5e Potion: Action or Bonus Action?

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.

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It’s D&D night, and you’re close to death. In the previous round, the giant towering over you lopped-off a sizable chunk of your hit points with two swipes of his glaive, pushing you into the single digits. It’s now your turn, but he’s next. You can attempt a killing blow, although failing that puts you in a dire position. A potion of healing from your pouch could make you last another round, but would it cost you a full action and your chance to end the fight?

Rules as written (RAW), drinking a potion during combat—or any other circumstance in which things are done in rounds following an initiative order—takes an action in D&D 5E. Homebrew rules may differ, but these are the official ones.

To quote the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg 139):

“Most potions consist of one ounce of liquid. Potions are consumable magic items. Drinking a potion or administering a potion to another character requires an action. Applying an oil might take longer, as specified in its description. Once used, a potion takes effect immediately, and it is used up.”

If your Dungeon Master (DM) follows the RAW strictly, no questions asked, there you have it. You’re good to go. 

If you wish to dig deeper and look into caveats and workarounds, keep scrolling.

“Wasted Turns” and Feeling Useless

The first issue regarding drinking potions has to do with game-feel. After initiative is rolled, every choice is a trade-off. Most of the time, this strategizing is part of the fun.

In a video game where you control the entire party, having a character drink a potion and do nothing else is easy to brush past. A turn is more momentous in 5E. Each player usually controls only one Player Character (PC), and a lot of real-time can go by between turns. 

Drinking a potion and twiddling your thumbs can feel underwhelming or even useless—regardless of how useful it actually is. That’s a lot of time to wonder if you should have just dealt damage or buffed an ally instead of downing the contents of a vial.

In an intense fight where turns drag on because players are trying to be maximally optimal by browsing their spell lists and class features in search of the holy grail, each round can drag.

The problem is compounded when characters have no use for a bonus action—you literally just slam the potion, and that’s it. I’ve heard this frequently in the groups I run and even said it myself when playing my gnome gunslinger fighter.


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Don’t Potions Count As Free Object Interactions?

According to the Player’s Handbook (pg 190), characters can interact with one object per turn without spending an action or any movement speed—within reason. Some free object interactions considered “within reason” by the authors are:

  • drawing or sheathing a sword
  • picking up a dropped axe
  • donning a mask
  • taking a potion from your pack
  • drinking all the ale in a flagon

Any object interaction after you take a free one will cost a full action to perform. This is one possible justification for the RAW:  retrieving the potion is a free interaction in itself. 

I, and others, take issue with this from an immersion standpoint: an adventurer’s life requires quick, decisive action to survive. Someone living this life would not keep their potions stowed away in a bag, just as they don’t carry their weapons like this. Ease of access is paramount.

Another issue is that a character can chug a flagon of ale with no action economy cost. This is odd, considering that a flagon stands for two imperial pints, which is roughly 38 ounces or 1.1 liters.

Potential drunkenness aside, a world-record-holding competitive chugger takes just over five seconds to chug 12 ounces of beer. An entire round of combat in 5E takes about 6 in-game seconds.

The dissonance is clear when contrasting this with the action cost of draining a one-ounce vial. Jeremy Crawford, lead rules designer for 5E, has already stated: 

It’s absolutely a game rule. It’s not meant to simulate rates of liquid consumption. 

The RAW are also the Rules-as-Intended (RAI).

Maybe the takeaway is that downing a flagon in a round should only be a free object interaction for large creatures and up. Still, as it stands, it causes some immersion issues.

How much these issues matter depends on your approach. Not everybody obsesses over immersion. Some folks think it’s overrated and don’t mind the occasional reminder that, yes, this is a game with rules meant to balance gameplay. 

It’s a fair opinion to have, and every game table is its own beast.

For those left unsatisfied by the official rules, there’s always the possibility of homebrew rules.


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What Alternative House Rules Are There?

Critical Role’s Take

Matt Mercer, the DM of the popular 5E livestream Critical Role, is a proponent of allowing characters to drink potions as a bonus action. This makes bonus actions more useful and avoids the issue of feeling like you wasted your turn. 

Alternatively, you can make it feel earned by turning it into a feat, like Rapid Drinker from Mercer’s own Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting (pg 109).

Following this ruling, one still would need to use an action to feed a potion to someone else, and I think we can generally agree that doing it in a combat situation must be tricky.

Items and Potion Toxicity

Another possibility is defining a set number of items that are always easily accessible in things like holsters, bandoliers, and pouches. This way, any of them may be used as a free object interaction or a bonus action

A DM can even rule that whatever is carried in such a manner can be targeted by enemies or lost to environmental hazards, like winds, attacks, or flowing water.

Finally, if the thought of PCs endlessly guzzling health juice makes you shake in your DM boots, you can add potion toxicity to the mix. James Haeck, co-author of Waterdeep Dragon Heist and the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, wrote a great article about this. 

In short: drink potions with a bonus action, but this introduces a potential side-effect to drinking more than one potion between long rests

How bad the side effect is—and how hard it is to resist it— depends on potion rarity.


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Why not both Action and Bonus Action?

On rule that caught my eye was giving players the in-game option of choosing to use healing potions as either an Action or a Bonus Action. The difference:

  • As a Bonus Action, you have to roll the dice as usual, potentially netting you the lowest amount of healing possible.
  • As an Action, get the maximum healing.

Of course, this may only apply to store-bought potions, where the potency can be verified. Better business bureau and all of that. However, you could choose to have the potency alter based on how well the maker rolls on a crafting check (Such as intelligence or wisdom). Make your own tweaks, but here’s a brief suggestion:

  • Rolling 18+ = 3d4+2
  • Rolling 4-17 = 2d4+2 (normal healing potion)
  • Rolling 1-3 = 1d4+2

Adds a little depth to crafting. Somewhat related: if you want to learn more about crafting scrolls, we have an article here.

Summary

  • RAW say potions are not about volume but are about game balance
  • Jeremy Crawford says a game rule, not about fluid consumption.
  • Matt Mercer prefers using a homebrew rule that make it a bonus action
  • Matt Mercer also suggests allowing the feat Rapid Drinker to help strike a compromise between immersion and balance.
  • Homebrew Rule: drinking potions as an action means taking the maximum healing, but as a bonus action means you roll as usual.
  • Free Object Interactions include pulling something from your pack, and every other object interaction is an action. Pulling a potion would be free, but drinking one the same turn would take an action.
  • To avoid the previous point, consider using a limited number of “easy access” items through holsters, bandoliers, and pouches. 
  • Potion Toxicity can be introduced, causing a chance for negative effects from drinking too many between long rests, governed by potion rarity.

There you have it! The rules-as-written, rules-as-intended, and some workarounds for those who are dissatisfied with both. Happy rolling!

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