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I came to think about some situations where it would be almost impossible to miss a melee spell attack (target is grappling you or vice versa, target is holding you or is close to you, your character already has it's hand on the target, etc.). How do you manage those situations?

  1. Do you give an advantage to the caster?
  2. Does the spell automatically succeed?
  3. Or you just don't ask yourself the question and just play along with the base rules?
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi and welcome to the site! When you have a bit, please take our tour and visit the help center so you can see how our site is different from the fora you may be used to. In particular, we expect questions and answers to be posted separately, so I've taken the liberty of removing your self-answer from the question you posted. Feel free to add it as an answer, but be aware we also expect answers to be longer than a single sentence in most cases. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Sep 27 '17 at 5:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think [touch-attacks] tag is relevant here, since 5e doesn't have touch attacks. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Sep 27 '17 at 6:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ As an additional point to other answers, the attack roll might include the difficulties of working magic to cast the spell. Even if your delivery mechanism is already in place, it doesn't mean it's trivial to go through the mental/physical effort of casting. A failed roll on an already touched target might mean the attack dissipates instead of being delivered. \$\endgroup\$ – Samthere Sep 27 '17 at 8:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor that is my feeling also. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Sep 27 '17 at 13:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sirmyself And you are getting some good looking answers. My comments are now removed. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 28 '17 at 15:51
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As it happens, every spell that involves a melee spell attack also requires a somatic component. From the Player's Handbook:

Spellcasting gestures might include a forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures. If a spell requires a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

In order to cast these spells, your character would have to release the target with one hand, make their gestures, and then make the touch attack. Depending on the spell in question, the somatic component could be the touch attack itself, but regardless you cannot just hold a target with both hands and then cast the spell.

If you would like to know how to arbitrate circumstances that may grant a caster advantage on their melee spell attack, I'd invite you to look at the various conditions for an idea of what to expect. A brief summary of the conditions from the PHB to help you along:

Your Target is Blinded- Provides advantage on the attack rolls.

Your Target is Grappled (whether by you or someone else)- Does not provide advantage on attack rolls.

You are Invisible- Provides advantage on the attack rolls.

Your Target is Paralyzed, Petrified, or Prone- Provides advantage on the attack rolls.

Your Target is Restrained (whether by you or someone else)- Provides advantage on the attack rolls.

Your Target is Stunned- Provides advantage on the attack rolls.

Your Target is Unconscious- Provides advantage on the attack rolls.

One final note is the big exception to this rule. A sorcerer can cast a Subtle Spell, which requires no somatic component- and thus does not require a free hand to cast, so you could indeed cast the spell while holding your target. In such a case, it's the DM's call whether the circumstance provides you with an advantage on the attack roll or whether it automatically succeeds... though since you don't necessarily auto-hit on even an unconscious person, advantage on the roll is the most likely result, and would presumably be worth the Sorcery Point spent to obtain it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You need one hand for somatic components. Most PCs have two. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Sep 27 '17 at 6:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not the fun ones. Regardless, I've always ruled that you have to make the touch attack as part of the spell, meaning that you're using your now-free hand to make the attack, but I only saw the implication in the rulebook, so I left that part out of the answer. I'll let someone else argue whether the hand making the gestures is the one charged with the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – TheVagrantDog Sep 27 '17 at 6:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ It might be worth noting that any attack on a Paralyzed or Unconscious target "is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature" (PHB, p. 291-292). \$\endgroup\$ – Meta4ic Sep 27 '17 at 10:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not worth a separate answer, but maybe worth adding to yours - the Grappler feat (PHB: 167) gives advantage against a creature you are grappling - so there is actually a feat that gives advantage (hence RAW and RAI would still require the attack rolls). \$\endgroup\$ – Rycochet Sep 27 '17 at 11:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @EthanTheBrave See "Is the sentence of suggestion in the suggestion spell the verbal component, or is the verbal component separate?" in Sage Advice Compendium. If an action is part of the casting, it's explicitly mentioned (e.g. Teleportation Circle.) See also this tweet about Counterspell and Green-Flame Blade: "If the attack could be disentangled from the spell's effect, the attack would be a component, not part of the effect." \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Sep 27 '17 at 13:52
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Melee spell attack still needs an attack roll

When you cast any spell with "make a melee spell attack against the target" phrase in the description, you have to perform an attack roll. Basically you treat it as an unarmed attack using your spellcasting modifier. It is irrelevant if you have ever touched the target before, primarily for the balance reasons. If this bothers you as being "unrealistic", imagine you have to hit your target in the right spot, use right application of the force, or make a specific gesture beforehand. Keep in mind there are no touch attacks in 5e — armored characters are still more protected, even from some kind of magic.

"But I've successfully touched him last round, can I just don't release him?"

Keep in mind that a round represents 6 seconds (a lot!) in the game world, and a "turn" is nothing but a game mechanic. Turns don't exist in the game world. Despite you can move and take actions "in your turn", characters act simultaneously. They are also aware of their surroundings and act accordingly, even when "it is not their turn":

In a fight, everyone is constantly watching for enemies
(PHB page 195)

Characters don't stay "frozen" between turns. That means, that even if you have ended your turn touching someone, don't expect you will still being touching them next round. This makes the "your character already has their hand on the target" situation implausible.

"Okay, I can't maintain touch so easily. But what if I am grappling him?"

As this answer explains, "grappling" is a situation when you limit a creature's movement. It is a condition in which the creature's speed is reduced to zero. Strictly speaking, you don't have to have a firm grip on the creature to do that. Regardless, even when you hold them tight, that doesn't give you automatic melee spell attack, just like holding your hand one somebody's shoulder doesn't automatically punch them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or you can be holding him by his bracers/chestplate while the spell requires skin contact or something similar, if you are looking for narrative reasons as well as mechanical \$\endgroup\$ – Lope Sep 27 '17 at 7:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Additional support for this answer: Even with a firm grapple, the situation is not passive, the opponent is not assumed to be just hanging on passively while a mage holds him/her in place and casts the spell on their turn. The opponent is likely to be struggling and fighting back, during the spell casting. This assumption is built into normal attack rules. That is presumably why there is no advantage (usually) for most actions taken between grappling opponents. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Sep 27 '17 at 15:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ To extend the grappling portion: A grapple can indeed mean a lot of things. Your firm grip on someone's shirt that stops them from moving may not have enough contact with the person itself to channel the spell through. You also may not be touching the right part of him to deliver the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Marshall Tigerus Sep 27 '17 at 16:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer. An interesting rules example of this is the spell Shocking Grasp, which requires a melee spell attack, which has advantage (but does no more damage) if the target is wearing metal armor. Clearly, the armor can't have made the target easier to touch: they are still roughly the same size as before. But it could have given the attacker more places to touch the target to deliver the spell's full effect. This suggest that it is not just a matter of touching the target, but as you said, of hitting the target "in the right spot". \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Sep 27 '17 at 16:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme "Clearly, the armor can't have made the target easier to touch: they are still roughly the same size as before." That's false. A spark or arc could jump from the caster's hand to the armor, which is conductive. That would turn a near-miss into a hit. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Sep 27 '17 at 21:49
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Timing

Every round takes 6 seconds (on Roll20), with a movement action and a normal action (plus bonus actions). That gives 3 seconds for spell casting. If you were using a spell with a somatic component, which usually take a whole action, then the 3 seconds consists of the character wavy their arms, or whatever the spell requires. If a person wanted to cast this without an attack roll involved, I would have them make a Dexterity (Slight of Hand) check with a DC of the target's passive wisdom score. If it fails, the target sees the hand movement and has a chance to move. The spell caster would make an attack roll. If the check succeeds the spell automatically hits. If it is a verbal spell only, which are usually bonus actions, then the spell can be cast very quickly, without the target being touched having a chance to react.

Otherwise, what you could do is halve or reduce the AC of the target, and then just have a normal attack roll made. My DM does this, but it doesn't make as much sense to me as what I stated above.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Where are you getting three seconds from? \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 1 '17 at 4:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ because your turn is split into 2 phases (for the most part) I split the time in half \$\endgroup\$ – Alexander Dawson-Fink Oct 2 '17 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think that's very well supported by the rules. Sure, the round takes six seconds, but consider an action like "dash". This doesn't move you at all — it just consumes your action and gives you twice the movement. If we followed a strict framework of "action takes three seconds, move takes three seconds", to dash, you'd stand there tensing up your muscles for three seconds and then run twice as fast as normal for the next three. That seems kind of silly — appropriate for rabbits, perhaps, but we can't all be rabbits. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 2 '17 at 19:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting thought. I always thought of the dash as running during your action time. So, in my mind, this worked. A dash, to me, is running for 3 seconds and then running for another 3 seconds. \$\endgroup\$ – Alexander Dawson-Fink Oct 4 '17 at 1:29

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