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Are spells that do only bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage considered magical or nonmagical damage? Most especially when considering them for purposes of resistance/immunity against "bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons that aren't silvered".

For example, Thorn Whip I can see two sides:

  1. It is being created by a spell, using a melee spell attack to hit, and the spell damage increases with level. Thus it is magical damage.

  2. The spell description only states piercing damage, and it's the object created by the spell that does the damage rather than the spell directly. Thus it is nonmagical damage.

Similar arguments can be made for other spells (such as Earth Tremor), or portions of other spells (such as the piercing damage of Ice Knife). I'm interested in the rule(s) for this class of spell damage, rather than the specific spells.


[1]: Thorn Whip spell can be found in the Player's Handbook.

[2]: Earth Tremor, and Ice Knife are spells found the Elemental Evil Player's Companion.

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For the purposes of the resistance/immunity example in the original question:

"bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons that aren't silvered"

The "weapons" portion of the example is actually sufficient to know that it does not apply against the example sources of damage, magical or not. The resistance only applies to specific damage type subcategories of weapon damage. None of the given examples are weapon attacks, so this resistance/immunity to damage from weapons does not apply to the given non-weapon examples in the question regardless of what type of damage is being done.

That said, errata has updated most (all?) instances of the given resistance/immunity example in the question to the following:

Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing from Nonmagical Attacks that aren't Silvered

(Weapons -> Attacks)

Now it's clearer that the magical status of the attack itself should be considered.

The Sage Advice compendium provides the following checklist for determining if something is considered magical (see also: How do I know if an ability is magical?)

If you cast antimagic field, don armor of invulnerability, or use another feature of the game that protects against magical or nonmagical effects, you might ask yourself, “Will this protect me against a dragon’s breath?”

[...]

Determining whether a game feature is magical is straightforward. Ask yourself these questions about the feature:

  • Is it a magic item?
  • Is it a spell? Or does it let you create the effects of a spell that’s mentioned in its description?
  • Is it a spell attack?
  • Is it fueled by the use of spell slots?
  • Does its description say it’s magical?

Since the question's examples are all spells or spell attacks, they fall cleanly under the umbrella of being magical. As such, thorn whip and the initial spell attack of ice knife are considered magical attacks, which clearly bypasses the errataed resistance/immunity text. Damage dealt as an effect of spell that isn't related to a spell attack roll (like the damage of earth tremor) is both magical and not from an attack, so the resistance/immunity text also doesn't apply there.

It's also worth noting that there's currently no such thing as an attack that is both a spell attack and a weapon attack, as noted in answers to a question about how to refer to non-spell attacks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Now you and harlandski have me wondering if spell names are RAW short descriptions or just proper nouns. Because a whip and knife (aka dagger) are weapons. And if they are short descriptions then the spells Thorn Whip and Ice Knife just happen to craft weapons out of non-standard material and mystically manipulate them. Thus the resistances would count for some of my examples. But for a spell like Earth Tremor it wouldn't. Which really muddles things for spells with less obvious weapons. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sybeus
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sybeus. The more I think about your question the more complicated it gets. I think there's a danger of taking a too strict RAW approach to D&D 5e, and I might be falling into that trap. I'm still pretty sure ice knife and thorn whip are not magical weapons, so I'll edit my answer accordingly, but I take your point about their names being weapons in themselves. .. \$\endgroup\$
    – harlandski
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the clearest way to give an example of how I'm seeing it is to broaden the resistance example: If it said "resistance against damage from weapons", it seems clear to me that the given spell examples would be fine as they aren't explicitly called out as weapons (unlike Alter Self's Natural Weapons option). The extra words added to get it to the example in the original question are all purely restrictive- none of them increase the scope of their resistance compared to a generic weapon resistance, so spells that do slash/bludgeoning/piercing damage should not suddenly be affected. \$\endgroup\$
    – CTWind
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CTWind I think you're right in that the weapon bit is actually more important than I first realized when I thought of the question, and resolves the question in regards to Ice Knife and Earth Tremor. However, how does one resolve the issue that Thorn Whip describes creating a whip, which is a weapon. Does one assume because it is not explicitly stated to be a weapon that it isn't in terms of game mechanics, even if it is logically? Is there precedent or other rules that act this way? \$\endgroup\$
    – Sybeus
    Apr 10, 2015 at 22:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Spells are spells. They don't involve weapons unless the spell description explicitly states that they do. And generally spells like Thorn Whip explicitly tell you to make a "spell attack", not a "weapon attack". (In any case, that seems like a different question from your original one, and would be more appropriate as its own question.) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Mar 5, 2018 at 23:03
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There is not such a term as "magical damage" within the game rules; thus, AFAIK Resistances and Immunities don't ever state the words "magical damage".

For example take "bludgeoning, slashing and piercing damage from nonmagical weapons that aren't silvered". This resistance will kick in when the source of damage is of one of the listed types AND is a weapon AND is not magical AND is not silvered. This is an AND logical door, so if even one of the ports is false the whole thing fails.

E.g, imagine a nonmagical weapon that deals fire damage (say, a torch): it will deal full damage, unimpeded by the resistance. Or Thorn Whip, the type is piercing but the source of damage is not a weapon (it's a spell), therefore it bypasses the resistance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Page 197 of PHB section Damage Resistance and Vulnerability talks about nonmagical fire and how resistance to fire damage as well as resistance to all nonmagical damage both apply to it, but only half damage is negated as the resistances do not stack. From this one could conclude there is magical and nonmagical damage for each of the damage types (Acid, Bludgeoning, Cold, Fire, etc). And that magical or nonmagical damage is to be considered with respect to resistances. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sybeus
    Apr 10, 2015 at 21:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ In Thorn Whip you create a long, vine-like whip covered in thorns that lashes out at your command toward a creature in range. A whip is a weapon. Lashing a whip is how one attack with such a weapon. It's only a very small logic leap to say the spell creates a weapon that attacks the target. And the whip is not stated to be magical in contrast to many other spells that talk about magically imbuing an object or magical weapons outright. Thus it fits your criteria to be affected by the resistance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sybeus
    Apr 10, 2015 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do not confuse a spell name and it's fluffy description, with actual mechanics. Here the mechanics is "melee spell attack". Not a weapon attack. You migbht fluff it as a "weapon being created" and while whatever the DM says goes, as per RAW the intent is clear: a resistance vs weapons willl not apply. An attack is either a weapon attack or a spell attack, not both at the same time. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pat
    May 25, 2021 at 16:39
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Play how you like (Rules and Rulings)

In your question you clearly present two possible ways of interpreting the damage from these spell types. In the absence of general rules relating to this I would say both interpretations of the rules are possible rulings.

As the PHB says:

Damage types have no rules of their own (PHB 196)

Similarly there are no general rules for spell damage, so each DM and group has to read and interpret the specific spell and resistance descriptions when they come into play.

As there is no distinction in 5e between flavor text and spell mechanics, there is a broad range of possible interpretations. In this case, the interpretation hinges on one's own answers to the following questions:

  • Do Thorn Whip, Ice Knife and Earth Tremor create weapons, or a naturally damaging phenomenon, or is the damage a magical version of the given damage type?
  • If they do create weapons, are these weapons magical?

Other spells are more specific about the magical nature of their damage (e.g. Magic Missile) or the fact of creating a magic weapon (Alter Self). In the absence of such specificity in the three spells you mention, and of any general rules about spell damage, it is up to DM's discretion or what the group decides.

Personally, I would go for a "low magic" reading of the spells: Thorn Whip and Ice Knife create nonmagical weapons, Earth Tremor causes a natural disaster - emphasis as per the spell wording - meaning that the resistances in question would apply. But this is only my reading of the spells, and 5e D&D is designed to allow for a multiplicity of play styles.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for emphasis on the fact that 5e really encourages roleplay and DM discretion over typical rule lawyering that detracts from games. As a note, the Warlock Pact of the Blade sets a precedence for a created magical weapon to be considered magical, and could be used to support an argument that if magic creates it, it remains magical for the purposes of damage. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 25, 2015 at 19:25
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Damage Rolls 2nd Paragraph RAI

  • weapon attacks deal weapon damage (even if it isn't a weapon, i.e. unarmed strike)
  • spell attacks deal spell damage unless explicitly stated otherwise (even if its bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing)

Ice knife and thorn whip do spell piercing damage, not weapon piercing damage, and resistance does not apply unless your DM says otherwise.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The second paragraph under Damage Rolls only talks about which dice and modifiers to roll, nothing about damage types. There's literally a whole other section dedicated to Damage Types a few paragraphs afterwards. Thus, how do you logically jump from what type of dice to roll to your conclusion about type of damage above? And Thorn whip explicitly states it creates a weapon (the whip); why are you able to just ignore that in your conclusion? \$\endgroup\$
    – Sybeus
    Aug 21, 2017 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ When attacking with a weapon, you add your ability modifier—the same modifier used for the attack roll— to the damage. A spell tells you which dice to roll for damage and whether to add any modifiers. PHB 196 ... command toward a creature in range. Make a melee spell attack against the target. If the attack hits, the creature takes 1d6 piercing damage, and if the creature is ... ...damage increases by 1d6 when you reach 5th level (2d6), 11th level (3d6), and 17th level (4d6). PHB 282 seems clear to me that paragraph differentiates damage done by spells and weapons. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 22, 2017 at 23:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also weapon and spell refer to the actual damage roll type, not the damage type. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 22, 2017 at 23:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Again you're talking damage rolls only. Resistances are also based on damage type, as described in the Damage Types section: Different attacks, damaging spells, and other harmful effects deal different types of damage. Damage types have no rules of their own, but other rules, such as damage resistance, rely on the types. You've also omitted any reason why a spell cannot create a weapon that does damage. As long as the weapon it creates be nonmagical, which normally the spell will state explicitly that it is magical, and Thorn Whip does not, then it could be affected by the resistance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sybeus
    Aug 23, 2017 at 18:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is my answer and I am sticking with it: Weapon Attack -> Weapon Damage, Spell Attack -> Spell Damage Adjudicate your table as you wish. This is simple, RAW interpretation and you would not be the first to tell me I was wrong. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 26, 2017 at 4:30
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Attacks delivered by spells are magical.

Page 8 of the Monster Manual under "Vulnerabilities, Resistances, and Immunities" states (added in an errata):

a magical attack is an attack delivered by a spell, a magic item, or another magical source

So thorn whip delivers a magical attack dealing magical piercing damage.

Bludgeoning/Piercing/Slashing damage from Area of Effect spells is probably magical and does not matter but with two exceptions.

Consider earth tremor:

You cause a tremor in the ground within range. Each creature other than you in that area must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, a creature takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage and is knocked prone.

Is this bludgeoning damage magical, or is it mundane - just the damage from you falling down? According to the Sage Advice Compendium, it is magical:

Determining whether a game feature is magical is straightforward. Ask yourself these questions about the feature:

  • Is it a magic item?
  • Is it a spell? Or does it let you create the effects of a spell that’s mentioned in its description?
  • Is it a spell attack?
  • Is it fueled by the use of spell slots?
  • Does its description say it’s magical?

If your answer to any of those questions is yes, the feature is magical.

Earth tremor is a spell and is fueled by the use of spells slots, so it is magical, though there is room for a DM to rule that the effect of earth tremor is just that you fall over and hit your head taking non-magical damage. The two cases where this distinction will actually matter are explained below.

What resistances do these spells bypass?

For the resistance asked about in the question, damage from spells will ignore it:

bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons that aren't silvered

This resistance is specifically to nonmagical weapons that aren't silvered. Since spells are not nonmagical weapons that aren't silvered, they would ignore this resistance.

On the other hand, the Awakened Tree has resistance to bludgeoning and piercing damage:

Damage Resistances Bludgeoning, Piercing

This does not specify magical or nonmagical, nor does it specify a source, such as attacks or weapons. This is wholesale resistance to these damage types, no matter the source.

Another interesting example is that Demilich, which has:

Damage Resistances Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing from Magic Weapons

So while the Demilich is resistant to attacks from magical weapons, it still does not have resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from spells.

Stoneskin/Armor of Invulnerability

Above I stated that magical/nonmagical BPS damage from AoE spells only matters with two exceptions. The first is the spell stoneskin:

Until the spell ends, the target has resistance to nonmagical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

The second is the magic item Armor of Invulnerability:

You have resistance to nonmagical damage while you wear this armor.

These are the only two cases where the DM's ruling about area of effect spells will make a difference. In all other cases of resistance to BPS damage, the resistance directly applies only to nonmagical attacks or weapons. In these two cases, it does matter how the DM rules, because these resistances do not care about the damage being from attacks or weapons, only if it is magical or nonmagical. In all other cases, the damage from earth tremor will bypass resistances that mention BPS damage, no matter how the DM rules on its magicalness, unless that resistance is just the unqualified bludgeoning damage, as we saw with the Awakened Tree.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How is this different from the accepted answer? I suspect there must be some subtlety it is missing that you and ASR wan to highlight? If so, might be good to point out why this adds something new for ease of reading \$\endgroup\$ May 6 at 20:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin It provides an analysis of how damage from spells relates to every BPS resistance in the entire game, which the accepted answer does not, as well as cites unambiguous evidence from the MM errata that the accepted answer does not. \$\endgroup\$ May 6 at 20:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin It also provides working examples of several different types of resistances and how they relate to spell damage. I'm not really sure how you missed this stuff. I don't think pointing out the new stuff is really necessary... \$\endgroup\$ May 6 at 20:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Right, and what is the in-game application of the types of spell damage? How they apply to resistances. A discussion of resistances has everything to do with the question since it is when working with resistances that the type of damage matters at all. Sure, I could write an answer simply stating the type of damage dealt. But would you mind explaining to me how that would be a better answer than one that explains when and why the type of damage a spell deals actually matters? \$\endgroup\$ May 6 at 21:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin I'm offering you a fishing boat, and you're asking for a fish. \$\endgroup\$ May 6 at 21:10

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