D&D 5e: Actions and Movement

Depending on who you ask, combat is one of the most engaging parts of D&D, and why wouldn’t it be? Combat is where you really get to step into the shoes of your characters and put to work all the legendary weapons, spells, and abilities that make them so special. Whether it’s a brawl in a tavern or a final stand against a bone grinding Big-Bad, combat is an integral part of most campaigns. However, it is also (arguably) the most rule heavy part of the game.

So in order to demystify things a little bit, we’re going to take a minute to talk about actions and how they work. After all, knowing the Whos, Whats, Wheres, Whens, and Whys can be the difference between escaping a bad situation unscathed and...well, not!

So - what are all the things a player can do in one round of combat, exactly? Well, the easiest place to start is with actions.

Actions

Actions are the moves you can make at any point in your turn. Pretty handy! To make it all very simple, an action consists of anything that is not labeled as a bonus action, reaction, free action, or movement! (Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what these are yet, they’re coming up down below).

Making an attack or casting a spell is what comes to mind for most when they think of actions in combat, but there are plenty of other things you can do. A good rule of thumb for any adventurer is to check with your DM if you aren’t sure if something will count as an action or not. Talking for example, is a free action, unless you have a really rude Dungeon Master.

What you can do as an action on your turn will usually come from the list below.

  • Attack: making a melee or ranged attack. Some features allow you to make more than one attack with this action.
  • Cast a spell: not always an action. Different spells have different casting times, so check to be sure before casting and blasting.
  • Dash: double your movement for your turn.
  • Disengage: take your movement without provoking attacks of opportunity
  • Dodge: any attack rolls against you have disadvantage until the start of your next turn
  • Help: helping an ally. This gives them advantage on the next ability check they make, having to do what you're helping with. In combat, you can distract a target, giving your ally advantage if they attack before the start of your next turn.
  • Hide: if you succeed on a stealth check contested by a creature’s perception or passive perception, you gain advantage on an attack against that creature.
  • Ready: describe what events will ready the action you plan on taking. If readying a spell requires concentration. When the triggering events occurs, the action you described happens, or you can ignore the trigger.
  • Search: looking for something - your DM might have you make a perception or investigation check to find what you’re looking for
  • Use an Object: often happens in tandem with other actions you take such as drawing a sword. This action is also useful for when you want to interact with more than one object on your turn.

Actions can happen at any point during your turn. Taking an action will count as the bulk of your turn, unless you have a bonus action that will let you tack on some extra. There’s a fairly large range of things you can do as an action. Don’t feel trapped with a simple weapon attack or spell! You can work with your party, your maps, and your DM to really make the most of your action and make it matter.

Bonus Actions

Bonus actions are pretty much exactly as the name describes - an extra action that you can take on top of your main action. You can do something as a bonus action only when it is specified to be a bonus action - otherwise, you don’t have a bonus action to take. For many people, this means forgoing this part of your turn. For spellcasters however, bonus actions can be pretty handy as some spells can be cast as a bonus action - your spell’s duration will tell you whether or not this is the case. If they are, then congrats! At any point during your turn, you can pop in that extra spell which might be the difference between life and death under the right circumstances. Offhanded attacks and some class features will also fall under bonus actions.

Getting to know your spells, class features, etc, and whether they’re labeled as bonus actions or not will be your biggest help if you’re confused. If you use digital character sheets, it can help to label them! You only get one bonus action a turn, and only during your turn, so make sure to plan what order you use them in, whether before or after your main action. This can really help with the flow of combat and make sure your party gets the most out of the fight.

Reactions

Reactions are the quick draw of Dungeons and Dragons. If you have a keen eye on the battlefield, clever uses of your reaction can be what sets you apart from the common goblin. Unlike other actions, reactions usually occur outside your turn in response to a trigger during combat. These are very useful for making sure your party can keep control of the battlefield even on an enemy’s turn.

During a reaction you have a few good options as to what you can do. The classic is what’s called an opportunity attack. This is a melee attack which is triggered by an enemy moving outside your range - unless they are Disengaging. (Which, just like for a PC, would fall under the basic actions!) Like with bonus actions, spells or abilities will usually have a label which will let you know whether or not they can be cast as a reaction.

Another common use of reactions is in correlation with a readied action, which lets you choose what you want to do and what will trigger it. A good example is a rogue drawing their crossbow back on their turn, waiting for an enemy to walk through the door. If they have it readied, the arrow comes flying through when the trigger occurs, even when it’s not the Rogue’s turn. Pretty useful! Beware, though - readying a spell means using a spell slot, and if the triggering event doesn’t happen before the start of your next turn, that spell slot is lost.

Reactions will occur most often outside of your turn. If you use battle maps, make sure to keep an eye on enemies and when they’re moving outside your range. A well placed opportunity attack can make all the difference!

Movement

Movement is pretty self explanatory. Ambulating about the battlefield is defined by your race (which determines your movement speed) and the conditions of the terrain. Some actions - like the Dash action - will affect your movement speed and what you can do with it.

Your movement can happen at any point in your turn, even broken up between actions as long as you do not move above your limit. For example: a human warrior moves twenty feet across the battlefield for an attack, killing his foe - but he still has ten feet of movement and an extra attack left. So, he decides to use his second attack on another nearby enemy, moving 10 more feet and striking it down, ending his turn.

Terrain plays an important part as well. Just like how certain actions affect how far and fast you can move, the terrain players are moving on can sometimes hinder their movement. Your DM might classify swamp marshes as difficult terrain, which halves your movement. So if you had thirty feet of movement before, you now can only move fifteen feet.

It helps to think of your movement speed as a sort of currency in combat. Certain paths will cost more movement than others, so be smart when thinking about your positioning. 

Free Actions

The last entry in this very helpful (if I do say so myself) guide are free actions. Free actions are paradoxically the simplest, but often most useful of all the previous entries.

Free actions can happen anytime, anywhere both in and out of combat. Usually, talking is the simplest free action most think of. Whether that’s a Captain shouting orders across a battlefield or a bard trying to smooth talk their way into a bargain, unless you are actively trying to cast a spell with words, there’s no cost for running your mouth.

In my personal experience, free actions have led to some of the most memorable moments of roleplaying and combat. This mechanic is very useful for all players, so work with your DM about what things qualify as a free action in a situation if you aren’t sure and go from there. Even if your DM has slightly different rules, now that you know the basics you should be in good shape.

With this knowledge under your belt, remember: the most versatile tool at your disposal is your own creativity and ability to improvise. Good luck, and keep adventuring!

 

Written by Maven

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