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Following on from this question: Is a creature aware that a Hex or Hunter's Mark spell has been cast on it?

If someone suffers a significant amount of psychic damage, how would it manifest on their character? A barbarian at full health is hit by a succession of psychic attacks, bring his health down by a sixth each time, so by the end he's almost dead. Would cuts or bruises manifest in his skin? Would he recoil when hit? Would an observer notice each hit, or the progression of injuries?

If a bard's Vicious Mockery spell is used on someone in public or during some kind of contest, I'm assuming the victim would be able to discern the cause, but would an observer be able to tell what was happening (and not just think it was a bard shouting insults)?

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I have said it before and I am sure I will say it again: In D&D 5e specific beats general.

The Rules

General rule on spell effects (PHB p 204):

Unless a spell has a perceptible effect, a creature might not know it was targeted by a spell at all. An effect like crackling lightning is obvious, but a more subtle effect, such as an attempt to read a creature’s thoughts, typically goes unnoticed, unless a spell says otherwise.

So, in general, if the spell has a perceptible effect that effect is perceived; if it isn't then it isn't. However, as always, specific beats general: if the spell says something different then that takes precedence.

General rules on hp & damage (PHB p 196)

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.

Whenever a creature takes damage, that damage is subtracted from its hit points. The loss of hit points has no effect on a creature’s capabilities until the creature drops to 0 hit points.

hp do not exclusively represent the creatures physical body - the also represent metal ability, bloody-mindedness and luck.

General rules on psychic damage (PHB p 196)

Damage types have no rules of their own, but other rules, such as damage resistance, rely on the types.

Psychic. Mental abilities such as a mind flayer’s psionic blast deal psychic damage.

From these, there are no general rules on how psychic damage works.

Advice on describing damage (PHB p 197)

Describing the Effects of Damage

Dungeon Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.

Now, this is advice so how you want to describe it is up to you but according to the guideline: above half hp - no visible sings, below half hit points - visible signs, 0 hp - direct damage.

Specific rule for Vicious Mockery (PHB p 285)

You unleash a string of insults laced with subtle enchantments at a creature you can see within range. If the target can hear you ...

The specific rule is the enchantments are subtle, no one would notice these, possible including the victim (particularly if they save). For describing damage, in the absence of the specific rule you fall back on the general.

The Ruling

Whatever you want is fine so long as you consistently give the players the information they need.

Some people play in meta-game way with hp and treat them purely as numbers with no description applied - "You do 3hp of psychic damage; he now has 8hp left".

Others treat it as pure description with little to no feedback on mechanical effects - "You lash out with your insults, he pauses momentarily and blinks before raising his battle axe and snarling at you."

Or you can take the middle road - ""You lash out with your insults, doing 3 points of damage; he shows no obvious signs of distress."

Whatever works for your group is good.

TL;DR

If you want to follow the advice in the PHB then I would suggest the psychic damage will attack "mental durability, the will to live, and luck" manifesting as glazed eyes, trembling, tears, sweating, unprompted flinching etc. for less than half hp and bleeding from ears, eyes and nose for 0hp.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure why you made such a big deal about the "specific beats general" line, but this answer is good. +1. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jul 24 '15 at 0:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Because it is my own pet bugbear :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jul 24 '15 at 0:25
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How it is manifested is either covered by the spell description, or by the DM roleplay. For example if you were to cast the spell Phantasmal Force, the description clearly states that onlookers assume the player is under attack by an invisible creature. Which means the manifestations become physical if the object is attacking physically.

Alternately, you could simply have the player screaming in agony as if he appeared to be suffering effects from a poison, toxin or curse.

This kind of thing tends to be up to a roleplay exclusive answer though. For instance, in my games if you believe in an illusion, then the illusion is real and acts accordingly. In other games I've played, the illusion can't kill you physically, but it can make you go brain dead or die of a heart attack.

As to the bard specific question: this is a perception check. If somebody doesn't state that they are watching for any tell tale signs of magical interference, then no they wouldn't notice. If somebody was watching, or you think the person was being really overt about it, you could ask people to roll perception if they have the skill to recognize the spell. So a barbarian would still be looking on completely oblivious. Unless of course he had the magic initiate feat, took bard spells and could spin a good story as to why he should recognize the bardic magic.

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