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Combat in Dungeons and Dragons can be a little complicated.  If you’re new to combat, there’s a lot of mechanics that might be unfamiliar to you.  And in most cases, you can count on your fellow players or the Dungeon Master at your game to help you learn what you’re doing.  A lot of DMs will run combat a little differently in one way or another.  But there are some basics to combat that you should know, and I wanted to spend some time giving you dear readers a quick run-down of what your options are for combat in Dungeons and Dragons.

Action Economy

Or, “What can I do on my turn?”  Every character gets four things they are able to do every turn, no matter what your class or level.  This is constant across every game, and every character always has these.  You get: 1 action, 1 bonus action, 1 reaction and movement.  You can use each of them every turn, and you get them all back when combat comes back to your turn.  As a general rule, the best use of your action economy is to use every single thing every single turn, since you get it all back at the start of every turn.  Let’s break down each of these, and talk about what can be done with them according to the base rules as they are written.

Movement allows you to move a certain amount per turn.  Every character has a certain movement speed, usually 30 feet, that they can move on their turn.  This movement can be broken up, meaning you can move, stop, do something else, and then move some more after, so long as you stay within your total allowed movement.

Actions are your bread and butter.  Actions encompass everything you can spend the majority of your turn doing.  For the sake of brevity, here is a quick list of actions and a description of them:

  • Attack: Use your equipped weapon to make an attack.  Some classes have multi-attack, which will give you multiple attacks per action.
  • Grapple: Attempt to grapple an opponent.  You make an athletics check opposed by their athletics or acrobatics (their choice).  If you succeed, the opponent’s movement speed is zero until they manage to break free with an action in a following turn (which would then require another contested check).
  • Push: Attempt to push an opponent back 10 feet.  Same check as Grapple.
  • Knock Prone: Attempt to knock an opponent prone.  Same check as Grapple.
  • Cast a Spell: Cast a spell with a casting time of 1 action.  Most spells have a cast time of 1 action, but spells are unique in that there are a variety of casting times.  Some use your bonus action, your reaction, and some take a full hour to cast.
  • Dash: This action spends your action to double your movement speed for the turn.  So if you have 30 feet of movement speed, this gives you 60 feet of movement speed for a turn.
  • Dodge: This action focuses your turn on avoiding attacks.  This imposes disadvantage on all attack rolls made against you, and gives you advantage on any dexterity saving throws for the turn.  If you know a lot of attacks are going to be focused on you next turn, or you’re on death’s door, consider dodging!  It’ll save your life.
  • Hide: Make a stealth check to conceal yourself.  Stealthed characters cannot be targeted by opponents who do not see them, attack at advantage, and require a perception check that is higher than their stealth check in order to be seen.  In order to successfully hide, your stealth check must be higher than an opponent’s passive perception, unless the opponent made a perception check during their previous turn, in which case you must beat their perception check.
  • Disengage: Allows you to move freely without triggering opportunity attacks (see Reactions).
  • Help: Grant an ally advantage on their actions next round.  During combat, this can be used to give an ally advantage on their attack rolls.  This can be used inside or outside of combat to help with any action requiring a d20 roll, such as picking a lock or making a perception check to find someone stealthed.
  • Use an Item: Use any item, such as drinking a potion, picking a lock with Thieves’ Tools, activate a magic wand, light a torch, etc.
  • Hold Action: Choose an action you will take, and a triggering event that will cause you to take this action.  This ability uses your action and reaction, and allows you to use your action on turns other than your own.  One example would be “I hold my attack action until the enemy steps out of stealth.”  This allows you to take the attack action on the enemy’s turn when they break stealth, and bypasses the need to do a perception check to find the enemy.  The danger of held actions is that it uses both your reaction and action, and if the triggering event never happens, you lose both.  Additionally, if you are holding a spell, the spell slot is spent whether you end up using the held action or not.

Bonus Actions are a little trickier.  There are only two universally available bonus actions.  However, nearly every class has other bonus action options.  Fighters can use a bonus action to use their Second Wind ability, and rogues can do several actions as bonus actions as well, like Hide or Dash.  Part of maximizing your action economy is finding a way to use your Bonus Actions to do more.  Particularly with caster classes, be sure to have some bonus actions available.  Spiritual Weapon or Sanctuary for clerics, for example, give you a good use for your bonus action every turn.  However, having turns where your bonus action isn’t used is more acceptable, because most bonus action abilities are situational and useful for getting out of a bind.

  • Cast a Spell: Cast a spell with a casting time of Bonus Action
  • Dual Wielding Attack: Attack with an off-hand weapon after using the Attack action

Reactions are the only action type that can be used on someone else’s turn.  You are reacting to something that happens.  As written, the triggering event occurs first to completion, then the reaction happens, unless the reaction ability indicates otherwise (such as in the case of Counterspell, for example).  Below are the universal reactions available to everyone regardless of class choice.

  • Opportunity Attack: Make a single melee attack with a weapon on an opponent.  This can only be done when a few requirements are met: 1. You are within 5 feet of an enemy, 2. You are wielding a melee weapon, and 3. The opponent moves more than 5 feet away from you on their turn.  Additionally, forced movement cannot trigger this – if an ally pushes the enemy 10 feet away, you do not get an opportunity attack despite the enemy moving more than 5 feet away, because the movement was forced.
  • Held Action: See Hold Action in the Actions section.
  • Cast a Spell: Cast a spell with a casting time of Reaction.

Final Thoughts: These are the combat actions you can take on your turn.  These are the rules as they are written.  Most Dungeon Masters that I know and have played with change a few of these for the sake of fairness, or because a rule just feels bad when it has to be enforced.  Common examples are allowing a player to hold a spell without wasting a spell slot unless the spell is actually cast as part of the held action, or allowing potions to be drunk as a bonus action.  Discuss any “house rules” changes with your DM; many will be nicer than the rules as written in certain cases.

I hope this brief guide was helpful.  It’s easy to forget what you can do during combat.  There’s a lot going on, and while you might know your class abilities well, there are a lot of things everyone can do regardless of class or build.

See you next session!

Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire

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Comments
  • Suzy1

    May 24, 2021

    This is a really helpful breakdown for a D&D n00b like me. Thank you!

    Reply

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