A Beginner's Guide to D&D 5e Actions, Drawing of Two People Playing Chess

An Easy, Beginner’s Guide to D&D 5e Actions

Alright. So, you’ve read how a combat in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition works. But, maybe you’re still confused on how actions work.

There’s a lot that goes into D&D 5e’s action system. And, it’s easy to get lost in the minutia.

So, in this article we’ll cover:

  1. The D&D 5e actions basics
  2. What bonus actions are
  3. What reactions are
  4. What free actions are
  5. Some frequently asked questions about actions

Let’s get to it.

What is an Action in 5e?

D&D 5e Actions, Drawing of Archer Drawing a Bow
Attacking is Probably Going to Be Your Most Frequent Action

First things first; let’s define an action in D&D 5e.

An action is the main thing you do on your turn in combat. Every character can take an action on their turn. Usually, you only get one action per turn. But, there are certain features, such as the Fighter’s action Surge, that give your character more.

Page 192 in the Player’s Handbook and the Combat actions section on DnD Beyond state:

"When you take your action on your turn, you can take one of the actions [listed], an action you gained from your class or a special feature, or an action that you improvise."

What does this mean for you?

It means you need to know what actions are available to your character. Every player character has access to a list of pre-written actions. And, they can improvise actions. But, each class has specific action options unique to them. So, be sure to know what your character can do with their action.

The following list of actions is available for all characters (p. 192, PHB):

  • Attack: Make an attack against a target
  • Cast a Spell: Cast either a cantrip or spell
  • Dash: Double your movement speed this turn
  • Disengage: Prevent opportunity attacks against you this turn
  • Dodge: Impose disadvantage on attacks against you this turn
  • Help: Grant advantage on an ally’s next ability check before the start of your next turn
  • Hide: Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check to break line-of-sight with a target
  • Ready: Hold an action to use as a reaction before the start of your next turn
  • Search: Find something from around the battlefield
  • Use an Object: Manipulate a nearby object such as a lever or button

So, how do actions work in D&D 5e?

Well, on your turn you declare what action you want to take. Your Dungeon Master (DM) will then ask for you to roll a 20-sided die (d20) if the action requires a roll. Next, you add any modifiers to the roll to find the total. And finally, you determine the outcome of your action.

Remember: you only get one action per turn (barring outside factors). So, pay attention to what’s happening on other people’s turns and plan ahead of time.

Dungeon Solvers has a great graphic showing the basic things you can do on your turn.

Action Infographic from Dungeon Solvers

With actions out of the way, let’s move on to bonus actions.

What Are Bonus Actions in 5e?

Drawing of Man in a Forest Holding a Lute
Pictured: A Bard Giving Bardic Inspiration to Their Party Member

Now, bonus actions work a little different than regular actions.

Here’s the deal; your character can only take a bonus action if it’s explicitly stated in the description. Not everyone gets a bonus action. But, if you have a feature or spell that let’s you take one, you can take a bonus action and a action on your turn.

If your character has features or spells that use a bonus action, you can choose to take it on your turn. You declare what you’re doing and follow the other steps you normally take with actions.

Again, make sure you know what your character can do as a bonus action.

How Many Bonus Actions Per Turn in D&D 5e?

So, how many bonus actions can you have in 5e?

Unlike actions where certain features can give you more; you only have one bonus action per turn. You can’t take two or more bonus actions. And, there aren’t any features in 5e that give you more.

Now, I’ve had a few players ask me if you can use a bonus action as an action. And no, you can’t take a bonus action as an action per the rules.

I’ve also had some of them ask about holding a bonus action. Unfortunately, you can’t hold a bonus action using the Ready action. Mostly because it takes an action to Ready something. And, since you can’t use a bonus action as a regular action, it makes sense.

Next; let’s move on to the last "official" action type: reactions.

What Are Reactions in 5e?

D&D 5e Reactions, Drawing of Man Frightened by Demon
Pictured: What Your Character Looks Like When They Hold Their Attack

The final type of action in D&D 5e is the reaction.

Reactions are special from actions and bonus actions. You can only take one in reaction (get where the name comes from?) to something else. Also, you only get one reaction per turn. And, it resets at the start of your next turn.

Here’s the deal; reactions aren’t as uncommon as they seem.

Remember the Ready action? This lets you hold an action to use as a reaction when a specified trigger happens.

Opportunity attacks are a type of reaction anyone can take too. Also, certain spells, like Shield, have a casting time of a reaction. Even better; you can use the Ready action to cast a spell as a reaction.

Now, typically, you use your reaction on someone else’s turn. An enemy attacks you or you wait to help an ally. But, you can use your reaction on your turn so long as you meet the criteria to use it.

Can you get more reactions?

No, you can’t get more reactions for your character. Like bonus actions, you only get one per turn.

While this is last labeled action in D&D 5e, many in the community use another; free actions.

What Are Free Actions in 5e?

D&D 5e Free Actions, Drawing of Bird Grabbing a Sword
Pictured: A Druid in Bird Form Picking Up a Sword

Here’s the deal; free actions are not actually actions.

What we call free actions are minor interactions your character may do on their turn. Usually, these involve small tasks you perform either during your movement or alongside another action. These include opening a door, picking up a small object, pulling a torch from the wall, and others found on page 190 of the PHB.

Basically, anything that wouldn’t require a roll or is feasible given the environment. Many time, this is up to your DM’s discretion. Don’t ask if something is a free action (DMs hate that). But, you can check to see if you want your character to do uses your action.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can do a thousand things on your turn (I’m being hyperbolic, work with me here).

Usually, you can still only do one free action/interaction on your turn. This varies from DM to DM, but that’s often the rule.

D&D 5e Actions FAQ

With all this, you might have a few questions about the different types of actions at your fingertips.

So, to help, here is a list of some frequently asked questions to clear up your potential concerns.

How Long Is An Action in 5e?
There is not set time on actions.
Now, a round in D&D takes 6 seconds. So, you can say that each action your character takes uses a fraction of 6 seconds divided among them.
Is Picking Up a Weapon An Action in 5e?
No, picking up a weapon is not an action. Actually, it’s counted as an interaction (or free action). So, unless your DM sucks, you can pick up that sword without repercussions…or, y’know, maybe. Unless it’s cursed…or stuck.
Is Drawing or Sheathing a Weapon an Action?
Nope. Sheathing or drawing your weapon are not actions. Again, they’re considered free actions.
Now, some DMs might only let you either draw or sheathe your weapon. Since the rules state you’re only allowed one interaction per turn, they might not allow you to do both. Ask your DM.
Is Movement a Bonus Action?
No. Movement in D&D 5e is not a bonus action. In fact, movement isn’t an action of any kind. It’s something your character can do on their turn barring any external factors or conditions.
Can You Use a Bonus Action and a Reaction?
Assuming you have spells or abilities that let you, yes. You can take a bonus action and a reaction on your turn. But remember: you must have a features that use either of them.
Is Disengage a Bonus Action?
No; Disengage is not a bonus action. By default, Disengage uses your full action. Now, there are certain features, such as the Rogue’s Cunning Action, let you take it as a bonus action. But, for the most part, you need to use your action for it.
Can Rogues Attack as a Bonus Action?
Actually, yes. And, it’s not limited to only Rogues.
Any class can attack as a bonus action if they’re wielding two weapons with the Light property AND they use the Attack action. Your character needs to meet these requirement in order to attack on their bonus action. So, it’s more like getting a second attack when you use the Attack action.
Now, unless your character chose Two-Weapon Fighting as their Fighting Style, you won’t add your corresponding ability modifier (Strength or Dexterity) unless it’s negative. So, remember that when you’re attacking like this.
Do Rogues Get Two Bonus Actions?
No. Rogues and every other class for that matter do not get two bonus actions. And, there are no ways per the rules to get two bonus actions.
Can a Cantrip Be a Bonus Action?
Now, this is an interesting question. Because yes, a cantrip can be a bonus action if it’s casting time lists it as such. But, most cantrips are full actions with only a couple exceptions. Cantrips operate much like spells where some are full actions while others are bonus actions. Also, the Sorcerer’s Metamagic option Quickened Spell can turn an action cantrip into a bonus action. But, that’s class specific.
Is Healing Word a Bonus Action?
Yes, Healing Word is a bonus action. So, your action is free for a cantrip or something else.
Can You Cast Eldritch Blast As a Bonus Action?
Yes, you can cast the Warlock cantrip Eldritch Blast as a bonus action if you multiclass into Sorcerer and take the Quickened Spell Metamagic. Otherwise, casting Eldritch Blast uses up your action.

 

Well, that’s about it for the basics on D&D 5e actions.

So, you should now know:

  • What actions are in D&D
  • How bonus actions work
  • How reactions work
  • What free actions/interactions are
  • And, answers to a few common questions about actions

I hope this helped clear up any questions. If you have any more, please leave a comment. I’d love to help.

3 thoughts on “An Easy, Beginner’s Guide to D&D 5e Actions”

  1. My doubt is: A fighter is welding a bow, and it’s attacking with it, now in his action he want to drop the bow and withdraw his sheathing sword as two action in one turn.

    Is that considered as a reaction, draw his sheathing sword in his turn while he was using his bow?

    1. That’s actually something that’s been debated in the community for a while.

      According to the PHB (page 190) under Other Activity on Your Turn; "You can also interact with one object or feature of the environment for free, during either your move or your action…If you want to interact with a second object, you need to use your action."

      So, in your example and Rules As Written, a Fighter could attack and stow/drop their bow as part of one action. But, drawing a sheathed sword afterward would technically count as a separate object interaction and would require a second action. It wouldn’t be a reaction.

      That said, many GMs (myself included) usually ignore this rule in regards to drawing/stowing weapons. But, other object interactions should probably follow this rule to avoid having characters do an unreasonable number of things on their turn.

    2. I believe it would depend on the weapon you were drawing. If you were drawing a one handed weapon you wouldn’t need to drop the bow and therefore wouldn’t need to use an action to do so. If however you were drawing a two handed weapon and needed to completely put the bow away then you would need an additional action to do so.

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