Combat, one of the three “Pillars” of Dungeons & Dragons gameplay, the others being Exploration and Social Interaction. Combat is what most people imagine when they think of the Dungeons & Dragons experience. Brave dwarven warriors cleaving goblins in twain with a greatsword; clever elven wizards hurling fireballs to consume a party of bandits; subtle halflings gleefully stabbing necromancers from the shadows; these images lie at the soul and center of what we picture Dungeons & Dragons to be.
All of those things – and more! – are possible in Wizards of the Coast’s genre-defining RPG. Combat is exciting, dangerous, and colourful. Combat is also one of the more complex aspects of the game, rules-wise. In today’s Doinsiúin agus Dragain, we’re going to demystify combat in D&D 5E (Fifth Edition).
Core Combat Concepts & the Action Economy
Before jumping into Combat, there are a few concepts it’s important you understand. These will lay the foundation for everything you do, and provide structure and guidance whenever you want to try something unorthodox. With that in mind, let’s discuss the core concepts of D&D combat!
Time in Dungeons & Dragons Combat
If you’ve gotten this far, you likely already know that combat in D&D is turn-based. What this means is that the players (and enemies) take actions in sequence. Sounds very polite, right? Everyone waiting their turn? Not quite! This is a common misconception new players have when thinking about combat. Let’s get our ducks in a row, here;
• A “round” of combat starts when the first player or enemy acts, and ends after the last player or enemy acts
• Each round lasts exactly 6 seconds. Hence, 10 rounds is 1 minute of in-game time
• Everyone acts simultaneously, with Initiative order (rolled at the start of combat) determining who manages to move first – this is how Turns work!
• Every participant gets to make one Action, one Reaction, and one Bonus Action (if applicable) during their turn
Pistols at Dawn
Here’s a quick example.
It’s the Wild West; a bounty hunter and an outlaw are dueling, pistols at dawn. They turn back to back, walk 10 paces, turn, draw pistols, and shoot.
The moment they turn and start to act against one another, they roll Initiative. In D&D, they would roll their D20, add their Initiative modifier (listed on their character sheet), and compare numbers to see who acts first. In this context, Initiative is who got the fastest draw of their revolver. The outlaw’s Initiative roll is higher, so he acts first. The outlaw fires – but he misses. This is the outlaw’s Action for his turn. The bounty hunter’s turn is next. He manages to get his shot off, killing the outlaw, using his Action for his turn. Combat is now over, as one side has won.
On paper, this is a series of events, one after the other. In reality, all of this happens extremely quickly, the difference between one character acting and the other being the matter of a fraction of a second. That is combat in Dungeons & Dragons; deadly combatants acting in lightning-quick sequence.
Actions & the Action Economy
With all of the above in mind, let’s talk about the different kinds of things you can do on your character’s turn! As we touched on, each round, your character has one Action, one Reaction, and one Bonus Action (if applicable). They can also move up to their Movement Speed, listed on their character sheet (in feet) and determined by their race. Unless restrained in some way, a character can always move their full Movement each round, in addition to their Actions.
• Your “Action” is your main activity during your turn. It takes up the bulk of the 6 seconds of the round. We’ll talk about what counts as an “Action” below.
• A “Reaction” can happen on your turn or on another character’s turn. The most common Reaction is an Attack of Opportunity. This occurs when a combatant moves out of melee range of an enemy without using the “Disengage” Action – using their reaction, the enemy can use their Reaction to make one melee attack. Other abilities that use your Reaction will list it on their description.
• A “Bonus Action” is a special action that takes a very small amount of time, enough to fit it in the same turn as a regular Action. You will not always have a Bonus Action you can take – only if an ability you have access to lists “Bonus Action” can you perform one. For example, some spells have a casting time of “Bonus Action” listed.
In short: you will always be able to take an Action (unless you’re incapacitated in some way), but you won’t always have a Reaction or Bonus Action available to you.
Actions in Combat
The types of Action you can take in combat are the following;
• Attack – pretty standard! Swing a pointy metal thing at the bad man.
• Cast a Spell – most spells have a casting time of 1 Action.
• Dash – use your action to move. This allows you to double your movement speed for 1 turn by sacrificing any other action.
• Disengage – as mentioned above, this allows you to move away from the enemy without triggering an Attack of Opportunity.
• Dodge – use this to focus on not getting hit. Enemies have Disadvantage when trying to hit you.
• Help – use this to focus on helping an ally. Give an ally Advantage on a skill check or attack.
• Ready – prepare an Action, such as an Attack. It triggers when a condition you specify occurs. Something like, “I prepare to attack any enemy that comes within melee distance of me!” This uses your Action and your Reaction.
• Search – focus on your surroundings to locate a hidden creature, object, etc. Useful for fighting rogues!
• Use an Object – Usually, using simple objects (like taking out your weapon) does not cost an action. If you want to use multiple objects, or do multiple things, like pulling out a potion and then throwing the potion to a teammate, that costs your Action.
• Improvise – anything not listed above falls under “Improvise”! Examples: cutting a rope to make a chandelier fall, or overturning a table to create cover. Your imagination (and the DMs discretion) are the only things limiting what you can do in combat.
The Action Economy
The “Action Economy” is the phrase many players use to describe the interplay of actions between characters in combat. It stands to reason that the more Actions available to you and your party, the more powerful you are – 2 attacks are better than one, after all. If you are 5 players against 1 enemy, even if the enemy is very powerful, you have an advantage in that for each Action your enemy takes, the party gets to take 5.
Therefore, always consider the Action Economy before and during combat. It is very powerful to be able to deprive an enemy of their Action by incapacitating them in some way, as this minimises the damage they can do whilst giving the rest of your party the chance to act uninterrupted.
Getting the Most out of Combat in Dungeons & Dragons
There you have it! Hopefully, by now, you have a pretty good idea of how combat around the game table should flow. Individual actions and attacks you can take will vary according to your character’s class, but the bare bones of it remains the same for every character. Whether you’re swinging a greataxe or performing an arcane incantation, everything you do fits within the structure of Rounds, Turns, Initiative and Actions.
With these in mind, here are a few steps you can take to make sure you’re making the most out of every round of combat, and to ensure you’re taking the most of what your character can do!
• Not everything you do in combat has to be violent. Don’t forget to help your allies, Disengage when things are getting too heavy, and Ready actions for triggered effects!
• Use the “Hide” action to break line-of-sight and gain advantage on your attacks! You do not have to be a rogue to do this.
• The environment can be your ally. Utilise trees, walls, rocks, water or furniture to inconvenience your enemies and give yourself the upper hand.
• Remember the Action Economy – co-ordinate attacks with your party to devastating effect!
Above all, don’t forget to have fun. Tell great stories, write legends to shake the world of your game, and beyond!
See you next time, in the next entry of Doinsiúin agus Dragain. Happy rolling!