© Wizards of the Coast by Pauline Voss

Drinking A Potion in DnD 5e: How & Why They Work This Way

When you’re in a tight spot and need healing, most people look around for a Cleric. But, what if one isn’t in a position to help you right now? Clerics are, first and foremost, martial off-tanks.

They wield melee weapons, wear chain armor, and are playing a frontline class. It’s unreasonable to expect that your Cleric is always standing next to you, ready to heal off that critical strike.

So, what’s a player to do? You could always drink a potion. But what exactly happens when you drink a potion? Do your forfeit your whole turn? Can you do anything else besides drinking a potion?

Here’s the scoop.

Rules As Written: Drinking a Potion Consumes One Action

As stated on page 139 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, drinking a potion in combat requires one full action to start and resolve the effect. Jeremy Crawford clarified on Twitter that this is because “potions are basically bottled spells” and that the rule is a gameplay-focused rule rather than a physics rule

For some people, this may seem like a highly rigid rule, perhaps even suffocating. The original poster of the questions surrounding it brings up that they noticed players were not using their potions, especially those that didn’t give them health.

Crawford goes on to ask a fundamental question when choosing to make a more lax house rule on this topic: do you want spells cast as non-actions in your game?

A fair point to bring up.

Potions are, as he puts it, bottled spells, and to use them without consuming an action would be to cast a spell without consuming an action.

How, if at all, does this affect the gameplay balance? Quite a bit, actually, but before we can delve into why there’s another critical clarification we need to address.

Can I Administer a Potion to Another Character on My Turn?

Yes. You can administer a potion to another player on your turn. As written, the Dungeon Master’s Guide states that “Potions are a consumable item. Drinking a potion or administering a potion to another character requires an action.” 

The DMG doesn’t stipulate a secondary action for the administered to drink the potion, which might be an oversight. However, the DMG does specify that “applying an oil” may take longer than one action.

So, thought was given to applications that would require more than one action, but administering a potion to another character isn’t one of them.

While the most obvious use of this action is to administer a health potion to a downed ally, it would also apply to anyone who wanted to use their turn to, say, shove a Legendary Potion of Giant Strength in the Barbarian’s mouth to grant him an extra 5 Strength on top of his 24 maximum. 

Now, of course, this does assume that your Barbarian is willing to have the potion shoved in their face-hole, but I’m sure a quick “potion make strong!!” is going to be enough for most Barbarians to get on board.

So, with the knowledge that we can administer potions to other players on our turns, let’s get to some mathematical breakdowns.

Do Free-Action Potions Break the Game?

Unfortunately, yes, they do. Let’s think about this from a mathematical standpoint. A Potion of Healing is 1d4 healing, equivalent to one use of Healing Word, for free.

You get it for free; you can also use Healing Word, which doubles your per-turn healing. At worst, it’s 50% of a cast of Cure Wounds.

If the potion is a free action, it can be used in conjunction with Healing Word and a Cantrip! So a Bard can dump a potion down an ally’s throat, cast Vicious Mockery, and then cast Healing Word all in one turn! That’s double the healing, and you can still deal damage on that turn. 

If we go a little further and say this is an Elvish bard, they could also have Firebolt or Toll the Dead. That’s up to 1d12 in damage plus 2d4 in healing in one turn!

We don’t even have to account for other potions to see how game-breaking potions as a free action are, but let’s continue anyway because math is my crack.

We’ll be using a Legendary Potion of Giants’ Strength for this exercise. That grants the affected player a Storm Giant’s strength for 1 hour. With a free-action potion, your Fighter can chug that potion, then proceed to swing four times and still have their bonus action to do something as well!

After ingesting a Storm Giant potion, this fighter now has about a 50% chance to hit Tiamat up from their usual 35% chance, and their damage will be bolstered by the potion as well. 

How to Keep Potions Balanced In-Game

Some players may want a more flexible use of potions, as the rules as written are inflexible and can discourage players from using potions since they’ll have to bank on being able to use the next turn extra effectively.

Here are some ways you can balance potions to give them a little more power without breaking the action economy entirely.

Play with the Rules as Written

The easiest way to keep potions balanced is to play with them as God (Wizards of the Coast) intended. They intended for potions to be treated like bottled spells, and by keeping the rule as written, you can maintain control some control over their effect on the action economy.

Make Potions a Bonus Action

This is probably the most balanced way I can think of giving potions a little boost. It allows the players to do a full action alongside the potion without falling to the action spamming that can be abused later.

By making the Potion a bonus action, you prevent the player from doing things like two-weapon fighting, or bonus action spells, while still allowing the player to use their potion without too much action economy loss.

Frequently Asked Questions About Potions

How Long Do Potions Last?

Potions last however long it says on the tin. The potion information will list a timeframe and any triggers to end the effect early.

Do Potions Stack?

No. Magical effects cannot stack with magical effects of the same name. Potions with different names will stack, though.

Can You Drink Half of a Potion?

No. The magic dissipates once any amount of the potion is drunk. Drinking half of a brew would still void the magical effect of the remaining liquid.

Conclusion

The world of magic is varied and full of wonder. Potions are an often overlooked portion of magic that people tend to forget about when playing Dungeons & Dragons.

We hope that you’ll take the time to think and make an informed decision about how to run your games.

As always, good luck, have fun, and happy questing!