Last Updated on January 22, 2023
A lot of different mechanics in D&D 5e utilize time. A barbarian’s rage lasts for a minute, and a wizard might have spells that last for an hour or more.
Knowing how long these abilities last can be difficult if you don’t have an understanding of how time works in combat.
In today’s article we’ll be discussing how combat works, specifically discussing how long a round of combat lasts and the effect that has on the rest of the game.
How Long Is a Turn in D&D 5e?
A round of combat lasts for 6 seconds in D&D 5e. The round itself consists of a variable number of turns, all happening at more or less at the same time. Each turn lasts for 6 seconds as well, each resolving concurrently within the round.
So what’s really going on here? Every character is acting at the same time and every character has their own turn in the initiative count?
The two concepts seem to be contradictory, and that’s partly because they are.
The fact that a round lasts 6 seconds and that each creature is acting at the same time is useful for picturing a scene that makes sense.
As many viral videos are quick to point out, the concept of initiative would be very silly. Of course, no one would wait for another character to take their turn before slashing at their throat.
However, initiative is probably one of the best mechanics in 5e, keeping the real life players from just shouting over each other in the process of trying to make combat happen.
Initiative, tied to dexterity, is also a show of just how quickly someone moves.
This might sound crazy, but look at some football highlights, and you’ll see exactly how a round of combat works in D&D.
If you look at this play you see more than 20 people all focusing on their own turns, which include movement and action.
Over the course of 6 seconds a lot happens, and yet there are still players on the field with more speed (dexterity/higher initiative), which achieve their goals faster than their opponents.
Just because a rule exists in D&D doesn’t mean you can’t change it. In fact, the changing of rules is one of the most important rules.
As a DM, it’s your responsibility to bring a scene to life in a way that provides your players with fun and immersion.
When it comes to the length of a turn and the fact that all characters act at technically the same time, remember that you can describe the actions in a way that makes sense, even if it isn’t aligned with the standard 5e definition of a turn.
Certain combat sequences, like two players racing to grab a fallen artifact or freefalling combat, require us to get a little more involved with the process.
The two-player situation might require constant dexterity checks to see who is moving faster, or it might break combat down into much smaller second-long turns.
What I want you to take away from this article is this: The rules of D&D 5e are a base set of guidelines upon which you, the DM, build a world.
Anatomy of a Turn
Another way to look at how long a turn is involves understanding what the parts of a turn are.
During a character’s turn, they have the ability to move up to their movement speed, take an action, take a bonus action and one free action or interaction.
Movement Speed is how far a creature can travel, and it’s actually surprisingly realistic.
The average human can travel 3 miles in an hour, which does bring us to roughly 30 feet (26.4, but we’ll round up) in a 6 second turn.
There are a lot of Actions a player can take on their turn, including the Attack action and Cast a Spell action, which are probably the most common.
- Attack – Make a melee or ranged attack. Some class features will allow you to make Extra Attacks.
- Cast a Spell – Allows you to cast a spell with a casting time of 1 action.
- Dash – Your movement speed (after any modifiers) is doubled for this turn.
- Disengage – Your movement does not provoke opportunity attacks for this turn.
- Dodge – Until the start of your next turn you have advantage on dex saving throws, and attacks made against you are rolled with disadvantage.
- Help – You provide an ally advantage on the next ability check or attack roll they make. The attack roll must be on a creature within 5 feet of you.
- Hide – You make a stealth check to hide, gaining attack advantage on any creatures that can’t see you, along with other benefits.
- Ready – You prepare to react to a specific trigger action.
- Search – You spend your action looking for something, either with a perception or investigation check.
- Use an Object – Most objects allow you to interact with them as part of another action, but some, such as potions, require you to use an action. This is that action.
Bonus Actions are smaller actions that some feature or ability allows you to make in addition to your regular turn action.
This can include spells with a casting time of a bonus action, special attacks like the soulknife’s secondary psychic blade attack, or any number of things which specify bonus action use.
Free Actions or Interactions are less discussed because they often feel like a natural part of something else that’s happening.
It’s often up to a DM’s discretion which actions count as free actions and which would require a whole action.
Running by an ally and tossing them a potion might be a free action, while throwing a potion 30 feet to an ally might require using an action (and an athletics check).
A turn doesn’t have to be as broken up as the different stages of a turn suggest. In fact, a good strategy requires you to use your 6 seconds in the spotlight wisely.
Remember that you can break up your movement speed with actions and vice versa; you don’t have to be glued to one spot while you attack.
Plenty of our other articles go into more depth on the topics above, so check them out if you want a deeper understanding of how long a turn really is.
And as always, happy adventuring.
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As a kid, I was often told to get my head out of the clouds and to stop living in a fantasy world. That never really jived with me, so I decided to make a living out of games, stories, and all sorts of fantastical works. Now, as an adult, I aspire to remind people that sometimes a little bit of fantasy is all you need when life gets to be too much.