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I'm visiting from the RPG stack (Role-Playing Games) and realised that part of the answer to this question depends upon the way the English language works. Thanks for having me.

The spell being discussed on rpg.stackexchange involves a spell that reads:

[You may do x] when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell

Does 'seeing a creature... casting a spell' require:

  1. Sight of the creature, and the creature must be casting a spell
  2. Sight of the creature, and sight of visible evidence of the creature's spellcasting?

An equivalent but less RPG-specific question might be: Can one 'see a person frowning' if they merely see the person, but do not see the person's frown?

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  • As per Marc's answer below, to fore-see something, if your mage was to 'begin' doing something, then step out of line of sight, its understood they can continued to do that thing. I can see a person starting to take off a shirt, they step out of view, but I can still see that they are now topless. Provided the watcher has experienced the process from start to finish, it'd be logical if you saw the start of the process you can 'see' the end of the process having taken place, even though vision is obscured.
    – BaneStar007
    Jun 20, 2023 at 23:59
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    What visual evidence is there of someone frowning other than seeing the frown? Stealing a car or running a bath might be better examples.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 23, 2023 at 7:43

4 Answers 4

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"See someone doing something" definitely implies that you witness the action - you can tell what they are doing. If a frowning person has their back to you, you don't "see them frown".

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    You could infer that someone is casting a spell without seeing the actual spell being cast though... For instance if you can lip read and see them saying "avada cadavra" but their wand is hidden by a tree. Admittedly, that's a very contrived example. Jun 21, 2023 at 14:13
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    Contrived, but points out the fact that the game mechanics available strongly influence whether the phrase "see a creature casting spell" can ambiguously refer to a "see a creature which is casting a spell" and "see the casting of a spell by a creature".
    – chepner
    Jun 21, 2023 at 14:54
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There is a difference between pedantry and idiomatic usage. At the end of the day (and this particular answer), I'm judging this based on two people communicating an idea and what is commonly understood, not some microscopic rulebook grammar.

0 - [You may do x] when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell

Pedantically, this means you see both a creature and its spellcasting activity.

Let's consider the case where they meant that you see the creature, and that the creature is casting a spell, but there is no requirement for you to see the casting itself. How would they have needed to phrase that?

1 - [You may do x] when you see a creature within 60 feet of you which is casting a spell

This resolves the issue. You see a creature. Specifically, a creature which is casting a spell. It does not state that you see the casting itself.

2 - [You may do x] when you see a creature casting a spell within 60 feet of you

Doesn't fix it. Pedantically, it still means that you see the casting.

3 - [You may do x] when you see a creature which is casting a spell within 60 feet of you

This resolves the issue at hand. However, it makes an unintended suggestion of maybe meaning "casting [a spell within 60 feet of you]", which I could interpret as measuring the distance between me and the target of the spell, e.g. if the creature were casting a fireball with the intention of hurling it at me.

That's not necessarily the correct reading, or the only correct reading; but it is an annoying additional point of confusion.

The same potential misreading applies to option 2, but this option was already rejected for other reasons.


"which is" resolved the issue here in both cases 1 and 3. It decouples what you see from the act of spellcasting, instead only conveying that you see a creature and that this creature is casting a spell.

However, I do consider that context applies here, and people are liable to understand the same information from all of these examples. Pedantical grammatical differences aside, you're going to find that people will regularly omit things like "which is" in their speech and completely ignore that this may create a nuanced difference in interpretation.

I also want to take the time here to point out that I can very easily start picking at any thread I want here:

  • What if I see a creature casting a spell, but I'm looking at a camera monitor?
    • Must the monitor be within 60 feet of me?
    • What if I see the creature via the monitor, but the creature is in reality still within 60 feet of me as well, just not directly visible?
    • What about a mirror?
    • What about looking through an open portal?
    • What about me being blinded or visually impaired, but I have someone explain to me very clearly what I should be seeing?
  • Does "seeing" limit the rule to eyesight?
    • What about blindsight?
    • What about darkvision?
  • Can a creature (or their ally) cancel your ability by interrupting your line of sight for a brief moment; even though you've already seen the creature (and its casting) and know exactly where it is?
  • Suppose you are hallucinating, and every fiber of your being believes that it is seeing a creature and that it's casting a spell. Does this somehow unlock you using your ability?
    • What if the creature is real and you genuinely believe you've seen it casting a spell, but you're wrong?
    • What if the creature is real and you genuinely believe it's casting a spell, but you've not claimed to have seen it?
    • What if there is a creature, and it is casting a spell, and you have seen the casting, and you've for great eyesight but are also a really bad judge of distance and it's just a bit further away?
    • What if you're seeing a creature and spellcasting, but the casting is being done by a different creature than the one you're seeing? (e.g. it's not a dragon breathing fire, it's a dragon with a tiny fire mage in its mouth, and the mage is casing a cone of fire)

Your concern about seeing the casting itself fits neatly in this list in terms of how it picks at the threads of the rule. I admit that my examples are decidedly more pedantic, but it's the same principle at play.

I think it's unproductive to read the rules in such a definitively declarative way that picks at threads like this. DnD's rules are famously and frequently ruled in a way that gives leeway to the DM and the context in which a particular interpretation takes place, and the onus is not put on the rulewriters to write legalese in order to make sure that all possible edge cases are covered.

The significant addition of complexity and boringness to the writing would disproportionately detract from the fun of the game, turning it into a fantasy legal dispute.


Conclusion

Four relevant points to consider in order to answer your question:

  • Pedantically, you are correct that the current phrasing means that you must see some evidence of spellcasting
  • Informally, this distinction is not made and it will generally be understood to also include cases where you only see the creature, not its spellcasting
  • When the two significantly conflict, we should judge language by how people understand it over grammaticality. I concede that this is my opinion on the matter.
  • For DnD specifically, it is well established that there is leeway in these kinds of interpretations and that it should be ruled on a contextual basis by the DM in question. It has been historically acknowledged that there is a deviation from grammatical precision where it starts conflicting with fun, i.e. the primary goal of DnD.

Therefore, my opinion on the third bullet point aside, it seems fair to conclude that both interpretations are possible and can be considered valid for the purposes of a DnD rule.

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  • And you haven't even touched on restrictive vs. non-restrictive use of "that" vs. "which."
    – ErikE
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:50
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No, it doesn't require actual sight of the other person (or thing). Consider:

As you edit the online spreadsheet, I can see you making the changes on my screen.

This construction can even be used with a figurative sense of "see". Consider:

The Anglo-Saxons didn't like the invaders because they saw the newcomers imposing their own culture on the native population.

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  • The second example disputes the method of perceiving, not what is being perceived. The question asked here focuses on the latter, not the former (you could rephrase the question to be about hearing, or feeling, or ... and the question would remain the same). The fact that "seeing" in your example is figurative (with your mind), not literal (with your eyes) is inconsequential.
    – Flater
    Jun 21, 2023 at 4:39
  • @Flater I included the second example only to suggest that the point that I was making was not restricted to one specific sense of "to see". It's more of an ancillary, not essential, part of my answer. Jun 21, 2023 at 4:47
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    I actually think the Anglo-Saxon example strengthens the point: seeing a thing happening doesn't necessarily mean being able to identify - or having seen first-hand, with one's own eyes - a specific act - or even literally seeing that one act. One can easily see a blind person talking about seeing the cultural imposition (beyond the cliché "I see what happened here").
    – minnmass
    Jun 22, 2023 at 16:20
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When an English speaker says "I saw X do Y", and that speaker is honest and of sound mind, it conveys this information:

  • The speaker saw X.

  • The speaker simultaneously saw action Y.

  • The speaker believes that it X was doing Y based on their direct observation.

If a speaker observes X, but somehow learns indirectly of the action Y without directly witnessing a connection between X and Y, then "I saw X do Y" wouldn't be used.

For instance, if you see X leaving a store carrying some item, and someone tells you that X didn't pay for that item, you wouldn't say that you "saw X steal the item". So, yes, it necessitates seeing the action, and making the connection between the two.

The belief expressed by "I saw X do Y" can be incorrect, but in a way that is based on wrongly interpreting direct observation. For instance in the song lyric "I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus", the speaker is working under the false belief that there exists a Santa Claus and he came to their house.

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