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The last line of Meteor Swarm (PHB pg. 259) reads:

The spell damages objects in the area and ignites flammable objects that aren't being worn or carried.

Now, it ignites objects that aren't being worn or carried, and that's a pretty typical clause on fire-based AoEs (fireball has it). But it also specifies, as a separate clause, that it damages objects in its area. Not objects that aren't being worn or carried, but all objects. I assume, given that spells do what they say they do, that it means "all objects in its radius take 40d6 damage." That would include objects that are being worn or carried.

Assuming a character survives the 40d6 damage, they're likely to find themselves without most of their mundane gear, given the object HP rules on page 247 of the DMG.

Is my interpretation correct? Does the Meteor Swarm spell damage objects even if they are being worn or carried?

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Oof, the lack of a separating comma. =P

Linguistically, there are two valid ways to interpret this clause.

  • The spell damages objects in the area
  • The spell ignites flammable objects that aren't being worn or carried

Or...

The spell

  • damages objects in the area
  • ignites flammable objects

that aren't being worn or carried.

In the former case, your interpretation is correct: Meteor Swarm would only ignite objects that are not being carried, but would damage all objects, regardless of being carried or not.

In the latter case, your interpretation is wrong: the spell would both damage and ignite objects, but only if those objects aren't being carried.

"So which is it?"

The precedent of other spells is that it's the latter. The wording of most other spells is specific:

It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren't being worn or carried.

Fireball, Player's Handbook, pg. 241


A nonmagical object that isn't being worn or carried also takes the damage if it's in the spell's area.

Shatter, Player's Handbook, pg. 275


The lightning ignites flammable objects in the area that aren't being worn or carried.

Lightning Bolt, Player's Handbook, pg. 255

So it's certainly possible that the phrasing used in Meteor Swarm (which is shared with spells like Delayed Blast Fireball, PHB 230) is just a consequence of trying to smash together two clauses without considering the awkwardness of the linguistic construction.

On the other hand, that Linguistic awkwardness: the designers could have avoided some confusion by instead wording the clause like this, but instead they chose not to:

The spell damages objects, and ignites flammable objects, in the area that aren't being worn or carried.

Yet another reason commas are so valuable!

So ultimately, as DM, I bias towards the precedent established by other case studies in the game. Most other effects/spells that can cause object damage are very clear that they do not do so to objects that are carried—or if they do, they're particular about the conditions under which they do so. One could understand breaking that rule for a powerful ninth level spell like Meteor Swarm, but the fact that this wording also shows up for spells that are a lot less powerful suggests this was not the intent.

So probably, this spell is not supposed to cause damage to objects that are carried. Both because it is linguistically valid to interpret it as such, and because the precedent of other spells is to not cause damage to carried objects.

One last thought: the vast majority of objects that can be carried would be immediately destroyed by the damage of any of these spells I've quoted. If the intent were for this damage to be applied to those objects, then it would obliterate all non-magical items (and probably the magical items as well, since the damage resistance is not impregnable) within the radius. As I mentioned: that's kind of understandable for a powerful ninth level spell, but it's far less likely to be the case for a much weaker spell like Delayed Blast Fireball, which uses the exact same wording.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While I do agree with the precedent (which is the reason I ask this question in the first place), neither fireball or lightning bolt are capable of damaging objects. Shatter is more specific, and leads me to believe that if meteor swarm were intended to not damage objects that are worn or carried, it would say so. The fact that most other spells that damage objects are so clear about the fact that they don't damage worn/carried makes me think the first interpretation is correct; if it weren't, they would be clearer. Though it does seems likely this was an oversight, given precedents. \$\endgroup\$ – user55434 Jun 29 at 1:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user55434 I think it depends on where your burden of proof lies. Saying "if meteor swarm were intended to not damage objects that are worn or carried, it would say so" begs a very important question: are there spells where they definitely cause damage to carried objects without specifically saying so? Because scanning over the spell list, I can't find any. The only examples I can find uses one of the wordings above: it "ignites non-carried objects in an area", it "damages non-carried objects in an area", or it "damages objects in an area and ignites noncarried objects". \$\endgroup\$ – Xirema Jun 29 at 1:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ It mostly comes from the (admittedly a bit interpretive) idea that "objects," unmodified, includes all objects. Since that part of the sentence has no modifiers like the latter half does, it's an absolute, and means "all objects." \$\endgroup\$ – user55434 Jun 29 at 1:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user55434 Well, I defer back to my answer: without clear separating punctuation, we can't know for certain whether the clause about carried objects is only meant to apply to the latter half of the clause. We just have the precedent of other spells; and no other spells (that I'm aware of) unilaterally damage carried objects. \$\endgroup\$ – Xirema Jun 29 at 1:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ That seems a reasonable conclusion to draw. Unfortunately, it does seem to ultimately come down to how the DM interprets the sentence, and the precedent established by prior rules. \$\endgroup\$ – user55434 Jun 29 at 1:25
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As other answers have discussed, the wording is ambiguous, and the clause limiting matters to only those objects not worn or carried may well apply to the damage as well as the igniting. I don’t know if I buy the precedent argument, since the wording is not standardized and it’s difficult to compare apples and oranges here, but certainly it is possible that worn and carried objects are immune.

Since it is possible that worn and carried objects are immune, we are left with the question of whether or not they should be.

And to that, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Having meteor swarm damage worn or carried objects makes the spell unplayable.

I don’t mean that it makes the spell bad, or not worth using, or anything else; I might argue for those things too, but my point here is different. My point is that, quite simply, if you rule that meteor swarm damages worn and carried objects, the first time the party gets hit by it, your game session is over. You will not be able to continue playing. That is what I mean by unplayable.

Why? Because the party is carrying hundreds of items. Because many of those items are magical. Because any number of them might have special rules—or have other details that don’t have special rules, but should. Quick, what happens when you burn a bag of holding? Do you know, off the top of your head? You are going to spend literal hours taking all of that damage, checking the hp and defenses of each, finding any special rules or finding there are none and having to make up your own.

There is basically no chance you will be able to continue playing that day. Most likely, everyone is going to go home with “figure out what happened to your items” as homework.

And they probably aren’t going to do that homework. You could very well kill the entire campaign this way.

There is no doubt in my mind that these issues are precisely why fireball et al. specify that they do not do this. Disintegrate does, but it doesn’t do damage, it just disintegrates the items—no tallying or figuring out their defenses—and it doesn’t touch magic items. I am absolutely certain that Wizards of the Coast meant for meteor swarm to leave worn and carried items alone.

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You are indeed correct that spells do what they say they do, but we can extend that logic to also mean spells do not do what they do not say they do.

Take the spell Disintegrate. In its description, it specifies what happens to objects worn or carried by the target:

A disintegrated creature and everything it is wearing and carrying, except magic items, are reduced to a pile of fine gray dust.

See also the spell Greater Invisibility:

You or a creature you touch becomes invisible until the spell ends. Anything the target is wearing or carrying is invisible as long as it is on the target's person.

Compare these descriptions to Fireball:

It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren't being worn or carried.

And finally to Meteor Swarm:

The spell damages objects in the area and ignites flammable objects that aren't being worn or carried

While the language in Meteor Swarm isn’t as explicit as the other spells I mention here, the spell does not specify that it does affect worn or carried items. We can therefore reason that the spell’s behavior, based on both what it does and does not say, is intended to not affect worn or carried items in any way, since, as we saw above with Disintegrate and Greater Invisibility, if the spell was intended to affect worn or carried items, it would say so.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "Objects" has no modification, however. If it were all objects except those being worn or carried, wouldn't it say so? Your examples are a good case for how it would work if it were consistent, but there's nothing in its language that says it doesn't affect objects that are worn or carried. \$\endgroup\$ – user55434 Jun 29 at 1:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user55434 There’s also nothing that unambiguously says it does. Since we cannot possibly know for certain what the designer intent was, we must rely on precedent and our reasoning, both of which indicate that Meteor Swarm’s description is not likely to mean that all objects are affected. \$\endgroup\$ – G. Moylan Jun 29 at 1:27

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