Learn how to play D&D 5e with our rules guides
With 320 pages, the Player’s Handbook, which contains the basic rules for D&D 5e, is quite a beast. On top of that, there’s the Dungeon Master’s Guides, supplemental rulebooks like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and setting books with optional rules to learn. All together, this may feel quite overwhelming.
Don’t worry though, we’re here to take you through the core rules of D&D 5e. Our guides will keep things simple for beginners, explain the nuances of the rules and provide advice on how to optimise your play.
Combat in D&D 5e
When you enter combat, everyone involved in the combat will work on a turn by turn basis. Each turn is made up of various rules and activities you can perform. Below we’ve outlined these and you can read our detailed guides on each one to learn more.
- Surprised – Determine whether anyone has been surprised.
- Positions – Establish where characters and enemies are positioned.
- Roll initiative – Determine the order of turns for everyone involved in the combat.
- Take turns – Characters will take turns in initiative order.
- Next round – Once everyone has had their turn, characters will take turns again in initiative order. This will continue until the fighting has ended.
A character or creature might be surprised if they don’t notice their enemy before they attack them. When combat starts, any creatures that are surprised will not be able to take their first turn. This allows stealthier enemies to gain the upperhand on their opponents.
You can determine whether anyone is surprised by having characters attempting to be stealthy rolling a dexterity (stealth) check contested by the passive wisdom (perception) of those they’re attacking. It is possible for some members of a group to be surprised and others to not be.
Initiative is used to determine the order of character’s turns in combat. Every character in the combat makes a dexterity check (d20 + dexterity modifier). The highest scoring character takes their turn first with other characters following in order of highest to lowest.
If there is a tie, the DM determines the order for those creatures and the players determine the order for PCs. If there is a tie between creatures and PCs, then the DM will determine the order.
Every character has a movement speed which shows how quickly they can move when walking. For most playable characters, this is about 30ft but can range from 25-40ft without enhancements.
Moving under different circumstances can affect this speed though, for instance, climbing, swimming or moving through difficult terrain can slow you down. Below we’ve outlined how different environments affect your movement speed:
|Walking||Costs 1ft of movement speed for every 1ft travelled|
|Climbing||Costs 2ft of movement speed for every 1ft travelled|
|Swimming||Costs 2ft of movement speed for every 1ft travelled|
|Flying||same as the creature’s flying speed (or the flying speed described in the spell or ability)|
|Falling||500ft per round|
|Crawling||Costs 2ft of movement speed for every 1ft travelled|
|High Jump||Can jump the same height as 3 + your strength modifier with a run up (or half as much if standing still). Every 1ft you travel costs 1ft of your movement speed|
|Long Jump||Can jump the same distance as your strength score with a run up (or half as much if standing still). Every 1ft you travel costs 1ft of your movement speed|
|Stand up from being prone||Half your movement speed|
|Difficult terrain||Costs 2ft of movement speed for every 1ft travelled|
|Move while grappling||Speed is halved unless the creature is 2 or more sizes smaller than you|
Some creatures are more adept at certain kinds of movement, for example, some creatures, like the Hadozee, are great climbers, Tritons are great swimmers and Aarakocra can fly. Such creatures will have a separate speed for these types of activities to show quickly they can perform them.
Riding a mount for your movement also has its own unique set of rules, often allowing you to move more quickly.
You can learn all about how movement works in D&D 5e in our guide below.
Your action is the main act you make on your turn in combat. It can vary from making an attack, casting a spell, dodging dashing or readying an action to use when something triggers you to act.
You can only use one action per turn.
Bonus actions are smaller acts you can make on your turn. They can be made even if you’ve used an action on your turn but you can only do something as a bonus action if it is designated as a bonus action.
Bonus actions can include making an attack with your offhand, casting a spell or using a class feature like a rogue’s cunning action.
You can find out more about bonus actions and how best to use them in our comprehensive guide.
A reaction is an act you make during combat, but when it isn’t your turn. Reactions are used when you react to something someone else is doing. For example an enemy trying to leave your melee range might provoke you to make an opportunity attack as a reaction. Alternatively, a mage casting a spell might cause you to use counterspell for your reaction.
Reactions cannot be made on your turn and you can ‘t use another reaction until the start of your next turn.
You can learn more about reactions and how to get the most from them in our comprehensive guide.
Some enemies are so powerful that they can make multiple actions in a round of combat. Typically, only creatures have legendary actions, and even then, only exceptionally powerful ones tend to have them.
At the end of another creature’s turn, a creature with legendary actions can use one even when it isn’t their turn). Only one legendary action can be taken at a time though multiple legendary actions can often happen within a round. If a creature is incapacitated, they cannot use legendary actions.
Many characters and creatures have spells they can use. Each spell specifies how long it takes to cast and whether that can be done as part of an action, bonus action, reaction or requires considerably longer than a turn to cast and can only be cast effectively outside of combat.
Spells can have a variety of effects from dealing damage, causing a condition, providing a buff or healing an ally. It’s important where possible, to prepare spells that will assist you in what you are doing and that will complement one another. Ensuring you have some spells that can be cast as bonus actions and reactions will enable you to make the most of your turn.
You can learn more about some of the elements of spellcasting below.
Spell attack rolls
Some spells require you to roll to see if your spell hits and damages your target. This requires rolling a d20 and adding your spellcasting ability modifier (intelligence, wisdom or charisma) and your proficiency bonus to the roll. If the result is equal to or higher than the target’s AC, then your spell has hit.
At other times, a spell will state that the target needs to make a saving throw to attempt to resist or dodge its effects. In these cases, the target will need to make a saving throw.
Saving throws are made using the ability stated in the spell (such as wisdom or charisma) against the spell save DC of the spellcaster.
Your spell save DC is determined using the following formula:
8 + your spellcasting modifier + your proficiency bonus
If the target’s saving throw is equal to or higher than your spell save DC, then they have succeeded on their saving throw and either avoid the spell’s effects entirely or are only partially affected by the spell.
Some spells last longer than others and maintaining the effects of a spell can require a mental strain. Spells that require a spellcaster to focus on maintaining them are known as concentration spells. A spellcaster can’t maintain focus on 2 concentration spells at the same time. If they do a cast another concentration spell, then the previous spell they were concentrating on will end.
Concentration spells can also be ended either by the spellcaster choosing to end its effects, or by damaging the spell caster. When a spellcaster is damaged, they must make a constitution saving throw. The DC of this constitution saving throw is 10 or half the damage the spellcaster took, whichever is higher. If you fail your saving throw, then the spell ends.
Cantrips are simple spells that are less powerful than levelled spells. For this reason, they can be used any number of times without running out of uses. This allows spellcasters to remain capable of doing something even when they’ve run out of standard spell slots.
Typically, cantrips are simple spells that create small effects like minor illusion or dancing lights. They can also cause a fairly standard amount of damage similar to a martial’s weapon attack. Some of these damage-dealing cantrips include spells like eldritch blast and firebolt.
You can learn more about cantrips and which ones are best for your character with our cantrip guide.
Area of effect spells
Some spells affect a large area. These spells are known as area of effect spells (or AOE). These types of spells can be great at handling large groups of enemies or managing the battlefield (but be careful of friendly fire).
Different AOE spells will produce their effects in different shapes. There are 5 shapes of AOE spells in D&D 5e:
- Spheres (like fireball)
- Cubes (like fire storm)
- Cones (like Prismatic Spray)
- Cylinders (like call lightning)
- Lines (like wall of fire)
You can learn more about AOE spells in our guide.
Conditions are (usually) negative effects that can be imposed on characters and creatures to impair their abilities. Many spells, abilities, magic items, monsters and other things can cause a variety of conditions.
The 15 conditions of D&D 5e are: