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There have already been several questions regarding what counts as a target for a spell; some, such as this Q/A, are regarding glyph of warding as it states:

The spell must target a single creature or an area...

Some such as this Q/A and this Q/A are about the War Caster feat which states:

The spell must have a casting time of 1 action and must target only that creature.

And others, such as this Q/A, this Q/A, and this Q/A are regarding the Sorcerer's Twinned Spell Metamagic which states:

When you cast a spell that targets only one creature and doesn’t have a range of self... To be eligible, a spell must be incapable of targeting more than one creature at the spell’s current level...

There was already this Q/A on "What qualifies for the target of a spell" but this was about worn and carried items/objects not what actually makes something a target.

Jeremy Crawford clarified in the 19/JAN/2017 Sage Advice segment of the Dragon Talk podcast (starting at 11:00) that:

When the rules say "target" they really mean the English definition... The meaning that the rules are getting at is that when you choose someone or something to be subjected to some kind of effect, that's one of the common ways the word targeted is used in English... Any time a spell is telling you to pick a creature or an object or a point in space, to be affected by something, really that thing is functioning in that moment as a target of some kind.

But now that this is unofficial, I am wondering how to interpret this usage of the word "targets".

How do I know if a spell targeted something/somebody?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Allan Mills It also provides a nice location for the multitude of "Can I twin X", "Can I store X is a glyph" and "Can I cast X with War Caster" questions to reference in terms of what counts as a target when it comes to spells. \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Jul 20 at 5:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do recommend answerers listen to the linked Dragon Talk podcast's sage advice segment if they haven't before- while it's not official in the 'sage advice compendium' sense, it's the largest source of RAI about spell targeting that I'm aware of Crawford doing. \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Jul 20 at 8:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you perhaps give a concrete example? Something like, 'i cast xxx and it affects yyy, is yyy considered a target?' \$\endgroup\$ – ZwiQ Jul 27 at 8:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ZwiQ Here are a few: find familiar "affects" the caster as they gain the service of a familiar and can see through their senses, does it target them? levitate allows the caster to move somebody, so does it target the caster? Nystul's blocks divination spells so does it "target" them? Does misty step target a point in space? Does life transference target the caster? I chose these spells because many of them already have "answers" on this site, where there are two answers with opposite, competing opinions. \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Jul 27 at 10:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: Do Spells with a range of "Self" target the caster \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Aug 12 at 15:07
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D&D 5e is a bit ambiguous with its terms, so there is probably never going to be a comprehensive answer

The linked podcast is probably the best source of Rules as Intended we'll get. It says that "target" should be used in its natural English language meaning. This means that anything affected by a spell can be considered a target. I'm going to use lower-case target for this kind of meaning in the rest of this post.

The other main meaning is "the thing you choose as a target" according to some rule (such as a spell's text). This is a semi-formalized meaning, and Allan Mills' answer quotes some of the rules for this kind of targeting for spells. But elsewhere, the formal terminology blends in to the other less formal meaning a lot. I'm going to use all-caps TARGET for this meaning.

The TARGET meaning is definitely not the only one used in the rules, as spells like Fireball have one TARGET you choose (a point in space), but may also effect a number of creatures (and flammable objects) in the area of effect. Affected creatures are are explicitly described as targets in the spell's rules (emphasis added):

Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

Unfortunately, some spells make it hard to judge who or what all the targets are. As the linked question you've provided show, it's not very clear if Warding Bond or Life Transference (from Xanathar's Guide to Everything), which both have the capacity to damage the caster, should treat the caster as a target or not. By the the logic in the podcast, the caster is affected and so must be a target. But they're definitely not the chosen TARGET, and it's possible that some parts of some rules (like the one that terminates Warding Bond early if either character has the spell cast on them again) may only want to refer to the character being the chosen TARGET of a future casting.

Another area that is somewhat ambiguous is the destination of teleportation spells. As the formal rules for picking spell TARGETs say, you normally need "a clear path to the TARGET":

To target something, you must have a clear path to it, so it can't be behind total cover.

One surprising consequence of this (as the podcast discusses) is that you can't cast spells through glass windows, since they count as total cover (personally I'd interpret cover relative to the type of effect, so a window would not provide cover to a non-physical effect like Hold Person, but it would indeed cause a Fireball to explode prematurely, though the blast might destroy the window and let the AOE spread outside). But most teleportation spells are phrased such that you don't explicitly TARGET your destination, even though your arrival will clearly affect the place. So it's unclear if you need to a clear path to the destination or not. For some spells like Dimension Door and Teleport, it's pretty obvious that you're not expected to have a clear path, since they have specific rules for how you pick your destination even if you can only describe it or have had it described to you (an example given in the rules: "upward to the northwest at a 45- degree angle, 300 feet"). But other spells like Misty Step specifically say you need to see your destination, which makes it ambiguous if you can use the spell to teleport through transparent total cover (e.g. a window). The explicit TARGET of Misty Step is the caster (it has range self), but some spells are less carefully written, and so we find spells like Thunder Step (from XGtE) which specifies the distance you can teleport with its range, making a stronger case for the destination being a TARGET too.

Ultimately, these ambiguities are design problems that the creators of D&D have not yet fixed (and they may never do so). As such it's up to each DM to make a ruling for their own table any time they come up. It is a clear design principle of 5e that the DM should be empowered to interpret the rules as best works for their game, and that the rules do not attempt to be entirely comprehensive.

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    \$\begingroup\$ More to the pile of confusion: the difference between targeted vs affected can be quite important, and I've explored the topic some in this Q/A. \$\endgroup\$ – G. Moylan Jul 22 at 13:21
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At the very least, using the metric of "Something is a target if and only if it is explicitly called a target" does not work

The PHB states (page 204):

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 a point of origin for an area of effect...

If we wanted to only say a spell targets something if something it affects is explicitly called out as a "target" in the spell's description, we would run into a number of issues:

Some touch spells never actually use the word "target" but instead use the word "creature" or "object". These are spells are:

  • Cure Wounds, Darkvision, Spare the Dying, Jump, Beast Bond, Dragon's Breath, Beast Sense, Protection from Energy, Revivify, True Seeing, True Resurrection, Remove Curse, and Life Transference.

    Having these seemingly random spells not have targets would be a particularly odd decision.

In addition, all three instantaneous cylindrical spells (conjure volley, ice storm and flame strike) never mention targets in their descriptions.

Neither does every single AoE spell that is not instantaneous.

The following spells also never mention having targets or that anything is considered a target:

  • Astral Projection, Beast Sense, Burning Hands, Feather Fall, Friends, Hellish Rebuke, Mass Healing Word, Meteor Swarm, Power Word Kill, Prayer of Healing, Shatter, Sunburst, Water Breathing, Word of Recall, Thunderclap, Word of Radiance, Sword Burst, Snilloc's Snowball Swarm, Thunder Step, Tidal Wave, Erupting Earth, and Abi-Dalzim's Horrid Wilting.

    Having all the above spells not have targets of any kind seems incredibly arbitrary and would mean that none of the above spells could be Twinned, War Cast, or put into a glyph of warding.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth adding that specific spells also have effects which indicate objects could be targetted, however the spell wording seems to make that impossible. One such example if Firebolt, which states that you pick a creature you can see within range, but also states that it ignites anything not being worn or carried if it's flammable. Which is odd considering if you can set things on fire with it, it means it can target those things, yet the spell wording indicates you HAVE to pick a creature (which I overule as a DM because it's just inane otherwise). \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Aug 6 at 21:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LinoFrankCiaralli See this question for stuff on creature+object oddities. Also the firebolt spell explicitly states: "You hurl a mote of fire at a creature or object within range..." so I'm not sure what you mean \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Aug 12 at 12:57
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Targeting is complicated, but targets are both the initial targets (creature, object or point of origin that you direct a spell at), and creatures & objects affected by the spell's effect(s)

D&D 5e is written using natural language, and terms use their natural meaning unless otherwise specified by the game. As a result, for the purposes of spells, we need to check the section on targets to see if it defines what a target is.

Note/Disclaimer: Throughout this answer I will be leaving out sections of quoted text to try and get to the essence of what counts as a target. I have done my best not to leave out any relevant information, while cutting out as much irrelevant information.

The rules that set out targeting, are in the PHB section on Casting a Spell:

Targets

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 a point of origin for an area of effect.

[...]

There are three important pieces of information to extract here:

  1. A typical spell requires you to pick one or more targets (Read: Not all spells will require you to pick a target), however all spells have targets (as specified by the second sentence)
  2. The spells description will tell you what it can target
  3. Spells target creatures, objects or points of origin for areas of effect. We have a new game term that we need to investigate to find more information on targeting, "area of effect".
  4. The term target is not defined as a game term, thus we must use its dictionary definition

Let's address that last point before moving on:

Target is not defined as a game term, therefore it takes on its natural language meaning (ie its meaning in English per the dictionary).

Cambridge defines target as:

to aim an attack, or a bullet, bomb, etc., at a particular object, place, or person

...

A target is also a person or group attacked in some way

Merriam-Webster defines target as:

1a. a mark to shoot at

...

1c. something or someone fired at or marked for attack

...

2b. something or someone to be affected by an action or development

To boil all that down, a target is either:

  • Something at which some sort of attack or effect is aimed at. So in essence, your target is the creature, object or point of origin that you are aiming the spell at
  • A target is also "something or someone to be affected by an action or development". So a creature caught in an AoE can also be described as a target by virtue of being affected by the spell.

Now that we have the dictionary back on the shelf, let's move on to examining other elements of the game for targeting information. As D&D is an exceptions based game...we may have something that contradicts the above dictionary definition, so we should more thoroughly examine the Casting a Spell section for targeting information.

Almost straight away we find a relevant section, Range:

Range

The target of a spell must be within a spell's range. For a spell like magic missile, the target is a creature. For a spell like fireball, the target is the point in space where the ball of fire erupts.

Most spells have ranges expressed in feet. Some spells can only target a creature (including you) that you touch. Other spells, such as the shield spell, affect only you. These spells have a range of self.

Spells that create cones or lines of effects that originate from you also have a range of self, indicating that the origin point of the spell's effect must be you (see "Areas of Effect" later in this chapter)

Once a spell is cast, its effects aren't limited by its range, unless the spell's description says otherwise.

So this section has given us a wealth of information on targeting that we should account for:

  1. It has given us specific examples of spells that target creatures and points of origin for us to compare (which should help clarify things)
  2. If a spell has a range of touch it targets a creature (or possibly an object...exceptions are a thing!)
  3. If a spell has a range of self it either targets you (a creature) or it targets a point of origin for an area of effect, but that point of origin is you, the creature.
  4. Just because a spell has an initial target, that does not mean it cannot affect other things once it has been cast (ala cloudkill).
  5. We need to look at the Area of Effect section for more information on points of origin

Now that we have two sections of Casting a Spell "shouting" at us to look at the Areas of Effect section for exceptions clarifications. We should do that:

Areas of Effect

[...]

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, a location from which the spell's energy erupts. The rules for each shape specify how you position it's point of origin. Typically, a point of origin is a point in space, but some spells have an area whose origin is a creature or an object.

A spell's effect expands in straight lines from the point of origin. If no unblocked straight line extends from the point of origin to a location within the area of effect, that location isn't included in the spell's area. To block one of these imaginary lines, an obstruction must provide total cover, as explained in chapter 9.

[...]

A cone's point of origin is not included in the cone's area of effect, unless you decide otherwise.

[...]

A cube's point of origin is not included in the cube's area of effect, unless you decide otherwise.

[...]

A cylinder's point of origin is included in the cylinder's area of effect.

[...]

A line's point of origin is not included in the line's area of effect, unless you decide otherwise.

[...]

A sphere's point of origin is included in the sphere's area of effect.

We have some more really good targeting relevant information here:

  1. A point of origin can simultaneously be a creature (huzzah!)
  2. Depending on the shape the spell produces as an AoE the point of origin either is included, or may be included at the discretion of the spell caster
  3. An area of effect can be any shape, but is typically one of 5 shapes.
  4. All areas of effects have a point of origin

Conclusion

Now to bring that all together we can say:

A target is the creature, object or point of origin that you direct a spell at as well as creatures & objects affected by the spell's effect(s).

In general, the spell's description specifies what the target is.

In some cases it is not necessary for the spell's description to specify the target, because the range specifies it for you (Shield being a perfect example, Range is Self, therefore it targets the caster). If the range of a spell is touch

If a target is a point of origin it is:

  • possible for it to simultaneously be a creature/object and a point of origin
  • possible, depending on the AoE shape that will be created, for the point of origin not to be included in the AoE at the whim of the spell caster
  • possible for more than the point of origin to be affected by it, and thus become a target of the spell

Let's take all of this and construct a "concrete" example using the Spiritual Weapon spell. The description of the spell states:

You create a floating, spectral weapon, within range [...]

[...] you can make a melee weapon attack against a creature within 5 feet of the weapon.

[...]

The weapon can take whatever form you choose.

This excerpt has a plethora of targeting information in it:

  1. A floating spectral weapon is created by the spell. Since the spell isn't initially targeting a creature or object, it must be targeting a point of origin to create an area of effect. Well what is that area of effect I hear you ask? The area in which there previously was no spiritual weapon, where there is now a floating, spiritual weapon. So it targets a point in space.
  2. Once the spiritual weapon is created, the spell allows you to move it, and make attacks against creatures with it. Therefore the spell is now targeting the object that is the spiritual weapon. So it also targets an object.
  3. The spiritual weapon can attack creatures within 5 feet of it. Those creatures are most certainly being affected by the spiritual weapon smashing their face in. Thus it is now also targeting one (or more) creature(s).
    • Importantly it can only attack creatures...which means all other objects are safe from the floating menace that it the spiritual weapon.

From this somewhat innocuous spell we can see a few things:

  • targeting is not limited to only one of the three options we are given (creature, object or point of origin)
  • the target of a spell can change throughout the spell
  • it is possible for spells to target all three categories of targets from a single invocation

Note: One could also make the argument that the caster is also the target of the spell as it changes them to give the caster control over the weapon. I don't find this line of reasoning compelling (personally), as the caster, in the case of this spell, is the source of the magic and is targeting a set of things external to themselves. However I can see how a person could find that line of reasoning compelling.

Caveat to the above

D&D is an exceptions based game, and therefore it is conceivable that some spell will change or add to the targeting.

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The rules for spell targeting state:

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 a point of origin for an area of effect (described below).

Unless a spell has a perceptible effect, a creature might not know it was targeted by a spell at all. An effect like crackling lightning is obvious, but a more subtle effect, such as an attempt to read a creature’s thoughts, typically goes unnoticed, unless a spell says otherwise.

Think about how that last paragraph uses the word "target".

Based on that, I would stick with the definition given by the Sage Advice column. If a creature is within range of whatever action you are undertaking, and meets the targeting criteria for the action, it is a target. This includes creatures who won't be affected (eg. fire-immune creatures in range of a fireball).

When I say meets the targeting criteria, I mean some abilities are restricted in what/who they can effect. For example, the cleric's Turn Undead Channel Divinity option only affects undead. Other creatures in range of a Turn Undead ability would not be targets.

Some spells can target both objects and creatures (e.g. fireball), while other can only target creatures (e.g. cone of cold).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Wait, so Turn Undead doesn't target non-undead but fireball does target non-flamables? \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jul 20 at 7:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fireball doesn't target any creatures or objects. The target for Fireball is "a point you choose within range". Creatures and objects within 20 feet of the targeted point are affected, but they are not directly targeted. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson Jul 20 at 8:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanThompson Think of it as a difference between target location and targets of effect. The target location for fireball is a point you can see within range. The targets of the fireball effect are all the creatures and flammable objects within the area the firebal will cover. \$\endgroup\$ – Allan Mills Jul 20 at 8:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Being affected by a spell doesn't automatically make something/someone a target of the spell. For example, if someone is standing at the edge of a cliff face and you disintegrate the ground under their feet, they will probably fall to their death, but that doesn't make them a target of the Disintegrate spell. The target was the 10-foot section of cliff face. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson Jul 20 at 8:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fireball's own description considers creatures within its area of effect targets. \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Jul 20 at 8:50
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A spell targets a Creature, Object, or Point of Origin directly chosen by the caster of the spell.

The target of a spell is chosen directly by the caster of the spell, and must meet the eligibility requirements of the spell. If there is no creature, object, or point of origin to be chosen by the spellcaster, then the spell takes effect without a target.

The section on the Casting a Spell of a spell includes the description of a Target:

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 a point of origin for an area of effect

The act of picking or choosing by the caster of a creature, object, or point of origin determines the target

Similarly, the description of spell Range gives insight into the same distinction:

The target of a spell must be within the spell's range. For a spell like magic missile, the target is a creature. For a spell like fireball, the target is the point in space where the ball of fire erupts.

Most spells have ranges expressed in feet. Some spells can target only a creature (including you) that you touch. Other spells, such as the shield spell, affect only you. These spells have a range of self.

This gives a clear distinction of a targeted creature as opposed to an affected creature, as spells with areas of effect (such as Shatter) may affect a creature beyond the listed range of the spell as long as the target (in this case a point in space) is in range. This section also distinguishes the target of the Fireball spell as "a point in space", despite the sloppy wording of the spell description itself which uses the word "target" to cover the words "creature or object."

Spells with a range of Touch consist of choosing through the action of touching the creature or object.

Not everything chosen constitutes a target

The choosing by the caster of something other than an a creature, object, or point of origin does not signify a target, including an ability score (Hex), an effect (Bestow Curse), or a form of a summoned creature (Find Familiar).

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Finally, this section also points out that not all spells have targets, such as the Shield spell." I'm honestly not sure that you can rule out sloppy wording there. My reading of that line from the book is actually that it is simply another instance of sloppy wording. This time substituting "affect" for "target" instead of the reverse case in fireball. Either way it seems fairly impossible to prove if these wordings are sloppy or intentional. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Aug 8 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed with @Rubiksmoose; I mostly take that section as being about choosing a target, and not all spells having a chosen target, not about chosen targets being the only targets. Fireball, the section on saving throws talking about targets making saves in response to spells, and the designer interview cited in the original question all imply that the wording of fireball /considering things affected by spells to be targets are intentional. \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Aug 8 at 19:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Blits Aug 8 at 19:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer has the virtue of parsimony, and not dragging in a lot of baggage. +1 The other answers, while I appreciate the exhaustive research put into them (well done, team!) over-complicate the issue. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 14 at 1:03

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