This article has been written to clarify many of the questions a newcomer might have about the combat system of one of the most popular tabletop role-playing games on the market.
Every Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has had its own tweaks to how actions occur in combat. When swapping weapons in 5E, D&D can be confusing if you do not read over the combat actions section of the “Player's Handbook” several times.
Simply put, the less time a player has to spend looking through books for an idea or confirmation of the legality of their idea, especially when it is their turn, the more time that player has to actually play and enjoy the game.
What is the Action Economy of 5th Edition D&D?
“Action economy” is a gaming term used to discuss the options a player has available to them in a single turn.
Broadly speaking, 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons allows a player the following abilities to be used in any order that that player wishes:
- (Regular) Action. These are the major things a character gets to do, be it casting a spell, activating a magic item, or attacking with a natural or constructed weapon. Chances are good that most actions will lead to someone rolling a d20 and/or some damage dice.
- Bonus action. These usually either set a character up for strategy or bolster a given course of action. Nobody gets blanket access to bonus actions; they are dictated by circumstance, class, race, and/or magic effects in play. For example, a barbarian can activate rage as a bonus action, granting several benefits for a limited time during the combat. No matter how many bonus actions a character may have access to through careful tweaking of their class, race, and feats, that character may only use one of them during their turn. Players of 3rd or 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons may recognize this sort of action as what used to be called “swift actions.”
- Movement action. This is the distance a character can move before and/or after taking their action and/or any bonus action. For example, a character with a movement of 30 feet could close into melee distance with an orc 20 feet away. Then use an action to attack with a sword, then use the rest of their movement to back off 10 feet (which also provokes a reaction from the orc in the form of an “attack of opportunity,” but reactions will be covered in the next section).
- Item Interaction. While this is not considered a proper action, every character can interact with one object during their turn. This means that a character can be in the middle of combat and still pick up a discarded weapon, open or close a door, light a torch, drink a potion, and so on.
What is the Difference Between an Action and a Bonus Action?
While every character can take each, actions are basic and broad enough for anyone to take, but bonus actions are limited in scope and not something granted by default.
Do Actions Only Happen During A Character's Turn?
There are a handful of ways for an action to occur outside of the player's turn via initiative.
One sort of out-of-turn action would be reactions. These are reflexive options that a character can take in response to some triggering incident like being attacked or near someone trying to cast a spell.
While some classes, feats, and races give access to certain reactions, everyone has access to an “attack of opportunity.
For example, should a character willingly move from inside of your character's melee reach and beyond that distance, your character could use a reaction to make an attack of opportunity and attack with a melee weapon.
A more specific example would be the artificer class ability “Soul of Artifice.” It allows the artificer to survive a fatal attack with 1 hit point by ending an active infusion.
There are other actions that, while they are announced during the player's turn, have effects that linger until the beginning of their next turn. The most prominent example of this sort of action would be Dodge, which raises the PC's Armor Class, or Disengage, which is actively trying to leave combat.
Lastly, there are readied actions. A readied action is an action that a player declares happens under certain circumstances. Should the declared trigger fail to occur before the player character's turn comes up on the following round, then the action does not occur.
One example of a readied action would be stating an intent to fire a crossbow at the next creature that turns a corner and into the character's range of fire. In this scenario, the character would pull the trigger the moment any creature, be they friend or foe, comes into view.
It should also be noted that spellcasters who ready an action involving casting a spell are considered to be concentrating on that spell. They may need to make concentration checks to maintain it should something interfere with that spell, such as being damaged before the spell can “go off.”
How Many Free Actions Does A Character Get in a Turn?
While the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons introduced the concept of a free action, such a thing does not exist in the 5th Edition of the game.
Is It a Free Action to Put Away a Weapon?
While we have already addressed that free actions do not exist in 5th Edition, the intended course of action is.
Anyone who wishes to sheathe a drawn weapon, or pick up and/or put away a weapon that has been discarded or left behind, can engage in the once-per-turn option of an item interaction.
What Sort of Action is Drawing a Weapon Considered?
Drawing a weapon is usually considered an item interaction rather than a bonus or regular action.
Does 5th Edition D&D Feature Full-Round Actions?
As covered in the first section of this FAQ, there is no such thing as a full-round action in 5E.
The full-round action is a game term that arose in the 3rd and 4th editions of Dungeons & Dragons. This term referred to a course of action, often related to spellcasting, especially for magic that conjured or summoned other creatures that took a prolonged time to cast.
A player would announce that they were performing the full-round action and would only be able to take a single 5-foot step movement before or after that declaration.
The character would spend the rest of the time until their turn came up in the subsequent round concentrating on invoking whatever spell they were planning. Once initiative reached that character's turn on the following round, the full-round action would complete before the character would even decide how to spend their actions that turn.
What Sort of Action is it to Swap Weapons?
Since a character is generally limited to one action, one bonus action, and one item interaction, anyone who wishes to swap their active weapon and also enjoy swinging the new one can achieve this result by dropping their current weapon, without taking an action, and then use the item interaction to swap to the new weapon.
Does Wielding Two Weapons Grant a Bonus Action?
The short answer to this question is “Yes.”
The longer answer is yes. You do get a specific bonus action that allows you to make an attack roll with the secondary weapon, considered an “off-hand attack.” Off-hand attacks do not gain the benefit of the wielder's Strength or Dexterity modifier, whichever may be relevant, to the attack's damage roll upon a successful hit.
Are There Any Types of Actions That Player Characters Do Not Get?
While monsters and other antagonistic forces get the same variety of actions as player characters, there are two specific subtypes of actions that only they can have.
Legendary Actions. These are unique abilities that a monster, often a boss or mid-boss of an adventure, possesses. In the event that a monster has access to legendary actions, they are generally limited to 3 of them per round. It should be noted that some legendary actions can take up more of those slots than others.
Example: A lich can spend one of its legendary actions to cast one of its cantrips, but it can also spend two actions to make use of its paralyzing touch ability.
Lair Actions. These are various effects that a “lair creature” can utilize once the initiative count ticks down to 20 in a combat round. A creature cannot repeat the same lair action round after round.
Examples: The PCs have made it to the final room of a dungeon and come across a beholder. In the first round of combat, the beholder uses its lair action to spawn an eye along with one of the walls of its lair, allowing the beholder one more angle to use its various eye ray abilities.
The party had made its way to face the tyrannical green dragon that had been giving the local villages trouble for weeks. In the first round of combat, the creature uses a lair action to cause poison fog to saturate the arena, allowing it a passive means of dealing with the heroes.
While the existence of monster-only actions might cause some players to cry foul, they are a necessity to combat the imbalance in action economy between the monster, often left to itself, and the usual four or more PCs occupying an adventuring party.
Is There Any Flexibility or Variance to These Rules?
The short answer to this question is “yes.”
The longer answer is, “it depends on your DM and your class, race, and feats.” A DM's greatest goal is to ensure that everyone has a good time, and this includes editing the rules to give the PCs either a fun or more-challenging time.
Some DMs may require players to spend a bonus action or a precious normal action to draw their weapon, slowing down the pace of combat by at least one combat round. Other DMs may allow a character to use a single item interaction to draw as many weapons as the character has hands.
For some more specific examples of how these rules are tweaked, consider the Bladesinger class from “Tasha's Cauldron of Everything.” This particular character class gains access to two action-equivalent options despite spending only one regular action; at the 6th level, a blade slinger can spend a regular action to make two attacks, make one attack and follow it up by casting a cantrip or cast a cantrip and follow it up with an attack.
The fighter's Action Surge ability, gained at second level, allows a fighter to take two actions, plus an additional bonus action, once before taking a long rest.
What is Bounded Accuracy?
The way 5E's action economy works ensures that even a horde of low-level mooks can remain challenging to a group of moderately powerful adventures; this is described as “bounded accuracy” design.
In short, the game has a hard cap on Armor Class, Difficulty Class (20 each), and how much of a bonus you can gain to your die roll (+5 from attribute plus +6 from Proficiency Bonus).
With these sorts of limits in play, the side with greater numbers is more likely to succeed because it has more people contributing to that side's overall action economy; this is the exact reason why boss creatures get things like legendary actions and lair actions-they need some way of shoring up the greater numbers of an adventuring party.