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Context

I am playing a Cleric and regularly use the spell sanctuary on low life teammates while telling them to back away to safety (short call so I can heal them up and they will stop attacking and avoid breaking the effect).

We ruled out at session 0 that we have a limit in the length of what you can tell teammates during your turn. Casting a spell with verbal components will limit your turn speech even more.

I had one time when I had to choose whether to say to my sanctuary target to run away or alert another character from a danger that only my character perceived. I chose to alert my target, but it led our Wizard to be critically stabbed (he's fine, merely a flesh wound).

Question

Is the target of sanctuary aware of the spell effect or should I continue telling them not to break the effect ? If they are aware of the effect, do they just "feel protected" ? Do they also get the intuition that being harmful to another creature will break this protection ?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "I had to choose whether to say to my Sanctuary target to run away or alert another character from a danger that only my character perceived" — why can't you do both? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Sep 10 at 13:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ At session 0, we ruled out a limit in the length of what you can tell teammates during your turn. Plus I was even more limited due to the verbal component of the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Oddrigue Sep 10 at 13:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not all tables use such a ruling. I think it'd be better to add this explanation, or remove the "I had to choose" part since it can be confusing. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Sep 10 at 13:53
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Perceptible effects.

The Player's Handbook gives a concise rule for when you know a spell has been cast. From Chapter 10: Spellcasting, in the section entitled Targets:

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.

Is sanctuary a perceptible effect? Sanctuary says:

Until the spell ends, any creature who targets the warded creature with an attack or a harmful spell must first make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature must choose a new target or lose the attack or spell.

While the target creature is not being attacked, the effect of sanctuary is definitely imperceptible - the spell itself isn't really doing anything for you; there is no effect to perceive.

What happens when a creature tries to attack the santuary target is going to be up to the DM's narrative interpretation of the spell description. Does the targeting with an attack take place entirely in the mind of the attacking creature, or does the attacking creature begin the motions of the attack before suddenly changing course and attacking someone else? This is entirely up to how the DM wants to describe the wisdom save and the declared attack.

As a DM, I would rule that the attacking creature begins the motion of the attack, then makes the saving throw. On a failure, it appears to the warded target that the creature stops mid attack and changes direction or just stops the attack entirely. In this case, if the warded creature is aware that their buddy can cast sanctuary and is somewhat familiar with what sanctuary does, it would be totally reasonable for the warded creature to think, "Ah, I must be warded by my cleric friend".

A DM who goes for a more subtle interpretation may rule that the warded creature just seems to be targeted a little bit less than before the spell was cast, which itself may be an entirely impercptible phenomenon. The trouble with this case is that the resulting state of affairs after the spell is cast on you may be entirely feasible if the spell was not cast on you. Even if sanctuary is cast, the resulting enemy behavior is a possible outcome even if the spell was not cast, so the warded creature may not even notice.

Perceiving a Caster at Work

As a DM, I would usually have no problem allowing a player to simply know they have been warded by sanctuary - and I have reason to believe it is not any sort of metagaming.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything1 has a section called Perceiving a Caster at Work that helps our warded creature know something is up even if the effects of the spell are entirely unnoticed:

To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component. The form of a material component doesn’t matter for the purposes of perception, whether it’s an object specified in the spell’s description, a component pouch, or a spellcasting focus.

Notably, Sanctuary requires verbal, somatic, and material components. Verbal and Somatic components are described in the PHB in chapter 10:

Verbal (V)
Most spells require the chanting of mystic words. [...]

Somatic (S)
Spellcasting gestures might include a forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures. [...]

So sanctuary contains unique words and hand gestures that would likely be identifiable by an observer - especially if the observer is familiar with the caster.

Now, Xanathar does include rules for identifying a spell being cast:

... a character can use their reaction to identify a spell as it’s being cast, or they can use an action on their turn to identify a spell by its effect after it is cast.

If the character perceived the casting, the spell’s effect, or both, the character can make an Intelligence (Arcana) check with the reaction or action. The DC equals 15 + the spell’s level. [...]

This Intelligence (Arcana) check represents the fact that identifying a spell requires a quick mind and familiarity with the theory and practice of casting.

There is a way, per RAW if you use the Xanathar's rule, to use your reaction to identify a spell being cast. But I did say before, "especially if the observer is familiar with the caster". To be clear, this is a DM ruling that I would make that technically departs from the RAW, but I would allow my players to identify spells being cast by their allies for free.

Your allies are familiar with your style of spellcasting. They see you casting these spells day in, day out. To this DM, it seems entirely feasible to know what my cleric friend's casting of sanctuary looks and sounds like. And this is easy enough to justify with some roleplaying:

Cleric: Hey guys, I have this spell that will protect you in a pinch, but you can't attack or cast spells at the enemy or the effect wears off.

Party: Good to know, what do we need to look out for when you cast it?

Cleric: If I says these words and wave my hands around like this and gesture toward you, you've been warded and need to chill out on attacking the bad guys.

Having established this, I would simply allow my players to always know they have been warded by sanctuary, unless for some reason they miss the casting of it entirely.


1Notably, XGtE is optional source material, so it is up to the DM to make use of it or not.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just my always-included note that the quoted Xanathar rule is optional. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 10 at 13:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the very much completeness of this answer ! I had the opinion that informating my teammates in detail with the effect of a spell was a bit too close of metagamaing but this changed my mind. I'll find a way to tell the party about Sanctuary and hopefully they'll remember (or give their character a try) \$\endgroup\$ – Oddrigue Sep 10 at 13:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Added back in the relevant bits about components without the extra stuff. Thanks for the trim. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Sep 10 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, the characters have a fair chance of guessing based solely on familiarity with the tactic. \$\endgroup\$ – Mary Sep 10 at 14:59
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I'd play it the following way:

No, the character is not aware of the spell effect by simply feeling it. The character does not feel in sanctuary, he has a sanctuary. The rules don't state any shimmer or other measurable aura, so you do not feel it.

On the other hand, the DM might allow a character to detect / guess he's under the effect of a sanctuary due to some observations.

If the character notices that nearby opponents don't attack him (anymore), he might guess that a sanctuary has been cast on him

If the character sees you casting a spell and looks at you, he might have a chance to guess that you cast a sanctuary if he sees no other effect happening (at least if using sanctuary is something you do often and explain to the other character).

This might, of course, also result in wrong observations if for example an opponent stops, for example, due to another reason -- to attack the given character -- or if you cast another spell while looking at you, that does not have any perceivable effect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem I have with this answer is that it seems to bring a solution based on roleplay, not RAW \$\endgroup\$ – Oddrigue Sep 10 at 10:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fully agree. The rule does not specify, that you can feel the effect of the spell, so you cannot feel the effect of the spell. (Normally you don't get more than the rules tell you) and feeling to be protected is an advantage as you noticed., You wouldn't have to waste time to tell the other character he's under your spell's influence. The spell changes how others react not how the concerned character reacts. On the other hand a character can observe what changes around him and 'guess' that sanctuary is working, especially if your cleric is casting it on a regular basis \$\endgroup\$ – gelonida Sep 10 at 10:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ stated otherwise: RAW doesn't tell you you feel it, so you don't feel it. On the other hand a good GM should in my opinion allow under certain circumstances (cleric uses the spell regularly, a character got wounded and then suddenly his attacker stops attacking and changes the opponent) that the targeted character can be aware a sanctuary has been cast. you might add a perception check if you want to. \$\endgroup\$ – gelonida Sep 10 at 10:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you discuss the pros and cons of this in practice? Have you tried this or seen it done? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 10 at 12:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I never encountered sanctuary on a non caster without telling the target and a target needing to know whether it was affected. I just explain how I would react as DM if this would happen. I'd give the target an easy perception check in a scenario like for example: - the cleric often protects group members with sanctuary, the target got wounded, an attacker of the target suddenly attacks somebody else without obvious reason. If sanctuary is not used regularly in a group I wouldn't give the a player a chance to 'determine' she got affected \$\endgroup\$ – gelonida Sep 10 at 12:15

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