Dungeons & Dragons Combat Mechanics for Beginners

Compared to previous versions of D&D, combat in Dungeons & Dragons 5e has been simplified and streamlined a lot. Having said that, it is still time consuming and it can be very confusing. This is a beginner’s guide to combat in D&D 5e, so this will be the most basic scenarios you can expect to encounter.

Combat Flowchart

  • Roll Initiative on a d20
    • All enemies of the same type share the same initiative roll (i.e. all goblins in the battle attack at the same time)
    • Combat proceeds with the highest initiative score going first and lowest going last
  • Individual Combat Turn -The following can be done in ANY ORDER during the individual’s turn
    • Move – Movement can be broken up into multiple movements, so a combatant can move, act and move again. See the individual’s movement for the total amount of feet they can move in their turn. Movement only occurs during the combatant’s turn.
    • Attack/Act – Attacking is an action; so are casting a spell, drinking a potion, standing up from a prone position, helping another player etc. Individuals get one action per turn unless they have a special ability that grants more attacks/actions.
    • Bonus Action – Some spells, attacks and actions can be performed as a bonus action. The spell, ability or action description will specifically state that it can be performed as a bonus action.  In the absence of anything that specifically states it can be done as a bonus action, the character does not get a bonus action.
    • Talking – Your character can talk at any time during combat and it does not require any action, bonus action or reaction to do so.
  • Out of Turn Actions – During other combatant’s turns, characters have limited options for what they can do.
    • Reaction – Reactions are things like parrying, dodging and counter spelling another character’s attack/spell.
    • Attack of Opportunity – When a combatant leaves combat without using the disengage action, they provoke an attack of opportunity. Basically, their opponent get’s a free attack on them. Attacks of opportunity do not count against a character’s number of attacks or actions that they are allowed to perform during their turn unless the attack interrupts their action. This means a character that is in the process of casting a spell that takes multiple turns can’t stop casting, use the attack of opportunity, and return to casting their spell.

Timing of Effects and Damage

Damage occurs as soon as the action that caused the damage is complete. A sword strike does immediate damage for example. Some effects, such as spells, will tell you that damage or effects occur at a specific time during the turn cycle. Pay careful attention the descriptions of the spell and effect descriptions. An example of this is the Create Bonfire cantrip.

“Any creature in the bonfire’s space when you cast the spell must succeed on Dexterity saving throw or take 1d8 fire damage. A creature must also make the saving throw when it moves into the bonfire’s space for the first time or ends its turn there.”

In the case of this cantrip, a foe could end up taking damage twice in one round of combat. If the caster of the spell goes first and targets the spell on the foe, the foe get a Dex saving throw (reaction) and takes damage if they fail. The foe then gets to take their turn. If the foe does not move out of the bonfire during their turn, they take additional damage.

The amount of damage done by an attack, spell or effect is spelled out in its description. Keep in mind that there may be bonuses to the damage due to the character’s skill scores, level, proficiency or other modifiers. For example, a rogue may get extra damage for a surprise attack.

Rolling d20 to Attack/Act

Attacking requires the attacker to roll a d20, to which they add/subtract any bonuses or penalties. The modified score is compared to the target’s armor class. The attack is successful when the attacker’s score is equal to or greater than the target’s armor class.

Some actions and spells work in a similar manner, but the target is the one that gets to roll. For example, a spell may automatically hit, but the defender gets to roll a saving throw to avoid or decrease the effects they suffer. Looking at the Create Bonfire cantrip above, you can see that the spell caster did not have to roll to hit. It is assumed that the spell occurs exactly where they wanted it to and their foe gets to react, presumably by dodging, to avoid the damage.

When a foe gets to make a saving throw, they may be rolling to beat the casters spell difficulty level, called the caster’s DC. The caster should be able to tell you their DC, as it is on their character sheet. Some spells have a fixed DC that does not change, regardless of who is casting the spell. That will be listed in the spell description.

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