When the melee starts, no one thinks about backstory, or the quirks they’ve given their character, or the DM’s textured, engaging narrative. The only thing anyone thinks about is “how do we kill them first?”. In the end, when it’s time to roll dice in combat, everyone just wants to know how to deal the most hits for the most damage – because the side that hits more often usually lives.
Well, good news – there is actually a science to that, a way to improve your odds in any battle and make sure your party (or your creatures, if you’re the DM) are performing their best. And the technical term for it is “action economy”.
What is Action Economy?
At is simplest, dnd 5e action economy is about optimizing the nuts and bolts of D&D. Beneath the role-playing and rich narrative, action economy is about the mechanics, the math of the rules. It’s about how much effect a character or party can have in a round – how many actions they can take, how much damage they can inflict, and how both those things can be improved and amplified.
Action Economy 5e for Players
In terms of players, action economy simply refers to knowing how to get the most out of your character choices. Avoid the temptation to just jump in swinging or using one or two go-to spells, and instead use your talents strategically to best effect. A few tips and tricks on this score:
Anatomy of a Turn
First, let’s review what happens in a turn. In a given combat round, players can do the following:
- Move your full movement
- Perform a standard action
- Perform a bonus action if there’s one you can do
- Do whatever free actions you can
- Do a reaction (likely outside your own turn)
A standard action is the main thing you do in a round – attack, cast a spell, dodge, and so forth. Bonus actions are, generally, special actions allowed by class abilities, feats, or the like. Certain spells are also bonus actions (you can’t cast other spells in the same round, except for cantrips). Free actions are minor interactions that take little time or effort, like drawing a weapon, or quick communications. Reactions are actions you can take in response to a specific event, like an attack of opportunity or casting Shield.
An underachieving player might hit their standard action and move on. A player savvy to the idea of D&D action economy tries to do as many of them as they can, each round – whether inflicting damage themselves, aiding allies, or just setting up their next turn. Because the side that takes more actions usually has the upper hand. So how do you make the most of it?
Use What You Have – When You Should
Once combat starts, it’s easy for melee-oriented characters to focus on their favorite weapon, and most spellcasters have their favorite tricks. But making the most of your character means going beyond the familiar and taking stock of the full range of your potential – and knowing when to bring it to bear.
Don’t just skim the text on your class and racial abilities, get to know the full details – and how they interact with your other abilities. Do the same thing for your feats – understand them in depth. And for spellcasters, know not just your favorites, but everything you have access to – ranges, durations, limits, and possible variations. The more you know, the better equipped you are to successfully use them creatively in combat.
And especially know the limits. Can you use this ability once per long rest? Per short rest? More often? Knowing these limits helps you decide whether it’s time to pull out a certain ability in combat or save it for a bigger fight later. You don’t want to meet the big boss with all your class abilities depleted!
One of the keys to D&D 5e action economy is knowing what’s going on – you can’t know the most efficient action for a situation if you don’t know what the situation is. Don’t mentally check out after your turn -but stay focused on your fellow player’s actions and those of your enemies. Remember that reactions give you a potential extra action in the bank – don’t let a chance for it slip by.
Staying clear on who’s where, and doing what, also gives you the best information to plan your next turn – what you’ll do, where you’ll go, who’s in trouble on your side and who’s dangerous on the other. So put your phone down and pay attention to the rest of the round.
One option for improving your action economy is to branch out. Say you’re a 5th level bard. The next time you earn a level, you could move up the bard ranks to level 6 – Countercharm has some potential, and if you’re a College of Valor bard, the extra attack feature you get at 6th certainly improves your action economy.
On the other hand, why not take 1st level in Sorcerer, gaining yourself some handy reaction spells in Shield and Feather Fall? Or consider a 1st level Druid, gaining the Guidance cantrip as an interesting buff on your Bardic Inspiration.
And why not spend two levels as a fighter just to get the Action Surge ability, no matter what class you want to focus on? Combine it with the 2nd level rogue’s Cunning Action ability, and your action economy definitely improves.
One of the most important elements of action economy is optimal functioning of the party, not just the players. Know what you can do, but also know what tricks are up your compatriots’ sleeves. That kind of awareness, coupled with some in-the-moment creativity, can make for highly effective tactics.
For example, you can combine a wizard casting Hold Person with a strike by someone with the Great Weapon Master feat. Since any successful melee attack against a paralyzed person automatically crits, the Great Weapon Master feat would give the attacker an additional strike as a bonus action (and if they’re a half-orc, they’d also get the bonus damage of the Savage Attacks ability!).
Another interesting combo idea is having a strong character use their action to shove an opponent prone…which then gives advantage to all attacks against them by other players. And if you have a warlock, remember the Hex spell can give disadvantage on an ability – oh, say, Strength (Athletics) – which might be handy to cast on the target of that shove attack.
Remember that quick communication is a free action. Use it wisely, get your team coordinated and combine your talents for truly devastating rounds.
5e Action Economy for DMs
If you’re a DM, reading the previous section hinted how effective a party can be when they optimize their action economy with ability, feat, spell, weapon, and other choices. Monsters that should be challenging to average players can be hopelessly outmatched by players who’ve learned the best ways to use what they have. And players that know how to think outside the box have a much better chance of sidestepping or circumventing some of your challenges altogether.
If you’re going to take on a party of action economy whiz kids, you’re going to need to have a grasp on action economy yourself. Otherwise, you might find your carefully constructed encounters bulldozed by an A-team of players who’ve mastered the art of fighting smarter, not harder.
Players Have the High Ground
It shouldn’t be surprising that the mechanics of D&D are weighted slightly in favor of the players. One TPK is a good story – one a week is a game no one wants to play anymore. But it’s still worth remembering – the ability, feat, and other options of D&D 5E give players a host of rabbits they can pull out of their hats in a tight spot, and you as a DM don’t have a lot of things that compare to that.
Indeed, very few run of the mill monsters have much in the way of special bonus actions or other neat tricks. Yes, several have Multiattack, and that’s better than nothing, but that by itself isn’t going to be enough against an entire group with a whole quiver-full of gimmicky abilities and bonus actions. So here are just a few tips on how to better utilize your monsters and keep things balanced.
Don’t Rely on CR
Challenge Rating is a general guide to a monster’s power equivalent to a party of 4 characters. But assuming that a CR4 monster is automatically a balanced opponent for your group of 4th-level characters is likely to end badly.
Fifth Edition simply offers players too many ways to customize their characters abilities, and in particular too many possible ways to optimize those abilities, for CR to be a reliable indicator of a monster’s relative strength. A monster that could demolish a party that doesn’t grasp how to use their talents to best effect – who’ve already burned their limited “x times per long rest” abilities on low-level appetizers and haven’t mastered the art of action economy – can in turn be absolutely wrecked by players that know what they’re doing. If you want to keep gameplay balanced, start by taking CR as the shaky suggestion that it is.
Make it a Numbers Game
While one CR 4 monster may not be a challenge for a well-oiled machine of a party, what about two? One way to make up for a party’s wide range of combat options is to simply give them more to worry about. The key to combat balance is, at least in part, who gets to hit more often. A second set of claws/fangs/weapons/etc., can even the playing field a bit.
Now, this requires special attention. If you’re going to add more heavy creatures in your keystone encounters, be mindful not to go too far. You want your players to feel the thrill of being challenged, but it should be a reasonable challenge, just enough to even the odds. That can be a tough balancing act, so maybe make your second creature a little weaker, with an option for additional backup if the combat balance still seems out of whack.
Assemble the Minions!
On that note, never underestimate the potential of adding a lot of low-level henchmen (or hench-creatures) to your combats. Aside from giving Team Monster more opportunity to get some hits in (even if they’re from weaker creatures), a gang of underlings forces your party to change tactics and prevents them from simply piling on your centerpiece creature.
With higher-level characters especially, low level minions are more of a delaying/diversion tactic than a physical threat, but they still raise the action economy of the opposing side – ideally just enough to balance it out. And when you give these foot soldiers an appropriate amount of brains in how they fight, they’re especially effective at keeping things interesting.
(Un) Level the Playing Field
Another method of evening things up between the party and their opponents is to use the setting. Take advantage of rough terrain or other environmental features that limit line of sight, restrict movement, or otherwise create headaches for your players. If they have to scramble over broken, sloping rocks to fight the Korred who can just swim through the stone, they’re going to have a tougher time than they would on a flat surface.
Also consider irritants (like special pollens, etc) to which your monster is immune, but which will negatively affect the players in some way. Or consider artificial obstacles – i.e., traps or other constructed hazards – to give your players more to think about than just their opponent.
Don’t Dumb Down Your Monsters
Most of these tips boil down simply to giving your creatures the brains they were born with. All too often, creatures that are supposed to be fairly intelligent are just lounging alone in an open area waiting to get hacked to pieces. Don’t stock your campaign with brainless targets.
Assume your monsters can think strategically. Mind flayers, with the advantage of a hive mind, should be able to seamless coordinate their activities. Goblins and other humanoids should be assumed to be very cunning hunters and stealth attackers. A gelatinous cube is mindless, but most monsters aren’t.
Give your monster’s credit for knowing their own strength, their own weaknesses, and certainly their own home turf. Expect them to use what they can to their best advantage, which knowing what gaps or vulnerable spots need protecting.
Know How Big your Big Bosses Are
Some of the more powerful creatures in D&D have Legendary Actions and Lair Actions – tricks that can make them a serious challenge for a party. As noted above, in 5E D&D the actions per turn are weighted in favor of players. Legendary and Lair Actions are one of the few places where the balance can swing the other way.
Legendary actions are a special class of actions available to certain creatures, which are taken outside its turn. Lair actions, on the other hand, are special abilities a creature can manifest from the ambient magic of its lair, generally to make it a less hospitable place for intruders.
Case in point – adult blue dragons can spend three legendary actions each round to either make a Wisdom (Perception) check, make a tail attack, or make a wing attack (this costs two actions) and fly up to half their flight speed. They can only do one at a time and can only do them at the end of another creature’s turn. They get their three legendary actions back at the start of their next turn.
As another example, a lich can perform one of a set of lair actions each round. The action happens on an initiative of 20, with the only limitation being that the lich can’t do the same effect two rounds in a row. The possible effects are: 1) the lich regains a random level spell slot (1d8), 2) the lich tethers to a target within 30 ft. Any damage dealt to the lich this round is split between the lich and the tethered target unless the make a CON save (DC 18), 3) the lich summons the spirits of creatures that have died in its lair, directing them at a target within 60 ft and dealing 15d6 necrotic damage unless a CON save (DC 18) is made, in which case damage is halved.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that, used with even a smattering of common sense, these abilities can be devastating. Attacking a powerful creature in its lair – especially one that has both Legendary and Lair actions, like aboleths or certain dragons – more than balances out the action economy between players and monsters.
It shouldn’t need to be said but remember that the object here isn’t just to smack the players. It’s to create a real, engaging challenge. So be mindful of when you’re ratcheting up the combats a little too much.
Ultimately, you want to make these situations seem organic – a creature with the intelligence and abilities it’s meant to have, behaving in smart and sensible ways. One that had been living its own life with its own concerns, and not just digging in and waiting for the party to show up. With a little careful thought, it’s not a hard balance to strike.
Each round, you get one standard action (though there are ways to boost this), a bonus action if there’s one you’re eligible for, and one or more free actions, as well as a reaction (usually outside your own turn).
In terms of standard actions, the most common are Attack and Cast a Spell, but it’s also possible to Dash, Dodge, Disengage from a fight, Hide, Use an Object, Help an ally, Stabilize a fallen ally, or Activate a Magic Item. Bonus actions are usually class-specific abilities or particular spells, which can also be done in a turn if available. Lastly, free actions – minor things like drawing a weapon or communicating – can be done. Outside of your own turn, you can often take reactions to specific triggers.
Bonus actions usually come through class abilities or sometimes through feats. However, any character can fight with a light weapon in each hand, and the off-hand strike is taken as a bonus action. Likewise, a number of spells have “bonus reaction” as the casting time.