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The Evocation Wizard's Sculpt Spell ability allows the wizard to protect some creatures from their own evocation spells:

When you cast an Evocation spell that affects other creatures that you can see, you can choose a number of them equal to 1 + the spell’s level. The chosen creatures automatically succeed on their Saving Throws against the spell, and they take no damage if they would normally take half damage on a successful save.

Does the number of chosen creatures need to be exactly equal to 1 + the spell's level, or can it be lower?

For example, if an evocation wizard casts Fireball, can they choose 1, 2, or 3 creatures to be protected from the spell, or do they need to select either zero or exactly 4 creatures?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Now I'm imagining having everyone in my party carrying a bag of rats, just in case I wanted to Fireball them \$\endgroup\$ – Pierre Cathé Oct 29 at 8:09
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The ability is poorly written, and the intent is clear.

I admit, in a strict RAW sense, you can either choose 1+level or 0. Sculpt spell says:

you can choose a number of them equal to 1 + the spell’s level.

Sometimes strictly RAW readings give less than desirable results - this is one of those cases.

Let’s consider fireball at 3rd level. My friend is engaged in melee combat with two enemies, and I’d like to blast them with fireball without torching my friend.

Here is what a strict reading of the ability means:

I have the skill to shape my fireball around four allies, but not one, two, or three. Oh, and if I upcast fireball to 4th level, I forget how to shape it around four and can only do five.

This is silliness. Just let it be a number of creatures up to 1 + the spell’s level.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A useful at-table answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 28 at 17:03
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RAW: no

As you say, the ability is not actually ambiguous:

you can choose a number of them equal to 1 + the spell’s level.

Contrast this to the sorcerer's Careful Spell Metamagic:

spend 1 sorcery point and choose a number of those creatures up to your Charisma modifier (minimum of one creature).

If Sculpt Spell was supposed to give you the ability to target fewer creatures, it would presumably have equal replaced by up to give:

choose a number of them up to 1 + the spell’s level.

One possible counter argument is that you could choose the same creature multiple times, thereby de facto granting the ability to target fewer creatures. However, I would argue that this is intentional butchering the language of the ability, and thus not really RAW.

Another possible objection is that the ability includes the word can to indicate that it is not required to be used. However, this only refers to the ability as a whole. That is, you can either protect 0 creatures or 1 + the spell's level.

RAI: likely yes

Requiring that you protect the maximum number of creatures seems like a silly requirement. It would sometimes make it beneficial for a friendly character to move in range of your fireball, which is the kind of design that does not fit with the rest of the game. Furthermore, this is the kind of error that can go unnoticed while writing and testing a book.

There has been no sage advice on this, nor has it been featured in errata, but I think that if it were the meaning would be changed to "up to 1 + the spell’s level".

Every DM I know has ruled it as up to, but technically this does not conform to RAW.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ RAW: If playing with XGtE, can you deliberately choose invalid targets as the "extras"? For example, yourself, enemies out of range, or a rock on the ground? \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Oct 28 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin The ability specifically only allows for the targeting of creatures affected by the spell, so I would say no. For RAI this does of course not matter. \$\endgroup\$ – ADdV Oct 28 at 18:21
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Yes, if degree of ability represents maximum ability

The auxiliary verb "can" refers to ability to do something, which may express a degree of ability. For example, a crossbow bolt case "can hold up to twenty crossbow bolts." In this sentence, 20 is the degree of ability the crossbow bolt case has - it can hold anywhere from no bolts up to 20 bolts.

The text often uses the language "up to" to help clarify, but this is not strictly necessary, and is missing in a few cases, notably in race longevity, the movement and jumping rules, spell rules for targeting additional creatures (e.g. banishment), and the sculpt spell ability.

"an elf... can live to be 750 years old"

Every character and monster has a speed, which is the distance in feet that the character or monster can walk in 1 round.

"Your strength determines how far you can jump."

When you cast [banishment] using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.

When you cast an evocation spell that affects other creatures that you can see, you can choose a number of them equal to 1 + the spell’s level

It is natural in each case to read each degree of ability as a maximum ability, not an obligation to live to exactly 750 years, move exactly a distance equal to your speed, or to banish or preserve an exact number of creatures. When the text indicates something that you are obliged to do, it uses the auxiliary verb "must".

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    \$\begingroup\$ The first three examples you give are continuous, so are subject to the intermediate value theorem, but sculpt spell is a discrete space of possibilities, so the IVT need not apply. What I mean here is that when I say "I can walk 30 feet", logically, I must walk 29 feet before reaching 30. This logic does not apply to sculpt spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Oct 28 at 16:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chronotheurge I believe a good example (although, maybe this is just the same question in disguise) is spells like invisibility which state: "When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd." Perhaps people really would argue that 5th level invisibility must target either 1 or 4 creatures and cannot target 2 or 3... or maybe the wording is sufficiently different enough that's it not the same... Though maybe it'll help your answer? \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Oct 28 at 16:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that even with the addition of the banishment example, it may still be an apples to oranges comparison, given we see "can target" and "can choose" - you may read the text as offering a choice to target, or a choice to choose, and still come away with a reading that sculpt spell must protect an exact number of creatures. Nonetheless, I do not believe such an interpretation is in keeping with the spirit of the text, which in my opinion tends towards stronger language when indicating obligations of degree. \$\endgroup\$ – Chronotheurge Oct 28 at 17:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that "can ≠ must", but the "can" in this sentence is just the option of whether to use Sculpt Spell or not. You can protect "a number of them equal to 1 + the spell’s level" or opt not to. The operative word in the ability is "equal", not "can". (Nobody here is in disagreement on how the ability should work, but I don't think we need to defend poor writing by trying to pull the perceived correct interpretation out when it isn't there). \$\endgroup\$ – smbailey Oct 28 at 18:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am amused that so much analysis can miss the mark so badly. The "can" that the ability description uses is refering to whether or not the sculpt spell feature is triggered when casting an evocation spell. Once the choice to use the feature is made "You choose a number of creatures equal to 1+ spell level" Not up to \$\endgroup\$ – JKizzle Oct 29 at 13:46
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The exact reading of the ability is:

Beginning at 2nd Level, you can create pockets of relative safety within the Effects of your Evocation Spells. When you cast an Evocation spell that affects other creatures that you can see, you can choose a number of them equal to 1 + the spell’s level. The chosen creatures automatically succeed on their Saving Throws against the spell, and they take no damage if they would normally take half damage on a successful save.

I think the natural way to read this, both as RAW and as RAI is that the first portion of the ability specifies the what and the second portion specifies the how and the limitations (how many).

Remember that all of these Wizard School abilities are optional if they say "can" initially.

you can create pockets of relative safety within the Effects of your Evocation Spells.

This part covers the question of "do you select 0 creatures or a number of creatures." Well, choosing not to use the ability at all would be selecting 0, otherwise why even use the ability?

So when the second portion uses the word "can" it is specifying the option to use the ability's maximum number or not.

When you cast an Evocation spell that affects other creatures that you can see, you can choose a number of them equal to 1 + the spell’s level.

This portion specifies that you have the option to select any number of creatures (ally OR enemy) which could be limited by what you literally have the ability to see, which may limit the ability to protect the maximum number of creatures possible anyways as there are often vision obstructing objects in the battlefield. Keep this in mind.

Compare this reading to another ability from the same school which seems to be leaving you no choice in the matter:

Evocation Savant

Beginning when you select this school at 2nd level, the gold and time you must spend to copy a Evocation spell into your spellbook is halved.

This ability does not use the word can, or leave any real way for you to interpret this as an optional ability. It simply is halved, the end. The RAW states that it just DOES cost less time and gold for you to copy Evocation spells, and the RAI very clearly want to convey the sense that as a now seasoned(ish) Evocation wizard, you are better at time and money management when it comes to these spells specifically.

Now compare this to a few abilities that read fairly similarly to Spell Sculpt. All of these abilities have the specific reading "can x a number of x equal to":

Slow Fall

...you can use your Reaction when you fall to reduce any Falling damage you take by an amount equal to five times your monk level...

Divine Sense

...You can use this feature a number of times equal to 1 + your Charisma modifier. When you finish a Long Rest, you regain all expended uses...

Inspiring Leader

...Each creature can gain temporary hit points equal to your level + your Charisma modifier. A creature can't gain temporary hit points from this feat again until it has finished a short or long rest...

Something that all of these abilities have in common is that there could be instances where you don't need to use the maximum possible effect.

You may only need to negate some fall damage because you fell a short distance, or you may only need to detect the presence of a celestial, fiend or undead once a day, or a companion may have 12 temporary hit points and when you try to give them 10, they opt to keep their 12 and not take your 10.

Similarly, it stands to reason that your adventuring party may have only ever been 2 other people and you will never need to use Sculpt Spell on more than 2 or 3 people, regardless of the spell level you are using.

I think it's counter-intuitive to presume that the reading of "can x a number of x equal to" means that you MUST adhere to a strict definition of the maximum possible.

There ARE instances in PHB that use words like "equal to or less than" "up to" and "minimum of 1" but there are many that specify that you have no choice using words like "must" "is" or simply lack any language that would imply there is a choice. example:

Tough

Your hit point maximum increases by an amount equal to twice your level when you gain this feat. Whenever you gain a level thereafter, your hit point maximum increases by an additional 2 hit points.

This ability omits any language that would specify that it is either a requirement or a choice, but there is really only one way to interpret this. If you're bothering to take this feat in the first place, why in the world would you treat it as an option?

Remember as well that the ability specifies creatures you can see which, if we read this ability to mean "all or nothing" then that means that Spell Sculpt is literally only useful if you have the exact number of party members as the spell you are trying to cast+1 and if you can see them all at the same time. Otherwise you would need to start targeting enemies as part of Spell Sculpt and at that point we have entered into pure silly territory.

In conclusion, Spell Sculpt very clearly adheres to natural English language rules. It neither omits nor includes any language that implies it is required that you use the ability to the maximum effect, and it specifies twice that there is the option to both use the ability at all AND use it to its maximum effect.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Moving the discussion to chat to clean up the comments section. \$\endgroup\$ – smbailey Oct 29 at 2:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of your examples, I think Divine Sense is the one which most strongly supports your point. Of the three examples, it is the only one in which you can actually unambiguously choose to use less than the maximum but more than zero. (Slow Fall's damage reduction doesn't involve a choice besides using it or not; PHB 196 caps damage to be non-negative even with large numbers subtracted. For Inspiring Leader choosing whether or not to take the temp HP is not the same as choosing to take a different amount of temp HP than the amount offered.) \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Oct 29 at 4:22

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