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A rogue and fighter are engaged in melee combat with a goblin. The rogue is unarmed. Can the rogue activate Sneak Attack?

The rules for Sneak Attack state:

Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe’s distraction. Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.

The question arises from the difficulty in parsing the bolded sentence. I have heard 2 interpretations:

  1. You can sneak attack if (you have advantage and the attack is made using a finesse or ranged weapon) or (an enemy of the target is within 5ft, etc).
  2. You can sneak attack if ((you have advantage) or (an enemy of the target is within 5ft, etc)) and the attack is made using a finesse or ranged weapon.

The second interpretation hinges on the idea that when the second paragraph says "on the attack roll" it is still talking about the same "attack" as in the first paragraph. The first interpretation hinges on the idea that the second interpretation is bizarre and unnatural - if that was the intent, there are many ways that it could have been worded to be clearer.

Thematically, I am leaning towards the first - not having a finesse or ranged weapon shouldn't stop the rogue from exploiting a distracted foe.

Considering RAW only (no twitter please), how should this feature be interpreted?

I understand that many people have played a certain way without thinking about it, that's ok, but I'm looking for the reason why. I do appreciate answers about how people play regardless, but please do not be offended if I don't accept the answer. I'm looking for reasoning behind why you play that way based off RAW. If you can't provide that, no worries, again I appreciate the answers, but I will wait for someone who can offer an explanation.

This question is not relating to a particular game, I usually DM, someone who is usually a player (but not in my games, just a friend) asked me this question. The player in question is not playing a rogue as far as I know, they are not trying to exploit the system. I wasn't sure about the answer, I asked some other friends who are both DMs and players, they weren't sure either. All of us have been playing 5e basically since launch, all of us are native English speakers, all of us have D&D history before 5e.

The ambiguity is whether or not the final sentence of the first paragraph is in reference to the previous sentence - contextually it appears that it could either be or not. I am looking for an argument as to why one or the other is correct, not for someone to just assert that one is correct because that's how they play. It's obviously easy to contrive examples where the sentence is undeniably linked, eg: "You can cross the border in a vehicle if you have filled form 5b. You must cross at a vehicle crossing. You do not need to fill form 5b if you are crossing on foot."

Some users have been insulted when I pointed out problems in their answers and told me "just accept the answer already!", please do not be offended if I say I have a problem understanding your answer. This question is about trouble understanding the rule, so if I have trouble understanding the answer then I don't feel like anything is particularly gained. I know the stack isn't set up this way, but it would be highly appreciate if you tried to address the problem directly, either by explaining it or adapting to the problem. I know that from the answerer's perspective it's best if it gets accepted as soon as it is voted and you don't want to think about it any more, but from my perspective to have an answer that has problems that the answerer doesn't want to acknowledge or address isn't ideal. Of course you have no obligation to address problems, but I just don't like hearing people being dismissive or insulting me for discussing the problems.

I also mentioned playing RAW. RAW in this context means Rules As Written, and refers to only analyzing the rules as they appear in the text. That means no twitter, no analyzing (or guessing) intent, no outside references, just what is written in the rules. Yes there are innumerable ways to play the game, people are free to read SA, check JC's twitter, play homebrew, or make their own house rules. By asking about RAW I am not saying that any of those approaches are worse or undesirable. I am just asking about RAW because that is what I am interested in. I appreciate everyone telling me about RAI or how they play at their table or how they would homebrew it, and you are of course welcome to make these answers. Just be aware that they are not the kind of answers I am looking for.

I understand that a certain amount of snark is part of SE culture, but if you could please refrain it would help me a lot. I do not appreciate it, and frankly it feels demeaning to read these comments accusing me of this or that. I cam here for help and to hear what expects have to say, not to be abused. I understand that the snark is not meant to be taken offensively, it's more like good natured ribbing, but please understand I am not particularly feeling that way at the moment. It's not very friendly to me, so I'm not trying to insult the stack culture, I am just saying that I would appreciate if you let up with the snark, is that ok?

Let me provide another example, where there is more room.

You can eat dessert after dinner if you have at least 3 vegetables. You have to finish everything on your plate.

You don't need to have have 3 vegetables if it's your birthday.

The question is if the kid has to finish everything on their plate to eat dinner on their birthday. The problem is that the relationship between the first a second sentences is not strongly defined.

Some people have argued that because it is not a subordinate clause that means it is completely independent. But that denies both context and structural elements. It's not grammatically sound to argue that sentences within the same paragraph have no relationship, or that they have the same relationship as they do to sentences in other paragraphs. That's not how English works.

So through discussion with other users I have determined this seems to be the core of the issue. It is possible that in some English dialects there is a looser relationship between paragraphs, or that paragraphs are used more for spacing or timing rather than as structural elements. This kind of issue is a lot harder to track down than an a grammatical issue.

If I could break it down further, is "The attack" mentioned in the 3rd sentence of Sneak Attack the same as "an attack" in sentence 2, or is it referring to the attack that has advantage and thus is a candidate for sneak attack? The wording is certainly ambiguous.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: 1, 2, 3, 4. \$\endgroup\$ – Eddymage Oct 20 at 7:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Based on your comments on the answers, it seems like you've got a viewpoint here and I'd recommend submitting a self-answer to see what the community thinks of the logic. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 20 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user-024673 the reason NautArch suggested submitting a self-answer, is for a couple of reasons. First it enables people to discuss your approach (through chat) in the same way you have on the other answers to your question (and potentially point out flaws in your reasoning). Second, it gives you a way to measure how well the community as a whole agrees with your reasoning. Thirdly, it enables, you to move some of the extraneous detail from your question that supports your interpretation (like what is RAW) into your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Oct 22 at 13:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm also now unclear as to what would generate an answer for you. If we can only use the words as written and add no analysis or experience, then there is no way to answer. I'm voting to close for more details so that you can provide info as to what would resolve this. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 22 at 16:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I suggest you remove the the "eat dessert after dinner" contrived example, and refrain from doing that in the future. It doesn't add any evidence or clarity. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Oct 23 at 19:53
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The right interpretation is your second one.

By RAW, a Sneak Attack can be done if a condition is met and the attacker wields a finesse or a ranged weapon. There are two conditions that can be met:

  • the attacker has advantage on the attack roll
  • there is an ally within 5 feet of the target, it is not incapacitated and the attacker does not have a disadvantage on the attack roll.

The requirement of the finesse or ranged weapon is one of the necessary condition to do a Sneak Attack: the other one must be one of the above.


Some parts of the Sage Advice remark this finesse or ranged property requirement: for example at pag 8, first column, says (emphasis mine)

Can a rogue/monk use Sneak Attack with unarmed strikes? The Sneak Attack feature works with a weapon that has the finesse or ranged property. An unarmed strike isn’t a weapon, so it doesn’t qualify. In contrast, a rogue/ monk can use Sneak Attack with a monk weapon, such as a shortsword or a dagger, that has one of the required properties.

This part answers to your very initial question: since it is stated that an unarmed strike is not a weapon, the rouge can not use its Sneak Attack.

Under Can you use green-flame blade and booming blade with Extra Attack, opportunity attacks, Sneak Attack, and other weapon attack options? one can find (pag 17, emphasis mine):

Third, these weapon attacks work with Sneak Attack if they fulfill the normal requirements for that feature. For example, if you have the Sneak Attack feature and cast green-flame blade with a finesse weapon, you can deal Sneak Attack damage to the target of the weapon attack if you have advantage on the attack roll and hit.

The example remarks indeed the requirement of the finesse property of the weapon for using the Sneak Attack.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Oct 22 at 2:37
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The Sneak Attack rules, as you quoted them, say:

Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe’s distraction. Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.

I have highlighted the relevant parts. The second paragraph only removes the need for advantage, but leaves the rest of the first paragraph unchanged.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Oct 22 at 2:37
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Sneak attack always requires an appropriate weapon.

Your rephrasings to use OR and AND are not valid rephrasings of the rule. You can use that sort of rewording to make the rules easier to remember or jot them down as notes, but the rules do not include a bunch of ORs; you're making that up yourself and introducing ambiguity that wasn't originally there.

Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it [etc.]

There should be no difficulty in parsing this. You need advantage and an appropriate weapon to sneak attack. Period. As a special exception, you can ignore the advantage requirement under certain circumstances. The exception is specific that "You do not need advantage on the attack roll if..." -- the exception makes no claim about weapon choice, therefore it doesn't change the rule about weapon choice.

They've gone out of their way to phrase this without the use of pronouns or subordinate clauses specifically to prevent any possible misreading, so if you need to make a ruling, it's important that you consider only the rule as it is written, and not some reworking of the text.

Another way to say this is, the exception gives us permission to replace some text in the rule. The rule says "if you have advantage on the attack roll"; the exception says "You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if..." So we can take out the phrase "you have advantage on the attack roll" and replace it with the IF from the exception, which would give us this text:

Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

And doing that way, again, there's no avoiding the weapon requirement.

The DM can rule otherwise.

The rules as written are unambiguous about weapon choice. But if you are the DM and you really want to allow a player to do this, just go for it. DMs don't have to justify their house-rules with strained misinterpretations of the rules to find some shadow of doubt in how it's "supposed" to run. Just do it, and understand that you're operating under a house rule for the purposes of this one game. The Fun Police won't break down the door and arrest you for failing to follow the rules exactly.

Allowing unarmed (or Greataxe) sneak attacks is unlikely to break the game; this is one of those rules that seems very likely to be there for flavor reasons rather than to support balance. A sneaky, backstabby attack should be done with a traditionally sneaky, roguish weapon because you need something fast and agile to launch a sudden, unforeseen attack. It feels like the kind of thing that requires a finesse weapon.

Now, if you aren't the DM, but you're trying to get somebody on a message board to agree with you so you can wave it at your DM and say "SEE?! I'M RIGHT!" then there may be a problem at your table, because that's some pretty childish behavior.

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The second interpretation is the correct one

You can sneak attack if ((you have advantage) or (an enemy of the target is within 5ft, etc)) and the attack is made using a finesse or ranged weapon.

But why?

D&D 5e rules work on the principle of Specific Beats General:

If a specific rules contradicts a general rule, the specific rules wins (PHB > How to Play)

The rules on Sneak Attack state:

Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe’s distraction. Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.

So where does specific vs general come into this?

The general rule for Sneak Attack is outlined in the first paragraph:

Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe’s distraction. Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

This gives us the two requirements for sneak attack:

  1. You must have advantage on the attack roll
  2. You must use a finesse or ranged weapon for the attack

The second paragraph introduces an exception to this general rule:

You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.

This exception, modifies the rule to be:

  1. One of these two condition must be true:
    • You must have advantage on the attack roll
    • An enemy of the target must be within 5 ft of the enemy and that enemy of the target isn't incapacitated and you don't have disadvantage on the attack
  2. You must use a finesse or ranged weapon for the attack
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the reply, it seems well thought out and the format is clear. I appreciate you reading my answer and attempting to address the concerns I have (RAW, snark, being clear about your explanation, etc). It is certainly grammatically and logically valid, but unfortunately as per my question I already knew it was valid. It doesn't address the first reading, why is that one not grammatically or logically valid? At best this answer shows that 2. is possible - but you can't prove that pizza tastes bad by arguing that hamburgers are delicious! \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Oct 23 at 3:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user-024673 Your question states, in it's body, "Considering RAW only (no twitter please), how should this feature be interpreted?". I have addressed by answer to that question (the above is how it should be interpreted). If your question is actually "Can I interpret this feature using interpretation #1 by RAW? If not why not? In that case is the second interpretation the "correct" one?", I can produce an answer to that, but you need to make that clear in the question. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Nov 12 at 9:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ You have interpreted the question correctly, however you have only answered half of it. You have shown why 2 is an ok interpretation, but why is 1 not an ok interpretation? The starting point of the question is "1 and 2 are both ok, which one is right" and you have answered "2 is ok, so it's right". Well, you just restated half of the question and called it an answer! Like I said before, you can't prove pizza tastes bad by arguing that hamburgers are delicious! \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Nov 13 at 3:35

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