I’ve seen a bit of confusion about exactly how many attacks a character can make on his or her turn, as well as how some spells or abilities interact with the attack action. This article will attempt to clarify those matters.
The most important thing to know is this:
The Attack action allows you to make an attack, but not all attacks require the Attack action.
Attack Actions and Attacks are not the same thing!
The Attack action
In its basic form, the Attack action allows you to make one attack (generally a weapon attack) against an enemy. Per the rules on movement, you can move before or after attack, or move both before and after the attack.
There are a few abilities that require the Attack action to use:
- Extra Attack allows you to make one additional attack when you take the Attack action. (You may also move between the two attacks). Fighters gain the ability to gain two or three additional attacks at higher levels, so a 20th level fighter is able to make 4 attacks when they take the Attack action.
- Two-Weapon Fighting can only be used when you take the Attack action. You may use your bonus action to attack with your off-hand weapon.
- Flurry of Blows can only be used when you take the Attack action. You may use your bonus action and spend ki points to have additional attacks.
The Cast a Spell action
The attack action is not the only way you can attack. If you cast Eldritch Blast, 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. Shocking Grasp gives you a melee spell attack against a creature. Once again, you’ve used Cast a Spell, not Attack, so extra attack doesn’t apply.
Greenflame Blade also works in this manner – it’s a little different as you then make a weapon attack, but it’s part of the action you used to cast the spell – normally the Cast a Spell action.
Spells that require the Attack action
Not all spells work that way, however. If you cast Shilleagh, which takes a bonus action, you don’t immediately attack. Instead, it modifies how you attack – 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). Similarly Magic Stone allows you or others to throw the enchanted pebbles using your spellcasting attack bonus rather than their regular attack bonus. However, the actual attacking is done by taking the Attack action, and so can be modified by Extra Attack, Flurry of Blows and other such abilities. (Magic stone is from the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion. Its wording is a little obscure, but that’s how it works.)
As an Action/Use your action
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 (so you get an attack as part of the Cast a Spell action as above), 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” (emphasis mine). 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, but 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.
Just as a side note, all attacks are described in terms such as ranged spell attack or melee weapon attack. Each word means something.
The first word is either ranged or melee. Ranged attacks suffer disadvantage if you’re adjacent to an opponent, melee attacks do not. Melee attacks also 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 suffer disadvantage.
The second word (if present) generally indicates what modifiers you uses for the attack. 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. Incidentally, unarmed combat is generally still considered a weapon attack – the weapon being your fists or feet!
The third word 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.
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 in the new edition of D&D 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. And feel free to ask questions if you get confused!