This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Seventeen on 13th July 2022.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
At face value, an attack in D&D would seem to be very simple; there is a creature and another creature they either don’t get along with or would very much like to eat. Sometimes it’s both, like with gnolls.
Fortunately, and somewhat unusually, the rules for D&D 5e are also fairly simple, at least to start. When describing combat in the Player’s Handbook, it states:
” if you’re making an attack roll, you’re making an attack.”
That means that any spell requiring a roll to hit, rather than the target making a save, counts as an attack.
Well things get messy pretty quickly.
In a world of absolute simplicity that would be the end of the discussion. Unfortunately various spells, effects, abilities, and other things use attacking as a trigger, and some of them are more specific about the details.
In general, after you determine something is an attack, you have to figure out the attack’s basic characteristics. Those are determined by what I call the basis of the attack, and the range of the attack. The basis of the attack can be either a spell or a weapon, and the range can be melee or ranged. There are also unarmed attacks, which are their own special category.
Again, those usually don’t matter, but if you are casting a spell or have an ability that triggers on an attack, most of the time it won’t simply be when a character is “making an attack”.
For example, the ability to sneak attack as a rogue is dependent on using a weapon. So the if the warlock gets the rogue absolutely wasted and convinces them to take over a warlock pact, the rogue could not use their sneak attack on eldritch blast because it’s a spell attack, not a weapon attack.
Relatedly, the magic item “Wand of the War Mage” grants a +1 to spell attack rolls, so even if I got my hands on one it wouldn’t help me throwing my knives.
Now note that whether an attack is a spell attack or a weapon attack has no bearing on whether the attack is magical. If someone casts a spell such as thundering smite or holy weapon on a character as they’re making an attack, the attack is still a weapon attack, it’s just a weapon attack that counts as magical for beating demon resistances and such.
That covers the basic definitions, but as always you have special cases and exceptions. The first one is those unarmed strikes we mentioned earlier. Unarmed strikes do not count as weapon attacks, and cannot be ranged attacks. Unless you’re a warforged, maybe, but then if the warforged detaches their arm is it still their body…
The upside is that you are always considered proficient with unarmed strikes, so apparently even the terminally clumsy are good to go. However, if you’ve got an ability or spell that triggers on a melee weapon attack, unarmed strikes don’t cut it. That eliminates sneak attack, all of the smite abilities and spells, and a few other things like booming blade.
People who play monks regularly will be familiar with this distinction because it’s really easy for them to accidentally lose half their class bonuses in a bar fight. As soon as they go to smash a beer bottle over someone’s head, that’s an improvised weapon. All their damage bonuses and such go right out the window, since that and many of their abilities are based on unarmed strikes.
However, this is where the exceptions come in, and why you should pay very close attention to what species the paladin is before assuming you’re fine as long as you’ve taken their sword away.
Several races in D&D have so-called natural weapons. None of the main races from the PHB fall into this category, but most of the ones in Monsters of the Multiverse do; tabaxi, shifters, and tortles are just a few of them. Most of them aren’t called natural weapons, they’re specified as claws or horns, but all of them have the same wording:
“You have <blank> which you can use to make unarmed strikes.”
Up to this point, those natural weapons have also counted as weapons, which means an attack made with them counts as both an unarmed strike *and* a weapon attack. We’ll let all the power gamers figure out how that can be useful.
The next thing to touch on is the other stuff you can do with your attacks. Now note these aren’t other Actions you can take, these are things that can replace your attacks.
First of all, more definitions to clear things up (maybe). An attack action and an attack are not the same thing. An attack is always one roll to determine if an attack hit or missed (advantage or disadvantage still counts as one roll because theoretically you’re rolling both dice at the same time). An Attack Action, however, is when you expend a character’s action to make whatever number of attacks they’re allowed. So one attack action can have multiple attacks.
That mostly comes into play if you have a hugger in your group.
The rules for grappling say “you can use the attack action to make a special melee attack, a grapple. If you’re able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action, this attack replaces one of them.”
The wording on that seemed contradictory in the minds of many people, so several Sage Advices have clarified. First of all, if you are grappling, you do not necessarily sacrifice your entire attack action to do it. Except for rogues because they only have one Attack Action.
On the other hand, a ranger could give the wizard a nice side hug and still stab the charging minotaur all in the same action. That’s because the official ruling is the grapple attempt only replaces one of the attacks if a creature has multiples. So if you’re a fighter with three attacks going for you, you can make a grapple and two attacks, two grapples and an attack, or just go for the full cuddlefest and use all three. Do remember that when you try a grapple you automatically release whoever else you’re grappling, though, so if you succeed on the first one, don’t keep trying.
Also, the same thing applies to shoves, so if you’re concerned because the enemy is 10 feet away from the 100 foot cliff, just have the barbarian do it; they can shove twice as long as they’re over level 5.
Note that the separation between attacks and attack action also applies to spellcasters. So far there are no equivalent mechanics that take the place of a spell attack the way grappling or shoving do for a weapon attack. But the distinction between the action of casting the spell and making the attack rolls for it applies when considering advantage and disadvantage. For that, you’ll want to carefully consider the spell involved. For example, if the warlock is hit with vicious mockery and then decides to cast eldritch blast, the disadvantage is only applied to their next attack roll. Higher level warlocks have multiple bolts, so it’s only the first roll they have to worry about.
Unfortunately that also applies to advantage. If the warlock has advantage on an attack roll and goes with eldritch blast, it’s also only the first roll that has it, not all of them.
As a side note, if you are anywhere near a wild magic sorcerer who says they want to give themselves advantage when they upcast scorching ray, just run. They’ve got between 4 and 11 attack rolls to make, and if they want advantage on all of them the whole area is just going to be fog clouds of exploding flumphs.
A final note on off-hand attacks. Discounting feats and special weapons, if a character has a light weapon in their off hand, they can use their bonus action to make an attack with it. That’s one attack, so extra attacks do not affect your off hand attack in any way.
However, that would count as a weapon attack, so any triggers and abilities based on it still work. But it’s an attack that does *not* use the Attack Action. So before, when we said you can substitute attacks with grapples? Not applicable to off-hand attacks. Even if you only need one arm for the side hug.