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What's the exact RAW order of interaction between an abjurer with the Arcane Ward feature casting absorb elements in response to a fireball?

The curiosity comes up because you have two conflicting things happening at the same time; Xanathar's Guide to Everything has an optional rule to cover simultaneous effects that I think is good guidance, but there's still a bit of a dilemma.

It's been clarified that if an Arcane Ward exists, and you would take damage, you don't, and it takes the damage instead. The logic follows then that since you take no damage, the damage isn't reduced by any resistance you may have to its damage type.

Absorb elements is a reaction spell that you cast when you take elemental damage to give yourself resistance to that instance; but as soon as you cast it, an Arcane Ward exists...

So what happens in regards to my HP, the resistance from the spell I just cast, and the Ward's HP, in what order?

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2 Answers 2

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What happens depends on the amount of damage and a bit of DM fiat

There is the simple case, i.e. the Ward takes all the damage, and the complicated case where you take some of it. Let's discuss them individually.

When the Ward takes all the damage

Since the Ward took all the damage, and you didn't take any, there is nothing to trigger Absorb Elements. This is similar to how you don't have to make a Constitution saving throw to maintain your concentration. This is clarified in the Sage Advice Compendium on the DC of the Constitution save.

[...] In contrast, a feature like the wizard’s Arcane Ward can take damage for you, potentially eliminating the need to make a Constitution saving throw or, at least, lowering the DC of that save.

When you take some of the damage

There are two situations where this can happen, either your Ward didn't have any HP left, or it didn't have enough HP, making you take the excess damage. However, the outcome is the same, at least for Absorb Elements.

The first important bit is that, even if you get to cast Absorb Elements, you don't share your resistances with the Ward. This is clarified in the Sage Advice Compendium on Arcane Ward and temporary hit points/damage resistance. It also clarifies the order of damage reduction:

[...] The ward takes damage first. Any leftover damage is taken by the wizard and goes through the following game elements in order: (1) any relevant damage immunity, (2) any relevant damage resistance, (3) any temporary hit points, and (4) real hit points.

Annoyingly, this means that even if you were immune to the damage, your Ward would still lose HP. Even more annoyingly, it also means your level 14 feature Spell Resistance doesn't extend to your Ward. This is also clarified in Sage Advice Compendium on Spell Resistance.

The abjurer, not the Arcane Ward, gains the resistance at 14th level.

This means that the DM fiat is less important, but it is still there. As an example: You've been hit by a Fireball and take 20 fire Damage. The Ward only has 10 HP and thus you will take 10 points of damage. This allows you to cast Absorb Elements as a Reaction. You now have resistance, and your Arcane Ward regains 2 HP (assuming we didn't upcast).

This is where the DM fiat comes in, and one of two things happen:

  • Your DM rules that the Ward won't be triggered again. Maybe they consider it too late, since you are about to take the damage, or won't let it trigger twice on the same source of damage.
  • Your DM rules that the Ward will protect you, and you reduce the remaining damage further by 2.

Assuming the Ward protects you: This leaves 8 fire damage, which is then halved because of your resistance. Therefore you take 4 damage.

Alternatively you would take 10 fire damage, reduced to 5 damage, but would have a Ward with 2 HP for next time.

If it's just 1 damage difference, does it matter?

As always: It might. The difference between 1 and none is great.

If you could negate the damage with 1 HP left, it obviously matters.

Or if you were about to take just 1 damage, it would save you from having to make a Concentration check. If it's more damage, you could upcast to bolster the Ward further, and possibly reduce the remaining damage to zero.

"But, hold on" you might say, "If the damage gets reduced to zero, I wouldn't take any damage, didn't you just argue that removes the trigger for Absorb elements?".

I did, but since the damage reduction is a result of casting the spell, it would be nonsensical for it to remove its own trigger. The same problem would arise without the Arcane Ward if you took 1 fire damage and then cast Absorb Elements. This would also reduce the damage to zero, since you round down.

And as Ryan pointed out in his answer, Shield is designed to "remove its own trigger". Potentially making the spell worthless, if we concluded that spells aren't allowed to be cast if they remove their own trigger.

In conclusion

By RAW the Ward never shares your Resistances and takes the damage first.

There is a corner case with Absorb elements, were it might allow you to replenish Ward HP while taking damage, this however depends on your DM.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting. My answer interprets the rules in the core rulebooks (and XGtE), but I hadn't considered the SAC. It seems the SAC disagrees with my conclusions. I don't hate either interpretation, and honestly, I think it's an underspecified area of the rules, similar to the case of when Shield cancels a hit while other on-hit effects are in play. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 1:23
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In order to answer this question, we need to establish a few things first.

Absorb elements and Arcane Ward have simultaneous triggers

Arcane Ward triggers "whenever you take damage", while absorb elements is cast as a reaction taken "when you take acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage". Despite the slight differences in wording, these triggers are simultaneous for any damage that satisfies both conditions. Using only the core rulebooks, the ordering of simultaneous effects is left up to the DM (by default). Since incoming damage usually happens on the turn of an enemy creature, the XGtE rules for simultaneous effects also generally let the DM decide the resolution order.

If the DM decides to resolve Arcane Ward before absorb elements, then you are out of luck, because the ward will take the damage before you have the opportunity to gain resistance to it. So for the remainder of the question, let us assume that the DM resolves the effects in whatever order is most favorable to the player.

Modifiers to damage apply before you "take" the damage

In general, any relevant damage modifiers are applied before you take the damage in question. Consider the example given in the section on damage resistance and vulnerability (emphasis added):

For example, a creature has resistance to bludgeoning damage and is hit by an attack that deals 25 bludgeoning damage. The creature is also within a magical aura that reduces all damage by 5. The 25 damage is first reduced by 5 and then halved, so the creature takes 10 damage.

The attack deals 25 damage, but the creature only takes 10 damage because of the various modifiers to the damage. This means that for practical purposes, a wizard's Arcane Ward effectively "inherits" all the wizard's own damage modifiers, since those modifiers are applied before the damage is redirected to the ward.

(Note: For an alternative interpretation, see the other answer by The Blest.)

Absorb elements, like shield, applies retroactively to the triggering effect

As we've established, damage resistance is applied before taking damage. This means absorb elements is triggered after damage resistance would be applied, yet it applies damage resistance "retroactively", forcing a recalculation of the damage. This is very similar to the well-established example of shield triggering in response to being hit and then retroactively turning the triggering hit into a miss. While it forces a recalculation of the damage taken, this ultimately doesn't change the final resolution order: you cast absorb elements and gain resistance to the incoming damage, and then you recalculate the damage taking into account that resistance, and finally you take the reduced damage.

Having established all of this, we're now prepared to explain the interaction of absorb elements with Arcane Ward.

Resolving absorb elements first reduces the damage to the Arcane Ward

If we choose to resolve absorb elements first, then the wizard casts the spell and gains resistance to the incoming damage. We now recalculate the damage taken by the wizard. This concludes the resolution of the effect of absorb elements, so we move on to the Arcane Ward, which takes the newly reduced damage in place of the wizard.

For example, suppose the wizard has an Arcane Ward with 6 HP and is hit by a fireball that does 32 fire damage. In response to taking this damage, the wizard casts absorb elements as a reaction. The wizard gains fire damage resistance, and the damage taken is recalculated with this resistance. In addition, the ward regains 4 hit points since the wizard cast a 2nd level abjuration spell. The wizard is now taking 16 fire damage, which triggers the Arcane Ward. The Arcane Ward takes 10 of this damage (reducing it to 0 HP), and the remaining 6 damage is taken by the wizard's own HP. (The damage resistance has already been applied, so we don't apply it a second time to this 6 damage.)

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