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PHB page 195 mentions "special melee attack" when talking about Grapple and Shove:

you can make a special melee attack to shove a creature

you can use the Attack action to make a special melee attack, a grapple

It uses words "make a special melee attack" like it is a thing in 5e, however, nowhere in the game text it's being said what a "special melee attack" actually is. It isn't even mentioned anymore. I believe that "special attack" is not a game term — it's a vestige from the previous editions, where "special attacks" was a thing, but I could be mistaken.

Are there any other examples of "special melee attack" (or just "special attack") in any official source book for 5e?

I was searching through dndbeyond and the only thing I've found was Sword Of Answering. But it uses words "special attack" in the context of the magic item description:

while you hold the sword, you can use your reaction to make one melee attack

any damage dealt with this special attack ignores any damage immunity or resistance the target has

You can remove the word "special" from its description and nothing changes. So it is plain English meaning here, not the game term.

So what is a "special attack" in terms of the game mechanics?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What’s the actual problem you’re trying to solve here? You’ve noted in the question that removing the word “special” doesn’t seem to change anything, so what’s the issue? \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Jan 9 at 17:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe the question is whether this term is actually defined anywhere in the rules. Similar to asking "What is a melee weapon attack" (which is defined in the rules and whose meaning is otherwise ambiguous. Compare melee-weapon attack with melee weapon-attack). This is just asking "What is a special melee attack", and whether it has a rules-defined definition \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Jan 9 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov I was talking about Sword of Answering. You can say just "any damage dealt with this attack", the meaning remains the same, so it's not a game term here. But "make a special melee attack" sounds like a game term for me. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 9 at 17:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that its not capitalised like a Melee Attack would be. \$\endgroup\$ – speciesUnknown Jan 10 at 17:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @speciesUnknown to my knowledge, "melee attack" is never capitalised — only Attack action is. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 10 at 20:09
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No such thing

There is no game term "special melee attack".

Rather, you are to parse it thus: [special][melee attack], where "special" has its natural English meaning of different or exceptional, and "melee attack" is a game-defined term.

The passage is saying that both a Shove and a Grapple are melee attacks, and follow the general rules for melee attacks. For example, these attacks may be made only on a target within your reach.

But they are also exceptional melee attacks, and have in addition their own specific rules. Those rules are completely described in the sections detailing the effects of those attacks. For example, their "resolve the attack" step involves a contested ability check rather than an attack roll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's probably worth mentioning the (likely) reason why it calls them "special" - unlike most other melee attacks, shoves and grapples are not weapon attacks or spell attacks, and perhaps more importantly, they involve a contested ability check instead of an attack roll. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 9 at 21:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Edited, thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jan 10 at 4:13
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It isn't a 'special melee attack' but a 'special' melee attack

'Special' in this case is just an adjective to describe why this is different to a 'normal' melee attack. Neither special or normal in this case are specific game terms.

It is hard to prove this, because it isn't specifically referenced as such, but neither term appears elsewhere as far as I can find, which leads me to the belief that it is not a specific game term.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1. I consider your answer essentially the same as mine; yours came in while I was writing mine and I only saw it after I had posted (and would not have posted had I seen it first). \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jan 9 at 19:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt yeah I spotted them coming in together, yours is better written though :) \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jan 9 at 19:42
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The books use standard English

A special attack is an attack that is, in some way special, or exceptional. This isn't a game-term, it's an English term. They are simply noting that Grapple and Shove are exceptional attacks.

In particular, they do not involve an attack roll and can only be made as part of the Attack action itself. As Anagkai pointed out, they also can only be used on certain size creatures (in fact, they can only be used on creatures which is already exceptional). These make them different from every other attack in the game; these make them "special"


Now, I can't prove that something isn't a rules-defined term, but the fact that the term does not seem to appear anywhere else and does not get a separate definition where it is used (Grapples and Shoves) leads me to believe that it is not a game-term.

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"Special" means out of the ordinary

The plain English meaning of "special" is "out of the ordinary". It's used like that here.

Shoving does count as an attack and is used during the attack action. But there are details that are different from usual attacks (PHB, p. 195-196):

The target must be no more than one size larger than you and must be within your reach. Instead of making an attack roll, you make a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use). You succeed automatically if the target is incapacitated. If you succeed, you either knock the target prone or push it 5 feet away from you.

The attack has a restriction concerning the size of the target and does not use an attack roll. So the attack is designated special because it does not work like other attacks and how it works differently is detailed in the rest of the description.

Grappling has the same differences from normal attacks.

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