No matter how much roleplay, exploration, or storytelling you do in your campaign, sooner or later you’re going to end up in combat rounds. And as anyone who’s ever played an RPG knows, combat rounds are the crunchiest, rules-heaviest part of the game.
But if you have dark visions of desperately flipping through books in mid-round, trying to make sense of what you can do what when, don’t fear. Below is a guide to D&D 5E combat rounds that will give you what you need to navigate your party’s next fight without having to resort to page-flipping (or at least, not as much page-flipping).
The sequence of combat in D&D has been largely unchanged since the earliest editions:
- Determine surprise (if any)
- Determine initiative
- Everybody does what they do
- Repeat until somebody wins
Let’s take a deeper look at each of these steps:
Walking across an open field, you and an enemy will probably see each other way before you’re in combat range. But skulking through a forest at night or sneaking through a maze-like set of catacombs . . . in those sorts of situations it’s very possible two parties could almost bump into each other before either knows the other is around. Not to mention those situations – like hidden bandits staking out the roads, etc – where one group will almost certainly see, hear, or smell the other group first. In these cases, the first step is surprise.
Sometimes, mutual detection is automatic – two groups of people approaching each other in heavy metal armor are going to make a lot of noise – but if there’s a viable reason for the DM to think otherwise, they might call for passive Wisdom (Perception) checks for everyone. Those that fail the check are surprised – unable to attack or take any actions on the first round.
Once you know who, if anyone, is surprised, you can roll initiative to determine the order of play. Each player rolls a D20 (with the DM rolling for monsters and usually NPC’s as well, though this might get delegated to the players for NPC allies). The highest total (initiative roll + Dex modifier) goes first with everyone following in order, with the lowest roll going last.
Note initiative order goes off the total, not necessarily the die roll. Say you roll a 20 on initiative (you won’t) but have only a +1 Dex mod. Your initiative total is 21. Someone else can roll a 19 but have a +3 Dex mod. Their initiative total is 22, meaning they’ll go before you.
In case of a tie between creatures controlled by the DM, the DM determines the order. For ties among the players, the players sort it out themselves, unless the DM has a house rule for such an occasion.
The Combat Round Begins
Once you have the order of play, it’s time to get the round started. Going in order, each player (or the DM, for non-players) states their actions and makes rolls as appropriate. And here’s where we get to the meat of the combat round – actions. These come in a few different varieties, so let’s look at them all.
The action (aka “standard action”) is the base unit of “stuff you can do on your turn”. From making attacks to attempting to solving a puzzle lock to blasting off a fireball from a wand, standard actions are how things happen. Below is a list of typical D&D 5E actions in combat, showing just how varied your possibilities can be:
Attack: Perhaps the simplest action, and certainly the most common, is the Attack action, by which a player makes a melee or missile attack. Generally, the Attack action allows for only a single strike, though certain class features or other circumstances may allow for more. There are also a few variants to the simple Attack action, Grapple and Shove, which can come in very handy in the right circumstances.
Grapple: Sometimes it’s more important to stop an enemy than to damage them. In those cases, you can use your Attack action for a grapple against any foe that is within your reach and no more than one size larger than you. A 5E grapple attempt is made with a Strength (Athletics) check vs either the opponent’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics). If you succeed, the target is grappled – that is, their speed becomes 0, and all speed-based benefits are lost – until you release them or they escape.
Shove: You can also use your Attack action to just shove or push your opponent, either knocking them prone or moving them 5 feet away. The mechanics of the shove in 5E are the same as the grapple – your Strength (Athletics) vs the opponent’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics).
Cast a Spell: Another common choice (for spellcasters, obviously), is to use their action to cast a spell. The actual time to cast a spell can vary, though most cost 1 standard action. Some may require a number of minutes or longer, while some are Bonus actions or even Reactions (more on that later). If you have spells, make sure you know your casting times!
Dash: Simply put, the Dash action allow you to double your speed by spending your action – useful when you have ground to cover either toward (or away from) trouble.
Disengage: With 5E’s “Attack of Opportunity” rule (see below), you can’t just step away once you’re locked in melee with someone. Well, you can – you’re just inviting them to try and stab you when you do. The 5E Disengage action lets you avoid this, by using your action to extricate yourself more carefully from combat before turning tail . . . I mean, wisely retreating.
Dodge: Sometimes, the best strategy is just to not get hit. You can use the Dodge Action to give disadvantage to any attack roll against you (so long as you can see the attacker) and to give yourself advantage on Dexterity saves.
Help: The Help action in 5E allows you to assist another creature, either by giving them advantage on their next ability check or by giving them advantage on their attack against an enemy that’s within 5 feet of you, so long as that ally’s attack roll is made before your next turn.
Hide: If the conditions are right – and, as always, the DM makes the final call on that – you can use your action to hide from those around you. Make a Dexterity (Stealth) roll, which will then be used in contested rolls against the Wisdom (Perception) of those trying to find you. Likewise, creatures nearby may spot you if their Passive Perception beats your Hide roll. Some obvious notes – you can’t hide and simultaneously call out or otherwise make noise (the bard can’t both hide and perform, etc), and once you step out of hiding to attack, well, you’re no longer hiding (though the DM may allow you to stay hidden as you approach for a sneak attack, depending on the situation).
Ready: Timing is everything, and the Ready action helps you get your timing just right. By taking a Ready action, you delay an action until a set event you specify (I’m going to throw the oil as soon as the door opens, etc). You can also use the Ready action with spells, so long as they take only 1 action to cast. Note that you have to maintain concentration until your moment comes, with the usual risks around broken concentration.
Search: Spend your turn searching with either a Wisdom (Perception) or Intelligence (Investigation) check (whichever the DM decides is more appropriate).
Stabilize: A fallen ally (one at 0 hp) can be stabilized by this action, meaning they are no longer subject to death saves (so long as they take no further damage). They remain unconscious until they get back to at least 1 hit point (they’ll automatically go to 1 after 1d4 hours, if they don’t get any sort of healing in the meantime).
Use an Object: This is something of a catch-all. Everything you touch, obviously, doesn’t rise to the level of an Action. You can swing open a door or kick aside a barstool as you move through an area, and it takes nothing to pull a well-oiled lever. But more complex interactions, or interacting with a number of items, calls for this Action. Some straightforward examples are using a healing kit, lighting a fire, throwing oil, or donning or doffing a shield. Note that the Rogue’s Fast Hands ability applies to the Use an Object action.
Activate an Item: Much like Use an Object, but specifically for magic items. The key point is that this action, unlike Use an Object, is not subject to the Rogue’s Fast Hands ability.
Abilities: Certain class abilities (like the priest’s Channel Divinity) and even some racial abilities (such as the Dragonborn’s breath weapon) cost an action to use.
Just About Anything Else: There are a near-limitless variety of things you can do in your turn which
would constitute a standard action. You and the DM can improvise just about any special-case action
and what sorts of rolls would apply.
The next category of actions in D&D 5e are bonus actions. These are special moves you can do in addition to whatever you’re doing for your standard action. Unlike standard actions, there’s no universal list of bonus actions that just anyone can pick from. Rather, bonus actions are usually class-specific abilities or particular spells.
For instance, it’s a bonus action for a barbarian to enter or end a rage. Likewise, Bardic Inspiration is a bonus action, as is the paladin’s Vow of Enmity. At 2nd level, rogues gain the Cunning Action ability that allows them to use a bonus action each round for Dash, Disengage or Hide.
A number of spells have “bonus action” as their casting time, such as Hunter’s Mark or Misty Step. And if you’re thinking “does that mean I can cast two spells in the same round?” . . . yes and no. You can’t cast 1st level or higher spells with your standard action in the same round that you cast a bonus-action spell, but you can cast a standard-action cantrip (such as Acid Splash).
There is at least one universally available bonus action: two-weapon fighting. If you’re wielding a light weapon in each hand, the off-hand strike is done as a bonus action.
Like standard actions, you get one bonus action per round, if applicable. But while there are ways around that limit for standard actions (such as the fighter’s Action Surge), there’s no such loophole for bonus actions. Also note that a bonus action can only be used for things specified as bonus actions, and usually things specified as bonus actions can’t be done using your standard action.
The next category of thing that can happen in a round is the free action. These are minor things that take little time and effort, and don’t interfere with your standard or bonus actions.
Referring back to the “Use an Item” action, there are loads of minor interactions with your environment that don’t rise to the level of a standard action. Some examples are drawing (or sheathing) a weapon, handing off or throwing an object (though not as an attack), or opening a door as you move through. Generally, a single quick interaction with an object is free. A second interaction with the same object costs your action.
Another example of a free action is communicating with those around you. It costs you nothing, action-wise, to yell that the bad guy is behind that tree over there, or to quickly tell the healer to toss you a potion. Just be aware of the limits of how much you can say in a 6-second round – a full, prepared speech is probably not going to work.
The final category under actions are reactions, and they’re unique for an important reason – they don’t necessarily happen on your turn. Rather, since it’s a response triggered by something that happens around you, reactions can – and often do – happen during someone else’s turn.
The best example of this is the most common sort of reaction – an attack of opportunity. If, during an enemy’s turn, they move from being in your reach to out of your reach, you have the option of making a free melee attack as a reaction – essentially, smacking them when they turn to run. For obvious reasons, this can only happen on the enemy’s turn.
Certain spells have “reaction” as their casting time, for situations that can’t wait for your next turn. For instance, take Shield (cast in response to an attack) or Feather Fall (cast in reaction to you or another creature in range falling). Also, any spell you’re holding with the Ready action for a specific triggering event is, by definition, a reaction.
Successfully hopping off a mount that’s been knocked prone or tripped is a reaction, as is the Rogue’s Uncanny Dodge ability at 5th level. And any regular action you’re holding via Ready, just as with spells, is a reaction.
A character can have only one reaction per round. If you take an attack of opportunity, you can’t take any other reactions until your next turn.
Something you can do that isn’t technically an action is move. Each round, you can move up to your full movement allowance, either all at once or broken into pieces around your actions (e.g., a character that can move 30 feet could move 10 feet, take their bonus action, then move another 20 feet before taking their regular action – or any other combination they like). And if you can make multiple attacks with your attack action, you can split those up with movement, too – taking your first swing, moving, then taking your second strike at a new foe.
But what if you have two different movement speeds? What if, say, you can walk 30 feet, but fly 40 feet? You can split up your movement between the two modes, but it takes a little math – each time you switch to a new movement method, subtract the distance you’ve already moved that round from your speed. As long as you have more than 0 left, you can still move.
For instance, consider our character above with the 30 ft walk / 40 ft fly speeds. On his turn, he could walk 20 feet, take his action, then fly another 20 feet (thus completing his 40 ft fly speed). If he flew 20 feet, took his action, and then walked, he could only go 10 feet more, since his walking speed is only 30 feet (though he could always fly that last 10 ft). And remember – if your base movement isn’t enough, you always have the option to spend your action on Dash (or, if you’re a Rogue with the Cunning Action ability, you can use a bonus action for it).
And Again, and Again . . .
Once everyone has had a turn in initiative order, the next round begins, starting again with the highest initiative and moving down. Anyone who was surprised in the first round (thus not getting to act) now gets to act when their initiative number comes around.
This continues, round after round, with players and enemies taking their actions in turn, resolving the effects, and then starting over, until one group or the other either retreats, surrenders, dies, or is otherwise taken out of the fight. At this point, combat rounds end until your next hostile encounter.
And that is the basic combat round. Now, doing all these things well and efficiently – learning how to get the most out of your available actions, reactions, and movement – may take some thought and some practice. But with a firm grip on the basics, you can get there eventually.
Simply declare what you’re doing. So long as you’re within the limits (only one standard action, etc) and doing something the DM allows, you spend your action to do that thing, whether it’s attacking a foe, helping an ally, or raising a portcullis. If you’re eligible for a bonus action, you declare that as well. If you’re combining actions with movement, declare what’s happening when (“I move 10’, do this, move another 20’, etc).
Usually 1 standard action, 1 bonus action (if you can do one), and 1 reaction per turn, as well as a free action (though your DM may let you have more than one of these). Some specific abilities can grant extra standard actions, however.