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A paladin's divine smite says (PHB. 85), "...when you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack...", which I'm seeing two ways to interpret.

  1. "A melee attack with a weapon", so as long as it's a melee attack and you're using a weapon smite away.

  2. "An attack with a melee weapon", is where things get odd. Under (PHB. 149), "Simple Melee Weapons", includes spears which have the Thrown property. Thrown states (PHB. 147), "...you can throw the weapon to make a ranged attack. If the weapon is a melee weapon...", so even while being thrown it is still a, "melee weapon"

Since it would be easy to house rule this (Rule of Cool: Smiting with a spear sounds neat) I'd like an answer that either references word of god or provides a convincing argument that this type of reading applied to other parts of the rules results in absurdities.

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Per Crawford, No: you can't use the paladin's divine smite with a thrown weapon.

The problem here, as you have correctly identified, is that the language is ambiguous: does "melee weapon attack" mean "a melee attack with a weapon" (your option 1), or "an attack with a melee weapon" (your option 2)?

Helpfully, Jeremy Crawford has answered this exact question on his Twitter account, and in the following Sage Advice Compendium question (on p10 of the v1.14 PDF, available on this page):

What does “melee weapon attack” mean: a melee attack with a weapon or an attack with a melee weapon?

It means a melee attack with a weapon. Similarly, “ranged weapon attack” means a ranged attack with a weapon. Some attacks count as a melee or ranged weapon attack even if a weapon isn’t involved, as specified in the text of those attacks. For example, an unarmed strike counts as a melee weapon attack, even though the attacker’s body isn’t considered a weapon.

As such, we should interpret divine smite's trigger to mean "...when you hit a creature with a melee attack with a weapon...", which means that you can't use divine smite with a thrown weapon, as it isn't a melee attack.

Keep in mind that this does mean you can use divine smite with things you might not consider melee weapons but count as melee weapon attacks, like an unarmed strike, as stated in the quote above; this can be useful when you don't have your weapons on you.

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Unfortunately RAW opts for #1 that is a Melee Weapon attack is the attack option executed with with a melee weapon.

Page 73 of the 5e Basic Player rules.

Ability Modifier. The ability modifier used for a melee weapon attack is Strength, and the ability modifier used for a ranged weapon attack is Dexterity. Weapons that have the finesse or thrown property break this rule. Some spells also require an attack roll. The ability modifier used for a spell attack depends on the spellcasting ability of the spellcaster, as explained in chapter 10.

since the spear has the thrown property it means that it can be used for melee weapon attacks or ranged weapon attacks.

The exception in the spear's case is that the thrown property allows the strength modifier of the character to be used instead of dexterity.

From page 47 of teh Basic 5e player's rules.

Thrown. If a weapon has the thrown property, you can throw the weapon to make a ranged attack. If the weapon is a melee weapon, you use the same ability modifier for that attack roll and damage roll that you would use for a melee attack with the weapon. For example, if you throw a handaxe, you use your Strength, but if you throw a dagger, you can use either your Strength or your Dexterity, since the dagger has the finesse property.

As you can see it further supports interpretation #1 as the thrown property allows the spear to make a RANGED attack.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your first line seems to contradict the rest of your answer; I assume you mean that RAW states "a melee weapon attack is a melee attack done with a weapon" (not "a melee weapon attack is the attack option executed with with a melee weapon", which would correspond to OP's interpretation #2). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 4 '18 at 8:12
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The general rule is:

Every weapon is classified as either melee or ranged. A melee weapon is used to attack a target within 5 feet of you, whereas a ranged weapon is used to attack a target at a distance. (p.146 PHB)

Specific rules allow:

  • a ranged weapon to attack a target within 5 feet with disadvantage.
  • a reach weapon to make a melee attack beyond 5 feet

If you throw or use an ammunition weapon then you are making a "ranged weapon attack" and you can't use divine smite.

A "weapon" is anything you use to poke, smash or cut someone with - they are not the only things you can attack with.

Some spells require the caster to make an attack roll to determine whether the spell effect hits the intended target. (p.202 PHB)

If you cast a spell like Contagion, then you are making a "melee spell attack" and you can't use divine smite. While Fire Bolt uses a "ranged spell attack".

In addition; hitting someone in the face with an unarmed strike is a "unarmed melee attack" and can't benefit from divine strike.

There are 2 axes of attacks: every attack is "weapon", "spell" or "one of the specifically listed things that are neither (e.g. unarmed, grapple)" and "melee" or "ranged".

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According to RAW, you cannot use Smite with any form of ranged attack...

  • However, co-creator Mike Mearls said the melee requirement was originally just for flavor and using it in ranged attacks wouldn't break anything, as long as you don't add it to spell damage.
  • In the end, you should just do whatever you think is more fun and less restrictive.
  • Otherwise your players might get tired of not being able to play the character they envision and may eventually resent the DM or just move on.
  • Post from Mike Mearls: https://www.sageadvice.eu/2015/10/23/improved-divine-smite/
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  • \$\begingroup\$ i believe you will find that Mike Mearls' posts arent considered official see natsuo's Q&A here: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/84836/… Please answer a RAW question using RAW evidence. \$\endgroup\$ – rpgstar Nov 2 '18 at 7:11
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The above answers are false.

There are exactly 3 kinds of attacks.

  • Melee Weapon Attack (MWE)
  • Ranged Weapon Attack (RWE)
  • Spell Attack

A "Melee Weapon Attack"(MWE) is ANY attack with a melee weapon.

  • Swinging a great sword is a MWE.
  • Throwing a hand axe is a MWE.
  • Stabbing someone with a javelin is a MWE.
  • Throwing that Javelin is a MWE.
  • Unarmed attacks are MWEs.

The key is to parse the text. [Ranged Attack] is NOT the same as [Ranged Weapon Attack].

By RAW, Throwing a Javelin is a MWE, and Smite only requires a MWE, so it works.

The same thing does NOT work with the SCAG cantrips, which require a [Melee Attack with a Weapon]. To be specific, you must use a [Weapon], so no [Unarmed]. The attack must be a [Melee Attack], not a [Ranged Attack].

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you cite some rules to back up your interpretation? \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Mar 29 '17 at 23:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is incorrect, as evidenced by the Sage Advice Compendium, p.10: "What does “melee weapon attack” mean: a melee attack with a weapon or an attack with a melee weapon? It means a melee attack with a weapon. Similarly, “ranged weapon attack” means a ranged attack with a weapon." \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Mar 30 '17 at 6:51

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