The Complete Beginner's Guide to DnD 5e Combat, Drawing of Men Battling

How Does Combat Work in D&D 5e?

Combat is one of the 3 Pillars of Play in Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition. And, if you’re starting out, it’s easy to get lost in all the details.

This beginner’s guide covers:

  1. How combat works from the start
  2. The basics of a typical combat turn
  3. How movement works
  4. How to figure out your Attack Modifier
  5. How to calculate damage

Let’s get to it.

How Does D&D 5e Combat Work?

Drawing of a Knight Fighting a Dragon at Night

First things first, let’s break down the anatomy of a typical combat encounter. For the most part, combats in 5e follow the same basic steps:

  1. Roll Initiative to determine turn order
  2. Progress down the turn order
  3. Repeat until everyone’s dead…or victory conditions are met

Now, there may be variances in this depending on your table and Dungeon Master. But, this is usually how things go.

So, at the start of a combat encounter, everyone rolls Initiative. You, your fellow party members, and the monsters (controlled by your DM) roll a 20-sided die. Everyone then adds their Initiative modifier to whatever they rolled to calculate the Turn Order for the rest of combat. The highest number goes first, next goes second, et cetera until everyone’s added.

What does this mean for you?

Well, to start it means you need to know how to find your Initiative modifier. Here’s the thing; that part’s easy. Your Initiative modifier is the same as your Dexterity modifier.

Yep. That’s it.

Your Initiative modifier equals your Dexterity modifier. Just add it to your roll to find your spot in the combat order.

Next up, let’s go over what your turn looks like.

Combat Turn Anatomy

Drawing of Two People Playing Chess

So, how does a combat turn work?

When it comes to your turn, you have more or less four things you can do:

  • Movement
  • Action
  • Bonus Action
  • Reaction
    • These usually only come up in response to other combatants turns

There’s also Free Actions, but those are determined on a case-by-case basis.

At the start of your turn, you choose from your available player character’s features. The details of each feature should tell you 1) what kind of action it is and 2) when it happens.

Basically, read through your features and spells to see what they do and when they do it.

Just know that despite the myriad of options at your fingertips, for the most part, everything in a D&D 5e combat simplifies down into one of these options.

Alright. Let’s move onto movement.

How Does Movement Work in D&D?

Drawing of Man Defending A Wounded Man

Here’s the deal; movement in D&D is one of the easier parts of combat.

To calculate your Movement, look at whatever your race’s speed is. That’s how many feet you can move on your turn. This varies between 25 or 30 feet depending on your character’s race.

Also, this usually translates to 5 or 6 squares. If your table uses gridded battle maps, 1 square typically equals 5 feet.

Now, one of the most common questions I hear is "can I move and attack in the same turn?"

The answer is; yes. You can move and attack in the same turn in Damp;D.

Another cool thing about 5e’s combat is that you can break up your movement for between attacks. For example, this means you can use 15 feet of your movement, attack, and complete your movement. Which also means you can move after attacks, too.

Personally, this is one of my favorite features of D&D 5e’s combat mechanics. It gives players (and the DM) more tactical options. And, it feels less restrictive on combat as a whole.

Anyway. Another common question I see is " can I move diagonally?"

Yes, you can move diagonally in D&D 5e. For the basic rules, each square still counts as 5 feet.

With movement done, let’s see how attacking works in D&D 5e.

How is D&D Attack Calculated?

Drawing of Woman Aiming a Crossbow
Pictured: A Ranger Who’s Had Enough of the Rogue’s Shenanigans

Now, probably the most frequent action you’ll take is the Attack action. So, let’s take a look at where to find it, how it’s calculated, and what to do with it.

First things first; your Attack Modifier is found in the Attacks & Spellcasting box on your character sheet. And, to calculate your character’s attack, you add your Proficiency Bonus and corresponding Ability Score Modifier. But, you DO NOT add your Proficiency Bonus is you’re not proficient with the weapon.

Remember: check which weapons your character is proficient with. Either from their race, class, or feat.

To simplify, the formula looks like this:

Attack Modifier = Proficiency Bonus (if you’re proficient) + Ability Score Modifier (Strength or Dexterity)

You use Strength or Dexterity, depending on the weapon, for weapon attacks. So, anything with a sword, bow, axe, javelin, and so forth.

Now, you use the same formula for spells that require an attack roll. But, instead of Strength or Dexterity, you use your Spellcasting Ability Modifier (Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma, depending on your character’s class).

Once you figure out your Attack Modifier, you’ll need to remember it anytime you want to take the Attack Action.

So, in short; to calculate your attack:

  • If you’re proficient, add your Proficiency bonus
  • Add the attack’s corresponding Ability Score Modifier

Remember: you need to re-calculate whenever your Proficiency bonus and modifiers increase.

How to Attack in D&D

Knight Fighting a Lion-Dragon-Octopus Thing

Attacking uses your action. So, you’ll often hear it referred to as "taking the attack action."

When you want to attack, you declare it to the table (however you like, and I encourage you to get descriptive). Your DM should let you know if your character has any bonuses or penalties. They’ll then ask you to roll for an attack. You’ll take your d20, roll it, and add your Attack Modifier to that number. Finally, compare the total number against the Armor Class (AC) of your target.

Often, DMs don’t reveal AC to players. This depends on the DM, and you’ll usually find out in the first combat.

Here are the steps (in list form!).

  1. Declare an Attack
  2. Determine bonuses & penalties (Advantage or Disadvantage)
  3. Roll 1d20 (one 20-sided die)
  4. Add your Attack Modifier to the number rolled
  5. Compare the total to the AC of your target

If your attack matches or beats your target’s AC, you score a hit. Also, if you roll a natural 20, you score a critical hit.

What is a critical hit?

When you roll a 20 (on a d20), your attack is guaranteed to hit. Also, you roll an additional damage die based on the weapon or spell used.

On the other hand, if you roll a 1, your attack automatically misses.

But, when you do hit, you then roll to see how much damage you do.

How is D&D Damage Calculated?

Drawing of Small Men Fighting Wasps

The damage your character does when they hit with an attack depends on a couple of factors:

  • What weapon they’re using
  • What spell they cast

If you’re using a weapon, you’ll use whatever damage die corresponds with the weapon. You’ll find the different types of weapons either on page 149 of the Player’s Handbook or on DnD Beyond. And, the damage dice range from a 4-sided die up to 12-sided:

  • d4
  • d6
  • d8
  • d10
  • d12
  • 2d6

Make sure you know which die or dice to use when rolling damage.

Now, you add either your Strength or Dexterity modifier to the damage. Which one you use depends on the type of weapon. For most weapons, you add your Strength modifier. The exceptions are ranged weapons and melee weapons with the Finesse property.

Here’s the deal; you don’t need to be proficient with a weapon to add your ability modifier to the damage. But, you do not add your Proficiency Bonus to damage.

So, here’s how that looks:

Total Damage = Damage Die + Ability Modifier

Spells work different than mundane weapon attacks. While they have a set damage die like weapons, most spells don’t add your spellcasting ability modifier to damage. It depends on the wording of the spell or cantrip. So, make sure you know the details of what you’re casting.

Then, there’s the chance you rolled a critical hit. Which means you double the amount of damage dice you roll.

One final thing to note about damage; you’ll probably be taking some of it. Since you take combat in turns, your character will suffer damage at some point. Make sure you know what your hit point maximum and current hit points are. If you lose track and fall to 0 hit points, your character becomes incapacitated, and your character starts making death saving throws.


Now, there’s a lot more to what a combat in D&D 5e can look like. Between the numerous actions anybody can take and the way action economy works means every battle is unique. And, how you character approaches combat varies.

But, for now, these are the basics you need to know:

  1. At the start of combat, everybody rolls Initiative to determine turn order
    • Roll a d20
    • Add your Initiative Modifier (Dexterity modifier) to your roll
    • Highest goes first and order follows the descending numbers
  2. On your turn, you have 3 basic things your character can do:
    • Move
    • Take an Action
    • Use a Bonus Action
  3. You can move up to your Movement speed on your turn
    • You can break up your movement between actions
  4. Attack Actions are probably the most common type of action you’ll take
    • Roll a d20
    • Know whether to add your Proficiency Bonus or not to your attack roll
    • Add the corresponding ability modifier to the roll
    • Critical hits (natural 20s) always hit, while critical misses (natural 1s) always miss
    • Compare the total against your target’s Armor Class on a hit
  5. If you hit, roll damage
    • Know your weapon’s or spell’s damage die
    • For weapons, add the corresponding ability modifier to the roll (Strength or Dexterity)
    • For spells, read through the description
    • Add the two to see how much damage you deal

And, that’s it for the basics of D&D 5e combat. You’re pretty much killing monsters with math.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment. I’m here to help make sure your characters survive…mostly.

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