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My druid cast Heat Metal on an armor-wearing enemy's armor. Then the enemy cast Sanctuary. Then, when while Sanctuary was in effect, I used my bonus action to heat the armor.

The DM said I was targeting the enemy, and since I had failed the Sanctuary save, it dropped my whole spell. I argued I had targeted the armor, not the person. Also, I was heating the armor and the enemy getting the damage was a side effect of the damage, sort of like an AoE, which Sanctuary explicitly doesn't protect against.

So I'm looking some clarification on:

  1. Does targeting an enemy's items count as targeting that enemy?
  2. Does 'dropping' a multi-round spell’s damage over time drop the whole spell or just that round’s effect?
  3. Is an affected item’s damage considered AoE if the damage doesn't directly target the user?
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Somewhat related: Can I throw dynamite from inside the effects of sanctuary? - targeting an object they're wearing, with intent to damage them specifically, is a similar situation. But different because you can cast Fireball near someone with Sanctuary without the spell stopping you. Unlike if the creature under Sanctuary casts Fireball on an enemy (or arguably Heat Metal or throws a bomb), that would drop sanctuary. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16, 2022 at 1:51

5 Answers 5

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Your DM overruled the rules

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.

Heat metal does not target the warded creature, it targets an object. So Sanctuary does not protect against it.

Neither does the bonus action target the creature, it causes the object to deal fire damage.

Any creature in physical contact with the object takes 2d8 fire damage when you cast the spell. Until the spell ends, you can use a bonus action on each of your subsequent turns to cause this damage again.

To answer your sub-questions:

  1. There is no rule that says targeting an object a creature is carrying does count as targeting the creature as a whole, so it does not. Such a rule would cause a lot of issues, as there are many spells that can only target objects and do not make sense in the context of creatures, and that otherwise would be able to target creatures carrying the objects.

  2. Potentially negating the effects of a concentration spell does not end that spell. The only things that end a concentration spell are (1) the caster decides to end it, (2) the caster casts another concentration spell, (3) the caster takes damage and fails a Concentration check, and (4) the caster is incapacitated or killed.

  3. An item dealing damage to a creature touching it does not turn that damage into Area of Effect damage. The PHB on p. 204 defines this: A spell’s description specifies its area of effect, which typically has one of five different shapes: cone, cube, cylinder, line, or sphere.

Your DM was not correct in their interpretation. However, it is in their right to ignore the rules if they don’t like how they work. Page 4 of the DMG:

as a referee, the DM interprets the rules and decides when to abide by them and when to change them.

To be fair to your DM, Heat Metal is an outlier. In practice, it is used is to deal damage to a creature, exactly like other spells that target the creature and usually have a save. But there is no defense against Heat Metal. There are Q&As if it is too powerful because of that. Cast on someone in plate mail, which you cannot doff in under 25 rounds, it delivers a ridiculous 20d8 fire damage with no saving throw, entirely unbalanced compared to other second level spells. So there is some justification for your DM to dislike how this works, and use rulings to bring it in line.

In my experience, the best way to handle this is to accept the DMs ruling in the session and avoid getting mired down in debates that are not fun for anyone. Discuss it with them afterwards when you have more time to review the rules together and reach an agreement.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Love your analysis, and would love to know what you think if the creature has “Natural Armor” but the DM describes it as a Drider wearing scale mail and permitted the damage from Heat Metal to start? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 15, 2022 at 21:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FrankLaPlante Yes, the image of the Drider looks like scale mail, not like the natural armor that the stat block has. If I described it to the players as wearing armor, instead of saying “It looks like that, but without the armor”, I would allow them to target the armor. Technically it does not matter if he can’t take it off, as it would take too long anyways. But I likely would not describe it as wearing armor if it does not. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16, 2022 at 3:37
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The DM is not always right

But arguing at the table can lead to a bad session.

Here is the description of Sanctuary:

You ward a creature within range against attack. 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.

It is very specific about targeting a creature. Whereas the description for Heat Metal says:

Choose a manufactured metal object, such as a metal weapon or a suit of heavy or medium metal armor, that you can see within range. You cause the object to glow red-hot. Any creature in physical contact with the object takes 2d8 fire damage when you cast the spell.

The spell targets a metal object, not a creature. If a creature is touching the object, they can get hurt. But that's a by-product of the spell since the spell cannot target a creature, let alone a warded creature.

Also, Sanctuary doesn't force you to drop a running spell

Consider, if a caster casts Investiture of Flame on themselves (not an AOE spell). Later, a Sanctuary warded creature walks toward the caster. Per IoF:

Any creature that moves within 5 feet of you for the first time on a turn or ends its turn there takes 1d10 fire damage.

The caster is under no obligation to drop a spell because it can damage the warded creature. They are not making an attack (melee or spell) toward the warded creature so it doesn't come into play.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is from the Heat Metal spell: > On a failed save, the creature must choose a new target or lose the attack or spell.` In my case, there was no other enemy to target. Also, I wasn't really targeting them again. Just executing the effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – hydrian
    Jun 15, 2022 at 16:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @hydrian, And I agree with you. But since you weren't targeting a creature, or in my example, targeting at all, that rule doesn't come into play. The caster would not be forced to stop concentrating on a running spell merely because a sanctuary warded creature might get hurt from the effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Jun 15, 2022 at 17:48
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Tough call by the DM

As Dale already said, the DM is always correct and it is generally better for everyone if you accept it at the time. If it is a real issue, bring it up after and get clarification about how to handle it in the future.

As a DM I wouldn't have made that rule for a couple of reasons:

  • You cast the spell before Sanctuary was in effect
  • Heat Metal doesn't target a creature anyway.

Once the Heat Metal is up and running you're not targeting anything at all, just causing the spell's continuous effect. I'd allow Heat Metal to be cast AFTER Sanctuary was in effect.

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There is no RAW for the targeting

Dude, you've been done wrong.

And not by your DM, but by the rules system itself. The Sanctuary spell reads simply enough:

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.

All we need to do to adjudicate this is figure out, did you (perhaps inadvertently) target the enemy when you targeted their armor? And that would be a simple question if 5e had rules about what constitutes spell targeting, but it doesn't. We know that Making an Attack requires selecting a target (creature, object, or location), and that is pretty straightforward. But there are many, many spells that are not attacks (which, like heat metal, don't involve attack rolls) and in these cases what they actually target is not clearly defined. Most rules interactions assume that we know what 'the target' of a spell is, and yet we don't actually know what counts as the target of a spell (I highly recommend you read the linked Q&A). The spell description does not explicitly state what the target of a spell is, and we thus have to infer it.

The classic example is the Area of Effect spell fireball, which says (emphases mine):

A bright streak flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range and then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame. Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

Most people would say that the target of the spell is 'a point in space' and that the caster targets that point. But the creatures that take damage are explicitly referred to as targets - did the caster target them as well? Or did the spell target them independently of the caster? Can I include a creature under sanctuary in the area of my fireball without having to save against sanctuary? Can I do so if I explicitly choose the point in space to be centered on the protected creature? Does it matter whether or not I know that the creature is included in the area of the spell? Answering these questions requires interpreting the rules, precisely because the fireball spell does not tell us explicitly what the target(s) of the spell are.

Your case with heat metal is similar (emphases mine):

Choose a manufactured metal object, such as a metal weapon or a suit of heavy or medium metal armor, that you can see within range. You cause the object to glow red-hot. Any creature in physical contact with the object takes 2d8 fire damage when you cast the spell. Until the spell ends, you can use a bonus action on each of your subsequent turns to cause this damage again.

Nowhere in the spell description are we told explicitly 'you target X and only X when you cast this spell'. Rather, we have to infer what the target is, which is the source of your conflict with your DM. Here, you and your DM both appear to have what is called 'motivated reasoning'. You want to damage the enemy, so you are reasoning that you chose the only target of the spell as the enemy's armor, not the enemy, and have thus not violated the Sanctuary. Your DM wants the enemy to not be damaged, so they look at your claim like we might look at someone who says 'yeah, I shot the gun, but I didn't kill that guy - the bullet did'. To your DM, choosing to target the armor after the sanctuary was up is the same as choosing to damage the enemy - it is targeting the enemy with damage.

Unfortunately, since the 5e rules in general, and the heat metal spell in particular, do not tell us what the target of the spell is, we have no way of knowing which of you two is 'right'. In a case of conflicting interpretations, we have to assume that the DM's interpretation is correct. You can argue the point with them, but ultimately they get to decide how their world works.

However, you don't 'lose' your whole spell

On the other hand, even if the sanctuary would protect your enemy from your application of heat damage, that does not end your spell.

Sanctuary says:

On a failed save, the creature must choose a new target or lose the attack or spell.

Your DM (perhaps because of their motivated reasoning) is assuming that "lose the...spell" means that if you fail the Wisdom save on any of your subsequent bonus actions to have the object radiate heat damage, that the entire spell itself is canceled. This would be true if the save was made as you cast the spell (and if the sanctuary actually prevented you from targeting the armor, see above). But in your case you have already cast the spell; it has already 'stuck'. Your bonus action is not trying to target the spell itself on the armor, rather it is trying to assign more damage coming from the object. Even assuming that this counts as targeting, it is only this one bonus action that would be lost, not the whole spell itself.

This can be seen from the spell description, where it says you lose 'the attack' or spell. If you attack with a sword, the sword does not disappear on a failed save, nor do you conclude 'I guess I can never use that sword again'. Rather, what is lost is that particular attack. If a monster with multiattack failed a save against sanctuary on their first attack, they would not lose all the subsequent attacks, just the first one, and they could try to attack the sanctuaried defender with their next attack (attempting another save).

We should not expect the protection to be stronger against spells than against weapon attacks when it is included in the same clause. If the spell you used was coming into being when it came up against a failed save, the whole spell would be lost, but if you have a pre-existing spell, like a pre-existing sword, you don't lose the spell itself, merely one of its "attacks" (or in your case, one chance to assign damage).

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Your DM was correct

Because they’re the DM and the rules say the DM is always correct.

Heat Metal does not target creatures

It is specific that it targets objects:

Choose a manufactured metal object

Tough call but you get that in the big games.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What about the fact that Sanctuary was cast after Heat Metal? Does the bonus action provided by Heat Metal involve targeting at all? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 15, 2022 at 2:26

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