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The corrosive form trait of black pudding (MM page 241) is as follows:

Corrosive Form. A creature that touches the pudding or hits it with a melee attack while within 5 feet of it takes 4 (1 d8) acid damage.

I can't figure out how exactly it works. Suppose for example that another creature is within 5 ft. of the black pudding:

  1. How many times in a round can the creature touch it? What does "touch" exactly mean?
  2. What if the creature is grappled by the black pudding? Does the creature take damage only at the beginning of the contact, or does it takes damage each round? And if so, how many times?
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2 Answers 2

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The creature takes damage every time it touches the black pudding, including with a melee weapon (as long as it's within 5 feet when it does so).

The issue is what counts as a touch.

Clearly counts

  1. Creature makes a melee attack while within 5 feet and hits. Could be with a weapon, could be unarmed, could be a melee spell attack. Doesn't matter. Got extra attack 4 and action surge and hit with everything? You take 40 damage (8x5).
  2. Creature's controller explicitly says "I touch the pudding" for any other reason. Such as poking it with a finger to decide if it's alive.

Likely Counts

  1. Creature casts a touch-ranged spell that requires a saving throw (so not a melee attack) on the creature.
  2. Creature tries to grapple or shove the pudding without any form of telekinesis. Hard to grapple something without touching it, and grapple/shove are specifically forms of attacks (despite not following the usual conventions). Expect variation in rulings around grapples.

More on grapples

In the grapple case, I'd say that the person grappling a black pudding takes damage at the start of the grapple and then at start of every one of their turns that they maintain the grapple, but they could relinquish the grapple before taking the acid damage[1].

When a creature is grappled by the pudding, I'd expect it to work like being grappled--the other creature takes damage at the start of the grapple and at the start of each of the pudding's turns while grappled. Or their own turns, I don't really care which. But I can also see a ruling that says that the ability only functions when the other creature initiates the touch. There doesn't seem to be clear text saying one or the other.

I'd accept as a ruling that the creature (grappler or grapplee) takes damage once when the grapple is established and then any time it tries to escape the grapple. I'd push back against a ruling that said that the creature takes damage every turn or "continuously", because those break the simultaneity of rounds abstraction.

[1] This isn't required by the rules and I wouldn't complain if a DM ruled otherwise. This is merely what I would rule as a DM who wants to err on the side of generosity while still maintaining rough parity between PCs and non-PCs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting, the description of the black pudding includes: "Slow Death. An ooze kills its prey slowly. Some varieties, such as black puddings and gelatinous cubes, engulf creatures to prevent escape. The only upside of this torturous death is that a victim’s comrades can come to the rescue before it is too late." So the pudding somehow engulfs. Absent an "engulf" mechanic, that seems like an ooze-initiated grapple. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Apr 12 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack good catch. I'll remove that note. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 12 at 20:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answer, but can we say that this feature is not very clear at least? It leaves open various interpretations. \$\endgroup\$
    – Leonardo
    Apr 12 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Leonardo I don't consider it any more unclear than most DM-facing features (ie monster features). The one reading it is the one whose interpretations matter. I think the only unclear part is grappling, and there it's clear (at least to me) that you should take the damage. The exact timing is slightly unclear but also not incredibly important. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 12 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack: NetHack actually did introduce a standardized engulfing mechanic for all monsters that can engulf. Unfortunately, that game is very loosely based on AD&D 2e (or thereabouts, anyway), and you'd need to fiddle with it quite a bit to get it to work in a 5e game, so this is very far into homebrew territory. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Apr 13 at 4:42
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It works like it says it does

Here 'touch' is an event, not a state

To elaborate on a point that @justhalf raises in a comment, when corrosive form says that damage is taken by a creature "that touches" the pudding, we know that "touch" here means an event, an instance. "That touches" does not mean is touching; it is not a continuous process. We know this because the form does not state when the damage is taken, so we can assume it is taken at the instant the event occurs (or is initiated). In 5e, a source of ongoing damage has to tell us on whose turn it is taken and when in that turn it is applied. For example, for damage from alchemist's fire, "On a hit, the target takes 1d4 fire damage at the start of each of its turns." Because damage from being on fire is continuous, we are told to apply it on the target's turn, and at the start of the turn. Since the corrosive form does not include this information, we can conclude that the damage from it occurs only at the moment a touch first happens, and each time it happens, but not continually for a creature that continues to touch the pudding.

A creature that hits the pudding with a melee attack takes damage

As it says. This would include melee spell attacks with a range of touch.

A creature that touches the pudding takes damage

"Touch" as a game term in 5e indicates a range, not an act, a type of attack, or another specific mechanical interaction. So using 'touch' as a verb here ('touches the pudding') has no special game meaning, and must be interpreted as we would the common English expression. In this case, if a player declares that their character is attempting to touch the pudding (perhaps before they realize it is a monster with corrosive form), the DM would simply allow the action to complete, and then describe the result of one touch and announce the damage. If for some strange reason the character chose to touch the pudding again on their same turn, the number of touches permitted would fall under the Object Interaction rules. The first touch would be a "free" interaction (like 'tapping the floor with a pole'). The second would require a main action. For a third touch on the same turn, the character would have to find a way to use multiple actions in a turn.

A PC touching a pudding could also include a spell delivered by touch that is not an attack. Some touch-range spells, after all, grant saves and don't require attacks. In this case successfully casting the spell would likely imply that you touched the pudding once, forcing it to attempt the save (although this DM would make an exception for spells that require a Dex save - in that case, the pudding succeeding at its save would imply that you had failed to actually touch it).

Touching would also include an attempt to grapple the pudding. Grappling in 5e is an attack, but does not make an attack roll - and thus a successful grapple does not 'hit the pudding with a melee attack'. Since the rules for grappling state that "Using at least one free hand, you try to seize the target by making a grapple check" this would also be a touch. Some DM interpretation is required for whether a grapple attempt counts as a touch, or whether the attempt would need to be successful before the attacker took damage from the pudding. On the other hand, the pudding has little reason to contest the attempt, so it could just be automatically successful.

Once you had grappled a pudding, though, you would not take further damage. The pudding's ability damages "a creature that touches" it - not a creature that is touching it (and see the initial paragraph of this answer, about continual damage effects). You could maintain your grapple over multiple rounds without taking new damage. If you dropped the grapple and later resumed it, however, that would be a new instance of touching it and would force a new damage roll.

Nothing says you take damage when the pudding touches you

The pudding's corrosive form says "A creature that touches the pudding...takes 4 (1d8) acid damage." This in no way implies that a creature which the pudding touches also takes this damage. In English, and in 5e rules, syntax matters. You get an opportunity attack when "a hostile creature that you can see moves out of your reach." The existence of this rule does not imply that you also get an opportunity attack when you move out of the reach of a hostile creature. You cannot exchange subject and object in a rule and claim that the rule still applies. The pudding does acid damage when its pseudopod attack touches you because the attack says so; if the pudding touches you without making an attack, there is no associated damage.

Can the pudding even grapple?

A pudding has access to "the actions available to all creatures". But in the absence of a special feature granting it the ability to grapple (such as possessed by, for example, the roper), the pudding would have to follow the same rules for grappling that PC's use. And, as cited above, grappling requires "using a free hand" - but the pudding doesn't have any hands. RAW, it cannot initiate a grappling attack.

As Darth Psuedonym says in a comment, in the real world dogs are trained to bite and hold, and should be permitted grapple attacks even though they neither have hands nor have this ability specifically granted by their stat block. This point is actually addressed in a SAC ruling which says:

Is the grappling rule in the Player’s Handbook usable by a handless creature? The grappling rule (PH, 195) was written for a grappler with at least one hand, but a DM can easily adapt the rule for a handless creature that has a bite or an appendage, such as a tentacle, that could reasonably seize someone. A wolf, for example, could plausibly try to seize a person with its bite, and the animal wouldn’t be able to use its bite attack as long as it held onto the person.

DM's are thus encouraged to adapt the grappling rule for handless creatures, and the question then becomes whether the black pudding's psuedopod "could reasonably seize someone". In the Monster Manual there are five creatures with psuedopods. For three of these (black pudding, gray ooze, ochre jelly) the psuedopod does bludgeoning plus acid damage, and no mention is made of any grapple ability. Two others do grapple, but apparently not with their psuedopod: for the mimic this ability to grapple comes from its adhesive trait, while for the gelatinous cube it derives from its engulf ability.

In contrast, looking at other creatures in the MM that do explicitly have grappling as a consequence of their attack, the attacks themselves are described as Bite (9), Constrict (8), Tentacle (or tentacles) (5), Claws (3), Tail (2), or some other appendage or weapon (1 each: Smother, Pincer, Hooked Polearm, Chain, Whelm, Web Garrote, Pincer Staff, Fist, Talons, Tendril, Swallow). For me, none of these sound like they operate like a psuedopod. It appears that a psuedopod can batter, but not grab.

Thus, I don't think it is "reasonable" that a psuedopod can seize someone, permitting a black pudding a handless grapple. On the other hand, the lore of oozes in the MM says that puddings and cubes both 'engulf' their prey, making it strange that the gelatinous cube has a grapple attack in its stat block tied to the engulf ability (but not its psuedopod), while the pudding does not. The illustration of the pudding appears to have it in some sort of full-body attack on an ogre. While not RAW, it certainly would be a reasonable house rule to grant a pudding a grapple attack tied to an Engulf action. To do so, however, a DM would need to decide whether this was an action or a bonus action, what the DC was, and whether there were any additional consequences of the grapple, using the gelatinous cube as a model.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The comparison between "touch" and "move" is not comparable, I think. Depends on whether you read "touch" as "is in contact with" (which does not have direction of initiation) or not. \$\endgroup\$
    – justhalf
    Apr 13 at 8:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @justhalf I am not trying to compare 'touch' and 'move'. I am attempting to show that syntax matters in rules. "A creature that touches the pudding" is not the same as "a creature that the pudding touches". While this may be equivalent in the RW, it is not how 5e rules are written. If "touch" meant 'is in contact with', the rules would have said "A creature that is touching the pudding and they would have had to specify when the damage is taken, as they do for every other source of continuous damage. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 13 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ If it can't grapple, how does it engulf? "Slow Death. An ooze kills its prey slowly. Some varieties, such as black puddings and gelatinous cubes, engulf creatures to prevent escape. The only upside of this torturous death is that a victim’s comrades can come to the rescue before it is too late." \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Apr 13 at 20:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack That is a lower-case-e engulf in its lore, not an Upper-Case-E Engulf in its stat block (like the gelatinous cube and shambling mound have). As such, it is not an ability that a DM typically needs to know how to run in an encounter. In context, it likely refers to the fact that once a pudding has knocked a target unconscious with its pseudopod attack, it surrounds and engulfs the body to absorb it before the victim can wake up in d4 hours. The pseudopod is an attack, the engulf is to feed on an unconscious prey. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 13 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I agree that I don't need the discussion of syntax to describe how the pudding works as a standalone answer. But OP asks "What does touch mean?" and the accepted answer concludes (wrongly, IMO) that you take damage when the pudding touches you. An aside on how English works is necessary to correct the accepted answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 27 at 18:09

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