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A bard casts Dissonant Whispers (PHB, p. 234) on a monster (diagram below). The monster has to choose between 2 paths. The left path is "safer" than the right path since his allies are that way but the right path led him a little farther from the bard.

Can the monster (A drow in armor and mid melee with at least 16 AC) choose the safer path or does he have to take the right one?

diagram path

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It was an drow having a fair amount of AC (at least 16) wearing armor and fighting in melee. We didn't had the chance to identify him. \$\endgroup\$
    – ordi
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 18:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to make sure I'm reading correctly, Does the monster know that one path is safer? \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 18:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes he know both path @goodguy5 \$\endgroup\$
    – ordi
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 18:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why does its race and AC matter? \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 19:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @András WHile my answer didn't require it, I thought knowing the stat block (mostly it's INT/WIS) would be helpful. But more information is always good. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 19:51

4 Answers 4

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It's up to the DM...

Dissonant Whispers only requires that the creature:

must immediately use its reaction, if available, to move as far as its speed allows away from you. The creature doesn’t move into obviously dangerous ground, such as a fire or a pit.

From a pure RAW perspective, as long as it moves away from you and not into obviously dangerous ground, then it's following the spell requirements.

Two Paths

The spell itself is causing the creature terrible pain that is trying to escape from:

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

It's trying to get away, but it's not 'frightened' of you or have any other effect. If the creature has any semblance of intelligence, it's going to run away from you towards its allies.

If it has no intelligence or knowledge/wherewithal to go towards friends, then it may be a toss-up.

But both options are firmly under the control of the DM as the spell itself doesn't give any direction here other than to move away from you.

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Leave it to the DM to decide

Dissonant Whispers reads (in part):

On a failed save, [the target] must immediately use its reaction , if available, to move as far as its speed allows away from you. [...] The creature doesn’t move into obviously dangerous ground, such as a fire or a pit.

The location of the allies doesn't matter

The presence of allies down one path has no bearing on which way the target runs, according to the rules of the spell. The creature is said to ignore environmental hazards, but it is not said to consider the location of nearby allies.

How to parse "as far as its speed allows away"

The rules say "to move as far as its speed allows away from you." The wording "as far [...] away" could be measured as the crow flies, which would mean the right path in your scenario because the creature's speed allows it to move slightly farther away measured thus.

But it could also be interpreted to mean "the target uses ALL of its speed to move in a direction AWAY from you." Given that the target has a lot of allies on one side, it would logically choose to run down the path that puts it nearer to them (all other options being roughly essentially equal, distance wise).

Linear distance versus range distance

The above assumes that the paths prevent line of sight by the caster, which would require the caster to pursue to reacquire line of sight. Essentially, the linear distance travelled is equal either way, though one may be closer "as the crow flies."

If the linear distance traveled via the left path is the same as that of the right path but does not break line of sight, then the right path would probably parse as the only viable option.

It's the DM's call

Nothing in the rules dictates the internal logic of the path of the creature beyond moving "away from the caster." So, ultimately, it comes down to how the DM wants to interpret the rules. Either result is fine given the directive of "Rule Zero:"

  • The DM narrates the results of the adventurers' actions.
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The monster is not required to take a certain path

As per the spell:

On a failed save, it takes 3d6 psychic damage and must immediately use its reaction, if available, to move as far as its speed allows away from you. The creature doesn't move into obviously dangerous ground, such as a fire or a pit.

The monster only needs to use all of its speed, and move away from you. This even means that by a strict reading of the rules, a monster could "waste" speed by moving through difficult terrain or climbing; albeit, certain players/DMs might call "shenanigans" on such an interpretation.

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The monster is avoiding pain, not seeking safety

First, consider the motivation of the monster as imposed by the spell:

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

Remembering that there is no fluff is spell descriptions, this part is relevant to understanding how to interpret the spell. The monster is being wracked with terrible pain and is seeking to move as far away from this pain as possible. This it does until it reaches the intersection.

On a failed save, it...must immediately use its reaction, if available, to move as far as its speed allows away from you.

At the intersection, the only thing the monster may consider is which hallway will take it further away from the source of the pain. If it knows the hallways (as you posit in comments), it will take the path it believes leads further away. The presence of allies in one branch will not affect its decision, as it is not seeking their safety but rather seeking to get as far from the pain as possible. It will certainly not move into a shorter branch due to the presence of allies. It can only freely decide between the two if both allow it to move equally far.

The creature doesn’t move into obviously dangerous ground, such as a fire or a pit.

Note that this part of the spell description does not say that the monster is seeking safety, but rather avoiding obvious danger. I would interpret this as because its instinctive fear of harm is just as strong as its aversion to pain. However, this does not not mean that it is making reasoned or rational decisions. Remember that it is affected by forced movement caused by a failed Wisdom save.

A saving throw--also called a save--represents an attempt to resist a spell, a trap, a poison, a disease, or a similar threat. You don’t normally decide to make a saving throw; you are forced to make one because your character or monster is at risk of harm...Usually, a successful save means that a creature suffers no harm, or reduced harm, from an effect.

Wisdom, in particular, mediates Perception, Survival, and whether you 'Get a gut feeling about what course of action to follow'.

By failing the save, the pain to the monster has overcome its reasoning - it is not thinking rationally. It will avoid obvious dangers, but the spell's directive is for it to seek the greater distance, not the greater safety. Spells do what they say they do.

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