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Grappling is described as a "special melee attack" that replaces a single attack in the Attack action.

There are a number of features and abilities that may be activated when one combatant hits another. For example Wrath of the Storm states:

When a creature ... hits you with an attack ...

The question is: Does a successful grapple attack count as a "hit" for the purpose of determining whether features like Wrath of the Storm can be triggered?


I've assumed an unsuccessful grapple attack wouldn't count as a hit, but if there is argument to the contrary within the rules - please feel free to include it in your answer.

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No, a successful grapple attempt does not count as a hit.

Although a grapple attempt is called a "special melee attack," it uses a contested ability check (a contest) instead of an attack roll and, as such, does not result in either a hit or a miss (which are terms exclusively associated with attack rolls).

This ruling is confirmed by Jeremy Crawford in the Sage Advice Compendium:

Does a grapple or a shove trigger the Tempest cleric’s Wrath of the Storm or a Battle Master’s Riposte? The answer to both questions is no. The grappling and shoving options (PH, 195) don’t result in a hit or a miss.

When you make a Strength (Athletics) check to grapple or shove someone, are you making an attack roll? Again, the answer is no. That check is an ability check, so game effects tied to attack rolls don’t apply to it.

If it isn't a "hit," what is it?

The correct term for a successful grapple is merely a "success," according to the following rules of ability checks from the SRD (emphasis mine).

To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier.... If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success—the creature overcomes the challenge at hand.... Sometimes one character's or monster's efforts are directly opposed to another's.... In situations like these, the outcome is determined by a special form of ability check, called a contest.... Both participants in a contest make ability checks appropriate to their efforts.... The participant with the higher check total wins the contest. That character or monster either succeeds at the action or prevents the other one from succeeding.

If it's a kind of attack, isn't the roll an attack roll by definition?

For clarification on the intent behind the written rule, see this response by Jeremy Crawford to a similar question on Twitter.

Does the [Sage Advice] on ability checks contradict this? It states that shove [and] grapple are not attacks? There's no contradiction. They are unusual attacks that lack attack rolls.

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Rules As Written, almost certainly not.

A grapple check is a special attack that does not use an attack roll. This means it probably doesn't trigger abilities that interact with "successful attack", per those rules.

It also absolutely does not trigger abilities that require an attack roll. You can't use War Gods blessing, for instance, to add +10 to a grapple check.

However, there is reason to rule otherwise as a DM

In particular, when an ability says "Successful attack", then the phrase "Special attack" in Grappling does suggest that it can trigger such abilities.

This does contradict Crawford, but Crawford's tweets are not RAW and non-binding. The DM has full authority to ignore them until they become PHB errata.

If you successfully touch an opponent as part of a "Special attack" than, in plain English, you are "hitting" them with an "attack". Despite not using the same rules terminology, there is clearly reason to interpret it that way.

What does this mean? How should you proceed?

I'd advocate looking at a particular ability and determining if it makes any sense to be triggered by grappling, then go from there.

In particular, the "RAW" answer means that Fire Shield, which wreaths the body in flames, does absolutely no damage if you are grappling them, but punching them with your fist suddenly does damage to you.

Given that this makes no sense, I am strongly inclined to support Rule Zero interpretations over anything the designers or unique legalistic terminology of the rules might say.

In order to have a logical rule-set, you'd need to re-write more text to turn grappling into a non-attack while preserving the intent of abilities that trigger off of hostile touches, than simply re-writing abilities that require attack rolls to make sense.

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Fire Shield specifically states : "whenever a creature within 5 feet of you hits you with a melee attack, the shield erupts with flame". There is no indication in the wording of the spell that the "thin and wispy flames" do any damage to anything in absence of an attack causing them to erupt. There is nothing about setting fire to flammable materials, for instance. Finally, though Crawford tweets are not RAW, the Sage Advice Compendium is, and supports this ruling. media.wizards.com/2016/downloads/DND/SA-Compendium.pdf \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Dec 18 '16 at 21:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just a tiny nitpick: Crawford doesn't have to use the errata to make rules official--the Sage Advice articles are "binding." (In fact, most of those will never make it into errata.) See rpg.stackexchange.com/q/84836/23970 \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 18 '16 at 21:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ None of it is "binding". \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Dec 18 '16 at 22:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Only in the sense that nothing is. They are however, "official". \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Dec 18 '16 at 23:40
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No, it doesn't

Page 195 of the PHB says the following about grappling:

You try to seize the target by making a grapple check...If you succeed, you subject the target to the grappled condition.

Note that this is an ability check, specifically a contested roll, not an attack roll. Pgs. 174-175 of the PHB state the following about ability checks and contests (emphasis mine):

[of the ability check roll] If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success...Otherwise, it's a failure

Both participants in a contest make ability checks appropriate to their efforts...The participant with the higher check total wins the contest.

From these, we can conclude that ability checks do not "hit," they succeed or fail. Since ability checks cannot hit, and the grapple uses a contested ability check to resolve its outcome, then successful grapples do not count as a hit. So, features that activate "on a hit" will not activate after a successful grapple.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with your interpretation, but how do you rationalize the fact that grapple is identified as a special attack prior to it being referred to as a ability check? \$\endgroup\$ – tillmas Dec 18 '16 at 14:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @tillmas Just the same as in the Sage Advice Reference from Bloodcinder. It's a special attack that doesn't use an attack roll. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Dec 18 '16 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this (correct, IMO) answer would be improved with some discussion of how it plays with/against the "if there's ever a question..." rule (PHB p.194). \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 18 '16 at 17:56

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