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Background

This question was prompted by this question about the relation to the rogue's uncanny dodge feature and being able to see the attacker when spiritual weapon is used.

Question

When a creature is subject to the magic melee attack of spiritual weapon what is considered to be the attacker?

  • Is the caster considered the attacker?
  • Is the spiritual weapon itself considered the attacker?
  • Are both?

Implications

This has implications for uncanny dodge, in that it would answer if the dodging rogue needs to see the caster or the weapon.

This has implications for hellish rebuke in that if the spirit weapon is the attacker, then hellish rebuke can't do damage to the caster.

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It's you, both narratively and mechanically

And in fact, that is the conclusion that requires the fewest assumptions.

When a creature is subject to the magic melee attack of spiritual weapon what is considered to be the attacker?

Let's look at the spell text, bit by bit, remembering that spells only do what they say they do:

you can make a melee spell attack

This is fine so far, and not so different to some other spells like Primal Savagery:

[...] Make a melee spell attack against one creature within 5 feet of you. [...]

or Vampiric Touch

[...] Make a melee spell attack against a creature within your reach. [...]

The only difference is that the 'range' of the spell is relative to you. Now compare to Steel Wind Strike:

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

With a range of 30ft, you can attack up to five creatures in that range, but a) it's still a melee (spell) attack, and b) mechanically you haven't moved until this point.

So how does Spiritual Weapon compare?

against a creature within 5 feet of the weapon.

Ok, that's simple. Wherever the weapon is within that range determines what creatures are eligible to be attacked by you. The fact it's you making the attack isn't changed by this last part. It might seem like a strange wording, but it's how regular melee attacks work, except normally the weapon shares your space.

In this way, the plain english reading of 'you can make a (melee spell) attack' makes you the attacker, as there is no defined game term I know of.

So we can either conclude, that for every reference in the rules, that when it says 'attacker' it really means 'the one making the attack, or the weapon if the two aren't sharing the same space' or something similar. Or we can say that the 'attacker', as far as the spell is concerned, keeps it's usual meaning and then work out any interactions without further assumptions.

n.b. if it were the case that only the weapon needed to be seen for things like Uncanny Dodge or Hellish Rebuke to work, there could be circumstances where a ranged attack with a bow could be make where the arrow is visible but the archer is not.

But now we have spooky action at a distance!

Sure, but that's not a problem, mechanically or narratively. We've taken the world view that the attacker is the one casting and controlling the weapon, and thus any references to the attacker must mean them. That's the mechanics sorted.

The implications you seem to be concerned by are valid, but now we've pinned down who the attacker is, we can create a narrative that matches how those mechanics relate to the world the characters see, and the implications therein.

My preferred conceit, is that the caster of Spiritual Weapon (and similar spells) is like a puppeteer. And while you can see their hands are moving you can predict which way the weapon will strike, as soon as they're out of sight, you can't predict how the blade will move or reliably draw line of sight to the caster from the weapon's location.

The Rogue can't use Uncanny Dodge, because they can't see the hands controlling the puppet. The Warlock can't use Hellish rebuke targeting the weapon, and there is no way of connecting back to the attacker from the weapon. Additional narrative conclusions also work: Frostbite imposes disadvantage as you struggle to 'puppet' the weapon due to the 'numbing frost', just as Vicious Mockery does, due to the 'string of insults laced with subtle enchantments' (perhaps mocking your marionette motions); Smite spells that affect you 'narratively' transfer their effects onto the spectral weapon, similar to how Absorb Elements would work Etc.

That should tie up both the mechanical and narrative concerns, meaning there is no reason the caster can't be the attacker in all circumstances.

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Nowhere in the official rules is the word "attacker" defined.

Jeremy Crawford once tweeted how he'd rule on a similar issue in an unofficial tweet from April 2016:

Does a Spiritual Weapon attack get Adv, DisAdv, or n/a to hit rolls if the caster is 5ft away from a prone target?

Yes. The spellcaster is the attacker with spiritual weapon—the one doing the targeting.

This was a response to the 'attacker' being within 5 feet of a prone target, but translates straight across here. This gives us the only definition of the word attacker in regards to 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons: "the one doing the targeting".

In the case of the scenarios presented in this question:

  • The spellcaster must be visible for the defender to gain the benefit of Uncanny Dodge.
  • The spellcaster must be visible in order for hellish rebuke to hit him/her, but it will target the spellcaster.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just piggybacking on that as well. His singlular tweet provides a snapshot into how he'd rule at the time he wrote the tweet. He may have changed his mind later or earlier. Can you support your answer beyond an unofficial tweet? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 13:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch as far as I can tell, this singular tweet is the only place, official rules or not, that the word 'Attacker' is actually defined - the one doing the targeting. Nowhere in the errata, the official SageAdvice, or any of the core books is the phrase Attacker defined. The only place in the core rules it is even located, is in spells and abilities such as Hellish rebuke, and in the rules for unseen attacker. Thus I must take word of god, however official/unofficial, into account in my answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 16, 2020 at 1:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ The answer may potentially also be supported by citing the description of spiritual weapon itself: "When you cast the spell, you can make a melee spell attack against a creature within 5 feet of the weapon. [...] As a bonus action on your turn, you can move the weapon up to 20 feet and repeat the attack against a creature within 5 feet of it." It says "you" make the attack - that's presumably part of what Crawford's basing his ruling on. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 6:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I notice that the basis for this is that someone asked Crawford a multiple-choice question and he answered "yes". If he answered that way here, we would probably delete it. It doesn't come anywhere near our standards for evidence or even clarity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 6:44
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There is no "the attacker".

Here are some generally correct statements about "the attacker".

  1. The attacker's action is used to make the attack.
  2. The attacker's attack bonus is added to the attack roll.
  3. The attacker's weapon die and ability modifier are used to roll for damage.
  4. The attacker needs to be within reach of the target.
  5. The attacker gets hit with damage if the target uses hellish rebuke.
  6. If the attacker can't see the target, the attack roll has disadvantage.
  7. If the target can't see the attacker, the attack roll has advantage.

Usually, the "attacker" in all of these is the same creature, but spiritual weapon bends that a little: the caster uses their bonus action and attack bonus, but the spell effect has to be within reach of the target. (Note that this is a melee attack with 5-foot reach, despite the caster potentially being much further away.) The concept of "attacker" is split between two entities depending on why we need to know.

So, the "attacker" in #1 and #2 is the caster. In #4 the attacker is the spell effect. (I'm not going to worry about #3: damage is based on the spell effect, not the weapon, but that's perfectly normal for spells that inflict damage.)

Consider #5. Does hellish rebuke even apply here? It strikes the creature that damaged you, and in this case you weren't damaged by a creature but by a freestanding magical effect. On the other hand that effect was directed at you by a creature. The rules don't strictly define what it means to be "damaged" by another creature, so there is no right answer. Make a ruling.

Consider #6. Well, the spell effect can't see anything; it's just a spell effect. So that leaves the caster as the "attacker" for this purpose. The caster is clearly exerting some control--they must use their bonus action to command the weapon, and they choose the target.

How about #7? This is different: the spell effect can't see but it can be seen, so it could be the "attacker" for this purpose. I argue that it is, because what the unseen-attacker rule is trying to represent is the difficulty in defending against an attack you can't see, and the attack in this case takes the form of a big glowy weapon swinging at your head. Being able to see the caster is not necessary; the attack is happening at your location, not theirs. But again, the rules don't answer this. Make a ruling.

The point is that the answer to "What is the attacker?" depends on why you are asking.

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