHB, under Damage and Healing we see:

If a spell or other effect deals damage to more than one target at the same time, roll the damage once for all of them. For example, when a wizard casts fireball or a cleric casts flame strike, the spell’s damage is rolled once for all creatures caught in the blast.

Here, we see that Fireball and Flame Strike (both point-in-space targeted area of effects) deals damage to several targets.

As such, the charmed creature cannot include the charmer inside a burning hands spell, as burning hands is a similar magical area of effect.

  • 3
    Also in the DMG "For example, if a wizard directs burning hands (a 15-foot cone) at a nearby group of orcs, you could use the table and say that two orcs are targeted" Referring to a way to determine targets without a grid. – Rubiksmoose Apr 16 at 20:55
  • I interpreted that sentence quite differently: instead of reading it as "AoE Spells hit multiple targets", I read that as "Spells that hit multiple targets," which is quite different. In essence, it would mean that only spells that explicitly stated that they hit multiple targets would hit multiple targets, while those that didn't specify don't target enemies, they just create effects. If a spell doesn't explicitly say it targets someone, then they aren't a target. – SeraphsWrath Apr 16 at 21:14
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    A good example would be Hail of Thorns, which Targets the Caster specifically. Someone who was Charmed might not be able to attack their Charmer or Target them with a Spell, but they could cast Hail of Thorns (Target: Self), attack a nearby enemy with an Arrow imbued with Hail of Thorns and that would still damage the enemy because the Enemy is neither being Attacked nor Targeted by a Spell. That situation would directly contradict your answer. rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/120572/… – SeraphsWrath Apr 16 at 21:19
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    Potentially relevant tweet by Crawford: "Dragon's breath has two sets of targets: the creature you give the breath weapon to and the creatures in the area of effect created by the spell." So it stands to reason that creatures in the AoE of AoE spells would be considered targets as well. At the least, it seems clear that that is the designer intent, even if a reading of the rules might suggest otherwise. – V2Blast Apr 16 at 21:22
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    There is an entire Sage Advice segment in a WotC Dragon Talk podcast supporting this answer. – Derek Stucki Apr 16 at 22:48

Maybe, and don't expect it to be consistent within a campaign

5e doesn't like to pin itself down to anything clear when it comes to defining most game terms. The idea is that you're supposed to take the words as being used with their real-life meaning. Unfortunately, that's not compatible at all with how language works, so most of the terms are pretty much completely up to GM discretion.

You are correct that 'attack' isn't one of these not-a-game-term terms. 'Attack' is clearly addressed and burning hands is not an attack.

'Target' is one of these not-a-game-term terms. It might mean different things in different places in the rules, and has no clearly deliniated meaning in real-life so basically everything could be or not be a target depending on how your GM feels like interpreting each use of the word. Generally, accidentally catching them in the area of a spell is going to be outside of the definition of 'targeting' them, while grabbing their head so your palm covers their face and shouting 'Die, Heretic!' while casting the spell is going to be inside the definition of targeting them.

Yes, because Burning Hands does not have Targets

The text of Burning Hands reads:

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips. Each creature in a 15-foot cone must make a Dexterity saving throw. A creature takes 3d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

The fire ignites any flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried.

If a spell did have Targets, it would state that it does have Targets in the Targets section of the spell stat block or in the spell's Description; Burning Hands does not have a Targets section at all, and makes no mention of Targets in the Description meaning that it has no targets. (This is much different from Fireball, which states that creatures affected are "targets" explicitly in the spell description.)

Based on this question, Spectator Spell Reflection for Hail of Thorns?, if a clause in an Ability or Condition (in-game state) relies on being Targeted for a certain effect to occur, then something that does not Target them does not trigger that Condition.

In the case of Charmed, the situation would look like this:

  1. Is the Character attacking someone? No, they are not making an attack.
  2. Is the Character attacking someone who has Charmed them? No, see above.
  3. Is the Character Targeting someone? No, the Spell has no Targets.
  4. Is the Character Targeting someone who has Charmed them? No, see above.

Therefore, the Character is not violating any of the restraints of being Charmed, so the casting of Burning Hands is not prohibited, nor does the Charmer get any magical sort of immunity to damage from Burning Hands.

In the same way, someone could cast Hail of Thorns, Attack an enemy within 5 feet of the Charmer, and still deal damage to the Charmer despite not attacking them nor Targeting them with a Spell or Ability.

Finally, a tweet from Jeremy Crawford questions the concept that Spells with a range of Self have Targets:

A range of self means the caster is the target, as in shield, or the point of origin, as in thunderwave (PH, 202).

https://twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/606193562317766656

  • Every AOE has at least one target: their point of origin. Burning hands for example definitely targets at least the caster (being a self spell). So your premise that the spell had no targets at all is inaccurate at the very least. – Rubiksmoose Apr 17 at 13:13
  • @Gandalfmeansme At the time, my answer was the only answer, and well-upvoted. Also, this answer has been updated with RAW, and a tweet from Crawford. – SeraphsWrath Apr 17 at 19:02
  • @Rubiksmoose Included the tweet you shared with me. – SeraphsWrath Apr 17 at 19:05
  • I do think it improves your answer, but it doesn't "disprove" that self spells can have targets. In fact some self spells must have targets (as stated by the first part of the tweet). – Rubiksmoose Apr 17 at 19:09
  • @Rubiksmoose True, but the target in that case is the Caster of the PoI. Either way, I reworded it to "questions" instead of "disproves." – SeraphsWrath Apr 17 at 20:24

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