The Basics of Combat in DnD 5e: Actions, Movement and Reactions

There are a lot of moving parts in combat. This huge pillar of the game can be confusing to someone new to the way D&D works, even if you’ve had previous experience with turn-based strategy.

In this article, we’re going to explain how just about every basic piece of combat works, from interesting actions you can take to how movement really works.

We’ve broken this up into three sections: Movement, Actions (which includes bonus actions), and Reactions. 

Your Turn

“On Your Turn, you can move a distance up to your speed and take one action. You decide whether to move first or take your action first. Your speed— sometimes called your walking speed—is noted on your character sheet.”

Page 189 of the Player’s Handbook

Table of Contents

Movement

Movement is one of the main pieces of your turn. How much you can move, typically via walking, is determined by your movement speed. There are some different ways to move around though. 

You can move a number of feet up to your movement speed in your turn. 

If you have several types of movement speed, such as a fly speed in addition to your normal speed, you can switch back and forth between types of movement.

When you do so, subtract the distance you’ve traveled so far from the movement type you are switching to, and that is how much you can still move.

Climbing and Swimming

You can climb or speed without a designated movement speed. Doing so requires you to spend an extra foot of your speed for every foot you travel. In other words, you move at half speed.

If you do have a “climb” or “swim” speed, you can travel by these methods with no penalties. 

Jumping

You can also jump as part of your movement, either by attempting a long jump or a high jump. Your strength score determines your jumping distances.

Long Jump

If you move at least 10 feet before jumping, you can move a number of feet up to your strength score. If you make a standing long jump, you can only move half the distance.

Either way, each foot you jump spends a foot of movement.

If you are attempting to clear an obstacle, your DM may set an athletics check (typically DC 10). 

Also, if you land in difficult terrain, you must succeed on a DC 10 acrobatics check to keep your footing and not fall prone.

High Jump

High jumps work in a similar fashion. If you move 10 feet first, you can jump 3 + your strength modifier feet into the air.

A standing high jump only gets you halfway as high into the air. Again, each foot you clear with your jump costs a foot of movement. 

You can use high jumps to grab something in the air. If you do, you reach 1½ times your height plus the distance of your jump into the air. 

Breaking Up Your Movement

You don’t have to use up all of your movement at once. Instead, you can move between any other pieces of your turn.

As an example, a character with a movement speed of 30 feet can move 15 feet (three spaces), attack someone, and then move 15 more feet to get somewhere else. 

You can even move between attacks. If you happen to have extra attacks (multiple attacks in the same Attack action), then you can move between each one. 

Actions

Actions are, quite literally, where the action happens. There are a lot of things you can do with your action; just know that you’re typically only going to be able to do one per turn. 

Attack

Attacks are the most common action you’ll take and the most common way to deal damage to your enemies.

Typically, the Attack action is composed of a single attack, but some abilities will allow you to make multiple attacks as part of a single action.

Cast a Spell

During your turn, you can cast a spell or cantrip with a casting time of “one action” by using your action. 

If you cast a spell with a bonus action, you can’t then cast another leveled spell with a regular action. You can however cast a bonus action with a casting time of one action. 

Also, if you happen to have the Action Surge feature or another ability that lets you make two actions on your turn, you can cast multiple leveled spells – just so long as you have actions to cast them.

The “multiple spells in one turn” rule only counts toward bonus-action spells.

Dash

The dash action doubles your movement speed for the turn after you’ve applied any other modifiers.

For example, a dark elf with a speed of 30 feet would gain 30 extra feet of movement by using the dash action, moving up to 60 feet in their turn. 

If that dark elf happened to be a 2nd-level monk that wasn’t wearing any armor, they would receive a +10 bonus to their base movement speed and then be able to move a whole 80 feet in a single turn.

Disengage

Disengage is an extremely useful action. This allows you to move without provoking opportunity attacks for the rest of the turn. 

If you’re surrounded by a slew of enemies, are invisible, or need to for whatever reason pass by a creature on your turn, this is essential to your survival.

One opportunity attack doesn’t often do a lot of damage, but there are plenty of situations where just moving can end up killing you.

Also, while it might sound like this takes you out of combat, there is no “re-engaging” necessary.

On your next turn, you’ll be back in combat as normal or even this one if you have another action or bonus action to use up.

Dodge

Dodging is a preemptive action. You don’t actually do anything with this action on your turn. Rather, you focus on dodging attacks for the next round of combat.

Mechanically, this means that until the start of your next turn, attacks made against you are made with disadvantage and you make any dexterity-saving throws with advantage.

You lose the benefits of this if your movement speed is reduced to 0 or if you are incapacitated.

Help

The help action is another action that does nothing on your turn. Instead, you lend your aid to another creature. That creature gets advantage on the next ability check they make before the start of your next turn. 

The help action can also give a creature advantage on an attack roll against a creature that is within 5 feet of you, provided they make that attack before the start of your next turn.

In game, this is described as you’re doing something to distract the creature in some way, getting their guard down as a result.

Your ally will get that advantage for any attack roll, be it spell, melee, ranged, or whatever. Unfortunately, this does nothing to affect any saving throws.

Hide

The hide action is probably one of the most complicated actions in that it is an attempt to hide. To do so, you must make a stealth (dexterity) check and be able to hide according to 5e’s rules.

Hiding requires you to not be clearly visible by a creature you are hiding from. In combat, this often means that you are in some sort of heavily obscured area, benefitting from at least partial cover or invisible.

Your DM should let you know if you can hide, preventing you from completely wasting an action.

If you meet all the conditions, you then get to make your stealth check. The DC for this check will probably be the passive perception of your enemies’ except under extenuating circumstances. 

Finally, if you are able to successfully hide, you benefit from being an “Unseen Attacker and Target.”

Creatures can still attack you if they can’t see you, but they have disadvantage on the attack if they’re targeting your position on the battlefield accurately. This can happen if they hear you or if they accurately guess your position.

Likely though, they’ll just be swinging randomly in which case their attack would automatically miss.

As for yourself, you make attacks with advantage while you are unseen. Whether you hit or miss, this will give up your position, so do your best to make it count.

Ready

You can ready an action by using the ready action. Essentially, you set up a trigger and describe what you’ll do when that trigger happens. What you do can be any action or movement, and you can set up essentially any trigger. 

This creates a reaction for you, but as you’ll read in the section below, you can only have one reaction per round.

So you won’t be able to perform your readied action and say, an opportunity attack, before your next turn. You’ll have to choose one or another.

For example, you could say, “When the goblin moves into range, I’ll shoot it with an arrow,” or “If an enemy steps under the boulder trap I’ll cut the cord.”

Try not to make your conditions too specific, and you’ll often be able to pull off some really cool interactions when it’s not even your turn.

You can even prepare spells with this action, but there are a few caveats. 

  • You must ready a spell with a casting time of one action.
  • Readying a spell requires you to concentrate on it until you cast it, even if the spell wouldn’t normally require concentration.
  • This follows the normal rules for concentration. Any spell you are already concentrating on would end if you attempt to ready a spell.

Still, even with the added dilemma of concentrating on a spell, you can do amazing things with this.

Often, you’ll use this to ready an AOE spell that would otherwise harm your allies, setting the trigger to be “once my allies are out of this area.”

Search

Unsurprisingly, you can use this action to search for something. Depending on how exactly you’re searching, this will require you to make either a perception (wisdom) or investigation (intelligence) check.

The nature of the search will be determined by your DM.

Use an Object

In some situations, interacting with an object requires you to devote an entire action to it.

This doesn’t typically apply for something like drawing your weapon, which is done as part of your first attack with the weapon, but will apply to something like drinking a potion or pulling a lever.

The specific wording of this action, “when an object requires your action for its use, you take the Use an Object action,” makes how this works very clear.

Objects don’t necessarily require you to take up an action for interaction, but if they do, they will state it.

Examples include caltrops (“As an action, you can spread the caltrops”), poison (“Applying the poison takes an action”), and, of course, potions (“drinking or administering the potion takes an action”).

For items that a DM creates or environmental items aren’t intended for interaction, the DM will have to make a ruling.

In most cases, if interaction requires as much time and attention as lifting a bottle to your lips and drinking it, it’s safe to say it will fall into this action.

You can also use this action to interact with any object that you wouldn’t normally need an action for.

Things like opening doors or drawing your weapon don’t normally cost an action, but you can only do one of these on your turn.

That’s where this action comes in, allowing you to do more within a single round of combat.

Bonus Action

While not technically an “Action,” bonus actions are another way to do things on your turn.

Unlike Actions, where some features might give you the ability to perform multiple, you can only perform one bonus action per turn. 

There are no specific bonus actions in D&D that are similar to any of the actions listed above. Rather, there are many spells, abilities, and features that specify the use of a bonus action.

Some common bonus actions are:

  • Spells with a casting time of a bonus action.
  • An attack made with your off-hand weapon when fighting with two weapons.
  • Normal actions quickened to a bonus action. Such as:
    • Monk’s Step of the Wind feature – Spend 1 ki point to Disengage or Dash as a bonus action.
    • Rogue’s Cunning Action – Dash, Disengage, or Hide as a bonus action on each turn.
  • Special abilities of concentration spells, like moving a Flaming Sphere up to 30 feet.

If something doesn’t state that it can be done as a bonus action, it’s safe to assume that it can’t.

Check your class features, any feats you have, and the language behind any spells you’re casting so that you know if you can act swiftly on your turn.

Free Action

Now, technically free actions don’t exist in 5e as a mechanic. However, they’ve long been a part of D&D, and most DMs still use this as a general category for things that don’t require your action or movement.

We’ve already covered that you can interact with most objects once per turn as a free action, but there are some other things you can do that just tend to make sense. 

Communication is an important one. Combat doesn’t have to be a silent affair, and requiring an action to talk would be very weird.

However, do keep in mind that a turn in combat is only 6 seconds long – so no soliloquies or monologues; otherwise we might have to cast Silence.

You can also end most effects for free. Concentration is a great example of this, as the rules state that you can end concentration at any time for free.

You can also release a creature that you have grappled, drop to the prone position, or even drop an item. 

There are certain exceptions to that last option, like doffing a shield or placing cantrops. This just goes back to the basic principle of D&D that all rules can be overridden by exceptions stated in specific mechanics.

Reactions

Reactions aren’t very complicated, but since they don’t necessarily happen on your turn, they warrant their own section.

Reactions are a response to some sort of trigger, and you may have access to a lot of them as part of your class’s abilities. However, you can only use one reaction per round of combat, so choose wisely.

One of the most common reactions is an Opportunity Attack. Attacks of opportunity are special attacks that any creature can make if a hostile creature moves out of your reach.

If you have a rapier, for example, whenever a creature moves out of the 5 feet around you (the 8 surrounding squares on a typical battlemat), you can make an attack against them.

The ready action we discussed above is another way to set yourself up for a reaction. In this instance, the trigger that lets you use your reaction is whatever you stated when you used the ready action.

Many spells and abilities might also state a specific reaction that you can make. As an example, Absorb Elements is a spell with a casting time of one reaction that you can cast whenever you take elemental damage. 

Much like bonus actions, to figure out if you have any reactions you’ll need to pay attention to all of your abilities.

I find it helpful to keep a little index card or some sort of note that has all of your reactions ready available.

Listing the triggers and what you can do will make it much easier to spot situations when they arise, and you’ll be able to make more educated decisions on which reactions you should use and when.

There you have it, the basics of combat. While there can often be an incredible amount of nuance to the mechanics of combat — brought on by class features, creature abilities, environmental factors, and more — understanding everything we’ve gone over above will make you a better D&D player or DM overall.

Once you understand the basics, it’s just a matter of looking for exceptions to the rules brought on by all the amazing abilities you’ll amass as you level up through your campaign.

For all of that, check out some of our other guides. For now though, you’re good to go.

As always, happy adventuring.