On any given turn in combat you’re going to want to do something. Other than moving around, doing anything on your turn is an “action” of some kind. You may do as little as you want on your turn, but the maximum amount of stuff you can do in a single turn is limited; you can take at most one action of each type, and on many turns you’ll only take a single “Action”.
“Action” vs. “Actions”
The official rules text uses the term “action” for the primary action on your turn. This is the most important part of your turn, and includes such important actions as “Attack” and “Cast a Spell”. This term is confusing used alongside the term “actions”. While the term “Action” refers to the primary Action on your turn, “actions” refers to actions of all types, including Bonus Actions, Reactions, etc. (see “Types of Actions”, below).
I try to capitalize “Action” and other rules to emphasize that they’re rules terms, but the official rules text typically doesn’t follow that convention.
Types of Actions
On your turn you can perform one Action, and you may be able to perform several other types of actions. You may only perform one action of each type on a single turn, though some specific actions (like drawing a weapon) can be performed a second time as your Action. You may also choose to perform no actions on your turn, but there is nearly always something better to do than standing about and looking pretty.
Your Action is typically the most important part of your turn. You should expect to use your Action every turn even if you do nothing else. If you’re ever totally unsure what to do with your Action, take the Dodge action.
The most common action to take in combat is the Attack action, whether you are swinging a sword, firing an arrow from a bow, throwing a knife, or throwing a punch. With this action, you make one melee or ranged attack.
For more on attacking, see “Attack and Defensse”, later in this guide.
Certain features, such as the Extra Attack feature of the Fighter, allow you to make more than one attack with this action.
Cast a Spell
Spellcasters such as wizards and clerics, as well as many monsters, have access to spells and can use them to great effect in combat. Each spell has a casting time detailed in the spell’s description, which specilies whether the caster must use an action, a reaction, minutes, or even hours to cast the spell. Casting a spell is, therefore, not necessarily an Action. Most spells do have a casting time of 1 Action, so a spellcaster often uses his or her action in combat to cast such a spell.
If casting a spell takes more than 1 Action (1 minute, 1 hour, etc.) and the spellcaster is casting the spell in combat, they typically spend their Action every turn to continue casting the spell.
When you take the Dash action, you gain extra movement for the current turn. The increase equals your highest move speed, after applying any modifiers. With a speed of 30 feet, for example, you can move up to 60 feet on your turn if you dash. If you have a land speed of 30 feet and a fly speed of 50 feet, you would instead be able to move an additional 50 feet that turn using the normal rules for combining multiple movement types.
Any increase or decrease to your speed changes this additional movement by the same amount. If your speed of 30 feet is reduced to 15 feet, for instance, you can move up to 30 feet this turn if you Dash.
If you take the Disengage action, your movement doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks for the rest of the turn. For more on opportunity attacks, see Reactions, below.
“Disengage” is named for its primary purpose: disengaging from melee combat. However, since its effects last throughout your turn, you’re also free to run in and out of creatures’ reach as much as you like.
When you take the Dodge action, you focus entirely on avoiding attacks. Until the start of your next turn, any attack roll made against you has Disadvantage if you can see the attacker, and you make Dexterity saving throws with advantage. You lose this benefit if you are incapacitated (see Conditions, later in this guide) or if your speed drops to O.
You can lend your aid to another creature in the completion of a task. When you take the Help action, the creature you aid gains Advantage on the next ability check it makes to perform the task you are helping with, provided that it makes the check before the start of your next turn.
Alternatively, you can aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. You feint, distract the target, or in some other way team up to make your ally’s attack more effective. If your ally attacks the target before your next turn, their first attack roll against the target is made with Advantage.
Help is a great option when you’re having trouble being effective in combat. If you find that your attacks aren’t proving effective, or if your party’s wizard is about to spend their biggest spell on an attack roll, it’s sometimes smart to use Help and make your allies more effective at the cost of doing something more direct like attacking. Remember: Dungeons and Dragons is a cooperative game, and if you and your party member’s help each other you’ll all do better.
When you take the Hide action, you make a Dexterity (Stealth) check in an attempt to hide. For more on Dexterity (Stealth) checks, see Dexterity, earlier in this guide.
Being hidden in combat provides several benefits. See Attacking and Defending: Unseen Attackers and Targets, later in this guide.
Sometimes you want to wait to do something until later in the round, typically after some specific event has occurred. To do so, you use the Ready action, spending your action to prepare, and using your Reaction later in the round when the triggering event occurs.
Readying an action and performing that readied action take place in several steps, each of which occurs in a specific order.
- Use the “Ready” action on your turn
- Select the Action you wish to perform. You may select any type of Action which you can perform, thoughthe Cast a Spell action has some limitations which are explained below.
- Select the “trigger” for your readied action. This can be any phenomenon that your character can observe (a door opens, the wizard casts a spell, the dragon breaths fire, etc.), but it typically can’t be something strictly mechanical like a character dropping to 11 hit points.
- Wait for the trigger to occur. If the round proceeds and it becomes your turn again, the readied action is lost. However, you’re free to use Ready again to continue waiting.
- The trigger occurs!
- Decide if you still want to execute your readied action. Remember that you only get one Reaction per round, so you will be unable to perform other Reactions until it is your turn again. If you choose to not execute your readied action, you do nothing and the readied action is lost. Unfortunately, you don’t get to wait for the event to occur again, if I’m understanding the the game designers correctly.
- If you decided to execute your readied action, your action occurs immediately after the triggering event, and you use your Reaction to act.
When you ready a spell, you cast it as normal but hold its energy, which you release with your Reaction when the trigger occurs. To be readied, a spell must have a casting time of 1 Action (not a Bonus Action, Reaction, etc.), and holding onto the spell’s magic requires Concentration (see Concentration, later in this guide). If your concentration is broken, the spell dissipates without taking effect. For example, if you are concentrating on the web spell and ready magic missile, your web spell ends, and if you take damage before you release magie missile with your Reaction, your Concentration might be broken.
When you take the Search action, you devote your attention to finding something. Depending on the nature of your search, the DM might have you make a Wisdom (Perception) check or an lntelligence (Investigation) check.
Use an Object
You normally interact with an object using your “Item Interaction” (see below), such as when you draw a sword. When an object requires your action for its use, such as equipping a shield or activating many magic items, you take the Use an Object action. This action is also useful when you want to interact with more than one object on your turn, like if you need to draw two weapons.
Bonus actions are typically something small and quick that you can do as an additional action beyond your Action. While every character can take every type of action, you can only take a Bonus Action if some effect, circumstance, or ability allows you to do so.
Some class features like the Rogue’s Cunning Action allow you to perform a bonus action, and if you’re performing Two-Weapon Fighting you can make an additional attack as a Bonus Action using your second weapon. Whenever an action can be performed as a Bonus Action, that feature, rule, or effect will say so.
You may not use your Action to perform an action which requires a Bonus Action to perform.
Specific examples include:
- Attack with your second weapon using Two-Weapon Fighting
- Casting the spell misty step
A reaction is a unique type of action which can be performed at any point during a round, including on other creatures’ turns. You may perform just one reaction per round, and after doing so you may perform another reaction starting at the beginning of your turn. In addition, you can only perform a reaction in response to an event specific to that type of reaction
Specific examples include:
- Cast the spell shield in response to being attacked
- Perform an Opportunity Attack in response to an enemy moving out of your reach.
This part of your turn is explained in a really weird way in the official rules text (see page 190 of the Player’s Handbook under “Other Activity on Your Turn”), but it’s an important part of understanding what you can do on your turn. This action allows you to do things like drawing weapons while still attacking, casting spells, and doing other things that are more exciting that pull a dagger out of your pocket.
In general, when you pick up an item, drop it, pull it out of storage, put it into storage, put it on, take it off, or perform a simple gesture with it (turning a key, flipping a book over, kicking a rock), you can do so with your Object Interaction. However, if an item specifically states that you need to use your Action to use the item (donning a shield, activating many magic items, etc.), you must use your Action to perform the Use an Item action.
Specific examples include:
- Draw a weapon
- Open a door
- Withdraw a potion from your backpack
Speaking on Your Turn
On your turn you’re able to speek in addition to acting. However, you’re limited to “brief utterances and gestures”. So you can probably share simple instructions like “kill that thing” and “look out!”, but you’re not going to have extended conversations while actively swinging swords and casting spells.
Lair Actions and Legendary Actions
In addition to the types of actions listed above, some special monsters have additional types of actions. Lair Actions occur automatically each round while facing the creature in its lair. Legendary Actions can be performed once after each other creature’s turn, to a maximum of 3 Legendary Actions per round. More information is provided on page 13 of the Monster Manual.