Last Updated on September 25, 2023
Sometimes, the encounter just doesn’t go the way you expect—not because of the BBEG’s cunning plan or a clever stratagem by the heroes, but because the enemies, or the players, just aren’t as tough as you expect them to be.
In fact, the only thing more common than an adventuring party getting in over their heads as they try to take down a pack of kobolds, is a terrifying solo monster getting reduced to jelly after being wailed on by the heroes for just a couple of turns.
If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons 5e, you’ve probably had one or both of these experiences, even when the encounters’ Challenge Ratings (CR) were supposed to be balanced. In either case, there’s a good chance that one side fell afoul of the “action economy”.
What is the Action Economy in DnD 5e?
The action economy in D&D 5e refers to the balance between the number of actions one side can take in a single round of combat versus their opponents. It takes actions, movement, bonus actions, and reactions into account to figure out whether the player characters or their enemies have the advantage.
The action economy isn’t an official rule, and you won’t find it in a Wizards of the Coast sourcebook. It’s a meta-game term that refers to a characteristic of the rules wherein the side that takes the most actions per round usually wins.
Basically, a single character, monster, or NPC can only accomplish so much in a single turn because they are limited to a move, action, bonus action, and reaction. Not to mention the fact not all creatures will take a bonus action and/or a reaction every turn.
If the players’ characters can take more actions in a round than their opponents, either because they outnumber them or because of their abilities, they can accomplish more within a single round of combat. This is how you end up with the classic anticlimactic boss fight scenario.
In a combat encounter, 1 action is a big deal. You can cast a spell or cantrip, attack with your weapon, try to knock someone prone, grapple an opponent, or even ready an action for when it’s most effective.
Challenge Ratings and the Action Economy – Dungeon Master Tips
If you’re the DM of the campaign, pitting a single powerful monster against a party of heroes often leads to unsatisfying combat. This is because for every chance the boss gets to hurt the heroes, the heroes get four, five, or even more chances to hurt them, restrain them, or otherwise manipulate the environment.
The boss might have more hit points and deal more damage, but the players’ favorable action economy gives them the real advantage.
This is why powerful monsters have access to abilities like multiattack, lair actions, and legendary actions that allow them to stand up to a greater number of adventurers for longer.
On the other hand, if the players are outnumbered—even by enemies who are individually far beneath their power level—then things can get dicey very quickly.
This is because, outside of AoE spells, which are a very limited resource at lower levels, most characters can only feasibly deal damage to one enemy per turn. Not only does this turn larger combats into a slog of dice rolling, but it introduces real risk that the players’ character may be overwhelmed by the action economy.
How Do I Make the Most of the Action Economy as a Player?
As a D&D 5e player, it pays to be aware of the action economy, the same way you pay attention to your spell slots, the initiative order, and your hit points. It’s just one more thing to track to help you gain a tactical advantage and prevent disaster.
When it’s time to take an action on their turn, a character usually has big decisions to make. Heal or do damage, maybe I can do both if I have a heal that uses a bonus action like Healing Word.
In short, understanding action economy is the key to making sure that every turn you’re taking as many useful actions as possible and, perhaps even more importantly, minimizing the actions your enemies can take.
When thinking about 5e’s action economy in this way, it’s helpful to think about the different actions and what they can be used to achieve.
Think about how to position yourself so your enemies can’t act, or have to give up a favorable position to attack you. If you’re outnumbered, coordinate with your allies and use chokepoints or difficult terrain to stop your enemies from attacking you all at once. If you outnumber the enemy, surround them to minimize their chances of escape and your own vulnerability to AoE damage.
If you can move into cover after taking a ranged attack so that you both prevent your enemies from shooting at you unless they get closer, you’re forcing them to choose between the chance to hit you and giving your fellow party members without ranged weapons the opportunity to close the distance in one turn instead of two.
Your action is the thing you do to change the world around you every turn. Sometimes, that just means swinging a sword or throwing a fire bolt using the attack action, but in a situation where the action economy is stacked against you, it sometimes pays to get creative.
Finding ways to interact with your environment, like spilling burning oil across the floor to prevent your enemies from closing to melee range, or destroying a bridge to delay reinforcements can do a lot to swing the action economy in the party’s favor. If your character is a spellcaster, there are a ton of options for altering the action economy, either by increasing the number of things the party can do (like Haste for example), or by hampering your opponents.
In short, you should be thinking of your enemies’ actions almost as a secondary pool of hit points. Removing an enemy’s ability to act (more specifically to hurt you or advance its evil plans) is basically akin to giving your side a net boost to their effectiveness.
Bonus actions set powerful characters and NPCs apart from the majority of monsters. Because you can only take a bonus action if you have an ability—like certain spells, bardic inspiration, hiding as a rogue, etc— that lets you do so, always ensuring you use your bonus action effectively can really empower your character, even when outnumbered.
The most common use for a bonus action is to use a light weapon in your off-hand to make a second attack using the Two-Weapon Fighting rule.
You can only make one bonus action per turn, so make sure you choose wisely if you have multiple options.
Reactions are even more situational than Bonus Actions, taking place only when triggered outside of your own turn by a specific set of conditions.
The most common uses for your reaction will be readying an action to occur when the time is right, and an attack of opportunity when an enemy moves out of melee range of your character without using the Disengage action.
Free Actions (and Interactions)
Free actions, like surprise rounds, don’t actually exist in D&D 5e. They’re just popular shorthand for things you do in combat that don’t require an action at all, like talking to your allies, dropping whatever you’re holding, or making a face.
Most things people consider a free action are actually Interactions—small actions that are part of, set up, or interrupt a larger Action or Bonus Action. For example, if the action is to open a locked door, the interaction might be to retrieve the key from your pocket. Drawing a weapon, extinguishing a torch, or
How Do I Get More Actions?
There are a few ways to increase the number of actions you can take in a single turn in D&D 5e.
- Action Surge allows fighters of 2nd level or higher to take a second action once per short or long rest.
- Haste (3rd level, Transmutation) grants the target an additional action on each of its turns for 1 minute.
- Extra Attack allows fighters, rangers, and other martial characters to make multiple attacks with a single action. This is not technically more actions, but will swing the action economy in your favor.
- Death Before Dishonor (Samurai Fighter, 18th level Feature) allows a samurai reduced to 0 hp to immediately revive and take another turn, including action, bonus action, etc. once per long rest.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.