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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?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: 1, 2, 3, 4. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 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\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 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
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 13:12
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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
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think people want to know what you're expecting out of an answer. You seem to already be certain of what the answer is given how you've responded to the answers you've received. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 19:17

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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 conditions to make a Sneak Attack: the other one must be one of the above.


Some parts of the Sage Advice Compendium remark this finesse or ranged property requirement: for example here it 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 rogue can not use its Sneak Attack.

Here one can find (emphasis mine):

Can you use green-flame blade and booming blade with Extra Attack, opportunity attacks, Sneak Attack, and other weapon attack options?

[...]

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
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 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
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 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\$ Commented Oct 23, 2020 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
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 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\$ Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 3:35

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