Suppose a raging barbarian cannot reach any seen opponents on the battlefield on their current turn, but is attempting to maintain rage in the interim by attacking a hostile creature, according to the following:

Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven't attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then.

Suppose the player is making a good-faith attempt to maintain rage because they are still in combat, just unable to reach visible opponents within one round.

The barbarian declares an attack on a hostile creature they suspect is within their reach but which they cannot see.

If there was a successfully hidden opponent on the field, then RAW the barbarian would be permitted to attack it by guessing its location. Even if they were incorrect about the target's location, that would be sufficient to maintain their rage. We know that attacking near a present target is allowed, and the barbarian needs no surety that the creature is actually in the location guessed.

But if the successfully hidden opponent has actually left the field without the barbarian knowing, there is not a creature to attack.

Is the barbarian permitted to make an attack against an opponent that is not present?

I am trying to understand whether a creature actually needs to be present for the barbarian to attack, and if so, why its presence matters, or matters more than the barbarian's intent.

To me, either ruling, yes or no, has unfortunate implications.

If attempting to attack an opponent that is not on the field ends the barbarian's rage, that allows rage to be used as an 'enemy presence detector', which seems to go against the spirit of "If the target isn't in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the DM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target's location correctly."

But if the barbarian is allowed to maintain rage by attacking an opponent that is not actually there based on the plausible belief that an opponent is present, then what prevents the barbarian from postulating an opponent who could be there? For example, the barbarian invokes an NPC that has successfully hidden against the party before. The barbarian's belief that said NPC is present and Hidden can then become a source of conflict between the player and the DM, in trying to decide what is a reasonably imagined unseen opponent.

I am not asking about a bad faith attempt by a player to invent opponents that don't exist.

Somewhat related: A barbarian's belief that they are attacking an opponent is apparently not sufficient to maintain rage if what they are attacking is an illusion. So attacking a not-creature that is there is not enough to maintain rage, but is it enough to attack an actual creature that is not there?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this basically asking if a barbarian can simply take the attack action to keep their rage? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 17:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm trying to confirm your question. Are you asking, can the Barbarian maintain rage by smashing a bush on the off-chance that a rogue they saw at one point in time could be hiding there? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 17:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch It's a bit more complicated, since even a well-intentioned attack on an illusory opponent fails to maintain rage. But effectively, yes, is an attack action and a plausible opponent sufficient? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 17:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pyrotechnical Or, if they cannot, what is the difference between that and allowing them to maintain rage by attacking an opponent the DM knows is present but the character has no idea where is? Why does the actual presence of the opponent matter? Why is rage constrained by epistomology? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 18:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ This raises an interesting character possibility for a schizophrenic barbarian who goes into a rage randomly to attack unseen opponents. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 19:50

5 Answers 5


(This started out as a comment on another answer, but was getting too long to be a comment, and threatened to turn the comments into an open discussion.)

This Is Exactly What GMs Are For

This is also why "Rules As Written" is not always the end of the discussion, and why TTRPGs are not CRPGs.

The rules are clearly not intended to allow barbarians an easy loophole to extend their rage to a full minute each time. But the rules are also clearly not intended to turn the barbarian into an illusion detector or a departed enemy detector.

Those are loopholes, and two of the three are metagaming loopholes intended to extract information from the interactions of the mechanics to the player in ways that the characters themselves shouldn't really be able to do. This is the sort of thing that would get lampooned in Order Of The Stick.

The obvious patch to the rule is that the barbarian has to make an attack against something he or she believes is or is controlled by a hostile creature. But that, of course, opens up the discussion of player agency, character agency, and the limits of the GM to impinge on those-- that patch, also, would not be intended to allow metagaming just by the player's fiat of the character's mental state.

Much ink has been spilled on that subject, and I try pretty hard to defer to the player in this regard, but that deference is not infinite, and it ends when I think there is an attempt to metagame the rules. And believe it or not, most experienced GMs have a pretty good sense after a while for when their players are trying to game the system.

Would I feel good about telling a player what is and is not reasonable for their character to believe? No, because it's a sign that the GM-player relationship is getting adversarial rather than cooperative.

Would I feel comfortable doing it? In certain circumstances, yes-- more comfortable than not doing it and perhaps enabling larger problems down the road. I would be more likely to open with a sharp, "Quit trying to game the system, please," rather than a flat fiat... but I'd be willing shove, if push came to it.

Someone has to make a judgment call, here, and the GM is the only person whose judgment call is final.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Round our way, we have a phrase for this sort of metagaming. "Nice try, bucko." \$\endgroup\$
    – piersb
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 11:29

The important part of the question:

If no, and the barbarian is allowed to attack an opponent that is not actually there based on the plausible belief that an opponent is present, then what prevents the barbarian from postulating an opponent who could be there?

The DM

There is a person in the room who can call shenanigans. It doesn’t matter what the barbarian believes, in this situation the player in question would have to convince the DM that what they’re doing makes sense. If the player in question wants to do some roleplay and have their barbarian wildly swing into nothingness that’s completely fine, but if a player decides that they want to cheat the system by simply inventing enemies to attack if they don't have a convenient way to attack any of the actual enemies then it's completely within the DMs purview to say ‘you can’t do that Dave, you know there’s nothing there even if Grogg might not’.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree that it is the DM's job to make rulings and call shenanigans, I am uncomfortable with the statement that a DM gets to base their decisions in claims of what a player knows or doesn't know. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ 'Even though that belief is justified for your character, I won't allow you to attempt that action because you as a player don't believe it will work.' I wouldn't want to play under that DM, especially as a cleric or paladin. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt It's not "what the player knows"; it's that the player's motivation is apparent and dishonest. There's no evidence to indicate to the character (or the player) that there's an invisible enemy there, and they aren't just randomly hallucinating invisible enemies and attacking empty space; they're selectively attacking empty space when it's advantageous based on metagame knowledge. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 18:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells I would argue that the problem then is that there is no evidence the character should be looking for hidden enemies - and that is more convincing to me than casting aspersions at player motivation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt you can run your game however you want, but I would remind you that both the DM and the player are humans and for one the game is played mostly with these humans, and for the other it really should be easier to discern the motivations of players than characters, most people aren't that enigmatic when playing a game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cubic
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 20:32

This is not really an attack.

The rule for attacking an unseen target says:

If the target isn't in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the DM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target's location correctly.

This implies that you do not make an attack roll. On an attack roll, you have to beat the target's AC or roll a natural 20 to hit. In this case, the DM might have you roll some dice, but the actual outcome is predetermined and doesn't depend on the target's AC. This roll can't result in you hitting the target even on a natural 20, because it is a fake roll.

Once again, if this worked, everyone would do it.

If there's an always-available, risk-free way to sustain your rage, we have to assume that barbarians already know about it and are already doing it. The mechanical limitations on the Rage feature reflect what the barbarian can do, given that they are trying to weaponize their rage and have experience doing it.

Since you can always attack an empty space, if this worked, the Rage feature would just say "Your rage lasts for 1 minute, but ends if you become unconscious." But it doesn't.

Intent matters.

What you may be missing about Rage is that it's rage. It has mechanics, but the mechanics are representing "fighting with primal ferocity", as the PHB puts it. If you're trying to portray the characters and their actions in a coherent way, that's what should guide your interpretation.

So, the rule says your rage continues only if you attack a hostile creature or take damage each round. "Attack" has a meaning in the rules. You must do something the rules define as an attack: a weapon attack, spell attack, or special attack like a grapple or disarm. What you're proposing here is that you can "attack a hostile creature" by waving your weapon at empty space because hey, nobody can prove there isn't a hostile creature there.

But your intent is not to attack the creature, and fighting with primal ferocity is about intent, not satisfying technical requirements.

Now, if you stab an empty space behind a curtain because you think an enemy is hiding back there, like in Hamlet, your intent is to attack and kill them. On this basis, a barbarian could spend an entire minute tearing apart the furniture in a rage because they think there's a mimic hiding in here. But as a player you would have to convince the DM that that's your intent, and if there haven't been any mimics in the entire dungeon, that's a tough case to make.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @kirt As long as the DM thinks it's reasonable, they likey will have no issue with it, because it's reasonable. If it's not reasonable and clearly a player is trying to game rage, then they won't. And I think most DMs know which is which. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 20:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you allow a barbarian to "stab through the curtain like in Hamlet because you think an enemy is hiding there, your intent, in character, is to attack an enemy" then do you disagree with the ruling that a barbarian who attacks an illusion loses rage because they did not attack a creature? If it is based on intent shouldn't the ability say "and you haven't attempted to attack a hostile creature?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I usually still ask my players to roll in those cases. But when they crit, they still miss. When they don't ,they're just not sure. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 21:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Not trying to put words in Mark's mouth, but it seems like they agree with the RAW rule and not with how mdrichey would have ruled. I also think 'plausible' is exactly what is determined by a DM and at the table. It's fairly obvious if something is plausible or not. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 21:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ You say "if this worked", rage would just last 1 minute. But no, even if this worked, it still costs your action to sustain your rage, preventing you from Dashing to get closer to a visible enemy you want to attack later. (Or taking the Search action, or dodge or readying an attack for when a visible enemy comes into range.) Spending your action to sustain rage is a real cost. (Even so, I agree it's not something that should work in every case, but I think it wouldn't be game-breaking to allow it for maybe 1 round when circumstances are plausible for a specific barbarian's mental state.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 3:00

RAW, no. Rage is constrained by the rules of the game, not in-universe reasoning

On the supremacy of the rules:

Combat is a distinct phase of the game and is different from non-combat. Tables vary, but most I've heard of treat out-of-combat time very loosely, don't worry about movement speed, turn order, or anything like that. When that state changes and combat begins, an initiative roll is called.

This gives meta-information to players-- even if a PC isn't aware that combat is underway when the roll is called, the player definitely knows.

Similarly, things that we know would work in the real world, like electrifying a body of water or a fire not starting while submerged in water, don't happen in D&D. Not because we have no reason to think that they would work, but because it's a game and not a reality simulator. So right there we can answer the question of why Rage is limited by the reality of the situation rather than the Barbarian's belief: the rules exist, and they don't say anything about the Barbarian's belief.

Applicable rules in this situation:

While a character can usually attack anything, there are mechanical limitations on that action. For example, a character using a shortbow can attack an enemy that is 320 feet away or closer, but not farther:

You can't attack a target beyond the weapon's long range. (PHB, Chapter 5, Weapons, Weapon Properties)

The character could still fire the bow in that direction, but could not attack an enemy outside of the weapon's long range. This is strictly a mechanical, rules-based issue because it depends on the rules' definition of an attack.

Similarly, you can't attack an enemy that isn't there. You could swing a weapon around with the intention of hitting such an enemy, but the Attack action has a direct object (the target). It's not as great of a koan as the famous version, but a tree that doesn't exist doesn't make a sound whether it falls or not, regardless of the presence of any observer. The sentence itself doesn't even parse properly-- there is no tree to fall or not fall, nor any place for that non-thing to be.

In chess, a pawn can't move backwards no matter how helpful it might be to do so in a given situation. A real foot soldier can easily move backwards, but chess is governed by different rules than real soldiers. In the same way, a Barbarian can't attack an enemy that isn't there.

A sensible ruling:

There are plenty of edge cases where applying this rule directly is odd, such as a combat in which the Barbarian's intended target flees (and leaves combat) while other enemies are still present. But I submit that, because Rage itself depends on the rules-defined mechanical construct of combat, it doesn't make sense to consider Rage independent of that construct.

If combat is still happening it may be easier, more narratively interesting, and more fun to allow the Barbarian to maintain Rage while attacking the enemy, generically: Barbarhianna wants to attack Chad the cultist, who has hidden and fled from combat and so cannot be validly targeted no matter what. But if cultists Alan, Betsy, and Dylan are still around and fighting I as DM would probably allow Barbarhianna's attack, intending to hit Chad, to maintain Rage.

But that's my preference as DM. The rules being written or designed awkwardly does not impose new rules not written anywhere on the game. That portion of the ability is defined by a potentially valid target, and so if there is no valid target to attack Rage cannot be maintained via that mechanism.


No by RAW and Yes by RAI

You had cited these two questions with your original question:

The answer to the overarching question of, "Can a Barbarian maintain rage if they attack something that isn't a creature?" is No on a Rules as Written (RAW) basis. But from a Rules as Intended (RAI) basis, often the answer is Yes.

For your situation of a hidden opponent that had left the field of battle, this DM would rule that the Barbarian had a reasonable in-character reason to believe their opponent was in the location they swung at. The fact that the character's information was flawed is irrelevant for the purposes of the qualifying requirement that the Barbarian make attacks against a hostile creature. I would probably require you to direct your attacks at reasonable hiding spots (bushes, trees, tall grasses, etc.), but provided you had a reason to think your enemy was hiding then I'd probably allow it. After all, you'll burn out in 1 minute regardless.

What would not be acceptable is if the Barbarian had no reason to suspect an enemy being present and simply smashed the surroundings invoking some previously encountered foe that had hidden from them for the sole purpose of extending their rage. For example, if the Barbarian had crushed the last enemy to a bloody pulp while singing a jaunty tune and was unaware of any other enemies, I would not permit the player to smash the ground invoking some previous foe just because they saw me pulling out additional minis for enemies the Barbarian was unaware of.

In summary, this is wholly a DM's call, but I don't recommend pushing the boundaries of what's reasonable.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for clarifying, can you support the intent? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 18:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I suspect that by "RAI" you mean "rules as applied at the table", which is not usually one of the meanings of "RAI" but is what every answer here should be focused on, so emphasizing that point would strengthen the answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 19:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ "The fact that the character's information was flawed is irrelevant for the purposes of the qualifying requirement that the Barbarian make attacks against a hostile creature." Does this mean you disagree with the ruling that a Barbarian attacking an illusion would lose rage? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 19:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt I disagree with it from a RAW perspective. The top answer is clear, though, that the spirit of the rule doesn't align with RAW and in that regard I fully concur. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 13:42

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