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Dissonant whispers says:

You whisper a discordant melody that only one creature of your choice within range can hear, wracking it with terrible pain. The target must make a Wisdom saving throw.

I initially took the first sentence to mean that the creature must be able to hear the caster's whisper to be targeted by dissonant whispers, but now I'm not so sure.

Perhaps I've read it one too many times... although only one creature can hear the whisper, the spell doesn't require that the creature must hear the whisper. Am I reading too much into this?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this question also asking, "if the creature can hear an event, and that event happens, does the creature hear the event?" \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Jul 10 '18 at 14:26
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The target doesn't need to hear the whisper to be a valid target

Dissonant Whispers notes that (PHB pg. 234):

A deafened creature automatically succeeds on the save.

Dissonant Whispers does still deal half damage on a successful save. So, even if the creature can't hear the whisper, it does still take damage, but it won't be forced to move away from the caster. It would make very little sense for the game's designers to specifically note that a deafened creature (one that can't hear the whisper) still suffers a negative effect if they weren't supposed to be valid targets.

Contrast this spell with the Suggestion spell

The Suggestion spell states (PHB 279, emphasis mine):

You suggest a course of activity (limited to a sentence or two) and magically influence a creature you can see within range that can hear and understand you.

In this case, the spell explicitly notes that a creature which can't hear you cannot be targeted. Dissonant Whispers has no such clause. Based on this, we can determine that Dissonant Whispers can still target a creature that can't hear you (because the spell doesn't say that you can't do that) and the creature would succeed on the save automatically (because the spell says that's what happens in this case).

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ your last phrase is incorrect - it only succeeds automatically if it's deaf, not if it simply can't hear you. Just because there's something like e.g. a magic sound barrier in between you and me so that I can't hear you, doesn't mean I'm deaf. \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Jul 10 '18 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PixelMaster I'm not really that concerned with the distinction in this case because if you can't hear something for whatever reason, you can be treated as effectively deafened with regards to that thing. Much in the same way that trying to see something obscured by darkness or thick fog doesn't necessarily blind you, yet you are effectively blind with regards to that thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Jul 10 '18 at 17:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adam Sort of condition trumps reason for condition? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 10 '18 at 17:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I'm not sure I would put it in those words exactly. But we have precedent in the Vision and Light rules that when you try to look into an area that is heavily obscured: "A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area." So, if we allow ourselves a similar line of thought for deafness, a creature is effectively deaf if it tries to hear something that it can't hear. That is: if I can't hear a thing, I'm basically deaf with regards to that thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Jul 10 '18 at 17:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ If the rules specifically define "a creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition" it is possible that is because we aren't expected to assume such a thing at all \$\endgroup\$ – Luke Jul 10 '18 at 23:31
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They will hear it

You whisper a discordant melody that only one creature of your choice within range can hear, wracking it with terrible pain.

This quote describes an action, not a prerequisite. You whisper something, which only one creature can hear, if they are in the range of the spell. Because they wouldn't be a valid target of the spell if they weren't in range in the first place, this can be shortened to:

You whisper a discordant melody that only one creature of your choice can hear, wracking it with terrible pain.

If it helps, remember that this is a magical whisper. No matter how close near you anybody else is, they will not be able to hear your melody, regardless of how normal whispering works.

In addition, deaf creatures automatically succeed on their save, but still take damage, which implies that it's not even just hearing the whisper that is causing the damage, but being deaf does help resist it.

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