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The description of the spirit guardians spell says, in part (emphasis mine):

When you cast this spell, you can designate any number of creatures you can see to be unaffected by it. An affected creature’s speed is halved in the area, and when the creature enters the area for the first time on a turn or starts its turn there, it must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature takes 3d8 radiant damage (if you are good or neutral) or 3d8 necrotic damage (if you are evil). On a successful save, the creature takes half as much damage.

Let's say the caster is on the second floor and he casts spirit guardians. He designates his ally next to him to be unaffected by it. Now, directly below him, two other allied PCs are waiting; however, since he can't see them, he can't designate them to be unaffected by the spell.

Will the players on the bottom floor be affected by the spirit guardians spell once they go up to the 2nd floor?

Can the caster decide at some point after casting the spell that the spell won't hurt them? When does the caster need to decide who is and isn't affected?

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RAW, to be unaffected a creature must be seen when the spell is cast.

The RAW ruling here is pretty clear. The relevant portion of spirit guardians' spell description says (PHB, pg. 278):

When you cast this spell, you can designate any number of creatures you can see to be unaffected by it.

You must be able to see the creature when you cast the spell to be able to designate it as an unaffected creature.

In your specific situation, the characters that were one floor below would be affected by spirit guardians upon entering its area of effect, as the caster could not see them when they cast it to be able to designate them unaffected.

Rules-as-fun may call for a different ruling - discuss it with your table.

I've played in games that ruled this both ways. At one table, we were all very committed to rules-as-written, and were aware of this feature of the spell. We had no problems with ruling the RAW way here, as we were all aware of its tactical implications before it was ever used. It made for an epic scene when our raging barbarian ran head first into the spirit guardians to save the cleric who was engaged with a manticore that had surprised us, tanking the damage to save her friend.

At a different table, most of the players were less experienced, and our cleric was rather disappointed when the DM suggested the RAW ruling. We took a minute to talk about it, and decided that we go with "no friendly fire" for spirit guardians, and that worked just fine for that table.

If you're a DM and one of your players has spirit guardians, talk it through with them before you have to rule on it in play - it can be an unpleasant surprise if you haven't thought through the details of the description and how it plays out tactically.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Depends on what you call fun, though. Tactical friendly-fire issues are fun for some tables, \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 29 '20 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, it was fun at the first table I described. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Oct 29 '20 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ The 'at table experience' element of this answer warrants mention; it's very helpful for DMs to see how such interactions have played out during play. +1 👍 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 29 '20 at 13:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Indeed, the first time a party's wizard casts "fireball", for example, there are usually some conversations had afterward about friendly fire. \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Oct 29 '20 at 16:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ (And sometimes that conversation is, "Well, don't charge headlong into the middle of a huge group of monsters, Leroy!") \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Oct 29 '20 at 21:42
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They will be affected, because you designate which creatures are not affected at casting time

As mentioned in the quoted section of the spirit guardians spell description:

When you cast this spell, you can designate any number of creatures you can see to be unaffected by it.

You designate unaffected creatures at casting time. After the spell has been cast, you can no longer designate creatures to be unaffected. Anyone not designated at the time the spell is cast will be affected by it.

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The other PCs will not be protected

Spells do what they say they do. In this case, the text is unambiguous. "When you cast this spell" indicates that the choice of which creatures to make unaffected occurs (only) when casting the spell, and thus cannot be changed. Furthermore, "designate any number of creatures you can see" indicates that the chosen creatures must be visible to the caster.

Therefore, if allied creatures are in another room or invisible, Spirit Guardians will affect them. Indeed, I've lost many invisible Imp familiars to this effect.

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RAI and RAW, yes they will be effected. Others describe why mechanically why quite well.

I wanted to add though that, to me, the in world reason why always felt that you have to designate when cast is because you've got to instruct these vengeful spirits who to ignore. You don't completely control them, you just let them loose. While the wording makes it clear it's intended that they won't harm you, and I think any DM would assume you included yourself in the list of creatures to be unaffected, strictly speaking I believe you could be an affected creature, if you wanted to be or couldn't see yourself by some other effect making you invisible. This is a bit of RAW vs RAI though.

Picking creatures to be unaffected vs 'friendly creatures' can be useful for purposefully not breaking types of crowd control on other enemies around yourself or conversely breaking types of crowd control on allies which might be incapacitated their whole turn but ends or makes at a save when damaged. Admittedly, these are very specific edge cases.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to our stack! Please take the tour to learn more about how we operate and you can also visit the help center for more information. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 30 '20 at 18:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer doesn't seem to actually answer the question, but provide a narrative for what it's like or how you'd interpret it working. I think this is more of a comment about it than an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 30 '20 at 18:04

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