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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, rules designer Jeremy Crawford has answered this exact question in a tweet from August 2015 (which is not an official ruling), and in the following Sage Advice Compendium question on p10 of the v1.14 PDF (which is an official ruling):

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.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's true; it even says that in my quote :-/ I'm just going to remove that paragraph entirely because it doesn't have any bearing on this question. The remainder of the answer should still provide a complete and satisfactory answer to the posed question. \$\endgroup\$ – Mellifluous Oct 7 at 1:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Looks good now! :) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 7 at 2:36
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No, because thrown weapons are ranged attacks.

Unfortunately, RAW opts for #1 - that is, a melee weapon attack is a melee attack made using a weapon (though some game features, like unarmed strikes, involve melee weapon attacks made with non-weapons).

The relevant part of the rules on attack rolls states (p. 76 of the Basic Rules PDF):

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.

Since the spear has the thrown property, it can be used for either melee weapon attacks or ranged weapon attacks, but it uses the character's Strength modifier either way - as indicated by the description of the thrown weapon property on p. 49 of the basic rules PDF:

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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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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    \$\begingroup\$ actually, while unarmed strikes are not considered weapons (PHB errata), they do count as melee weapon attacks as per JC: twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/608776737917263872 \$\endgroup\$ – Olorin Apr 14 '16 at 10:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Olorin: You're correct about unarmed strikes being melee weapon attacks made with non-weapons... That said, an official ruling in the latest Sage Advice Compendium reiterates an earlier unofficial ruling by Crawford that Divine Smite doesn't work with unarmed strikes because it requires a weapon: "Can a paladin use Divine Smite when they hit using an unarmed strike? No. Divine Smite requires a melee attack using a weapon. The rules don’t consider unarmed strikes to be weapons." \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 4 at 8:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast: Thanks for the update. The rules and rulings changed so many times since release on seemingly nothing more than a whim of JC, more often than not contradicting some of his previous statements, that I've given up trying to keep up what the latest version of his vision is. This happening on a "live" platform like Twitter where he can change his mind every day without considering all the consequences only makes things worse. \$\endgroup\$ – Olorin Oct 6 at 11:53
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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

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