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I can't find anything explicit about whether a touch melee spell is considered a melee attack or not.

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4 Answers 4

Yes, they are attacks.

By the book, a touch attack uses an attack roll. Attack rolls, on the other side...

Attack Roll

An attack roll represents your attempt to strike your opponent on your turn in a round. When you make an attack roll, you roll a d20 and add your attack bonus. (Other modifiers may also apply to this roll.) If your result equals or beats the target's Armor Class, you hit and deal damage.

Automatic Misses and Hits: A natural 1 (the d20 comes up 1) on an attack roll is always a miss. A natural 20 (the d20 comes up 20) is always a hit. A natural 20 is also a threat—a possible critical hit (see the attack action). Attack Bonus

Your attack bonus with a melee weapon is the following:

Base attack bonus + Strength modifier + size modifier

With a ranged weapon, your attack bonus is the following:

Base attack bonus + Dexterity modifier + size modifier + range penalty

So, you use Dex if Ranged, or Str if Melee.

You add this only to the attack roll, not to the damage.


A Note on Game Design

Just a few extra pointers about the game design behind of this:

A few people have argued that Str on the Attack Roll on this case would not make sense. While I agree that this can be sometimes more a thing about precision than brute power, we need to see from where "power" comes from.

In real life, when you throw an attack, the power of the blow is dependent on three things: Where (if) you hit, the weight of the weapon - heavier weapons do more damage - and how fast your attack lands. Momentum is the product of Mass and Speed. D&D and a few other RPG's use Strength as a measurement of attack power, so they implicitly tie the speed of a blow to the character muscle power. You can't do damage by moving a big sword slowly.

Dexterity, on the other hand, is about muscle precision and control. It is not about speed. A (real life) archer do have high dexterity, but if you see an archer firing you will see that the most important thing to make an arrow hit the target is how you control your hands, not how "fast" you do this.

This logic reflects itself on D&D attack rolls. Attacks on which aim is more important than the speed of the blow (like ranged attacks with arrows and spells) normally use Dex, while attacks where the speed of the blow is the most important thing (as to bypass armor) use Str.

Throw-Weapons attacks are a hybrid of this. They use both Dex (to aim, the precision) and Str (to damage, the speed of the throw). Bows and Rays are like firearms - the damage (and the power of projectile) is independent of the muscle power of the one that fires them.

That's why D&D (and it's derivatives) permits that you add your Str to your touch attacks. A low Str Wizard will throw a slow punch, and since will be easily dodged, while a better than average Wizard will be able to make a fast movement and hit his enemy before it can dodge. A Wizard that chooses Weapon Finesse to touch attacks is doing something different - he is using a well timed attack and a calculated move, not raw speed, to land a blow. But doing that is harder, so that's why it needs a feat.

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Stop arguing in comments. You both have answers for your POV, let them stand. –  mxyzplk Apr 24 at 12:23
    
IMHO an "attack" in DnD is entirely different from a "blow". An attack can include series of blows, feint, swiping the oponent's weapon/guard, trapping the weapon, low kick while thrusting with a dagger. In other words, all of the concrete combat maneuvers are abstracted away by the 6-second "attack" action. –  Vorac Apr 24 at 13:37

Your attack bonus with a melee weapon is the following:

Base attack bonus + Strength modifier + size modifier

With a ranged weapon, your attack bonus is the following:

Base attack bonus + Dexterity modifier + size modifier + range penalty

In short melee touch attacks use Str because it is an unarmed melee attack. If it is a ranged touch, it uses Dex for calculating bonus to attack.

This also may help clarify: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?257525-Touch-Attacks

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D&D works by exception - it states general rules, and then they apply unless an explicit exception is stated. There is no exception stated to touch attacks vis-a-vis normal attacks except in how they are defended against. Therefore a melee touch attack uses your usual melee bonuses and a ranged touch attack uses your usual ranged bonuses (most often including STR and DEX bonuses, but of course there are exceptions). The attack itself is therefore like any normal attack roll, but applying defenses can be complicated.

Touch Attacks:

Some attacks completely disregard armor, including shields and natural armor—the aggressor need only touch a foe for such an attack to take full effect. In these cases, the attacker makes a touch attack roll (either ranged or melee). When you are the target of a touch attack, your AC doesn't include any armor bonus, shield bonus, or natural armor bonus. All other modifiers, such as your size modifier, Dexterity modifier, and deflection bonus (if any) apply normally. Some creatures have the ability to make incorporeal touch attacks. These attacks bypass solid objects, such as armor and shields, by passing through them. Incorporeal touch attacks work similarly to normal touch attacks except that they also ignore cover bonuses. Incorporeal touch attacks do not ignore armor bonuses granted by force effects, such as mage armor and bracers of armor.

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While the rulebook doesn't say anything useful in that respect, common sense decidedly says: "No".

Although the book appears to say "all other modifiers, such as your size modifier, Dexterity modifier, and deflection bonus (if any) apply normally", it really only says that all defensive modifiers apply normally, in particular the dexterity modifier. Which makes perfect sense. It doesn't say anything about attack modifiers, though admittedly it doesn't explicitly say that the strength bonus does not apply either.

Applying a strength modifier to the hit roll however does not make sense (though one might allow a dexterity modifier similar to a ranged attack).

The reason why a melee attack includes a strength modifier in the first place is that by definition hitting is not just making some haphazard contact between your opponent and your weapon, but hitting the opponent hard enough as to puncture/punch through the armour, worn or natural, and do actual damage.

Now, in order to inflict damage, you normally need to act with sufficient force, so hitting someone with greater strength is quite obviously more likely to deal damage. Insofar, a strength bonus makes sense.

For a touch attack, this does not apply. Armour does not count, since you do not need to punch through the armour, you merely need to touch the target -- tapping on the breastplate is enough.
But as a logical consequence, whether you touch them gently or with great strength also makes no difference. Having great strength is no particular advantage (just like wearing armour isn't), and therefore should not give a bonus.

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The argument in comments has served its purpose (you're wrong! I'm right!). Vote your conscience and discuss further in site chat. –  mxyzplk Apr 24 at 12:21

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