A dragon on top of a building with flame coming out of its mouth
How to use Legendary Actions

Written by Phil

Phil was a world-traveler, writing, playing games, and exploring. Now he lives in Toronto and plays D&D, Root, and Terraforming Mars online. Most recently, he has been exploring the asymmetric games by Leder Games. Links to Other Writing: Persuasive Writing; Coffee Website.

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The dragon ferociously beats his wings to unleash hurricane-force winds, forcing the heroes to make strength saves or be knocked prone. A Player Character (PC) attacks the dragon. Annoyed, the dragon uses a legendary action to whip its tail at the layer. As you can see, legendary actions can dramatically improve the difficulty, fun, and excitement of an encounter when used properly. How can a Dungeon Master (DM) incorporate legendary attacks?

Legendary creatures can use legendary actions outside its turn—one at a time and only at the end of other’s turns. These actions are regained at the start of its turn. It can skip using them, and can only use them when able to act. Any enemy can have them, but add a minimum of 1 to their CR. 

For those who want to see the Rules-as-written (RAW), you can check out this pdf and scroll down to page 260 (or ctrl+f/cmd+f and type “Legendary Creatures”). 

Caveats to Legendary Actions

It’s wise to be aware of some of the shortcomings of Legendary Actions:

  • Some monsters have legendary actions that consume two actions per use, such as a dragon’s wing attack.
  • A surprised creature cannot use legendary actions until after the first round. 
  • A creature cannot use a legendary action if it can’t take actions, such as being incapacitated.  
  • These actions can be taken after any other creature’s turn, including allies.
  • Legendary actions are regained at the start of the creature’s turn. 
  • If things look bleak for the heroes, you can mercifully forego the legendary actions.  
  • If a creature typically has legendary actions and a PC Polymorphs into one, they do not gain that creature’s legendary actions.
  • Legendary creatures (or just those with legendary actions) are immune to some effects, such as the Vorpal Blade’s ability to lop off their head on a crit.
  • As the DM, it’s important to remember that legendary creatures are mostly meant to be stand-alone encounters for a standard party of five.

Examples of Legendary Actions

  • Detect: The creature makes a perception check.
  • Tail Swipe: The creature makes a tail attack on a target within range. 
  • Eye Ray: The creature makes a ranged magical attack on a target within range. 
  • Wing Attack: The creature makes an Area of Effect (AOE) attack. This consumes 2 legendary actions. 

Legendary Resistance and Lair Actions

Legendary actions, legendary resistance, and lair actions can be applied to any Non-Player Character (NPC), making it more challenging for the party to handle.

These features should be evaluated separately because they are distinct functions.


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Legendary Resistance

  • Legendary resistance allows for an automatic save on a failed saving throw.
  • Most creatures that have legendary resistance have three uses per set time limit. 

Lair Actions

Lair actions are benefits an NPC would gain from spending most of their time in their own space, which likely has magical properties thanks to their presence and/or efforts. 

What they’re usually doing is tapping into this ambient magic or tricks that are in the area, using them to their benefit. The mechanics are as follows:

  • When the initiative count reaches 20, it can use a lair action. 
  • It can’t use these actions while incapacitated or otherwise unable to take actions. 
  • Like other legendary actions, it can’t use them if surprised until after its first turn in combat.
  • These actions can only be applied when an NPC is in a specific location.
  • The effects are generally area effects, such as fog or darkness. 
  • Depending on the effect and DM rulings, area effects can end abruptly (at death) or over time.

Legendary Actions and Challenge Ratings (CR)

Legendary actions can be applied to any NPC the DM chooses. 

It’s important to note that official monsters and NPCs have typically been balanced to a particular challenge level, aka their CR. 

Adding legendary actions will clearly increase the CR of that creature – they can interrupt the action to insert themselves. The CR of a standard monster given legendary actions should increase by 1—at a minimum.

Example

A standard orc’s CR is ½. It makes one attack per round and does 1d12+3 damage.

This means it can damage one PC for a maximum of 15 damage, excluding critical hits. Not a huge deal for a PC party of 4 or 5 players.

 If that same orc is given three legendary actions,  including attacks, the scenario changes significantly. The legendary orc now makes one attack on his turn and additional attacks after the PCs’ turns—up to three times.

 This means the orc could damage one PC for 60 damage max (1 attack + 3 legendary actions X 15 max damage) or four PCs that are in range for 15 (max) damage each. 

Factor in the possibility for critical hits, effectively doubling that damage, and this single headache has become more of a migraine. 

Summary

The key points to remember when using legendary actions are: 

  • There is a limited number of these actions they can use per round, averaging three.
  • Only one at a time.
  • They can be taken after any other creatures turn—including allies.
  • Legendary actions are regained at the start of the creature’s turn.  

Legendary actions can be a boon or a bane for any DM.

A group of overconfident adventurers can be caught off-guard by adding legendary actions to otherwise mundane monsters. A large rat that makes a tail attack after a PC turn and then vanishes and reappears elsewhere will make their heads spin.

DMs: Have fun with it! It’s a good way to make a mundane, underwhelming fight into a white-knuckle, tense endeavor!

PCs: Watch your back!

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