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D&D 5E – The Attack Action


The Attack Action

With all of the different class features that allow multiple attacks, I am seeing a lot of confusion as to how many and what types of attacks a character can get on his turn.

“Attack” and “Attack Action” are two different things.

On your turn, you can move and take one action. A special ability, spell, or other feature of the game may allow you to also take a bonus action, and/or take a reaction. You may also interact with one object and do other simple activities. What is important here is that you can only take one action. One possible action you can take is called the Attack action. None of the other combat actions are an Attack action (Cast a Spell, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Help, Use an object, Hide, Search, Readied action, Improvised action).

Attack action: “With this action, you make one melee or ranged attack… Certain features, such as the Extra Attack feature of the fighter, allow you to make more than one attack with this action.” PHB, p192.

This rule sounds fairly straight forward but combined with other rules, features, and options it can become a bit confusing. In certain situations, you make a melee or ranged attack when you Cast a Spell, take a Bonus action, or take a Reaction. In other situations when you take the Attack action you don’t make a melee or ranged attack. And, just because an action is called an “attack” doesn’t mean that you can perform that action when you use the “Attack action”.

Confused yet?

This confusion could have been lessened a bit if the “Attack action” had a different name. Perhaps they could have called it the “Offensive action” or something. I am not going to do that here. However, it is important to know that when you read something in the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide or the Monster Manuel the wording is important. See if it says “Attack action” or just “attack”.

Partial list of things that you can do with an Attack action:

  • Make a weapon attack with a melee weapon, ranged weapon, or improvised weapon. This includes drawing ammunition for use with a ranged weapon.
  • Make an unarmed strike.
  • Grapple a creature.
  • Shove a creature.
  • Two weapon fighting – When you use the Attack action to attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in one hand, the second attack, with a light weapon in your other hand, is a bonus action and not part of the Attack action.
  • “Extra attack” – With many weapon-using classes you can gain the ability to attack multiple times, instead of just once. This feature can only be used when you take the Attack action.
  • (Monks) “Flurry of Blows” can only be used (as a bonus action)  after taking the Attack action.
  • (Druid – while in beast form) Your weapon attacks, where the “weapon” might be a manufactured item or a natural weapon, can only be used when you take the Attack action.
  • (Druid – while in beast form) If the creature has the Multiattack action, you may make the listed attacks rather than, or in place of, an Attack action.

Partial list of actions you CANNOT do as an Attack action:

  • Cast a spell – even if that spell has you make a “range attack” or “melee attack” or “”spell attack”.
  • Dash, disengage, dodge, help, use an object, hide, search, ready an action, or perform an improvised action.
  • Make an opportunity attack. (This is done as a “reaction”)

The Attack action is not the only way you can attack. Some spell examples:

If you cast Eldritch Blast (with the Cast a Spell action), you make a ranged spell attack against a creature. This is an attack, but you’ve used the Cast a Spell action, not the Attack action to do so. As a result, abilities such as Extra Attack and Flurry of Blows won’t trigger.

If you cast Shocking Grasp (with the Cast a Spell action) you make a melee spell attack against a creature. Once again, you’ve used the Cast a Spell action, not the Attack action, so extra attack doesn’t apply.

Not all spells work that way, however. If you cast Shilleagh (as a Bonus action), you don’t immediately attack. Instead, it modifies how you attack (with the Attack action) for the duration of the spell, instead of using your Strength as the modifier for your attacks, you use your spellcasting ability score (normally Wisdom for druids).

Another wrinkle are the spells which have an ongoing effect. Vampiric Touch is one such spell – it allows you to make a melee spell attack when you cast it (with the Cast a Spell action), but the spell persists for up to a minute. Its text reads “Until the spell ends, you can make the attack again on each of your turns as an action”. Is this an Attack action? No, it isn’t. It’s a brand new type of action you get to use. Call it “Vampiric Touch action” if you like. These new actions allow you to attack, but they don’t use the Attack action. The trick to identifying them is that they read “as an action” or “use your action” to describe how they work. A few require the use of your bonus action instead.

Attack Terminology

All attacks are described in terms such as ranged spell attack or melee weapon attack. Each word means something.

“Ranged” attacks suffer disadvantage if you’re adjacent to an opponent, “melee” attacks do not. “Melee” attacks can be against any creature within your reach (generally 5 feet), while ranged attacks can be made against any creature within the stated range of the attack. In some cases, an attack form has two ranges; attacks at the longer range are made at a disadvantage.

If the wording says “melee weapon attack” you can do an unarmed strike. You add your strength modifier and your proficiency modifier (you are proficient with unarmed strikes) to your attack roll and it does damage equal to 1+ your strength modifier. But an unarmed strike is not a weapon. This means that any rule that applies to a “weapon attack” will apply to unarmed strikes but ones that apply specifically to a “weapon” do not.

“Spell” attacks use your spellcasting ability modifier, while “weapon” attacks use Strength (melee weapon) or Dexterity (ranged weapon). There are exceptions to this depending on the spell or type of weapon.

The word “attack” indicates that it is an attack roll, one of the three types of d20 roll in D&D. (The others are saving throw and ability check.) Attack rolls are different because a natural 1 is an automatic miss, while a natural 20 is an automatic hit and a critical hit. Both saving throws and ability checks don’t have special things happen on 1s or 20s.

Action Surge

One of the special cases is the fighter ability Action Surge. This allows you to take one additional action during your turn. If you use this to take the Attack action, you get as many attacks as you would if you took it for your first action. So, a 20th level fighter can get 8 attacks in a turn – four from the first Attack action and four from the second Attack action. You could then use your bonus action to attack with your off-hand weapon (Two-Weapon Fighting). Note that Action Surge does not give you an additional bonus action or move; only an additional action.


Another special case is the spell Haste. It allows an affected character to take an additional action each turn (not all actions are allowed). However, if you took the Attack action, you can only gain one additional attack with it – the Extra Attacks you might have don’t count.

Interestingly, this doesn’t stop you using Flurry of Blows or Two-Weapon Fighting, as both are part of bonus actions. You could use your first action to cast a spell, then your additional action from haste to make a single weapon attack with the Attack Action, then use your bonus action to make an off-hand attack with Two-Weapon Fighting since you’ve used the Attack Action during the turn.


Most of the rules and power descriptions use quite specific wording, but because the terms can be quite similar, it’s easy to get confused. “Attack action”, “As an action” and “Attack” mean three separate things, as do “When you make an attack” and “When you take the Attack action”. As long as you keep the differences in mind, you should be fine.

(Special thanks to Merric’s Musings for his April 21, 2015, post on this topic, which I have heavily plagiarized.)

One response to “D&D 5E – The Attack Action

  1. Ronny December 24, 2016 at 10:29 am

    I revised the wording regarding unarmed attacks.

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