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Things affected by Animate Objects can be issued commands. When ordered to attack in combat, they will make a single melee attack. Grapple, Hold, Help, etc are not mentioned in the spell description.

Questions:

  1. Can creatures made using this spell perform any other in-combat actions?
  2. If so, can the caster tell them (once) to keep repeating these actions?
  3. What are the limits to commands given during fight?

Examples:

  • Can silk ropes grapple and drag away enemies?
  • Can ball bearings buzz around in enemies faces to distract them, as a help action?
  • Can a carpet be told to keep a caster (standing on it) away from the fray ?
  • Can a box flee and hide?
  • Can dolls in branches hold an action until an enemy is below them?
  • Can an object pour a potion in a character's mouth?
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RAW, anything a player character can do

The caster decides, what action the animated object will take:

You decide what action the creature will take and where it will move during its next turn, or you can issue a general command

This action does not have to be an attack. According to the Monster Manual (page 10 "Actions"), besides actions from the stats block, there are actions available to all creatures:

When a monster takes its action, it can choose from the options in the Actions section of its stat block or use one of the actions available to all creatures, such as the Dash or Hide action, as described in the Player's Handbook.

Therefore, animated objects can at least Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Help, Hide, Grapple and Shove.

They probably can do more, since the PHB describes Grapple and Shove as "the most common" (but not the only possible) contests:

This section includes the most common contests that require an action in combat: grappling and shoving a creature. The DM can use these contests as models for improvising others.

This might be table-dependent

Can silk ropes grapple and drag away enemies?

It can try, if the caster gives the respective order. As a player, you declare "I command my rope to drag away this guy" and wait for the DM to narrate the results. That's how the game works according to the "How to play" chapter of the PHB, page 6.

D&D 5th edition empowers the DM in ways that 3rd, 3.5, and 4th did not. While rule zero has always applied, 5th edition chooses not to explicitly codify many things.

Your DM might assume, a particular object (a ball, for instance) cannot grapple because it can't do this physically (it has no appendages, etc). If your DM says it can't, it can't. The DMG admits there are no rules for all the possible situations and suggests to resolve them using the common sense:

The rules don’t account for every possible situation that might arise during a typical D&D session. For example, a player might want his or her character to hurl a brazier full of hot coals into a monster’s face. How you determine the outcome of this action is up to you

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  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Notably, the Grapple action requires the target to be no more than one size greater than the grappler, which may provide one constraint on what objects can grapple what. \$\endgroup\$ – Louis Wasserman Oct 29 '19 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ More importantly, grappling also requires "at least one free hand". Since objects animated by the spell have no special grappling abilities granted by the spell, they can't grapple by RAW unless they somehow have an actual hand. The DM might allow it to work as a house-rule in certain cases, but it has no basis in the rules themselves beyond DM fiat. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 30 '20 at 9:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast nothing in the rules says a creature must have hands for grappling. The only mention of hands is "Using at least one free hand, you try to seize the target" from the PHB, but it is an example, not a requirement. The same page states "this section includes the most common contests". A requirement of a free hand can be reasonably applied to humanoids which have hands, not to all creatures in the world. Moreover, many handless monsters have special grappling attacks, which shows us that grappling using other means is possible. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Nov 30 '20 at 9:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor: "Using at least one free hand" is not an "example"; it's a rule - and there is no monster rule that makes a general exception to that for monsters, other than when monsters have specific abilities in their statblock that gives the creature a different way to grapple. Grapples and shoves being "the most common contests" doesn't say anything about whether monsters can do them; it just means that grapples and shoves are the most common uses of contested checks (e.g. a less common use of a contest might be, say, a tug-of-war). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 30 '20 at 20:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think it can certainly be reasonable to house-rule to allow it in some cases, specifically because there's no general rule provided on how to handle it - but it is a house-rule nevertheless (to allow monsters to grapple with things other than "a free hand" if they don't have such an ability listed in their statblock). That's the only point I'm making. I think the previous part of your answer is correct. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 30 '20 at 20:29

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