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For critical hits, the PHB states:

When you score a critical hit, you get to roll extra dice for the attack's damage...

The description of acid splash states:

... A target must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw...

The description of the Unconscious condition says (leaving out the first 2 bullet points):

  • The creatures automatically fails Strength and Dexterity saving throws.
  • Attack rolls against the creature have advantage.
  • Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature.

So a sorcerer sneaks up to a sleeping creature (within 5 feet) with the intention of doing as much damage as possible, and can either fire bolt it or acid splash it.

  1. Fire bolt — The advantage of being unconscious is negated by the disadvantage of making a ranged spell attack at 5 feet. If it hits, the damage is rolled as a critical hit.

  2. Acid splash — The advantage of being unconscious is now obsolete because the target automatically fails Dexterity-based saving throws. The spell automatically hits as a critical hit.

Does the acid splash spell work this way?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not the question at issue, but I should point out that Firebolt doesn't have disadvantage here. That only applies if the enemy can see you and isn't incapacitated. \$\endgroup\$
    – MJD
    Jul 14 at 13:59

3 Answers 3

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Sorry, but No

The Key Word here is Attack. Attacks as defined in the PHB are D20 rolls against AC.

From PHB, 194

If there’s ever any question whether something you’re doing counts as an attack, the rule is simple: if you’re making an attack roll, you’re making an attack.

Critical Hits are defined on page 194 (emphasis mine),

If the d20 roll for an attack is a 20, the attack hits regardless of any modifiers or the target’s AC. In addition, the attack is a critical hit, as explained later in this chapter.

Acid Splash is a Save-based Spell and doesn't qualify as an Attack for a Critical hit, since there is no d20 roll for attack.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So firebolt qualifies for crit? \$\endgroup\$
    – Zaibis
    Jul 13, 2017 at 10:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zaibis Fire Bolt does count: "Make a ranged spell attack against the target." Any spell that involves an "attack" can score critical hits. \$\endgroup\$
    – phyrfox
    Jul 13, 2017 at 11:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @phyrfox: so having a spell that makes an attack and has quite a handful dmg rolls is super efficient on crits? \$\endgroup\$
    – Zaibis
    Jul 13, 2017 at 11:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zaibis "super efficient" - depends on you definition. It's better for a crit to have many dice and few fixed bonuses (because bonuses do not get doubled). The amount of dice for any given average damage only affect the variance of the result. I.e. 6d6 average 21, 2d20 do too, but 6d6 heavily clusters around that average, while 2d20 is far more evenly spread over the 2-40 range, see anydice.com/program/21c7 It's usually in favor of the players to reduce variance, though. \$\endgroup\$
    – TBP
    Aug 10, 2017 at 7:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nitpick: the convention in 5e is to not capitalize attack, to avoid confusion with the Attack action. Maybe bold the word if you need emphasis? \$\endgroup\$
    – MJD
    Jul 14 at 14:12
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Can spell attacks score critical hits? A spell attack can definitely score a critical hit. The rule on critical hits applies to attack rolls of any sort. (Sage Advice Compendium, p. 12).

Jeremy Crawford, in the Sage Advice Compendium, addresses that often raised question about whether spell attacks can crit just like weapon attacks. This is related to the matter of making an attack roll from PHB page 194 in NautArch's answer.

If you look specifically at the RAW, neither Acid Splash nor Fireball are considered attacks. In the case of Fireball, something like Uncanny Dodge doesn't work against Fireball because there's no attack component (no attack roll) to Fireball.

Uncanny Dodge is no help against a spell like fireball, since the spell doesn't include an attack.

https://twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/596223867191824384

Think about it like this, with those spells you're not actually attacking someone. You're taking a ball of acid or a ball of explosive fire and hurling it at a single point. If people happen to be in the place I'm hurling a potentially damaging substance and don't move it's like if someone put a grenade 5 feet away from you and you stood there. They didn't attack you. They put an item down. When it blew up you got hurt.

Eldritch Blast, on the other hand, is a spell aimed specifically at a target for the express purpose of causing damage. In a game I played once I used Acid Splash to create the acid and contain it in vials. The rogue then used the acid to burn little holes in the thatch walls and roofs of buildings we were trying to investigate. If that acid dripped on someone it would hurt, but it wasn't created for that purpose.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Crawford posts are not considered authoritative sources for years by now. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jul 13 at 23:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Jeremy's pronouncements aren't nothing, IMO, but Trish is right that they're not controlling, either. There's just too many times that he's misstated something and then gone back to "correct" it but the original tweet's still out there, or he's posted contradictory things, or he's posted things that are facially incorrect. I read them like most of the 5e answers on this site: something written by someone who cares about the game, who knows the rules very well, and who is (like all of us) fallible. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Jul 13 at 23:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Trish Very true, but a distinction that might have escaped someone who has been a member of the site for only two days. ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jul 14 at 2:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 The best kind of incorrect is facially incorrect. 😁 \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14 at 12:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MJD, I'm not trying to disagree for the sake of it, but Acid Splash's description says, "You hurl a bubble of acid." You are not required to target a creature. You are allowed to choose 1 or 2 (if w/in 5ft. of each other) and make them what you hurl it at for the Dex save, but it only specifically says you hurl the blob. I'm pulling that from Roll20's spell description for the purposes of this specific response: roll20.net/compendium/dnd5e/Acid%20Splash#content \$\endgroup\$ Jul 15 at 7:08
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I agree and disagree...

Acid Splash, I agree, should never crit. Simply because it's based upon a DEX save.

However, Fire Bolt, I disagree shouldn't. No spell is an ATTACK ACTION -- even if it requires a to-hit roll (in this case, I'd concede that it would have advantages to-hit if cast as specified ) and causes damage-- it's a spell (governed under Casting a Spell), therefore it only does what it says it does...and it doesn't say it can crit.

Just because a spell requires an to-hit roll, doesn't automatically make any spell an ATTACK ACTION.

I think that as such, almost no spell can crit, as almost no spell is an ATTACK ACTION.

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    \$\begingroup\$ We have a question about spells and criticals that’s relevant: Are there critical hits for spells? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2018 at 17:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ A character can make "attacks" without using the "Attack action". By this answer's logic, one cannot crit on a opportunity attack reaction, because it isn't the "Attack action". \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Jul 18, 2018 at 15:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ahh..but even as you say it, it's an "opportunity attack action"...still an Attack action, just a different sort of Attack action, who's limited by other constraints on timing. I mean a Trip or Bull Rush is still an Attack too. However, I'm saying spells are an entirely different thing all together and that they only do what they say they do--whether they require a hit-roll or not --and pretty much should NEVER crit. \$\endgroup\$
    – David Fass
    Jul 18, 2018 at 18:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer is just plain wrong, spell attack roll is still an attack roll, it's right there in the name. Spells' descriptions specifically instruct you to "make a melee spell attack" or "make a ranged spell attack". Making an at attack section specifically lists spell attacks alongside melee and ranged weapon attacks, the rules apply to spell attacks in the same way as to weapon attacks. You can make this a house rule but you are explicitly going against RAW. \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Jul 14 at 9:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's very clearly spelled out in the PHB and in the Sage Advice Compendium that a spell attack using a spell attack roll is an attack. I am not sure if leaving a just plain wrong answer (thank you @AnnaAG) on serves any useful purpose. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14 at 12:29

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