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All three domination spells' descriptions (Dominate Monster, Dominate Person, Dominate Beast) contain the following paragraph:

You can use this telepathic link to issue commands to the creature while you are conscious (no action required), which it does its best to obey. You can specify a simple and general course of action, such as "Attack that creature", "Run over there", or "Fetch that object". If the creature completes the order and doesn’t receive further direction from you, it defends and preserves itself to the best of its ability.

What would be considered a simple course of action?

For example, could I tell a dominated humanoid wielding both a longsword and a longbow to attack using a specific weapon, such as "shoot the ogre with your longbow" instead of just "attack the ogre"?

Or, another example, would it be possible to command a dominated dragon to breathe fire onto his enemies, or is that too specific? After all, "breathe fire on the zombies" is not a complicated course of action, is it?

The reason I'm asking is because commanding the controlled target to use a specific ability - which might or might not be at-will - seems significantly more powerful than just "attack that guy". Still, I think it could easily count as a "simple course of action" - but is it "general" enough?

That the course of action requires the use of a one-time ability doesn't matter - afterwards, the creature will have "complete[d] the order" and simply defend itself. Also, you can just change the command as you please on your next turn, after the ability has been used, since changing it doesn't require an action.


Primarily, this would be a matter of balancing. Many monsters have semi-strong at-will abilities/attacks (that would most likely be used when told to "attack a target"), and a few stronger, one-time or rechargeable abilities/attacks.

Please note that this question is not about what happens when you use your action to take full control of the creature, nor are answers in the line of "depends on your DM" helpful - I'm the DM, and I'd like some guidance on the matter because I'm unsure myself.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri This seems like an attempt to answer the question partially. Note that comments are only for managing/improving the question. Please place such information in an answer instead of a comment. Here's a reference on our policy: Should users refrain from answers (or partial answers) in comments? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose May 1 '18 at 15:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose I would IM you but I am not sure that is a thing. Can I find the comment you have deleted so that I understand what you are talking about? Also leaving your comment here but not mine makes it look quite strange. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri May 3 '18 at 10:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri We have a chat system actually here: Role-playing Games Chat and you are more than welcome to pop in and ping me if I am around. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose May 3 '18 at 13:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Fwiw, I did not delete your comment, a mod did. See this comment from chat if you want to see the context. Feel free to drop by if you are confused about why it was deleted or anything and people can help explain. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose May 3 '18 at 13:53
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As other answer stated

First, it does depend on the DM

"Simple" and "general" are not game terms, so they aren't defined in the books. Thus, we should use our own real world defitinions for them - and these are up to you.

Guidelines

Well, first, let us consider the Examples given in the spell itself

"Attack that creature", "Run over there", or "Fetch that object"

These are the "power levels" intended for the spell. Allowing a spell to do more than intended is usually dangerous (but shouldn't be instantly refused - most players like to use their "creative use" of spells), as it can make a spell be stronger than higher-leveled spells and open up the gap between spellcasters and martial fighters even more.

So, with that in mind, obviously "Attack that creature this way" is more specific than the intended, thus more powerful. Is it powerful enough to not be allowed? I would say yes. Why?

It takes away the point of using your action to control the enemy in a more specific way.

Rule of Thumb

When doing actions such as the mentioned, we have to consider What action we want to do ("Attack"), How we want to do it ("With the longbow") and Who is the target ("The ogre"). Obviously, on assigning a command you need to state What - leaving How and Who as degrees of freedom. Then, the command can specify one more point - usually who.

I would rule that you can specify How, but leaving who open. So, you could say "Attack with your longbow" or "Use your fire breath", and then it's up to the DM to decide who is the most logical target that creature would be attacking.

This way, it's still similar to the specified examples in how "general" and "simple" it is. Since we can certainly say the examples are intended uses of the spell, these should be fine as well.

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It doesn't not depend on your DM...

I know you don't want "depends on your DM" answers, but it really does, as what people interpret as "simple and general" is going to differ by individual. The very nature of your asking this question illustrates the inherit subjectivity here.

I will tell you how I've ruled on it in the past and hope it helps make you more comfortable/confident in your own future rulings. As you point out, a command must be both simple and general, so those are the pieces to consider.

Simplicity: Consider the creature's Int

Because this spell uses a "telepathic link to issue a command" this is a form of communication and can thus reasonably play off of the creature's intelligence for them to interpret and execute said command when measuring it's simplicity. A simple command for a human being could be a mentally taxing task for a dog. "Chuck some rocks in the pond." To a person, this is a mindless activity, achieved without focus or concentration as he throws two or more rocks into a pond wherever they happen to splash. For a dog, this command pushes the limits of what dogs are capable of understanding as it identifies a rock, brings it over to a pond, drops it in the water, then repeats the feat knowing that "some" implies more than one.

Generality: Keep the spirit of the rule in mind

Let's acknowledge that the language in the spell descriptions are specifically meant to stop the players from using a dominated creature optimally in combat (unless they sacrifice their turn). I've said as much to my players at the table and just expect them to respect what the wording of the spell is trying to accomplish. If you're like me, the last thing you want is to get into word-smithing exercises. If the DM won't allow "Breathe fire on the Zombies" maybe he'll allow "Breathe fire on that Zombie (who happens to be in the middle)" or what about just "Fire. There." I, personally, won't play that game. I point out the spell specifically sights "Attack that creature" as an example to intentionally prevent you from doing exactly what you're trying to do. If you want the dragon to attack the zombies, fine, and I'll even roll to see how it goes about it, but I'm not going to let you extract more out of the spell than what you're entitled to because you took the time to come up with some clever wording.

Conclusion

I know a subjective answer is not what you wanted, but the language used in the spell's description demands a certain amount of subjectivity. If you bear in mind the dominated creature's intelligence while considering what counts as "simple" and WotC's intent of the spell when considering what counts as "general", I think your rulings will come pretty naturally.

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As simple and general as possible

I don't know of any rules which would provide guidance beyond the spell description's verbiage, so the rest is just opinion. (Though I do seem to recall older versions of D&D having more to say on the topic.)

You can specify a simple and general course of action...

The spell lists several simple and general examples. "Attack that creature," "fetch that object," etc. It seems you are limited to an action type and are able to target something specific.

"Shoot the ogre with your longbow" seems simple enough, but I would say it does not meet the "general course of action" (emphasis mine) stipulation in the spell's description. "Shoot the ogre," on the other hand, might be more acceptable and if all he has is a longbow... Your "breathe fire on the zombies" example is again simple, but a more specific version of "attack" which I would suggest to not be broad or general enough.

If the creature completes the order and doesn't receive further direction from you, it defends and preserves itself to the best of its ability.

I think the creature should be able to choose its action within the constraints of the command. Worth considering is the ease with which the target completes your order. Perhaps you, as the GM, would allow the dragon to use fire when commanded to "destroy the village" as the easiest course of action to accomplish the task. If it can do so while still flying, it may also be defending itself to the best of its ability.

I imagine the "no action" portion of the spell to be a weaker form of control over the target and the caster isn't able to access special abilities without exerting more focus and attention.

You can use your action to take total and precise control of the target.

Additionally, since the spell provides a method to enhance control with more precise commands, it seems reasonable to assume you are required to do so to gain additional benefit. As you implied, trading your action to exert full control over the dominated creature is quite powerful as it allows you to use known special abilities or even stand there and be eaten by the dragon.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ another benefit of taking full control is that the target can't do anything else - if you tell a cleric to "attack the ogre", he could Sacred Flame the ogre and therefore obey the command, but then still use his bonus action to Healing Word his allies (unless he can also attack the ogre with his bonus action due to random feature XY, in which case I'd say he's forced to do that). Same goes for running away. \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster May 1 '18 at 13:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Even if there is an internal struggle to resist the effects, a dominated creature is charmed and becomes your ally though, right? Also, beyond your simple command the dominated creature is limited to personal defense and preservation. So perhaps he would only Healing Word himself or run away to avoid combat, but I suppose this could depend on the creature. A goblin would run away, but would a dragon? \$\endgroup\$ – Mazith May 1 '18 at 14:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mazith A charmed creature might consider you an ally, it doesn't force it to stop considering it's previous allies the same. \$\endgroup\$ – Luke May 2 '18 at 1:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Luke I don't agree, but it's not really on topic as the spell doesn't allow for the target to aid allies, per the spell's description. The target may only act as directed and then defend or preserve itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Mazith May 2 '18 at 2:12
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Buckle up, this takes some following.

The general command for Dominate "X" is limited to the severity of action allowed by the Haste extra action

Action economy is very important in 5th edition. And thus, so is the number of enemies on each side. The difference between 4 creatures of a relevant level and 5 creatures of a relevant level is fairly significant.

So, what are the Dominate spells doing with the general command? They're removing an enemy from that round of combat, and giving you a free basic extra Action to use (granted by the dominated being).

This can be thought of as a combination of the Hold series of spells (or Animal Friendship, for beasts) and the Haste spell. Interestingly enough? The spell level addition lines up:

  • Animal Friendship (level 1) + Haste (level 3) = Dominate Beast (level 4)
  • Hold Person (level 2) + Haste (level 3) = Dominate Person (level 5)
  • Hold Monster (level 5) + Haste (level 3) = Dominate Monster (level 8)

So, in that vein, the general (non-action) command for Dominate _____ should be limited to the extra action granted by Haste:

That action can be used only to take the Attack (one weapon attack only), Dash, Disengage, Hide, or Use an Object action.

And, personally, I would rule that it has to be in three words or less, since the examples are all three words.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer! This really helps to illustrate the power level of the Dominate spells. I'll have to figure out which answer to accept, since all answers provide part of a perfect answer. \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster May 3 '18 at 14:52

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