5e: Mastering The Action Economy

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

In any turn-based game, video or tabletop, the action economy (AE) is at the heart of the game’s balancing. You have likely seen it frequently mentioned when researching D&D 5e—we use it quite a bit ourselves here at Make A Skill Check. Due to the principle of bounded accuracy, the AE is an even bigger deal in 5e than previous editions of D&D and most other tabletop RPGs. But let’s not put the cart before the horse: What is the Action Economy?

The action economy measures how many acts creatures or groups can do in a round of combat. In a 5e roundsix in-game secondsa creature can do:

  • One Action
  • One Bonus action
  • One Reaction
  • One Free object interaction, like unsheathing a blade
  • Move up to their speed

How good any given creature’s AE depends on their ability to make good use of all the above or occasionally do additional things in their turns (the fighter’s Action Surge being a classic example). 

The most potent abilities tend to be the ones that reach directly into the guts of the AE; this is why the rogue is such a great base class (more on this later). 

Player Character (PC) classes or creatures that pack less oomph in their AE tend to compensate with outsize damage, but this doesn’t always work well. 

There’s a lot to cover in this article, but by the end of it, you will have a solid grasp of the 5e AE, which should empower you to play more tactically. Onwards!

5e Action Economy Pain Points

We know what the AE is and that it’s a bigger deal in 5e than in most other TTRPGs. Naturally, it comes with its share of challenges. The biggest of which is how being outnumbered is close to a death sentence unless the DM was extremely careful with the encounter balancing. 

Generally speaking, a party winning a fight against eight Challenge Rating (CR) 1/8 monsters is harder than defeating a single CR1 enemy due to how many more turns the opposing force gets in relation to the party.

This also applies to all those super anticipated boss fights against one Big Bad that were supposed to be epic and turned into

  • a) A disappointment when the PCs ganged up on the guy and demolished them with their massive AE advantage.
  • b) a stressful on-the-fly design challenge for DMs trying to prevent the big moment they built up to from being massively underwhelming. 

Most death spiral situations—that is, situations in which the fall of one character in a group heralds the swift obliteration of the others—can be attributed to such AE mismatches. These aren’t a problem.  

Even if things start relatively even, something like an enemy with multiattack dropping a PC with one attack and immediately snuffing them with the others can happen. Since the bad guys want to win (or good guys, if you’re the baddies), it’s the logical thing to do, but it shifts the AE balance dramatically, and thus things get substantially more dire for the short-staffed side. Similarly, when PCs manage to shift the AE in their favor, they press the advantage.

Speaking of PCs, the PC arsenal of abilities that can shut down enemy AE further accentuates the issue of the whole party ganging up on one lone boss monster. The monk‘s Stunning Strike, in particular, is the stuff of DMs’ nightmare.

On the topic of monks, let’s consider how they, the rogue, and the bard all have great uses for their bonus actions that come up often; most other classes aren’t so lucky. Especially the wizard

We’ve all seen how frequently people go, “well, that’s my turn. Can’t do anything useful with my bonus action.”

It incentivizes players to be stingy with their actions: they might have a fun, off-kilter idea for something that’s not in the rules, but if it’s underwhelming or a failure, there goes their turn. 

So they almost always go for the sure thing—bonk the goblin in the head, cast an attack cantrip—instead of a cool stunt to drop a chandelier on someone. 

Sometimes playing a class without a good AE aspect becomes miserable when you need to heal up and the group follows the Rules as Written (RAW) for drinking potions: downing a vial costs an action. We’ve offered alternatives in our post here.


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5e Action Economy Fixes

Luckily for us, there are many ways to address the challenges presented by the AE. I have broken them down into two groups:

  • Boss fights
  • Game Feel

Fixing Boss Fight Action Economies

First things first, let’s have a look at the two ways to deal with an outnumbered boss that the official D&D books provide: 

  • Legendary Actions: the creature can take a number of special actions—called legendary actions—at the end of another creature’s turn, one at a time. The creature regains these actions at the start of its turns. I made a dragon with a petrifying breath once that could Earth Glide like an earth elemental to reposition as a legendary action. More on those here.
  • Lair Actions: At initiative count 20 (losing any ties), the creature can harness the ambient magic of its lair to unleash a special action. For instance: the homebrew Blood Hag I used against my players had meathooks on chains suspended from her ceiling. Her lair action was to hook a player and lift them off the floor. Gnarly and great for narrative flavor.
    • The above is the RAW. I’d easily allow a clever, well-prepared, nonmagical creature to use a lair action to spring a trap or activate automated defenses, etc. You can, too; it just depends on what you’re after. 
  • Legendary Resistances: the creature can choose to succeed on a saving throw after failing it on the dice roll for a set number of times. A smart DM will save these for AE-disabling stuff like the aforementioned dope monk stuff

Combining all these is helpful but doesn’t 100% solve the issue of a boss who has no use for bonus actions and reactions. 

Making sure they have good (useful AND flavorful) options for these, alongside all the legendary stuff, falls into what Matt Colville calls action-oriented design. I highly recommend that you put the linked video in your watch later playlist.

You may also want to augment bosses with minions, i.e., enemies with one hit point that can still pose a threat in larger quantities thanks to the same bounded accuracy that makes the AE so important. This can make combat more dynamic, and your Fireball-hurler will feel great while exerting their hellish crow-control. 

You may also want to subdivide your boss’ HP into chunks. Say they have 150 HP; you break it up into a trio 50s. Every time one trio is exhausted, all ongoing adverse conditions currently affecting the boss end, and they can do something cool like a one-off legendary action. 

This should prevent the boss from being turned into a defenseless piñata when deployed on its own. Naturally, they need to be beefy enough to withstand a couple rounds of the party going all-out on them. 

Game Feel

Just let PCs drink potions as a bonus action. At least the healing kind. Allowing this reduces the feeling of “wasted turns” when healing, especially for AE-poor classes. 

Naturally, then the PC’s enemies can also drink potions on bonus actions. It’s how all the D&D I’ve ever DMed or played worked, and I swear it doesn’t break anything. 

Also, don’t swamp your players with a tide of hardy enemies that take forever to clear out. D&D combat doesn’t need to be any longer than it already is. 

Again, minions are great for this. Clearing the map of them gives a sense of progression to the fight. 

Now talking about the issue with improvised actions in the 5e AE, here are some things you can do to foster creative play or deny player ideas tactfully:

  • When a player describes whatever atypical idea they have had, consider whether it could be boiled down to a simple contest. It often can. For instance, if a player decides their character will run up to an enemy and wrench an item from their hands, it’s a contested Strength (Athletics) check that takes their entire action. 
  • Oftentimes improvised actions depend a lot on the environment, which you, the DM, control. It usually goes that the player latched onto some element you described earlier without too many specifics, but their mental picture of it makes it just right for their creative idea. And it can become reality if you let it! So long as it’s not a silver bullet that instantly wins the fight, why not?
  • When a player has a weird idea and everyone is psyched about it, while describing the environment, see if you can include a risk that matches the expected payoff! Upping the stakes can be dramatic, and then even failure is still narratively fulfilling.
  • There’s no way that what they’re suggesting can be done in the six seconds of their turn, is there? Tell them that, and they’ll likely drop it after seeing where you’re coming from. 

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5e Action Economy for Players

“Okay, cool, but I’m not a DM. What do I do with this stuff?”

I hope the following bulleted list answers this question and gets your noggin’ joggin’:  

  • You can break movement up and do stuff in-between. Dart into range, cast a spell, and run back to cover. Run up, grapple a guy, Action Surge, drag them to the cliff’s edge, and drop.
  • On that note, sometimes you can use the environment to get more bang for your buck. Cliffs to drop people from, narrow corridors to put between you and the enemy then fill with ball-bearings or caltrops, etc.
  • The dodge action is cool!  
    • Did you just use a bonus action spell and have no immediate use in mind for your action? Dodge to impose disadvantage on incoming attacks.
    • Enemy burrowed into the ground? Dodge in case it comes for you.
    • Playing a monk? You can spend Ki to dodge as a bonus action with Patient Defense, making you the real dodge tank!
  • It’s good to have decent reaction options. Some classes and archetypes (aka subclasses) come with a nice reaction toolkit that is always available; others depend on you preparing them.
    • More often than not, your wizard won’t really do much with an opportunity attack (unless they have the Warcaster feat), but Shield can save their life in a pinch, and Counterspell is amazing
  • Clever positioning maximizes AE.
    • Resist the temptation to always be as far away as your chosen attack cantrip allows; your other spells likely don’t match the range, and you might have to spend a turn dashing to get in position.
    • Melee PCs can coordinate movement to make it harder for enemies to get past them into the backline, give each other advantage if the group uses flanking rules, etc. 
    • Going prone is free; getting up costs movement. Especially useful for ranged builds. I do it a lot with my gunslinger.
  • Reducing the number of actions the enemy has is almost always the best choice. Exceptions are cases where eliminating or shutting down one high-priority target trumps dealing with their helpers. 

Frighten Your Players

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5e Action Economy for DMs

Good news! You already have most of the necessary insight to handle the 5e AE from reading up to this point. 

It doesn’t get much more useful than “CR is less important than how many turns the opposing side gets.” Still, here are my closing remarks on the topic:

Your job is to make everyone have fun. 

Spending most of the fight paralyzed, charmed against the party, or otherwise robbed of one’s AE sucks. Shutting someone down has its uses and makes sense on occasion, but it kills the fun if overused. 

Let the barbarian go most fights without being completely trivialized by a Wisdom save, is what I’m saying. 

What other non-damaging ways do you have to threaten the PCs and make fights more engaging? Have support-type casters on the other side to buff their pals and debuff the PCs in ways that don’t outright trash their AE. Plan cool ways for enemies to use the environment. Never forget Tucker’s Kobolds.

As for mind control: you save that stuff to create dramatic moments. When you finally get to use your husky succubus voice to whisper at the wizard’s ears to “light them up, my pet,” it will be memorable

Your players will not talk about it as one of the many times when you screwed them over with mind-stuff, but as a super badass session highlight. 

Summary

There you have it. A comprehensive guide to the 5e action economy. As usual, here’s the TL;DR:

  • The 5e AE breaks Challenge Rating (CR).
  • It also makes even the toughest bosses need some cannon fodder or major survivability tweaks.
    • PC abilities like Stunning Strike and the Hold Person spell make the above even harder to handle.
  • A faulty grasp of the 5e AE is likely the root cause of most unintended Total Party Kills (TPKs) and botched combat encounters.
  • The weaker your PC build’s AE is, the more stingy you’re encouraged to be with your actions: you might develop an aversion to risky/improvisational moves and always go for the more surefire uses of your actions.
  • Action-oriented design can do a lot to fix Bossfight AE, alongside all the legendary options. Minions, too, but that removes the flavor of duking it out with a single, extremely powerful foe.  
  • You can also set HP thresholds to remove ongoing effects from the boss enemy or let them do something cool out of turn order.
  • As a player, shutting down enemy AE is great, and you should try your best to do it. As a DM, you save it for special occasions. Doing it too often will kill players’ fun.
  • Letting people drink healing potions as a bonus action makes AE-poor classes a little less stressful to play.
  • As a player, remember that you can: break up your movement, go prone with no AE cost, use the dodge action, and maximize your AE with good positioning.

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