Whilst those paragons of roleplaying virtuosity may be drawn to the table by the chance to breathe life into their complex three dimensional character, in what they intend to be as much an improv theatre session as an RPG, there’s a large number of gamers who, if you’ll forgive the language, just want to fuck some shit up.
And so without further apologies or explanations, let’s spoil ourselves with a little powergaming. Today’s topic is all about how to maximise your use of bonus actions and reactions in order to optimise your PC’s ability to whoop some ass.
Now, as you know, once initiative is rolled and combat has started, time is delineated into rounds, with each PC having their turn within the round. But have you ever noticed how some players manage to pack way more into their turn than others? No one ever forgets to use their main attack(s) or cast a spell, but actually you can often sneak in several more activities if you’re playing smart.
…have you ever noticed how some players manage to pack way more into their turn than others?
Let’s break things down.
Your main opportunity to influence the tide of battle, most likely you will choose to either Attack or Cast a Spell, but it’s worth remembering that other actions you can take are Dash, Disengage (a powerful getaway tool), Dodge (a powerful defence tool that also gives you advantage on Dexterity saving throws), Help, Hide, Ready (useful for when someone keeps using their move to duck back under cover, in between peppering you with arrows), Search or Use An Object (drinking a magic potion being a common example).
Every round you can move up to your speed (for 90% of characters this is 30 feet), and it’s nearly always worth considering what you can do with your move to gain a strategic advantage. Obviously if you’re engaged with an enemy you need to consider whether you want to move out of their reach and provoke an opportunity attack, however it’s possible you could gain an advantage in battle by using 5, 10 or 20 feet of movement (depending on the size of the creature!) to outmanoeuvre the creature without ever leaving their reach.
Technically you only get one of these if an ability says you do, but a good player will find a way of using a bonus action on most of their turns. Typical things you can do using a bonus action are: make an attack with a second weapon (you have to have selected the Attack action to be able to do so, meaning you can’t Cast A Spell and then sneak in an offhand attack); attack with your shield or butt of your polearm (requires feat); cast a spell that has a casting time of bonus action; take advantage of your Cunning Action ability (Rogues only!) to Dash, Disengage or Hide.
On p.190 of the PH it reads: “In combat, characters and monsters are in constant motion, often using movement and position to gain the upper hand…. Here are a few examples of the sorts of thing you can do in tandem with your movement and action:”
It then gives a long list of examples of things you could do as a “free action” (unofficial title!), from which I’ll choose a few that could easily come in handy…
Draw or sheathe a sword
Open or close a door
Withdraw a potion from your backpack
Pick up a dropped axe
Fish a few coins from your belt pouch
Pull a torch from a sconce
Turn a key in a lock
Hand an item to another character.
Reactions are actions that you can take in response to a trigger, the most common being opportunity attacks, which you can take as a response to the trigger of someone moving out of your reach (the logic being that this leaves themselves vulnerable to attack for a split second). Most of the time they don’t take place during your turn, but as a reaction to what another creature did during their turn in the round. Whilst you might feel that it’s hard to bank on being able to use your reaction each round (you only get one), I usually find a way to do so. In fact I often find myself ‘saving my reaction’ because I have so many options on how to use them. Typical things you can do with your reaction include: casting a spell, such as shield or counterspell, using Defensive Duelist feat, using Uncanny Dodge ability (Rogues only), making an opportunity attack, making an attack using the Sentinel feat.
So there you go, far from using just an Action each turn you can actually use an Action, Move, Bonus Action, Free Action and Reaction!
Action Packed vs. Dull
Let’s imagine a scenario where (low level) Fighter 1 is locked in combat with Orc A, whilst Orc B is running for the door to summon more stinky green back up. Fighter 1 swings his longsword, hits Orc A but doesn’t kill him. Not wanting to provoke an opportunity attack, he is stuck engaged with the enemy.
Now let’s imagine the same scenario with Fighter 2, who is identical to Fighter 1 except that he chose the Shieldmaster feat. Fighter 2 first uses a Bonus Action to attempt to shove Orc A to the ground with his shield. He is successful, after which can attack the orc with advantage using his Action. He hits but also doesn’t kill Orc A, but as the orc is now prone it either wouldn’t be able to make an opportunity attack (common sense!), or would do so at disadvantage as he is prone (p. 292, PH). Therefore Fighter 2 is able to safely use his Move action to cut off Orc B before he reaches the door – and on the way he uses a Free Action to knock a flask of oil off the table in front of Orc B, potentially causing him to slip on his turn. By positioning himself between Orc B and the door, Fighter 2 ensures that if Orc B were to pass him he would get an opportunity attack against him using his Reaction…
I think it’s fair to say the guy (or girl) playing Fighter 2 is exerting way more influence on the combat, as well as having a lot more fun in doing so, by using each of the potential actions available to them during the round.
Maximising Bonus Actions and Reactions
Ok, so we’ve looked at how effective the extra actions in Dungeons and Dragons can prove in battle, now let’s look at how to better take advantage of them. The key here is choosing abilities and spells that allow you to use bonus actions and reactions on a regular basis.
Whenever I play a caster the first thing I do is look for spells that I can cast without using a full action. Here are all the ones I found in the Player’s Handbook. (There are a few more in Xanathar’s Guide).
Spells You Can Cast with A Bonus Action
Expeditious Retreat (not just for retreating!)
Hail of Thorns
Mass Healing Word
Shield of Faith
Spells You Cast with a Reaction
Having some of these up your sleeve will give you a lot of extra versatility when combat starts.
For anyone that wields a weapon, the obvious way of getting more bang for your buck every single round is to fight with two weapons instead. This way you get to make an extra attack on your turn, using a bonus action.
Failing that feats are the best way to get a regular and potent use from your bonus actions and reactions, as well as giving you other extra powers…
Feats That Grant You a Bonus Action
Great Weapon Master
Martial Adept (depending on the manoeuvres you choose)
Feats That Use Your Reaction
Defensive Duelist (uses your proficiency bonus so a great feat to grab at a higher level)
Martial Adept (depending on the manoeuvres you choose… Riposte is cool)
Of these feats a few stand out for me. Shieldmaster for example lets you use a bonus action every time you take the attack action, whilst Polearm Master feat is probably the best out there as it allows you to use a bonus action every round AND often a reaction too. Sentinel allows you to use your reaction on a frequent basis, although intelligent monsters (and/or metagaming DMs) will target you a lot. Defensive Duelist is underrated and a brilliant one to pick up at a later level as it uses your proficiency bonus as a basis, and allows you to use your reaction every time you are attacked with a melee weapon.
I won’t bother repeating exactly what each does, but do delve back into your Player’s Handbook and consider them for your next PC, or next time you get to pick up a feat (always more fun than taking a +2 modifier to an ability, and usually more effective too).
Plan A Strategy
One thing I like to do is think about how I can put together all my actions in a round into a coherent strategy or gameplan.
For example when playing with Estelle, (5th level paladin of devotion / 3rd level battlemaster fighter), one common tactic was to start my turn by casting thunderous smite (bonus action), then make my first melee attack doing extra 2d6 thunder damage. If my target failed their saving throw and was knocked prone, then I would make my second attack with advantage and use my Greater Weapon Master feat to take the -5 to hit penalty (with advantage I would still normally hit!) and do +10 damage. If my opponent was still standing after this (potentially 6d6 +10 damage plus modifiers), I could use up some divine smite or even my action surge to finish them off. Against a large number of weaker foes I relied on the fact I would reduce an enemy to 0 hit points most round to get a bonus action attack with Great Weapon Master (so I wouldn’t bother with thunderous smite).
With Jaxx Storm, a combat-loving cleric of the Tempest (1st-3rd level), I chose the Shieldmaster feat, which together with proficiency in Athletics, allowed me to regularly knock foes prone with my bonus action – giving me and my buddies advantage on our attack rolls against them. The Wrath of the Storm ability allowed me to use my reaction to good effect on occasion too.
Xenia Zanetti was my first ever 5th edition character and versatile as hell (5th level Rogue Assassin, 5th level Wizard, 3rd level Battlemaster Fighter). She could use a bonus action to Dash, Disengage or Hide, to cast misty step, or to make a second attack, or use a battlemaster manoeuvre such as feinting attack to gain advantage (which meant she could do sneak attack damage even in a one on one situation). Whilst for her reaction she often cast shield, or for less dangerous foes took advantage of the rogue’s uncanny dodge ability.
My 5th level rogue swashbuckler, Drake Leopold Florentine Griffinheart III (it’s always the third!), fights with two weapons, meaning he nearly always uses a bonus action. I also gave him the Martial Adept feat and chose the Riposte manoeuvre (as well as the Disarming Attack) meaning he can use a Reaction to make an additional attack (once per short rest only, sadly), and this actually allows him to deal his sneak attack damage twice in one round (once on his turn, once on someone else’s), making him pretty deadly. At 8th level I plan to take the Defensive Duelist feat, which will help cover his main weakness… his mediocre AC. Being a rogue with proficiency in acrobatics also gives you plenty of scope for interacting with your environment in a creative way, either for dramatic effect or for a tactical advantage, using either a free action or bonus action.
Hipster’s Takeaway Tip
One great tip is to write down everything your PC can do with their action, bonus action, reaction on your character sheet, and then, when it’s your turn, you can quickly remind yourself of your options in combat. This way you’ll rarely miss an opportunity to take full advantage of your character’s powers.