Understanding Actions & Bonus Actions In Dungeons & Dragons 5e

Actions and bonus actions make up the heart of combat in Dungeons and Dragons 5e. Most activities that a character can perform when in the initiative order will cost either an action, most common, or a bonus action. The options for what can be done between the two are limitless and can be difficult for new players to understand.

The basics of actions and bonus actions are as follows: Actions are the most common occurrence and is often a player casting a spell or swinging a sword. Bonus actions are smaller actions that tend to take less time and are only given by an item or ability.

Understanding the intricacies of both can help players to maximize their turns and lessen any mistakes.

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What Can Players Do As An Action?

Dungeons and Dragons 5e provides a basic list of common actions across a wide variety of rulebooks, as understanding actions is essential to playing the game. It is also of note that actions are meant to be improvised, as well, allowing for almost any amount of creativity.

The basic actions listed in the rules are:

  1. Attack
  2. Cast a Spell
  3. Dash
  4. Disengage
  5. Dodge
  6. Help
  7. Hide
  8. Ready
  9. Search
  10. Use an Object


Attacking is the most common action taken. This covers everything from swinging a sword or fist-fighting to firing a ranged weapon. 

When you take the attack action you make one attack or multiple at higher levels depending on your class.

Cast A Spell

Casting a spell is very similar to attacking. Spells in Dungeons and Dragons, when they have a casting time of one action, can be activated using a player’s action.

Most spells in Dungeons and Dragons 5e take one action, so the opportunities are as expansive as the player’s spell list.


The dash action allows players to take extra movement in a turn equal to their speed.

The amount of movement gained by dashing is determined after any modifiers. If, for instance, your character has been slowed down by a spell, your dash action movement will still be reduced by the same amount.


The disengage action allows for a character’s movement to not trigger attacks of opportunity for the rest of their turn. This is great in a pinch or for getting away from big monsters who could do some serious damage.


The help action allows a player to help another creature or player with one of their actions. Mechanically, this means giving the other player advantage on their ability check.

Another use for the help action is to distract a target if they are within 5 feet of you, allowing for another creature to attack it with advantage.


The hide action allows a player to hide by making a stealth ability check. When you are hidden, you gain some benefits such as being harder to hit, having advantage on hitting enemies that cannot see you, and possibly being privy to information not meant for the character to hear.


Readying an action allows for the player to wait to take their action until a criterion is met. The player readying their action decides the circumstance. For instance, the player may decide that once an enemy creature is near them, they will swing their sword.

You can also ready spells, requiring concentration. The spell will dissipate without taking effect if the criteria set previously does not occur.


The search action allows players to search for an object or around an area. The Dungeon Master decides what check this will require, although most often it is a perception or investigation check.

Use An Object

Using any object that a player has or finds takes an action as well. This could be pulling a lever on the wall, drinking a potion from a bag, or releasing ball barrings on the floor.


As stated earlier, actions can be improvised when the situation demands it. Actions are not meant to limit what characters can do, so be creative! Things like intimidating enemies, cutting down chandeliers, or closing off doors are all improvise actions.

Holding an Action

Any of the actions listed above can be “held” and released when certain conditions are met. If a player isn’t sure what to do on their action, they can “hold” it.

Holding an action means the player does not act on his/her turn, but instead choose to wait until something happens. For example, if a player is uncertain if they should attack, they can “hold their attack” until the monster attacks them or moves closer. As soon as the monster attacks or moves into range, the held action is released.

New players are often not aware that holding an action is an option. Be sure to tell new players they can hold their action if they seem unsure of what to do.

Here are the rules for held actions:

  1. The player must state which action they are holding
  2. They player must state the condition which the action is released
  3. They player cannot change their held action
  4. If the condition does not happen, then the action is lost

What Is The Difference Between An Action And A Bonus Action?

There are a few major differences between actions and bonus actions. The most important difference is that every player has actions, while bonus actions are awarded through abilities and features

Actions tend to be much larger activities and will almost always be taken by players. Occasionally, a player may have a bonus action available to them and choose not to use it. Other times, a player simply will not have a bonus action available to use. 

Due to their special status of being rewarded, bonus actions can be wildly different. Where a rogue may be able to hide using their bonus action, another character may be able to activate flight through a special item. It is important to ready rules around bonus actions carefully, as they can quickly get out of hand.

What Can Players Do As A Bonus Action?

The official Dungeons and Dragons 5e rules only give players bonus actions when they have a class feature, spell, item, or ability that grants them one. Bonus actions tend to be more limited than full actions, often filling in a more utilitarian role.

Players only have one bonus action on their turn, even if they have multiple features that award them. They must choose carefully depending on the situation. 

One of the most common examples of bonus action usage is the rogue’s class ability called “Cunning Action”. This allows rogues to take a bonus action where they can hide, dash, or disengage.

There is no order within turns in Dungeons and Dragons, so players can take their bonus action whenever within their turn unless specified otherwise.

A common house rule allows for very small actions such as opening a door or drinking a potion to be done with a bonus action, but it is not common. Be sure to talk with your dungeon master before assuming anything of the sort.

When To Allow For “The Rule Of Cool”

Occasionally, players may come up with an idea so original and creative that dungeon masters may be willing to let the rules loosen for the sake of the event. This is often referred to as “the rule of cool”, and the description is really in the name. 

Dungeons and Dragons characters are, most of the time, meant to be heroes. Players will often want to push the boundaries of what the rules allow, and most of the time dungeon masters will need to find ways to stop that from happening. The balance of action and bonus actions is a fickle one, so only bend or break it when you really feel it will help the story shine!

The rule of cool is a highly subjective thing, and the threshold for it can often dramatically change between groups and even sessions of play. Still, there are a few tips to keep in mind when considering allowing it:

  • The moment should result in something truly epic for the story or individual characters
  • Do not let the rule of cool overshadow whole encounters, as then the stakes of the game are lost
  • Do not feel pressured into allowing it! If you like the gameplay balance as is, don’t push it.

After a hard-fought battle or a possibly crushing blow, a player could come up with a fantastic idea that may bend the rules to turn the tides. This is when the rule of cool is best enacted – as a reward for out of the box thinking that does not break the integrity of the game.

When considering playing with the rule of cool, be sure to treat it as an occasional addition rather than a steadfast commitment. Otherwise, it will lose its impact and trivialize encounters for the players, resulting in a less fun game.

Knowing exactly what your players can do as actions and bonus actions will keep your game moving smoothly.

Until next time,

May your game have advantage, my friends!

Halfling Hannah

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