Last Updated: September 26, 2021
Combat involves alternating between attack and defense. On your turn, you will frequently make attacks hoping to damage your opponent, and on your own turn you will hope that your AC is enough to protect you, or that you have enough hit points to see the start of your next turn.
The most common action in combat is to attack another creature, and fortunately the act of making an attack is fairly simple. At its simplest, making an attack requires four steps:
- Choose a target. Pick a target within your attack’s range. This is typically your reach for melee attacks, or the range of the weapon or spell for ranged attacks and spell attacks. The target can be a creature, an object, or a location.
- Determine modifiers. The DM determines whether the target has cover and how much (see Cover, later in this guide), and whether the attacker has Advantage or Disadvantage on the attack. In addition, there may be additional modifiers from spells like bless and bane, special abilities, or other effects.
- Roll and Resolve the Attack. Make the attack roll (see Attack Rolls, below) against the target’s AC (see Defending, below). If you meet or exceed the target’s AC, your attack hits. Otherwise, your attack misses.
- Deal Damage. If your attack hits, you roll damage and subtract it from the target’s hit points (see Damage, Healing, and Dying, later in this guide.
An attack roll’s purpose is to determine whether or not your attack hits and deals damage. Narratively, you might still strike the target’s body, but the bow might glance off or might not carry enough force to injure the target in any significant way. Remember: the rules are an abstraction of a real world, and they’re designed to be playable, not to be a perfect simulation of people trying to stab each other.
When you make an attack roll you add your attack modifier. This is usually positive, but it has the potential to be negative so it’s technically a “modifier” rather than a bonus. Your attack modifier is the sum of several other modifiers:
- Ability Modifier. Your attack roll always adds one ability modifier, depending on the nature of the attack. Melee attacks usually use Strength and ranged attacks usually use Dexterity, but there are exceptions to both. Spell attacks typically use Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma depending on your spellcasting class.
- Proficiency Bonus. You add your proficiency bonus to weapon attacks made with weapons with which you are proficient. You always add your proficiency bonus with spell attacks.
- Other Modifiers. Sometimes you’ll get additional modifiers from other sources like the spell bless or from a magic weapon.
Natural 1s and 20s
When making an attack roll (and only when making an attack roll), the number on the die may have additional effects. If the number on the d20 is a 1 (a “natural 1”), you automatically miss with the attack. If the number on the die is a 20 (a “natural 20”), you automatically hit, and you score a “critical hit”. For more on critical hits, see Damage, Healing, and Dying, later in this guide.
Unseen Attackers and Targets
From time to time you will fight enemies that you can’t see. Sometimes the enemy is invisible, sometimes they’re hiding, or sometimes it’s simply too dark for you to see.
When you attack a target that you can’t see, you must first guess their location. If you saw the creature turn invisible, or if you can see evidence of the creature’s location, you may be able to do this easily, though that decision is up to the DM. You then make the attack with Disadvantage, If you guess their location incorrectly, your attack automatically misses but the DM is not required to tell you that you attacked the wrong space.
When a creature can’t see you, you have Advantage on attack rolls against it. This benefit is negated if the creature can detect you with blindsight, but it still applies while beyond the range of the target’s blindsight.
If you are hidden (both unseen and unhear) when you make an attack, the attack is made with Advantage but you give away your location whether the attack hits or misses.
Making Melee Attacks
A melee attack is an attack made in hand-to-hand combat, typically using a weapon like a sword or club, or by using your body to make an unarmed strike. Monsters frequently have “natural weapons” like teeth and claws which they use to make melee attacks. Some spells like shocking grasp also involve making a melee attack.
Melee attacks can only be made against targets within your reach. Most player characters have 5-foot reach, though exceptions like the Bugbear exist, and characters using reach weapons have greater reach. For more on reach, see Space and Reach, earlier in this guide.
You can fight in melee by making an unarmed strike. For most player characters an unarmed strike deals bludgeoning damage equal to 1 + your Strength modifier. This is a melee weapon attack, though unarmed strikes don’t count as a weapon. Unarmed strikes can be made with nearly any part of your body: a punch, a kick, or a headbutt all work. You can perform an unarmed strike even if your hands are full.
Moving out of an enemy’s reach is dangerous. Creatures in combat are always looking for openings in each other’s defenses, and recklessly moving away from an enemy in melee combat provides just such an opening.
You can make an opportunity attack when a hostile creature that you can see moves out of your reach. To make the Opportunity Attack, you use your Reaction to make one melee attack against the provoking creature. You may only make one attack; the Extra Attack class feature and similar effects do not change this.
The attack interrupts the provoking creature’s movement, occurring right before the creature leaves your reach. If the attack reduces the target to 0 hit points or prevents the target from moving, the target remains in the space it was attempting to exit when it triggered the Opportunity Attack.
Creatures can avoid Opportunity Attacks by taking the Disengage action or teleporting. You don’t provoke opportunity attacks when you are forced to move without using your movement or without taking an action, like if you are shoved or if you are targeted by the spell thunderwave.
Opportunity Attacks are a complicated rule for a lot of people, but without Opportunity Attacks monsters could walk right past your party’s Fighter to go chew on your party’s Wizard.
When you take the Attack action and attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a different light melee weapon that you’re holding in the other hand. You don’t add your ability modifier to the damage of the bonus attack, unless that modifier is negative. For more on light weapons, see Weapons, later in this guide.
If either weapon has the thrown property, you can throw the weapon, instead of making a melee attack with it. If both weapons have the thrown property, you can throw both.
You can also perform two-weapon fighting by using the Extra Attack class feature. Extra Attack allows you to attack with more than one weapon, and it doesn’t require the “light” property for both weapons. However, without the light property, you can’t made an additional attack as a bonus actions.
When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it, you can “grapple” the creature. Grappling isn’t a bear hug or rolling around on the ground trying to pin the other creature. In most cases, grappling is simply holding onto the other creature in order to restrict their movement.
You can use the Attack action on your turn to make a special melee attack to initiate a grapple. If you’re able to make multiple attacks, usually due to the Extra Attack class feature, this special attack replaces one of the attacks which your perform as part of the Attack action.
The target of your grapple must be no more than one size larger than you, and it must be within your reach. Using at least one free hand, you try to seize the target by making a grapple check, a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use). If you succeed, you subject the target to the Grappled condition (see conditions, later in this guide). The condition specifies the things that end it, and you can release the target whenever you like (no action required).
While you can’t grapple creatures more than one size larger than you, the Dungeon Master’s Guide presents an option rule which allows you to climb onto a bigger creature. See page 271 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide under “Climb Onto a Bigger Creature”.
A grappled creature can use its action to attempt to escape. To do so, it must succeed on a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check contested by your Strength (Athletics) check. Some monsters instead have a fixed DC for escaping a grapple with that creature, and creatures must succeed on a check against that DC to escape the grapple.
While you are grappling, you can move and drag or carry the grappled creature with you, but your speed is halved unless the creature is two or more sizes smaller than you.
Shoving a Creature
Using the Attack action on your turn, you can make a special melee attack to shove a creature, either to knock it prone or push it away from you. If you’re able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action, this attack replaces one ofthem.
The target of your shove must be no more than one size larger than you, and it must be within your Reach. You make a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use). If you win the contest, you either knock the target Prone or push it 5 feet away from you.
It’s unclear if you can Shove using the extended reach provided by reach weapons like a whip or a polearm. If you want to do so, consult your Dungeon Master.
Making Ranged Attacks
Ranged attacks involve a missile or projectile of some sort, either fired from a bow or similar weapon, thrown, ejected from a creature’s body, or projected by some other mechanism. Many spells also involve a ranged attack.
Ranged attacks all have a specified range, and you can only make that attack against targets within that range. Ranged spells and some special abilities will have a single number for ranged. Some ranged attacks, includings attacks made with ranged weapons, have two ranges: “normal range” and “long range”. You can attack targets within either range, but attacks against targets outside of normal range but within long range are made with Disadvantage.
Ranged Attacks in Close Combat
When you make a ranged attack while a hostile creature is within 5 feet of you and can see you, you make the attack with Disadvantage.
Types of Attack
Some effects depend on making a specific sort of attack, and from time to time it may be difficult to determine what sort of attack you’re making. Attack types can be defined by two aspects: melee vs. ranged and spell vs. weapon.
Melee vs. Ranged is typically easy to determine. If you launch a projectile or missile, such as by throwing it or by projecting it with a bow or other implement, it is a ranged attack. If the attack is made by making contact with your body or with an object still in your hand, the attack is a melee attack.
Spell vs. Weapon is also typically easy to determine. If the attack is made as part of a spell or a special ability, it may be a spell attack. If it is, the spell or special ability will specifically use the phrase “spell attack”. In all other cases, the attack is a weapon attack.
To really emphasize that there are only four types of attacks, consider this table:
|Spell||Melee Spell||Ranged Spell|
|Weapon||Melee Weapon||Ranged Weapon|
Your first line of defense is your Armor Class, or “AC”. This is a mostly static number which represents your character’s ability to avoid or deflect attacks by dodging, by wearing armor, by carrying a shield, or by any other mechanism.
In addition to their armor class, a creature may have additional defenses, including damage resistances and immunities which either reduce or negate damage of certain types. For more, see Damage, Healing, and Dying, later in this guide.
Most Player Characters will wear armor, and many carry shields. However, not every creature does so. AC can be determined by a number of different methods, depending on a creature’s equipment and abilities.
A totaly unarmored creature’s Armor Class (AC) is equal to 10 + their Dexterity Modifier. If the creature has nothing else that affects its AC, it uses this calculation.
A Player Character will typically wear manufactured armor. Manufactured armor will provide a new formula for calculating AC depending on the type of armor. For more on manufactured armor, see Armor and Shields, later in this guide. In addition, shields can provide a +2 bonus to your AC, and shields work with most other AC methods, including natural armor and the Barbarian’s Unarmored Defense (but not the Monk’s version of Unarmored Defense).
Some characters, including Barbarians and Monks, can determine their AC using their Unarmored Defense class features. For more information, see the class descriptions in the Player’s Handbook.
Many creatures, including beasts, dragons, Lizardfolk, and Tortles, have “natural armor”. This natural armor provides an additional way to calculate armor class if the character is not wearing manufactured armor.
For more on Armor Class, see page 14 of the Player’s Handbook under “Armor Class”.
Armor Class from Multiple Sources
If you have the ability to determine your armor class using more than one method, you are usually free to pick the option which results in the highest total AC. However, some exceptions exist. For example: the Monk’s Unarmored Defense class feature only works while you are unarmored and not wearing a shield.
Multiple methods of determining AC never stack. Anything which provides a new AC calculation will say something like “your AC equals”, while things which provide bonuses to AC like shields and the spell shield of faith say “bonus to AC”.
Walls, trees, creatures, and other obstacles can provide cover during combat, making a target more difficult to harm. A target can benefit from cover only when an attack or other effect originates on the opposite side of the cover.
There are three degrees of cover. If a target is behind multiple sources of cover, only the most protective degree of cover applies; the degrees aren’t added together. For example, if a target is behind a creature that gives half cover and a tree trunk that gives threequarters cover, the target has three-quarters cover
Cover provides a bonus to AC and to Dexterity saving throws as detailed in the table below. Total cover does not provide a bonus: You typically can’t target a creature with an attack if it has total cover, and total cover will block most effects which require a Dexterity saving throw unless the effect specifies that it spreads around corners.
|Half||+2||A target has half cover if an obstacle blocks at least half of its body. The obstacle might be a low wall. a large piece of furniture, a narrow tree trunk, or a creature, whether that creature is an enemy or a friend.|
|Three-Quarters||+5||A target has threequarters cover if about three-quarters of it is covered by an obstacle. The obstacle might be a portcullis, an arrow slit, or a thick tree trunk.|
|Total||–||A target has total cover if it is completely concealed by an obstacle.|