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The Morkoth (Volo's Guide to Monsters, pg. 177-178) has a reaction called "Spell Reflection":

Spell Reflection. If the morkoth makes a successful saving throw against a spell, or a spell attack misses it, the morkoth can choose another creature (including the spellcaster) it can see within 120 feet of it. The spell targets the chosen creature instead of the Morkoth. If the spell forced a saving throw, the chosen creature makes its own save. If the spell was an attack, the spell is rerolled against the chosen creature.

My question is if this applies to area-of-effect spells. The early wording only specifies it has to be a spell that forces a save or is an attack roll. However, "The spell targets the chosen creature instead of the Morkoth" seems to imply that it requires the spell to target the Morkoth specifically. Fireball isn't a spell that mentions having any "targets".

Does the Morkoth's Spell Reflection trait work on rea-of-effect spells like Fireball?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: "What counts as a target for a spell?" Basically, people disagree what a given spell targets \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2020 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ It might be worth pointing out that fireball actually does mention targets: "[...] A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save [...]" though whether or not those "targets" count as actual targets of the spell for the purpose of various features is not something people agree on \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2020 at 15:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Though it's also worth pointing out that those are not its targets in the sense used in the Spellcasting rules. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Jun 17, 2020 at 15:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells Depends who you ask, which is exactly why I posted that related post at the top. I edited my comment to account for that though \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2020 at 15:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Huh, apparently this is a point of debate in quite a few places...namely because the Spectator has a very similar feature. The only thing I could find was a Mike Mearls "how I would rule it" statement, which is hardly an answer. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2020 at 15:51

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It doesn't reflect fireball.

The key words are "The spell targets the chosen creature instead of the Morkoth."

"Do B instead of A" means "In a situation where you would do A, don't do A, and rather do B." (You are doing B in A's "stead".)

Fireball doesn't target the Morkoth, so it can't target another creature instead of the Morkoth.

"But fireball says 'a target takes 8d6 damage'"...

Yes, but it's wrong. Those aren't targets. These are targets:

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 (described below).

Note that the caster picks "one or more targets". For fireball (and area-damage spells generally), you don't pick the specific creatures; you pick the point of origin.

The rules sometimes, confusingly, use the word "target" to mean "anything affected by the spell". For example:

Saving Throws

Many spells specify that a target can make a saving throw to avoid some or all of a spell's effects. The spell specifies the ability that the target uses for the save and what happens on a success or failure.

Why do I acknowledge the point of origin as the real target of the spell, rather than the "targets" who are making saving throws? First, because one of them is described in a paragraph titled "Targets" in large bold letters. And second, because of this:

Range

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.

That seems fairly conclusive: for purposes of the spellcasting rules, the target of fireball is the point of origin. Since you can't choose the Morkoth as the target (you have to choose a point!), its Spell Reflection can't choose something else as the target "instead".

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    \$\begingroup\$ This was my reasoning as well (see my deleted answer), but according to Medix2's comment under the question, there's some debate as to whether fireball does technically target the creatures in it's AOW or not... \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Jun 17, 2020 at 15:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS There are many posts about various features that involve or revolve around what a spell does or does not target coming to various conclusions. This was a large reason I asked this more general question. But yeah... nobody agrees what a given spell does or does not target \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2020 at 15:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS There's "some debate" over lots of things. In this case I don't think it's justified and I'll edit to address that concern. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Jun 17, 2020 at 15:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's far better supported now that what my answer was; I mean, I always agreed with tge reasoning, but it is now taking a stronger stance than mine. +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Jun 17, 2020 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 I'll see what I can do. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Jun 17, 2020 at 16:41
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Area of effect spells, and fireball in particular, target the affected creatures.

There is a rule in the PHB which specifically uses "target" to refer to someone affected by an AoE spell, in the section "Targeting Yourself" (emphasis mine):

If you are in the area of effect of a spell you cast, you can target yourself.

Additionally, we see in the rules for Saving Throws (emphasis mine):

Many spells specify that a target can make a saving throw to avoid some or all of a spell's effects. The spell specifies the ability that the target uses for the save and what happens on a success or failure.

AoE spells are obviously in view here. Further, in the DMG's rules for Adjudicating Areas of Effect, we see (p. 249-250; emphasis mine):

If you would like more guidance, consider using the Targets in Areas of Effect table. To use the table, imagine which combatants are near one another, and let the table guide you in determining the number of those combatants that are caught in an area of effect. Add or subtract targets based on how bunched up the potential targets are. Consider rolling 1d3 to determine the amount to add or subtract.

[There is a table here]

For example, if a wizard directs burning hands (a 15-foot cone) at a nearby group of orcs, you could use the table and say that two orcs are targeted (15 ÷ 10 = 1.5, rounded up to 2). Similarly, a sorcerer could launch a lightning bolt (100-foot line) at some ogres and hobgoblins, and you could use the table to say four of the monsters are targeted (100 ÷ 30 = 3.33, rounded up to 4).

In the rules for using miniatures on a combat grid, we see the following about areas of effect (p. 251; emphasis mine):

The area of effect of a spell, monster ability, or other feature must be translated onto squares or hexes to determine which potential targets are in the area and which aren’t.

And finally, we have fireball, which explicitly refers to its victims as "target":

A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

So we have at least ten different uses of the word "target" to refer to a creature affected by an area of effect spell, which seems to me to be an overwhelmingly positive body of evidence in favor of "area of effect spells target their victims". The use of the word to refer to creatures in areas of effect is just too ubiquitous to be able to say "well the rules are just wrong". Cases where we can confidently affirm that the rules have made a mistake are usually instances where the mistake is singular, and the alternative is well attested to elsewhere. Here we have the opposite - "target" being used to refer to victims of AoEs is the well attested to position in the the text.

Fireball targets creatures in its area of effect, so the Morkoth can reflect it to another creature.

Since the Morkoth is targeted by fireball, it can use its Spell Reflection feature:

If the morkoth makes a successful saving throw against a spell, or a spell attack misses it, the morkoth can choose another creature (including the spellcaster) it can see within 120 feet of it. The spell targets the chosen creature instead of the Morkoth.

So the Morkoth is caught in the fireball and passes the saving throw. Spell Reflection says that the Morkoth can choose a creature, we'll call him Steve, and now fireball targets Steve. So Steve is a target of fireball, and fireball states:

A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

Thus we conclude:

Steve takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Would it matter if the Morkoth was within the AoE of the fireball but was standing just outside its range, and thus could not be a target of the spell as defined by the Range rules? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Feb 19, 2023 at 16:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Fireball is very clear about what it targets. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2023 at 17:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt If you want to read the rules in such a way that some creatures affected by fireball count as targets and some don’t depending on what part of the fireball they’re in, I can’t stop you. You’ll typically find that the language of the rules is easier to work with (and the game more fun) if you don’t approach them like they’re a computer program. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2023 at 22:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your quote from the "Targeting Yourself" rules doesn't apply to Fireball. It's in a paragraph beginning If a spell targets a creature of your choice. The Fireball targets an area, you don't choose creatures. The magical effect created by the spell, in turn has targets (any creature in the area), but they're not directly targeted by the caster of Fireball. (That's why they can be outside the Range: 150 ft limit @Kirt mentioned). This distinction also matters for stuff like Sanctuary, where AoEs like fireball don't count as targeting the warded creature with a harmful spell. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1, 2023 at 23:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ So I think what happens is that the Fireball still erupts around the Morkoth, so any other creatures near it are still targets. But if it saves, it can make a different creature take the damage. It can't make the 20ft-radius AoE happen in a different place. i.e. it retargets the part that actually targeted the Morkoth, not the point-within-range. (@Kirt). I can post this as an answer myself if you don't want to edit your own answer to say that. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1, 2023 at 23:45
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This is a simple "if then" sequence.

IF the morkoth makes a successful saving throw against a spell

TRUE, DEX saving throw (Does not say the morkoth has to be the original target, just that it has to make a save as a result of the spell)

THEN The spell targets the chosen creature instead of the Morkoth.

Fireball Target: Any point you choose within range.

That point can be a creature, object, or empty space, I have seen all of these used as the target 'point' of a fireball. I have never seen or read anyone argue that the 'point' target can not be a creature.

In this case the reflect is simply limiting the new 'point' target to a creature.

The original 'point' Target is replaced by the creature chosen by the Morkoth.

Thus that creature is the center of the new fireball destination.

Fireball can be reflected!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ To give some feedback on my downvote, while your answer makes some intuitive sense (to me, at least), you don’t reference any rules to support your arguments. This answer would be significantly improved with support from the rules. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2023 at 6:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're arguing based on the Morkoth being the "point within range" chosen by the caster of Fireball. That would be an unusual choice; most parties have a melee PC so casters of fireball normally aim it above or behind an enemy so just the edge of the fireball catches them. Or you're arguing that the Morkoth can change that aspect of Fireball even if that part of it didn't target them? My answer makes the distinction between being a target of fireball's damage (in the area) vs. the caster targeting a point-within-range. I don't find this argument convincing. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2023 at 7:10
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We should distinguish between "the target(s)" of a spell that the caster has to pick when targeting the spell (where line-of-effect comes into play), vs. the creatures in the area of effect which are its "targets". 5e rules do use "target" in both senses; it's not exclusively used as a technical term with the spell-targeting meaning. Even the Fireball description itself uses "target" where many other AoEs (like Shatter and Lightning Bolt) say "a creature" (in the area). For some spells these are the same, like "up to n creatures within range of your choice" but for like Fireball it's different.

See also:

  • What counts as a target for a spell? - more discussion of the distinction between the spell-targeting meaning of "target" vs. other usages in 5e.
  • @Thomas Markov's answer to this question (disregarding the quote from the rules about targeting yourself; that's for spells that target creatures within range, not points or areas.) I think Thomas's answer is arguing for the same conclusion I am, that only one creature outside the AoE's area can be targeted by a morkoth with its spell-reflection ability, not other creatures around that target, but that isn't explicit in the answer.
  • My answer about an ability that requires a goblin to "targeted" by a creature, unlike the Morkoth ability which only requires saving against a spell and picking one new target for it. In that other case, the distinction between "target of the spell/ability" in general vs. the target(s) picked by the caster/user was one of the reasons an ability couldn't be redirected at all. (It was phrased that was because it only works on attacks, but the "by a creature" distinction was interesting, and relevant to this question.)

The Morkoth can make one creature take the fire damage instead, but not change the point-within-range location of the AoE

The fireball still engulfs the area within 20ft of the point chosen by the caster, (potentially) damaging every other creature in the area, regardless of what the morkoth does. The morkoth can't change that targeting choice, only the fact that some of the spell's energy was coming at it. That's what being "a target" of an AoE spell means.

And no other creatures around the new target are affected (if they weren't already in the area); it's just reflecting part of the fireball's energy at one creature1.

(It's up to the DM to flavour that for narrative purposes into something that makes sense, like whether the reflection target is outlined in fire, or if the heat energy just goes into their body. And how it makes sense that they still attempt a dex save for half damage, or for none with evasion. Note that it's fire not thunder damage, so it's heat not explosive force that's doing the damage.)

In general, Spell Reflection can retarget a spell's effects only to the extent that the morkoth would have been affected by (was a "target") in the first place. e.g. reflect one ray of Scorching Ray with its one reaction, or the part of an upcast (multi-target) Hold Monster or Charm Monster where it was one of the targets. (The new target would then be charmed by the original caster, not the morkoth, I think, but that's a separate question from AoEs. Still, it's a useful thought experiment in terms of thinking of it as just modifying the targeting or transferring the effects an existing cast of the spell, not recasting the whole spell at a different "target" in the spell-targeting sense.)

Chain Lightning could get narratively weird for this reading of the rules, especially if the morkoth was the primary target that 3 other bolts were going to fork off of. Perhaps if the morkoth was the primary target, you'd apply the spell's limit that the secondary targets must be within 30 ft of the primary, even after spell reflection changed that target. But Chain Lightning does target creatures directly, so it's a separate question from AoEs.


Being a target of a spell doesn't necessarily mean being the target of the caster directly

When casting Fireball, the caster targets a point within range (150 ft), creating a magical effect there. That magical effect in turn targets all creatures within 20 ft, making them each save vs. fire damage.

Creatures in the area of an AoE are targets only in the general sense (of the spell (effect)), not the spell-targeting sense (targeted by the caster). That's why they can be outside the 150 ft Range of the Fireball spell, and why Sanctuary doesn't require a Wis save to target a point near a warded creature.

The Fireball description actually does refer to each creatures in the area as "a target" (of the fire created by the spell).

A bright streak flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range and then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame. 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.

It's this sense in which a morkoth can make another creature take its place as a target. The morkoth can replace itself with one other creature (within 120 ft) as one of those targets of the fire damage (save for half), but that's all.

For that one target of the spell, it replaces the normal rule for determining affected creatures ("within 20 ft of the point" for Fireball) with a requirement to be within 120 ft of the morkoth.

Many AoE spells don't mention the word target, e.g. Lightning Bolt2 (range: Self (100-foot line)) has very similar language for the end of its first paragraph, except using "a creature" instead of "a target" in the last sentence. Similarly, Shatter just says "a creature" both times instead of "a target" but is otherwise worded very much like Fireball. So lets pretend the question used Shatter instead of Fireball as an example of not mentioning targets. IDK if Fireball's wording is meant to include objects as targets that don't get to make saves, or if that's just a lack of standardization of wording when they meant to say the same thing.

For spells that don't use the word "target", I think we should follow Fireball's example and consider any creature in the area to be a target of the spell (effect), despite not being targeted by the caster. @Thomas Markov's answer makes some good arguments that affected creatures should be considered targets of the spell.



Footnote 1:
If the morkoth's target was already in the fireball's area, could it take fireball damage twice? That seems narratively fine, like a reflector concentrating the energy, despite the fact that casting fireball in an enclosed space doesn't RAW do that. Or that covering a huge or gargantuan creature with a fireball instead of just getting one leg doesn't do any more damage.

In game-balance terms, a new ability was used, costing the morkoth's reaction.

But mechanically, that does mean the creature would be targeted twice by the same spell; the morkoth can only make it a target of the original spell when it uses Spell Reflections, not the target of a separate harmful ability that transfers the damage or effect.

So I think if a creature was already in the fireball's area, RAW a morkoth couldn't make it take damage twice from the same fireball. The situation would probably only ever came up in a battle with 3 or more factions, or a dominate monster on a morkoth. Or from accidental friendly fire.

Combined with careful spell metamagic, would the target still have advantage on the save if the caster had been careful of them but not the morkoth? Probably not; the spell energy reflected by the morkoth not reduced by careful spell, so now the target feels the full brunt of the spell. But RAW doesn't have much to say about this corner case; various possible rulings are compatible with RAW. This one is based as much on my narrative interpretation as anything else.

Footnote 2:
Historically, some DMs like to have Lightning Bolts reflect off walls in their games. At least Matt Mercer has said so on Critical Role, and used that homebrew there.

So for LB specifically, there's some historical precedent for having the line itself reflect in some cases, changing the shape of the spell other than cutting it short. Morkoth Spell Reflection seems perfectly suited to do that if that's what the DM wants. But that's 100% homebrew territory as far as 5e RAW is concerned.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if downvoters are disagreeing with my conclusion, or with the way I presented it. I still think this is a logical reading of the rules, since nobody's pointed out any flaws in this reasoning and interpretation. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 3, 2023 at 11:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't find anything wrong with this either. And in fact it's better than both Thomas' and Mark's answers since you cover both. \$\endgroup\$
    – justhalf
    Dec 5, 2023 at 6:54

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