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In the Starter set and Basic Rules, it mentions "character", "non-player character", "player character", "monster", "creature", and maybe other terms I've missed. Which of these terms are interchangeable?

Some examples from the Basic Rules PDF:

  • Page 105: Conditions Appendix refers only to creatures.

  • Chapter 11: all spell descriptions refer to creatures, but occasionally other terms such as humanoids.

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Creature is basically every living, breathing (or undead or constructs) thing big enough to be considered at least CR0 (give or take).

It's important to note that "creature" does not get a precise definition in the rules. However, we can infer from BD&D p4 that it includes both the PCs and the creatures they encounter.

Sometimes the adventurers and other creatures do their best to kill or capture each other in combat.

Thus we can say with some certainty (and examining how the word is used throughout the text) that creature is the broadest definition of living thing. If a spell, effect or condition affects "creatures" then it affects everything it targets.

  • Character is ambiguous by default and is used by itself to refer to both non-player characters and player characters depending on context. When it is ambiguous to which it refers, it should be clarified to be player or non-player.

  • Player character refers to characters controlled by players and is a subset of both humanoid and creature.

  • Non-player character (NPC) is usually a humanoid, but can sometimes refer to all DM controlled creatures. It is exclusive of PC and is a subset of creature.

  • Monster is exclusive of NPC and PC usually, but is still a subset of creature.

  • Humanoid is a subset of creature, and is generally inclusive of PCs and NPCs (though not always). It refers to anything even vaguely humanoid. Relevant quote:

    The most common humanoid races are the ones most suitable as player characters: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Almost as numerous but far more savage and brutal, and almost uniformly evil, are the races of goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and kobolds. (BD&D DM book 2)

So in summary, when it says "creature", it means everyone, if it says "humanoid" it generally means one of those races. If it says "player" or "character" or "player character" it means a player controlled character. If it says "non player character" it means a DM controlled one (could be monster or NPC though).

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    \$\begingroup\$ NPC is not a subset of creature as sentient magic items can be considered to be NPCs under the DM's control (DMG: Sentient Magic Items), and yet are not creatures. \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Apr 26, 2019 at 17:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your 3rd bullet greatly lends itself to the conclusion that the NPC entries are not in fact creatures in the traditional sense but rather templates to be added to a creature block. Which is why I don't allow transmutation into the blocks from the NPC section, personally anyway. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Aug 21, 2019 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, NPC is a broader term. I am not even sure Monster and NPC are exclusive, and definitely NPCs are not a subset of creatures (although it is mostly contained within creatures) \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Jul 3, 2020 at 0:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another criteria, given by Jeremy Crawford: "a creature has one of the types listed in the Monster Manual (p. 6–7)." \$\endgroup\$ Aug 19, 2022 at 21:57
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It's pretty consistent

Creatures can be

  • creatures in the common sense of the word, often harmless and small
  • monsters (which have stat blocks). Humanoids are a subtype of monster
  • player characters (which have race, class and levels on character sheets)

Characters can be

  • player characters, only controlled by the players
  • nonplayer characters, commonly controlled by the DM

Characters are about the role someone plays in the story and about having a personality. Not all characters must be creatures, although nearly all are, and the vast majority are humanoids, too. Not all creatures are characters, most monsters and harmless creatures are not.

The core player character races are humanoid, too, but PCs are not generally considered to be monsters, which are the DMs domain.


Creatures

The game uses the plain English reading for game terms when no specific mechanical definition is supplied, as is the case here. The dictionary primarily defines creature as

any large or small living thing that can move independently

There are a large number of creatures that are too harmless to be categorized as a monster (even of challenge rating 0), and for which the game does not provide game statistics, such as individual small insects, earthworms, puppy dogs and baby kittens.

These are not inanimate and therefore not objects under the game's rules, nor are they points in space. If they were not creatures in game terms, you would not be able to attack them, target them with spells like invisbility, or damage them with area effects like fireball.

Everyday things in D&D 5e work the way we expect them to, and such mundane, everyday creatures therefore need to be creatures under the game's mechanics.

However, this can also causes issues: some spells affect a limited number of creatures or are triggered by creatures. Do you want your Alarm to go off because of an ant? Tiny Hut to fail due to meal worms in your flour rations? Rope Trick's space blocking you due to lice in your hair? A canary you carry in a small cage to detect poison gas or live crickets in a jar to feed your familiar being left behind when you misty step? A good rule of thumb for play is to just ignore harmless, diminuitive creatures unless you care about them.

The game is fantastic, and it is not limited to everyday living creatures. Both monsters and player characters (which have many unusual abilities) are creatures, too.

Monsters

For monsters, the Monster Manual says on page 4:

A monster is defined as any creature that can be interacted with and potentially fought and killed.

So clearly, monsters are creatures. Monsters are grouped into different types (MM, page 6), like beast, giant, or humanoid. Some of them are not living, but still are creatures, for example those of undead or construct type. Some of them may have a subtype tag (MM, p. 7), for example humanoid is broken down into human, elf, orc, goblin etc.

Player Characters

The rules don't actually state explicitly that player characters are creatures, as this is all too obvious. It's so obvious that it feels a bit silly to demonstrate (which is likely why the rules omit it):

  • The rules for creatures in the combat chapter of the PHB only make sense if the player characters are creatures. For a concrete example, the language of the Help action states "You can lend your aid to another creature", "another" implying that "you", the player character, are a creature too.

Nonplayer Characters (NPCs)

The DMG defines NPCs on p.89 as

any character controlled by the Dungeon Master

In this context read character as "anyone that plays a part in the game's story". Most NPCs are creatures, but NPCs are not limited to being creatures. Sentient magic items function as NPCs (DMG p. 213) and are objects, not creatures. There are also a lot of creatures that are not NPCs, including the PCs and most monsters. Appendix B of the Monster Manual lists humanoid monsters that are NPCs. Im sum, NPC is an independent concept that is overlapping with creature, but cares more about personality and story.

Characters

Both Player Characters and Nonplayer Characters are characters. In the PHB, the term is synonymous with Player Character, as the Index on p. 315 says:

player character. See character

In the DMG it often refers to player characters, sometimes as above to characters in general (both PC and NPC), or just to NPCs, so the use of the term is not consistent. Most of the time however, you can tell from the context what is meant.

Non-creatures

The determining characteristic of creatures that are dangerous enough to be fought is that they have full game statistics, including size, ability scores, speed, hit points, armor class. For monsters, these come in form of a stat block and include a challenge rating, for player characters, they come in the form of their character sheet, for creature NPCs it can be either.

There are a number of entities in the game that share something with creatures and may have partial game statistics beyond objects hp and AC, but are not creatures under the game rules, which often causes questions. For example (the list is not exhaustive):

  • Souls or spirits. In rare cases souls and spirits can become creatures, for example the Ghost is an undead monster that also is a soul. In nearly all cases, however, creatures have souls (DMG p. 24), so the creature consists of the soul together with the body. The soul by itself is not a creature, and what it exactly is remains undefined.

  • Unseen Servant. This spell creates a shapeless force that shares some attributes with a creature, such as having AC, 1 hit point, speed and Strength, but it is not a creature, lacking other attributes and a full stat block.

  • Eldritch Cannon. This feature of the Artificer Class (from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything) shares some attributes with a creature like having an AC, hit points, size, and speed, but it is an object, not a creature.

  • The shapes created by Shape Water. They can have the form of a creature, but lack any of the other statistics, being merely shaped volumes of water.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your final point, about harmless entities, could use some support for the claim that you can't attack such things. You might mention that spells that limit the number of creatures clearly do not include them. For example, I am not prevented from entering rope trick if I have eight lice in my hair. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 3, 2022 at 18:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi @Kirt, yes, I am not sure about that one either. I'll just remove it for now, and maybe make a question out of it if I cannot come to a clear conclusion. It feels wrong that you cannot fireball a bunch of kittens... (or at least attack them). Thanks for the feedback! \$\endgroup\$ May 3, 2022 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt I think the best way to approach the "harmless tiny entity" issue is that they should be generally ignored until someone intentionally engages with them, at which point they are treated similarly to creatures. \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2022 at 12:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov That is certainly one way to treat them - I think you should be able to firebolt a tiny spider if you choose - but having meal worms in your flour rations shouldn't prevent you from teleporting. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 5, 2022 at 17:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Thomas, Kirt, if you are OK, I will add your suggestion to the answer; I think it is a useful way to deal with it. Most of the time you do not really care about the ants etc that otherwise might screw up your creature limit on spells, but at the same time, you need to be able to affect them somehow. It is just ridiculous that you could not fireball to exterminate your basement. \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2022 at 18:12

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