[RPG] the difference between a “ranged attack” and a “ranged weapon attack”


The core rules and Sage Advice Compendium both included "ranged attack" and "ranged weapon attack". Are these terms synonymous or interchangeable? If not, what is the delineation between them?

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Best Answer

As Speedkat's answer mentions, almost1 all attacks are classified into one of four categories:

  1. melee weapon attack
  2. ranged weapon attack
  3. melee spell attack
  4. ranged spell attack

A ranged weapon attack is a specific kind of ranged attack. You can make ranged weapon attacks with ranged weapons (i.e. weapons on the Weapons table, listed as either simple ranged weapons or martial ranged weapons) - but you can also make them with any weapon that has the "thrown" weapon property:2

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.

Basically, you can make ranged weapon attacks with weapons classified as ranged, or with weapons that have the "thrown" property (most of which are classified as melee weapons).3

If you have trouble understanding how melee weapons can be considered "ranged weapon attacks", read the term this way: it's a "ranged [weapon attack]", not a "[ranged weapon] attack". In other words, it's a ranged attack with a weapon, not an attack with a ranged weapon.

This is why the first two benefits of the Sharpshooter feat (PHB, p. 170) apply to attacks with thrown weapons, but the third benefit doesn't:

You have mastered ranged weapons and can make shots that others find impossible. You gain the following benefits:

  • Attacking at long range doesn't impose disadvantage on your ranged weapon attack rolls.
  • Your ranged weapon attacks ignore half cover and three-quarters cover.
  • Before you make an attack with a ranged weapon that you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack's damage.

The first and second bullet points apply to all ranged weapon attacks - which includes both ranged weapons (such as crossbows) and thrown melee weapons (such as handaxes). However, the third benefit specifies "an attack with a ranged weapon"; as previously mentioned, thrown weapons are almost3 all classified in the Weapons table as melee weapons, so this benefit would not apply to them.

1 There are technically a few special attacks that aren't one of the four categories, but they're exceptions. The main ones everyone can do are grapples and shoves, which are both described as "special melee attacks".

2 You can also make a ranged attack with anything else you throw, using it as an improvised weapon:

An object that bears no resemblance to a weapon deals 1d4 damage (the DM assigns a damage type appropriate to the object). If a character uses a ranged weapon to make a melee attack, or throws a melee weapon that does not have the thrown property, it also deals 1d4 damage. An improvised thrown weapon has a normal range of 20 feet and a long range of 60 feet.

3 The only weapons that have the Thrown property that are classified as ranged weapons instead of melee weapons are darts and nets.