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The Ancient and Adult Topaz Dragon Statblocks in Fizban's Treasury have a Legendary Action called Essential Reduction which reads:

The dragon targets a creature or an object [...]. The target must succeed on a [...] Constitution saving throw or take [...] necrotic damage [...].

And the rules for handling objects on page 185 of the PHB state:

Objects always fail Strength and Dexterity saving throws, and they are immune to effects that require other saves.

Having looked at these two statements it is unclear to me, what is supposed to happen when a Topaz Dragon chooses an object as the target for this ability. There are three options, each with a bit of reasoning behind them, however none of them seem to stand out as the correct one:

  1. The object always takes damage. This is similar to how the Shatter spell works as described in this question and seems to make the most sense initially, however neither the general rule about objects nor the specific wording of Essential Reduction support this theory.
  2. The object never takes damage. This would be inline with the rules about objects in the PHB, however if this were the case then including objects as targets in the ability would make no sense.
  3. The object has to make a saving throw and takes damage depending on the result. This seems to make the least sense intuitively, as objects can otherwise never make saves, however this is literally what the ability states. It says the target can be a creature or an object and that in either case it must make a save. The problem here is that we lack any sort of clarification, as to how such a save should be handled.

These contradictions lead me to believe, that something is wrong with this abilitiy's choice of words and leaves me with three theories about what went wrong in the development process, each of the theories corresponding with one of the three interpretations above:

  1. They forgot to mention that it specifically damages objects regardless of saves, like the Shatter spell does and the intention was for objects to always take the full damage when hit by it.
  2. The ability should't be able to target objects, as it can't deal damage to them. This theory is further supported by the fact, that a Topaz Dragon's Breath Weapon, which also has a Constitution saving throw and deals necrotic damage, does not mention effecting objects at all. However the Breath Weapon also can't make things crumble to dust, as Essential Reduction can, so maybe this is just a Red Herring.
  3. The developers want the object to make a Con Save, just like a creature would, but they forgot to explain how. If this was there intention, they missed adding a clarification along the lines of: "If the target is an object make the save as if it had Con modifier of +2".

What I am asking is which of these three options is the correct interpretation of this ability's effect on objects and why? Is there actually something wrong with the word choice the developers used or am I overlooking something here?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @TreeSpawned Maybe I'm missing something in your question. Why are you asking? Are you asking as a DM, how do I resolve this? Or does your PC have a pet topaz dragon? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Apr 9 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack I am a DM, though this a purely hypothetical scenario about the mechanics of this ability. I am asking what RAW happens when an object is the target of this ability, however as RAW doesn't really make sense, atleast to me, I am also asking what the developer's intend in this case most likely was, which I presume they didn't word correctly. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ my two cents: what if a secondary type (force) is added to the current necrotic damage of the "Essential Reduction" legendary action? IMVHO this may partially fit with "Embodiment of Decay" description where it says "... to reduce crumbling structures and diseased plants to dust" \$\endgroup\$
    – sigmud
    Commented Apr 9 at 13:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sigmud The damage type is not a problem as objects are not generally immune to necrotic damage, only to psychic and poison. The Con save is the problem. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9 at 13:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK< thanks, comment removed. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9 at 17:34

2 Answers 2

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That they can target objects with Essential Decay does not seem to be a mistake

There is ample evidence in the description that topaz dragons destroy objects.

For instance, under Embodiment of Decay, the description says (emphasis added):

While generally not malicious, topaz dragons embody decay. They view destruction as a natural means of clearing the way for new creation and growth, much as a forest fire clears dead wood, replenishes the soil, and allows the forest to regrow even healthier than before. To this end, topaz dragons use their power to reduce crumbling structures and diseased plants to dust, clearing the way for new growth and construction.

Designer intent

You ask:

Is there actually something wrong with the word choice the developers used or am I overlooking something here?

And in comments you clarify:

I am also asking what the developer's inten[t] in this case most likely was, which I presume they didn't word correctly.

Is there something wrong with the developers' word choice?

Well, maybe that's in the eye of the beholder. Clearly, you feel there is, so there is. Likely, if one DM (you), is confused by the wording, then perhaps others are.

And I, for one, completely get your point. Yeah, there's an inconsistency there.

But it's a big ruleset, written by many people over the course of years, based on fifty years of game history, with rules of varying detail and scope. There are bound to be many, many inconsistencies. (And there are. So many....) This is one of them. However, the rules also give ways to resolve the inconsistencies.

What was most likely the developers' intent?

Well, barring developer statements, we don't know, exactly, but we do know a few things:

  • Obviously the topaz dragon is intended to be able to use Essential Reduction on objects, not only does it say so in the stat block, but in multiple places in the description.
  • Maybe they didn't think about the rule in the PHB about objects and saving throws. Seems likely to me.
  • The developers have specifically provided rules for resolving contradictions, for instance: "If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins."
  • The developers provide rules for objects that discuss a much more hand-wavey approach to objects than to creatures, for instance, in the DMG it says "You can track a[n] . . . object’s hit points if you like", implying that one way to resolve Essential Reduction is to just skipping tracking hit points of the object all-together.

Are you overlooking something?

I think you've read the various texts correctly.

Which of your three choices

Definitely not #2. I'd guess #1, over #3, simply because it's faster and easier, and typically there's not much narrative value in having an object make a saving throw (with the possible exception of when the object belongs to the PCs, see below). I think that's also supported by the DMG text that essentially says, "assign hit points to objects if you want".

How to handle it

So how to handle what happens when the topaz dragon targets an object with Essential Reduction?

You might wish to simply fill in the blank. For your own games, just add an interpretation that objects always fail the saving throw, or anything else that makes sense for your game.

The DM should feel free to choose an approach that makes narrative sense. The rules in the DMG for objects are there to establish rules for dealing with objects attacked by the PCs:

When characters need to saw through ropes, shatter a window, or smash a vampire’s coffin, the only hard and fast rule is this: given enough time and the right tools, characters can destroy any destructible object.

and:

When time is a factor, you can assign an Armor Class and hit points to a destructible object. You can also give it immunities, resistances, and vulnerabilities to specific types of damage.

In the case of a monster attacking an object, let the narrative be your guide.

Regarding the quote from the PHB:

Objects always fail Strength and Dexterity saving throws, and they are immune to effects that require other saves.

First of all, this is a general rule, and the specifics of the Essential Decay beat it. But also, this is describing how players interact with objects. What you are asking about is a monster attacking an object. It makes a huge difference. The DMG's section on objects is full of phrases like "use common sense", "as always, use your best judgment". As an example, it says:

You can track a[n] . . . object’s hit points if you like, or you can simply decide how long the object can withstand whatever weapon or force is acting against it.

The point being, the DM need not consider hit points or saving throws at all, but instead, is given the guidance to use their best judgement when resolving attacks on objects. And that's for PCs attacking objects. When a monster does it, the narrative is more important than the mechanics.

Objects that don't belong to the PCs

A likely target of Essential Reduction, assuming an object is being targeted, might well be something like a bridge that the PCs might cross. In which case, assign it an amount of hit points (or just the number of times the dragon would have to hit it with ER), have the dragon use the legendary action target the bridge, and narrate the results:

The DM might say: "The dragon looks at the stone bridge you guys just came across, and its eyes glow. In front of you, the bridge seems to suddenly age: cracks appear in the surface, chunks fall out. Whatever the dragon did, it looks like if it did it again, maybe the bridge will fall."

Who even cares if the bridge got a saving throw? It's certainly not immune to Essential Reduction, but there's no need for the DM to slow things down with to-hits from a monster to a wall, or saving throws.

Objects that belong to the PCs

However, if for some strange reason there is an object that matters to the PCs, that they've foolishly left in front of a topaz dragon, by all means, give the object a saving throw, if it makes things more interesting.

The DM might say, "Alice, the dragon has noticed that you've left your crown on the stump. The dragon is gazing intently at it, and its eyes begin to glow. Make a constitution saving throw on the crown's behalf. Since it's metal, it's pretty sturdy. Roll a D20 and add 4."

(In this hypothetical example, the DM just mentally thought, hmmm, it's metal, give it a constitution of 18, that's +4.)

Conclusion

You're unlikely to need to consistently narrate the consequences of the topaz dragon using Essential Reduction. Make a ruling that makes sense in the moment and move on. If the item is something essential to the PCs, and giving it a saving throw adds drama, by all means let the PCs make a saving throw on the object's behalf. Otherwise, do whatever moves the narrative forward. For objects that aren't significant to the PCs, there's probably little need for a saving throw.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This a good answer explaining how to resolve this ability in a pratical, narrative focused way. However it doesn't explain what the RAW implications of this ability are and why, which is what I am looking for. You say that objects are "certainly not immune to Essential Reduction", where does it say that mechanically? Or that "this is a general rule, and the specifics of the Essential Decay beat it", but do they really? I don't see it that way and would need someone to explain this thought process to me. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9 at 13:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also note that there is no inherit difference between a Player and a Monster interacting with an object, as this Qestion explains that the rules found in the PHB apply both to monsters and players. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've revised to try to address your concerns. Regarding the inherent difference between a PC and a monster interacting with an object; I think the more salient point is that the rules for objects in general are much less defined. Which makes a lot of sense, lest we spend all our time assigning hit points to objects. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Apr 9 at 16:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TreeSpawned 5e ditched the separation between flavor and mechanics. Everything in the dragon's description is rules. "topaz dragons use their power to reduce crumbling structures" is just as much a game rule as anything else in the description. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Apr 9 at 16:58
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Specific beats general

There is a general rule that objects are immune to effects that require a Constitution save.

There is a specific rule that Essential Reduction (with its Constitution saving throw) can damage objects.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Dale, having dealt with a wall of stone last night when the party's druid put one up to split the enemy tactically, I'd suggest fleshing out this answer with an example. (Wall of stone would be a decent one, but certainly not the only one). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9 at 12:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you please further elaborate on the specific rule you are referring to? Because the ability, as far as I understand it, doesn't make clear how it can damage objects. Essential Reducation says it can force an object to make a Con Save and it would take damage on a failed one. However it is impossible for an object to make a Saving Throw as it doesn't have ability scores. So what exactly is the rule here? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9 at 12:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TreeSpawned the effect of the spell is more specific than the general rule about how objects behave. Thus, the effect of the spell over rules the general case. \$\endgroup\$
    – GcL
    Commented May 7 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GcL Essential Reduction is basically the reverse of a spell like Chain Lightning, which can also target both creatures and objects, but asks them to max a Dex save, which they then always fail and take damage. Essential Reduction however asks for a Con Save, which objects always succeed. So RAW the effect would not deal damage to objects, which then begs the question why you can target objects with it in the first place. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 10 at 14:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TreeSpawned Objects are, in general, immune to effects that require a con save such as poison. That is different that automatically succeeding a saving throw. This is a specific effect where objects are called out as not immune and require a con saving throw. \$\endgroup\$
    – GcL
    Commented May 10 at 14:33

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