Last Updated on September 25, 2023
The beauty of a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons 5e compared to a video game or board game is that the only limit to what you can do is your imagination… and the dice. I suppose there are actually lots of limitations to what you can do, but you can still try to do anything.
In combat, when you try to do something not explicitly covered by one of the actions described in the Player’s Handbook (like attacking, moving, casting a spell, etc.) you can perform what’s called an Improvised Action.
What is an Improvised Action in Combat for DnD 5e?
In combat, your character can try to do things that aren’t covered by the specific actions detailed in the combat chapter of the D&D 5e PHB. When you do this, it’s called improvising an action. Improvising an action can either involve using rules found outside the chapter on combat, like Ability Checks or Saving Throws.
Also, if something you want to do isn’t covered by an existing rule—which is rare—the DM determines whether what you are trying to do is possible, and what you need to roll to succeed.
On your turn in combat, you can take one of the following actions, an action tied to your class or some other special feature, or an action that is improvised.
Actions in Combat Refresher:
- Attack: use a weapon or your fists to try and deal damage to an enemy.
- Move: move up to your speed, running, climbing, swimming, leaping, etc.
- Cast a Spell: create a magical effect your character knows and has the necessary resources (components, spell slots, etc.) to perform.
- Dash: move up to your speed again, potentially doubling the distance covered in a turn.
- Disengage: prevent your movement from provoking opportunity attacks.
- Help: lend aid to an ally, giving them advantage on their next ability check or attack.
- Hide: try to become hidden with a Dexterity (Stealth) check.
- Ready: hold your action until it is triggered by a particular circumstance, at which point you can act using your reaction.
- Search: make a Wisdom (Perception) check or an Intelligence (Investigation) check in order to find something.
- Use an Object: when an object (like a magic item) requires you to use an action to use.
What Counts as an Improvised Action?
Any action taken outside the scope of one of the actions above in combat counts as being improvised. When you want your character to do something in combat, you should first check if it isn’t already covered by an existing combat action, like Attack, Help, Hide, etc. If it’s not, then you’re improvising an action.
How to Resolve Improvised Actions
Once you determine that what your character is doing is not a combat action, the DM will improvise the roll required, usually by calling for an ability check, saving throw, or contest.
For example, actions like
- kicking down doors
- intimidating enemies into surrendering
- sensing weaknesses in magical defenses
- calling for a parley with a foe
aren’t explicitly covered by actions in combat. They usually come about when people do a bit of role-playing in their role-playing games.
Just bear in mind that someone saying “I rush forward and grab it!” is covered by a mechanic already: grapple. Or if they say they want to “use my 10 foot pole to try and knock him down” that is essentially a trip attempt.
In any case, ability checks made using a player character’s Strength (Athletics), Charisma (Intimidation), Intelligence (Arcana), and Charisma (Persuasion), respectively, easily cover those scenarios.
All the DM needs to do is set the DC (either with a flat number or by making a roll using a monster’s own ability scores, based on the situation), and determine if anyone is rolling with advantage or disadvantage.
Sometimes, however, what you’re doing is so off the wall or out of the box that there isn’t an existing rule to cover it (or the rule is so obscure no one at the table knows it), which is when the dungeon master has to get a little creative.
How Do I Handle Improvising Actions as a Dungeon Master?
When one of your players does something that isn’t covered by an existing rule, it’s on you to figure out what happens next.
This was a bigger part of running the game in older editions of D&D, which explicitly left gaps to allow for “rulings, not rules”, trusting the DM to make on the fly decisions that were fair, impartial, and most importantly kept the game moving. No one likes sitting around in silence for fifteen minutes while the DM thumbs through the rules for carrying capacity and the tension dissipates from the boss fight. Much better to make a ruling in the moment that is deemed to be fair and, if you absolutely must, look it up later.
I think in modern parlance this idea of “rulings, not rules” has evolved into the “rule of cool”, which isn’t quite the same, but also deals with the idea that the DM should be free to improvise around the existing ruleset in order to facilitate a better experience for everyone at the table.
As a dungeon master handling the rules when a player improvised an action, I always make sure to…
Describe Success and Failure on Improvised Actions
Everyone knows what happens when you roll to attack and miss. The success state (damage) and failure state (nothing) are known. In a situation where a rogue leaps through a second story window to execute a flying elbow onto the Ooblex below, there are all sorts of ways you could represent success (additional damage, stunning the Ooblex, giving allies advantage on attack rolls, etc.) and failure (taking fall damage, being knocked prone, the Ooblex getting advantage on its next attack, etc.).
When you’re treading on uncharted ground, it’s important to at least let the players know the stakes.
Beyond that, the answer is almost always calling for an ability check, saving throw, or contest. However, in certain situations, I also like to remove the need for a die roll altogether and instead just tell the player what their action will cost. Usually, I like to make the cost harsh and thematic: a level of exhaustion, a spell slot, the destruction of their weapon, or dropping a torch down a gaping chasm. As long as you’re describing success and failure, laying out the player’s options so they can make an informed choice, you have a lot of freedom to bend, break, and ignore the rules to make an out-of-the-box, improvised action work.
As long as you follow these directions, you shouldn’t have a hard time handling improvised actions at the table.
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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.