Attack Action in DnD 5e: How to Most Effectively Use Attacks

Last Updated on September 13, 2023

The Attack Action in DnD 5e allows your character to make melee or ranged attacks against a target within range.  The attacks you can make depend on  class features, weapons, spells and abilities. The number of attacks per action is one by default but can increase with a character’s level or through specific class features like Extra Attack.

Check here for a list of all your options to take an Action.

Additional Actions In Combat: Bonus Action, Opportunity Attacks and more

It’s worth noting that you may also have other chances to make a melee or ranged attack outside of your full action.  There are bonus actions and opportunity attacks for example.  

So if you’re considering if you should use the attack action to hit an enemy, take these into consideration too:

Bonus Actions to Attack on Your Turn:

Bonus Action:  a bonus action is an additional action that a character can take on their turn, separate from their main action and movement. Bonus actions are usually granted by class features, spells, or other abilities.  Here is a quick list of some attack uses for a bonus action:

  • Crossbow Expert:  allows you to make a hand crossbow attack as a bonus action
  • Double-Bladed Scimitar:  can use a bonus action to make a melee attack with the weapon’s other end for 1d4 damage.
  • Dual Wielding:  lets you attack with your off-hand weapon as a bonus action
  • Martial Arts:  bonus action unarmed strike
  • Polearm Master: bonus action attack with the opposite end of the polearm
  • Shield Master: bonus action shove an enemy
  • Telekinetic: bonus action move objects or creatures with your mental abilities

Opportunity Attacks to Use

Opportunity Attacks:  Opportunity attacks happen when a creature moves out of an enemy’s reach without taking the Disengage action.  So if something is in your reach, and moves out, you get an attack of opportunity.  

By the same token, if you move out of an enemies reach, it can take an opportunity attack on you, unless you use the disengage action or similar ability.

Here are some feats, spells and abilities in 5th edition that impact opportunity attacks:

  1. Sentinel Feat: Allows you to make an opportunity attack even if the creature takes the Disengage action, and reduces the creature’s speed to 0 for the rest of the turn.
  2. War Caster Feat: Allows you to cast a spell instead of making a melee attack when a creature provokes an opportunity attack from you.
  3. Polearm Master Feat: Grants an opportunity attack when a creature enters your reach, not just when it leaves.
  4. Mage Slayer Feat: Allows you to make an opportunity attack against a creature when it casts a spell within 5 feet of you.
  5. Reach Weapons: Weapons like the glaive or halberd extend your reach, allowing for more opportunity attacks as creatures enter or leave your extended reach.
  6. Dissonant Whispers: A spell that forces a creature to use its reaction to move away from you, potentially provoking an opportunity attack.
  7. Command (Flee): If you command a creature to flee, it will use its movement to move away from you, potentially provoking an opportunity attack.

How and When to Use an Attack Action on Your Turn

 You will use a full action every turn you have in combat. The question is how you will use that action. You don’t always need to attack during this action, despite it being called the ‘attack action’.

You have options. That’s what we do here at Black Citadel, we help you explore those options so you can maximize your efficiency.

When deciding whether or not to make an attack in DnD, you’ll need to consider a few things. Not every character is made for attacking, and not every character is expected to rack up kills.

Remember also that you can set up your team mate for huge damage.  If the player after you has the extra attack feature for example, it’s might be better for you to bless him than take the attack action yourself to try and hit an enemy.  

Should you ready an action, use an object, position yourself to take advantage of tactics like opportunity attacks or flanking, use a hide action… there are a lot of options in D&D 5e.

Something many players forget is that assists are just as valuable as kills. If you can help your party’s barbarian to make the final blow, you are just as integral to taking down the BBEG as anyone else.

 What to Do Before Your Turn

Good table etiquette is to have your plan worked out before your turn comes. Whether at a public play event or at your friend’s house, everyone is now waiting for you to continue the game.

To speed up play and make the best of your time in the spotlight, answer these two questions:  “What is my role?”  and “Will I be Successful?”

Let’s get into both: 

What Is the Role of My Character?

Not every character is designed to be in the front lines (or even the back lines) scoring up kills for the party.   You can provide support to your team, heal them, buff them, assist them or even use the Help Action to give them advantage.  

If you are playing a Circle of Dreams Druid or a Thief Rogue, you might consider that you can achieve valuable objectives to get wins outside of combat. So, let the fighter do what they do best. They need their moment to shine, too.

Maybe there is a door you can close off, an item to grab, a lever to pull.  Be sure to have a look through the Actions you can take in combat and see if something fits.

How Likely Am I to Be Successful?

Secondly, what kind of offenses do you have against this target’s defenses? If they have demonstrated already in the fight that their AC is wickedly high, maybe you shouldn’t attack if you’re likely to miss.

It’s possible they may have lower Dexterity or Wisdom save when compared to their Armor Class. Is there a way you can make them roll against that and be successful?

After considering the success and value of an attack roll, your actions will come down to two possible supports. You will either attack, or you will support.

What to Do During Your Turn:  Make an Attack or Support

Now that you have decided whether you will attack or support, it is time to choose your best ability and declare your action.

Attacking on Your Turn

If you are attacking, you will need to choose the method with which you will attack. While it is easy to choose a weapon or a spell, what it really boils down to in terms of game mechanics is your ability scores vs your target’s ability scores.

If Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma are your highest scores, you are probably a spellcaster, and you should make sure you are attacking with an ability that uses that score as it’s base.

There is no point in a Wizard with 8 Strength swinging a sword at someone (unless you’re Gandalf). Wizards have high Intelligence, and so you should cast a Wizard spell so that you get to add your intelligence bonus to your attack roll.

If your highest ability score is Dexterity, make sure to use a ranged weapon or a finesse weapon. Likewise, if your highest ability score is Strength, use a melee or thrown weapon.

Spell Attacks vs Saving Throws

Some spells give you the option to either roll against your target’s Armor Class or force them to make a saving throw against your Spell Difficulty Class (DC).

 These are not equal choices. If you notice earlier in the round that the maxxed out fighter is struggling to hit the enemy, you can reason the enemy probably has a high Armor Class. You can roll and hope to get an 18, 19, or 20 to make the hit, or you can cast a spell that can attack one the enemy’s other defenses.

 Saving throws are the spellcaster’s loophole. If you suspect the foe is physically tough but mentally weak, try casting a spell that targets a Wisdom, Charisma, or Intelligence saving throw.

Supporting Your Party

Your other option is to support your allies. For this, you need to think in terms of Buffs and Debuffs.

I’m sure you know this already, but Buffs are those conditions and qualities that can help your allies while Debuffs are qualities and conditions that can hinder your opponents. Both of these are ways to support the party members in your groups who are doing the bulk of the attacking.

Every spellcaster has access to a wide variety of buffs, debuffs, or utility since magic is so versatile.  Here is a basic chart of buffing and debuffing cantrips you can use for you or your party.

Blade WardX  
Frostbite X 
Green-Flame BladeX  
Gust  X
Mage Hand  X
Magic StoneX  
Mind Sliver X 
Mold Earth  X
Shape Water  X
Spare the DyingX  
Thorn Whip X 
True StrikeX  

Providing Buffs and Debuffs is not just a thing reserved for spellcasters, however. Martial classes have access to actions and techniques that can make your enemies prone, flat-footed, distracted, or otherwise not able to be at their best game. If you have a rogue in your party, you may consider forgoing one of your attacks in order to line up the rogue for a sneak attack, especially if that sneak attack does more damage than your weapon.

Expanding your options

Finally, using gear and equipment can expand your options for attacking or supporting. Take some time to look through what consumable items you can buy in order to give yourself more versatility on the battlefield.

Why limit yourself to being a solo sword-slinger when you can easily buy a bag of blasting powder and throw what is essentially a non-magical fireball?

Try and think tactically.  Don’t provoke an opportunity attack if you can avoid it.  Take the time to switch the melee weapon that you’re holding for one that does more damage if an enemy is resistant to the one you’re holding in your hand.  Take cover, hide, disengage, reposition, flank.

All of these options are available in combat.

Now that you’ve had a chance to think over what your character is capable of and have an idea of how to explore those options, head back to the main page here and continue checking out the actions you can take.

Or look at how you can use Improvised Actions

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