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A fighter held a grappled warlock over an oil fire, doing 5 points of damage. The warlock cast a Hellish Rebuke spell on the fighter. This led to the following dispute.

The fighter argued that damage by an oil fire cannot trigger a Hellish Rebuke (PHB 250), which is cast "in response to being damaged by a creature" and targets "the creature that damaged you", since an oil fire is not a creature.

The warlock argued that such a ruling would mean Hellish Rebuke only works with unarmed strike damage, since an arrow, dagger, or spell, not the creature that uses it, is what actually does the damage.

The fighter argued that damage by an independent effect, like a trap or lava, is not damage by a creature wielding a weapon or magic. He used examples like luring an orc underwater to drown, restraining a vampire in sunlight, or using illusions to make an elf walk off a cliff. In all such cases, a creature exploits a damaging environment, but no damage is done by the creature itself.

Is there a technically right or wrong answer for how this works? Please either explain your ruling with a RAW approach or Sage Advice, or confirm that no such support exists in the rules, leaving it entirely up to the DM. Thank you.

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The hellish rebuke spell says:

You point your finger, and the creature that damaged you is momentarily surrounded by hellish flames.

The basic rules provide introductory examples of damage:

The thrust of a sword, a well-placed arrow, or a blast of flame from a fireball

The rules do not get into the sophistry whether it was the fighter or the oil fire that caused the damage. This is something that the DM will need to adjudicate.

I don't think there is much to adjudicate here; the fighter is "the creature that damaged" the warlock. If you drop a glass, do you say, "oh, I dropped a glass and the floor broke it"? No, you say, "I dropped the glass and broke it."

Also, the fighter is actually holding the warlock over the fire. I just don't see how the fighter is not "the creature that damaged [the warlock]".

If I hold someone's arm over a fire, I am damaging them.

To argue differently is to go down a slippery slope, "was it the fighter that damaged the monster, or the sword?"

The DM is perfectly justified in making a ruling and moving on.

My ruling would be that the fighter is rebuked, being the creature that harmed the warlock. If the fighter objected, I would note that in this case there's no question that the fighter was actively seeking to cause harm to the warlock, and in fact caused it, by restraining the warlock over a fire.

I would answer the player's question about the hypotheticals by saying that hypotheticals are just that, hypotheticals, and when we get to such a situation, I will make the ruling then.

If the player still wanted to argue I would ask them to consider to themselves whether they would want to earn experience points for their hypotheticals, and then discuss it with me later.

If the player still wanted to argue further I would state that I have made my ruling and I'd be happy to discuss it later, but for now, the game should continue.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "when we get to such a situation, I will make the ruling then." good way to run a game IMO, the glass example is on point too. \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Apr 1 at 3:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I discuss a similar perspective in greater detail in my answer entitled “God knows what you did”. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1 at 7:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thematically, is Hellish Rebuke seen as something like a parry, or earning the Ire of a Warlock Patron? \$\endgroup\$
    – Turbo
    Apr 1 at 16:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Turbo The rules don't really say one way or another. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Apr 1 at 17:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm with you here. The fighter performed an action that directly caused damage to the warlock. Also, if the fighter "restrain[ed] a vampire in sunlight" then the vampire could also cast Hellish Rebuke if it was able. There is a direct action taking place on the Fighter's part that directly results in damage to the opponent in both cases. \$\endgroup\$
    – CitizenRon
    Apr 1 at 17:45
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Ask your GM

The oil's description states (emphasis mine):

[...] If lit, the oil burns for 2 rounds and deals 5 fire damage to any creature that enters the area or ends its turn in the area. [...]

So it certainly looks like the oil itself deals the damage here, not the fighter. But what about cases like casting fireball, a spell which similarly says that it deals the damage, not the caster? I for one would certainly conclude the caster of fireball deals damage when casting the spell. So it seems things are at least somewhat complicated and messy. It's unclear, so you'll have to ask the GM for a ruling.


Levels of abstraction and semantics get messy

Imagine you're standing on top of burning oil but instead of having been grappled, you were immobilized by a spellcaster 30 seconds ago. Or maybe somebody surrounded you with wall of stone. Perhaps there's not just one creature grappling you in place but four? Who does hellish rebuke target in these cases? The spellcaster who immobilized you five rounds ago? Any of the four people grappling you? Heck, why can't it target whoever lit the oil on fire, especially if that happened after you were immobilized/grappled/etc? Why not target whoever actually put the oil there, and let's ponder over whether we can target the oil manufacturer while we're at it too.

The list of people that, in some sense, contributed to the damage can be lengthy, and determining who actually dealt the damage is a question of semantics and levels of abstraction. A question hat only your GM can really answer, and it probably won't be one single, well laid-out answer, but a series of case-by-case rulings as new scenarios emerge.

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    \$\begingroup\$ “It wasn’t me, it was the dynamite”. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1 at 7:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Exempt-Medic It’s definitely a different scenario, but I can see how someone would take a similar approach as the one I did there. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1 at 11:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Upvoted, I think you make some good points. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Apr 1 at 12:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that Hellish Rebuke involves pointing your finger, so you have to know who you're pointing at. Also, it's a reaction, and being paralyzed stops you from casting it. Your example would work equally or better with the Restrained condition from a Web or Entangle spell. (The Web itself is flammable, BTW, while Entangle is weeds and vines that could hold someone in place while separately-applied oil burned.) (Evard's Black Tentacles are non-flammable but do damage themselves; complicating things, same for Ensnaring Strike) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 2 at 2:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Snare creates a restraining trap, 8 hour duration. As part of an ambush, the caster might still be nearby, in range of Hellish Rebuke. But they could be asleep, while Glyph of Warding does something that damages the Snared creature. Or hidden, with the damage taker not knowing who originally restrained them, or that they're still in range. (Hellish Rebuke requires you can see the creature within 60ft to take the reaction.) Anyway, you could argue that any of the creatures involved are valid targets, and it's the rebuker's choice. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 2 at 2:19
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I think the best you're going to get is "it's a GM call, here are things to consider". Here are my two observations for why casting it seems fine:

This sort of argument makes more sense with unintelligent objects. An amulet of Hellish Rebuke might be fooled into thinking the warlock is just standing in fire -- amulets don't understand grapples. But the warlock knows perfectly well that the fighter is doing the damage, via the oil. Sure, there's still some mystical way the spell decides "OK, you can cast me on that guy", but it seems as if the warlock's knowledge should factor in somewhere.

Then there's the mechanics. The intent of "only works after an enemy damaged you" is to balance out how strong the spell is (a reaction! And for decent damage!) The spell can't be used in 1st strikes, or to focus-fire, or even on rounds where they miss. That rule has done its work well. There are so many clear-cut cases where the spell can't be used that it seems pointless to look for border cases. If an enemy uses its action to cause the warlock to take immediate damage, close enough.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Narratively, perhaps it's just taking damage and thinking you know who's to blame that lets you get angry enough to fuel the spell. Not that the magic of the spell independently investigates the situation to make sure who's truly to blame. (I can post this as a separate answer if you think it's valid and different enough from your answer). So a caster could potentially be tricked into rebuking the wrong person they thought set a trap as part of an ambush... \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3 at 1:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes That would be a big change to the text, to say the warlock can Rebuke whomever they can convince the GM they thought hit them. It would be even messier than the rules now. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3 at 5:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ I took a stab at turning that idea into an answer. IDK if it's a good answer, but it's an option. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3 at 10:59
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The caster knows who to blame

And their anger at someone for damaging them in the moment, and their mental leap to the conclusion of who it was, is what fuels the magic and unlocks the capability to cast Hellish Rebuke. They have to believe their own thought process for the spell to work.

This is a possible narrative interpretation, not implied by the rules, but I think it gives us a framework for deciding which creature(s) are valid targets for the spell at the moment of any given damage source. (And I think it should work well in general, as long as players are ok with limits the DM sets on what their character could reasonable believe and react to in the moment.)

Slightly indirect ways to damage someone, like holding them in fire, are just as threatening and painful as attacking with weapons, and will provoke the same response. (The fight-or-flight response that triggers your ability to cast Hellish Rebuke.)

First of all, the caster has to know who damaged them in order to perform the somatic component; they don't just cast the spell and have the magic decide who's to blame. (Even if using subtle spell, you still need to have a target in mind that you can see.)

You point your finger, and the creature that damaged you is momentarily surrounded by hellish flames.

This is a bit of a stretch in how you read the targeting rule:

Casting Time: 1 reaction, which you take in response to being damaged by a creature within 60 feet of you that you can see

"Being damaged by a creature" most obviously reads as an absolute statement about fact, not belief: something the DM knows is true. But if we read it from the caster's perspective, they don't have any external oracle of facts. At best they have in-character belief about who damaged them, which might or might not be a true belief.

Philosophers have long debated what knowledge is; one of the better definitions is "a justified true belief". I highlight the justified part because we want to prevent the caster from inventing "beliefs" that they can't really justify and reacting against someone they don't like when they stub their own toe, without having a justification for jumping to the conclusion it was Bob who left that anvil on the floor.

The "true" part is what I'm leaving out. In the moment of reacting to damage, the caster must choose a target without benefit of any external decider of truth. Casting based on a "justified belief" seems reasonable to me.

If we set our standard of justification high enough, that would require direct evidence like seeing the creature acting to cause you damage, not just assuming they left a trap.

So yes, you can Hellish Rebuke someone holding you in fire. Just like you could Hellish Rebuke someone who slams you into a wall or into the floor.

The other interpretation is that you have to pick a target, but the magic decides whether your belief is a true belief; if you pick wrong, the spell would fail due to invalid target. I'm suggesting that if you have a valid justification for belief that they caused you damage, the spell just works. (But some parts of this answer could work even if the magic is checking for "truth" independently.)

If you do want the magic to verify truth, it's a warlock spell, so you might argue that the patron can do the checking. But Tieflings also get it as a racial, and Oathbreaker paladins get it. Bards can also get it via Magical Secrets. So it can be cast with no involvement from a patron. Possibly Asmodeus or the Nine Hells do the checking, if the rebuke literally comes from the fire of Hell? The Nine Hells are a place of Law, so it's appropriate. It's only Hellish, though.


Corner cases created by this interpretation:

  • Multiple creatures conspired to damage you: you can choose which one to cast at, as long as they all meet a sufficient blame threshold. e.g. multiple people grappling you in fire.

    You can only react once to a trigger, so you have to pick. But you do indeed have multiple valid options of who to target.

  • You're damaged by a trap you thought was set by someone, but it was actually set by someone else. (e.g. you're walking along and get ambushed by 1 creature. You rush toward or away from the ambusher, and run into a fire trap). So you can potentially be tricked into rebuking the "wrong" person.

    I think in this case, you haven't met the threshold of justification for your belief about who damaged you, so no valid target. Unless for some reason you think they cast a spell in the moment that caused damage, not realizing there was a trap at all.

    If someone pushed you into a trap, that would be different. It gets tricky again with a corner case like them startling you into falling.

  • Insane characters who believe false things, or extremely petty or vindictive over minor slights. (Justified belief, but only in their own mind). Probably unlikely to come up; we're talking about short term beliefs about immediate events.

  • Illusions / hallucinating characters (e.g. from phantasmal force) who see evidence they don't realize is false: This is another tricky case. If a Phantasmal Force illusion of a lightning bolt coming from a creature fools you, you might well cast Hellish Rebuke on the real creature. (The illusion was only of a spell effect, not an illusory creature.) If that's a city guard or worse a palace guard, whoever cast Phantasmal Force on you just got you in big trouble.

    I'm inclined to say that this should be allowed. A creature of sound mind could get angry and retaliate in response to damage, potentially doing damage to a creature that you weren't already fighting if you're that trigger-happy with Hellish Rebuke during what seems to be an ambush.

    If you can get a creature to believe someone else cast a lightning bolt at them, you've probably started a fight whether Hellish Rebuke is involved or not. Creatures aren't going to assume that their allies or most other creatures they know just attacked them out of nowhere. So I don't expect it to create exploits or world-building problems. And it's certainly interesting story-wise.


Magic could check for truth if you want it to. But it's interesting if it doesn't. The reasoning about someone damaging you "in the moment" in a way that makes the rebuker mad actually works whether or not the magic verifies truth, and in hindsight that's the actually important part of this answer as far as deciding what makes a valid target.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack: Yes, I started to realize that DM ruling on character belief while fleshing out the details. And when I got to the end I realized that I hadn't spent much time on answering the actual question about which where you draw the line for blame. I might re-edit this later, but the core idea was that if a creature's actions give you a flash of anger / blame and do damage, you can target them. This might or might not be a good idea. :P \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3 at 11:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you could boil this answer down to "justified belief." There is a lot of omissiable text here that does little lifting, and I almost didn't upvote it due to that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Apr 3 at 12:47
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Good question. In 5e there is no strict rules about how damage attribution works. Hellish Rebuke requires a DM ruling as to just how direct the damage has to be.

I actually haven't had to make this ruling before, but from my overall experience DMing and playing 5e I think it would be a tricky ruling to make on the spot. But I imagine most people agree that Hellish Rebuke can be used in response to an attack or spell that deals damage - that's certainly how it's worked in my games and I haven't had anyone question it or had it cause any issues.

Sorry that I don't have a definite "this is the line" for you, but there isn't anything in the rulebook for this one.

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If what the fighter did would be a crime today, then they did the damage

If I hold someone over a fire, I’m going to get arrested because I did the damage. If a police officer can work this out then magic surely can.

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