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In our last play session in Chult, the party faced a number of pterafolk, who used their Terror Dive on us:

If the pterafolk is flying and dives at least 30 feet straight toward a target, and then hits that target with a melee weapon attack, the target is frightened until the end of its next turn.

It wasn't clear whether "its next turn" meant the next turn of the pterafolk or the next turn of the target.

At the time, it was suggested that "its" referred to the target because that was closer in the sentence to "its". That 'felt right', but none of us are grammarians. My research since then seems to indicate that proximity is not a rule for ambiguous antecedents, and it is difficult to find interpretive guides because most of my Google results just return style advice that say "Don't write like that" rather than 'this is how you should interpret this'.

In terms of how the frightened condition works in D&D I haven't found any consistent principle, since, for example, the frightened condition caused by a fear spell or a Demilich's Howl ends on the turn of the target, while the fright caused by my Battlemaster's Menacing Attack ends at the end of the Battlemaster's next turn, not the target's.

Is there any guidance on how to interpret on whose turn the frightened condition ends?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The link you provide did not work for me. But it certainly must be true that the proximity rule cannot always hold. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 30, 2023 at 5:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Link fixed. The (false) rule is sometimes given as 'the most recent antecedant that makes sense - but even this does not hold. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 30, 2023 at 7:06

4 Answers 4

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There is no specific guidance on this in the rules

The only mention of the Pterafolk in the rules is the one from Tomb of Annihilation you cite. As you point out, the pronoun reference by "it" here is ambiguous, and grammar alone does not resolve this either, and the precedent from other fear effects to compare to is uneven.

Without specifics, the rule on this is the fallback rule, DMG p. 4: as a referee, the DM interprets the rules, or more explictly worded from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (also p. 4):

The DM Adjucates the Rules

The rules of D&D cover many of the twists and turns that come up in play, but the possibilities are so vast that the rules can't cover everything. When you encounter something that the rules don't cover or if you're unsure how to interpret a rule, the DM decides how to proceed, aiming for a course that brings the most enjoyment to your whole group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What this does “this” in your title mean? Please be careful with your ambiguous pronouns. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Apr 30, 2023 at 10:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM English is an inexact language. I would suggest advocating Lojban if you want all statements to be unambiguous. If we make the assumption that Groody was answering the actual question (not a far stretch), the "this" in the title refers to "whose turn the fright from terror dive end on". \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Apr 30, 2023 at 16:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I thought DaleM‘s comment was a tongue-in-cheek one and found it pretty funny. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 30, 2023 at 16:54
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It is ambiguous, but the results of each ruling are pretty similar.

Groody’s answer rightly observes the ambiguity in the feature. However, the net result in combat is going to be pretty similar because of how the frightened condition works. Frightened states:

  • A frightened creature has disadvantage on ability checks and attack rolls while the source of its fear is within line of sight.
  • The creature can't willingly move closer to the source of its fear.

Unless the frightened creature is using its reaction to do something outside of its own turn, both rulings give the same result: the frightened creature spends one of its own turns frightened.

It is only when the frightened creature would attempt to do something outside their own turn that it matters. Since frightened gives disadvantage on attack rolls, opportunity attacks would be made with disadvantage if they remain frightened until the end of the pterafolk’s turn. Similarly, the ruling matters if the frightened creature uses the Ready action to move later in the round.

These are the consequences to consider when deciding how to rule.

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While there is no specific guidance on which creature's turn is meant in the rules, there is something that makes the sentence clear to me at least that is missing from the examples in the links.

There are no less than three mentions of 'target' between 'pterafolk' and 'its'. Whatever the 'proximity rule' others have mentioned is and whether it is valid in any case or in this case, it doesn't make sense to look that far back for what 'its' is referring to.

The main thing though that leads me to believe it refers to the target is the fact that the part after the last comma can be read as a sentence on its own with the subject being 'The target':

The target is frightened until the end of its next turn.

Looking over the links provided here and doing my own search, I couldn't find a page claiming ambiguity with anything close to this. However the GM is the ultimate arbiter, so the decision is up to them.

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It's the target.

It clearly says:

the target is frightened until the end of its next turn.

However, there is always a chance that I could be wrong.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If what you quoted was the entire sentence, rather than just one clause, it would be clear. That sentence, however, starts with "If the pterafolk is flying..." and ends with "until the end of its next turn". \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 30, 2023 at 22:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1. Cherry picking phrases without acknowledging the full sentence isn't helpful for proving a point. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 1, 2023 at 14:28

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