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To give an example, if a PC was knocked unconscious and someone was to throw a fireball at them, they would automatically fail the Dex Saving throw and take full damage.

If the spell caster was within 5ft of the unconscious player and decided to throw a fireball (as unlikely as it would be), would that attack be a critical?

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A fireball or a similar AoE spell would not crit

The Unconscious condition does state that (from the SRD p. 359, emphasis mine):

Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature.

An "attack" is a well-defined term in the 5e rules that is different from the basic English meaning of what an attack is. The rules for what counts as an attack simply state (from the SRD p.94 "Making an Attack", emphasis mine):

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

Since the fireball spell and other AoE spells usually do not involve making an attack roll they are not considered attacks and thus are not affected by this clause of the unconscious condition.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point - although automatic failing could be the 'crit equivalent' of an AOE spell based on STR/DEX. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 25 '18 at 17:47
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No (by RAW)

Only attacks that require an attack roll and therefore allow a roll of a natural 20 may 'crit'. This is indicated in the Player's Handbook pg 194 under the 'Attack rolls' heading

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.

There is nothing in the rules that says that spells that require the opponents to make a saving throw can possibly crit, regardless of circumstances. Such spells are not 'attacks' in that they do not require an attack roll.

In essence, it makes no difference if an opponent takes full damage because he failed the saving throw while conscious (implying he failed to dodge or shield himself in time) or because he failed due to unconsciousness.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that this correct answer would be improved by quotes and or citations from the relevant rules. OP is clearly mixed up on some fundamentals of 5e, so I think pointing them in the right direction to do their own further reading would be a mitzveh. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jun 25 '18 at 11:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60. I added the answer while at work, but I've added a reference now I'm home with access to my books! \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jun 25 '18 at 19:12
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I found this from Jeremy Crawford on Twitter:

Spell attacks and weapon attacks both have a chance of scoring a critical hit.

So if you roll a spell attack roll then it can crit, if you don't then there can be no crit.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The linked sage advice doesn't really say anything about non-attack spells. Non-attack spells is what this question is about though. \$\endgroup\$ – fabian Oct 5 at 8:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmmm, the way I read it it means only attacks made with an attack roll can crit. So all other forms of attacks can't. \$\endgroup\$ – Cyril Gips Oct 5 at 8:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ You should say that that explicitly in your answer! We find it's best for answers to connect all the dots and explicitly and completely answer the question. So let OP know how this answers their question! It's also best to quote the quote in the answer and not just link to it. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Oct 5 at 19:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rubiksmoose thanks for the feedback, I'll work on that next time. In retrospect I did leave some stuff implicit where I could've made it explicit. \$\endgroup\$ – Cyril Gips Oct 5 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. As fabian kind of hinted at, and as pointed out in Sdjz's answer, if something doesn't have an attack roll and isn't specifically described by the game as an attack, it's not an attack - there's simply no attack in the game without an attack roll (so far in 5e) other than grapples and shoves, which are described as "special melee attacks". The definition of an attack is reiterated in the Sage Advice Compendium. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 6 at 3:46
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I'd say no, it wouldn't crit...

But, only because it is a spell -- and spells only do what they say they do. And, nowhere does it state that a spell like a Fireball has a chance to crit -- however, due to Unconsciousness, (which causes ALL DEX and STR saves to fail) they would automatically take FULL damage.

I would say unless it is an ATTACK ACTION (using something with a crit range), then I would disallow any crit chances. Spells are their own weird beast.

I believe that "if you're making an attack roll, you're making an attack roll" is misapplied to spells -- I believe that quote is supposed to refer to physical attacks/feats/special maneuvers --especially when you're improvising something on the fly.

I disagree with the assertions that just because spells don't have attack rolls, they are not attacks -- they are "Spell Attacks"...whose rules are different -- only going by their descriptions and if those descriptions forgo an attack roll, so be it (e.g. Magic Missile is an attack, even though it has no attack roll). That doesn't mean they aren't attacks -- if it causes damage, I would classify it as an attack -- though I would call it a "Spell Attack".

I'm going to say that Spells fall into a few general categories, Attack, Buffs/Debuffs, Healing, Utility, and Situational.

Attack spells cause damage and directly attack enemies.

Buffs/Debuffs either boost your or your teams abilities or disadvantage your foes (but don't necessarily cause damage)

Healing spells restore HP or functionality

Utility are those spells that do things that are useful but don't fit those other categories -- also some of the "ritual" capable spells.

Situational spells are a subcategory of Utility, ones that are useful only in certain situations where they're excellent.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Magic Missile is not an attack. Other spells that don't involve an attack roll, such as those contingent on a saving throw, are not attacks either. "Spell attack" and "attack" are mechanical terms in 5e, not just arbitrary classifications. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 25 '18 at 18:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ As I said it’s not an ATTACK ACTION...it’s a spell...but it’s still an attack in that it’s causing damage. Spells only do what they say...so, no spell would ever crit, unless it’s an effect that manefests as a weapon \$\endgroup\$ – David Fass Jun 26 '18 at 19:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ And, like I said I think that quote is misused —it’s an attack, just not an ATTACK ACTION, which is a specific term with consequences. \$\endgroup\$ – David Fass Jun 26 '18 at 19:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ No offense, but you're just wrong. The rules are pretty clear on the topic. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 26 '18 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ If magic missile was an Attack it would clearly state such in it's description. \$\endgroup\$ – Jihelu Jun 29 '18 at 16:05

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