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When a spell has multiple targets, can I choose the same target multiple times?

Is there any general rule I can refer to?

An example of ambiguity is the spell Steel Wind Strike:

You flourish the weapon used in the casting and then vanish to strike like the wind. Choose up to five creatures you can see within range. Make a melee spell attack against each target. On a hit, a target takes 6d10 force damage. You can then teleport to an unoccupied space you can see within 5 feet of one of the targets you hit or missed.

Nowhere does it say you have to choose up to five different creatures, although Crawford has disallowed targeting the same creature multiple times on Sage Advice EU. However, this answer does not give light on a general rule.

Similarly, for Acid Splash:

You hurl a bubble of acid. Choose one creature within range, or choose two creatures within range that are within 5 feet of each other. A target must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or take 1d6 acid damage.

The intended answer is clearly no. But how can I know that? Is there a general rule?

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Only if the spell says so

There are spells that can direct multiple attacks against the same target, but they use different language. Instead of saying to choose a number of targets, such a spell says that it creates a number of attacks (or strikes, or missiles, etc.) and then requires you to choose a target for each attack. Some spells that use this language are magic missile, scorching ray, and eldritch blast. For example, here is the language used for magic missile:

You create three glowing darts of magical force. Each dart hits a creature of your choice that you can see within range. A dart deals 1d4 + 1 force damage to its target. The darts all strike simultaneously, and you can direct them to hit one creature or several.

Note that the spell is worded in such a way that the same number of darts is created regardless of how many distinct targets you choose. The last clause makes it explicit that multiple darts can be directed at the same target, but even the first 2 sentences by themselves are sufficient to establish this.

As for your specific examples:

Neither steel wind strike nor acid splash can attack the same creature twice

The targeting clause for steel wind strike is:

Choose up to five creatures you can see within range. Make a melee spell attack against each target.

You choose the targets first, and then you get to make one attack against each chosen target. If you only choose a single target, you only get to make a single attack. The same logic applies to acid splash: if you target a single creature, then you are not targeting 2 creatures. Acid only splashes each target once.

Any other interpretation leads to absurd results

If you rule that effects like these can choose the same target multiple times in order to stack multiple effects on that target, that would make the Hunter Ranger's Whirlwind Attack infinitely powerful:

You can use your action to make a melee attack against any number of creatures within 5 feet of you, with a separate attack roll for each target.

Just choose to attack the same creature 1000 times. It says any number, right? Even better, choose every creature in range 1000 times and instantly kill them all. Clearly this is not a reasonable ruling. There are certain to be other ridiculous edge cases like this if you allow multiple targeting of the same creature in this way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your example of Whirlwind Attack is an obvious strawman. There is no possible correct reading of the ability that would grant multiple attacks on the same target. Whirlwind attack specifies that the ranger may "make a melee attack against any number of creatures." Even if that sentence in any way suggested that you could target the same creature more than once (and if anyone thinks it does, they fail basic English comprehension), you couldn't attack it more than once, because you can only make "a" melee attack. \$\endgroup\$ – Dallium Feb 17 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dallium That's the point. The same logic applies to steel wind strike, in which you "make a melee spell attack against each target." \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Feb 17 at 20:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ You used Whirlwind Attack to support your assertion that "Any other intrepretation leads to absurd result." My point is that ability doesnt support your position, because you can't get absurd results out of Whirlwind Attack, no matter what game rule assumptions we make. The English precludes it. Even if you could, your entire last section is an excercise in Arguing the Consequent, a textbook logical fallacy. You can't claim something is true just because the don't like the consequences if it isn't. \$\endgroup\$ – Dallium Feb 17 at 23:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dallium I don't think it's unreasonable to argue backwards from the logic that making an infinite number of attacks in a single turn is not an intended mechanic. And I agree that there is no valid English reading that allows multiple attacks against the same creature with either Whirlwind Attack or steel wind strike. Again, that is the main point of my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Feb 18 at 0:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dallium Comments on this site are for requesting clarification and suggesting actionable improvements. Do you have anything specific & actionable you'd suggest? (Which Ryan may choose to act on or may not.) When we merely disagree, it's best to downvote and move on, upvote a competing answer we do agree with, or provide our own answer; we tend to see comments that boil down to “I disagree” (without anything actionable) not go far or boil over into heated arguments. Comments up to this point are likely to be removed soon. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 18 at 0:44
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It's in the text

Ryan C. Thompson did a good job explaining, but I will add that the flavor text tends to indicate that information. For instance, Steel Wind Strike says:

You flourish the weapon used in the casting and then vanish to strike like the wind.

A flourish is an elaborate and elegant single motion while a flurry would be multiple motions. Thus it's one motion that hits up to 5 creatures.

Likewise, Acid Splash states:

You hurl a bubble of acid. Choose one creature within range, or choose two creatures within range that are within 5 feet of each other.

Again, 1 single bubble thrown either at someone or between two people standing side-by-side.

In either case given, the flavor text mentioned a singularity in either action or projectile, making the area of attack a singular force.

Though in Ryan's case, Magic Missile state:

You create three glowing darts of magical force.

Which means you have three projectiles to throw rather than just one. Normally I find the answers are found in how it's worded and trying to picture it in action.

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