Home Blog How Does Combat Work in D&D 5E? Beginners Guide

How Does Combat Work in D&D 5E? Beginners Guide


When I first started getting into Dungeons and Dragons I thought to myself, how hard can it be? I mean, it all takes place in your imagination and I have plenty of years worth of experience playing make-believe as a kid, okay and a few as an adult, so it should be a piece of cake to pick up and play. But as soon as I opened that rule book my eyes just glazed over. I want to share with you what I have learned playing D&D and hopefully make things easier for you.

Combat in D&D 5e works like this, you tell the group what action you are taking, whether it’s throwing an axe, swinging your broad sword, or casting a spell. You then roll a D20, a twenty-sided die, adding any modifiers to the result. The DM, dungeon master, compares the result to the AC, armor class, of the creature you are attacking. If you roll higher than that creature’s armor class then your hit landed. You then roll for damage by rolling whatever die is indicated for the weapon or spell that you used.

If you are still a bit confused on how the combat works, don’t worry because I got you covered. In this article, I will go over everything that you need to know to start kicking butt in D&D.

How Does Combat Work in Dungeons and Dragons 5E?

I’m assuming that if you are reading this guide then you have never played Dungeons and Dragons before or have only played a session or two. This guide will not cover spell casting or the use of items as those are a bit, different mechanics.

Please note that this guide does NOT discuss all of the ins and outs of combat. This guide WILL show you how to get started so you can start playing and having fun. Because remember, that’s what gaming is all about!

How Do Rounds Work in D&D 5E?

Before you can charge into combat and get that sweet loot, you first have to understand how a round works in Dungeons and Dragons. A round lasts roughly six seconds in the game world. In a round, each combatant takes a turn and the round ends after all of the participants have taken their turn.

In a round you will:

  1. Determine surprise
  2. Determine initiative
  3. Take Your Turn

How to Determine Surprise

Suppose you have decided to climb a tree to get a better view and you notice a group of bandits is traveling toward you. On your turn, you decide to leap from the tree and attack the bandits. In this situation, you would surprise the bandits.

Whenever a creature is surprised they do not get to take any action on their first turn of combat.

How to Determine Initiative

Turn order is established at the beginning of a battle by rolling for initiative. Initiative is the order in which players take their turns and is determined by having everyone perform a Dexterity check, adding any modifiers to the result.

The DM also rolls for each enemy in the battle and ranks all of the combatants from the highest roll to the lowest. This is the initiative order and it will remain the same for the remainder of the battle.

In the case of a tie, the DM can decide how to rank the ties between enemies and the players can decide the ties between players.

How Does Attacking Work in D&D 5E?

On your turn you may choose to do two things, move and take one action. If you choose to attack on your turn then that is your one action.

Once you declare your attack on an enemy, you will roll a D20. Add any modifiers to your roll and the DM will compare it to that enemy’s AC, armor class. If you rolled higher than the enemy’s AC then your attack landed! But don’t get cocky, just because your hit landed it doesn’t mean that you dealt damage.

This is how attacking in D&D shakes out:

  1. Choose your target: Pick an enemy or object that is in your attack range.
  2. Make an Attack Roll: Roll a D20 to see if your attack lands, adding any modifiers to the roll.
  3. Roll for Damage: If your attack lands, then roll your weapon’s damage die and deal damage to the target.

It’s really as easy as rolling a few dice and hope that the dice gods are on your side.

How to Roll for Damage

Now that you landed your attack, it’s time to deal damage. To determine the damage dealt, roll the appropriate weapon die and add any modifiers to the roll. This amount is the total damage that the enemy takes.

Dual Wielding Bonus Action

In some cases, your character may have a weapon in each hand. Perhaps you want to dual wield two daggers to attack the enemy.

In this case, you are able to take a bonus action to attack a second time with another weapon in your other hand. You roll a D20 just like your initial attack, but this time you do NOT add any modifiers to the roll unless it is a negative modifier.

You can space the bonus action out so you can take your initial attack, move, and attack another enemy if you wish.

It’s important to note that you can only dual wield light weapons. So you won’t be running after enemy’s swinging to greatswords around.

How to Move

On your turn you are able to do two things, move and take one action. On your character sheet, you will find a box marked speed or walking speed. Speed is the distance that you are able to move on your turn.

You are able to break up your movement on your turn and perform an action in between. For example, say your speed is 30 feet and you run 10 feet towards an enemy. You then swing your sword dealing damage and decide to move back 10 feet.

You may also forgo doing any action on your turn at all. If you are unsure what to do on your turn then consider taking the dodge or ready action.

How to Dodge

On your turn, you can choose to take the dodge action. This will allow you to focus on dodging incoming attacks. This makes any attack roll against you have disadvantage until the start of your next turn.

How to Use the Ready Action

Taking the ready action allows you to prepare for something you think will happen and react to it if it does. For example, on your turn, you take the ready action to prepare to pull a lever for a trapdoor if an enemy steps on it. If that enemy steps on the trap door then you are able to immediately pull the lever.

What is Advantage & Disadvantage?

In some cases, the DM may give you the advantage when attacking an opponent. Maybe you are attacking an enemy who is currently paralyzed, in this case, you would gain an advantage.

In some cases, you may be at a disadvantage in battle. Perhaps you are prone, on the ground, and you choose to attack an enemy. In this case, you would be at a disadvantage.

  • If you gain advantage, roll two dice and use the higher of the two values.
  • If you are at a disadvantage, roll two dice and use the lower of the two values.

Critical Hit & Critical Fail

If you roll a 20 while attacking an enemy, this is considered a critical hit. A critical hit will never miss and you do not need to compare it to the target’s AC.

If you roll a 1 while attacking an enemy, this is considered a critical fail. A critical fail is an automatic miss and you do not need to compare it to the target’s AC.

The DM usually decides any other benefits a critical hit or a critical miss have. Some may give your attack advantage or they will let you roll an additional weapon die to add to your damage.

How Does Attack Range Work in D&D 5E?

In order to attack an enemy or interact with an object in Dungeons and Dragons, you have to be within range. If you swing your greataxe at a goblin that is 20 feet away then you’re going to miss.

Melee Attacks

Melee attacks are used in hand-to-hand combat. Every class has the opportunity to make melee attacks. Even certain spells involve making a melee attack.

The average attack range of a melee attack is 5 feet. Now if the creature making the attack is larger than a medium build then they might have a larger attack range.

You can also perform an unarmed strike. If you want to use your fists or feet you can, but the damage dealt will be far less than if you use your weapon. Damage from an unarmed strike is equal to your Strength modifier +1.

Ranged Attacks

Ranged attacks are used when throwing objects or shooting a bow. Some of these ranged attacks will have two different ranges, one for normal range and one for long-range.

Ranged attack rolls gain disadvantage when:

  • You are making a shot that is beyond your normal range.
  • You are targeting an enemy who is not incapacitated and can see you that is within 5 feet of you.

What Happens When Your Hit Points Reach 0 in D&D 5E?

One of two things will happen if your hit points reach zero. You will either fall unconscious or die.

Falling Unconscious

If your hit points reach or fall below zero, but fails to kill you then you fall unconscious. If you are unconscious at the start of your turn, you must perform a death saving throw. This will either help you to recover or it will bring you one step closer to death.

A few things to note while you are unconscious:

  • Any attack rolls against you gain advantage.
  • You drop any items that you were holding before falling unconscious.
  • You cannot move, speak, and you are unaware of your surroundings.
  • You cannot take any other actions while unconscious.

Death Saving Throw

So you managed to get yourself in quite the predicament. Your hit points are at 0 and now your fighting just to stay alive.

To make a death saving throw, simply roll a D20. If the result is greater than or equal to 10, you succeed. If your roll is less than 10, you fail. You need three successes to become stable. If you get three failures, you die. The successes or failures do not have to be consecutive, just as long as you get three. These numbers are reset to zero after regaining hit points or becoming stable.

If you roll a critical, a 20, then you regain one hit point and become conscious. If you roll a critical fail, a 1, it counts as two failures.


If you made three successful death saving throws then you become stable. You still have 0 hit points, but you no longer have to make death saving throws.

You are still unconscious, so you still cannot take an action until you regain hit points. (A stable creature that isn’t healed regains 1 hit point after 1d4 hours.)

What if an Enemy’s Hit Points Reach 0?

They are killed and do not make any sort of saving throws. Some DMs however, might have main villains fall unconscious and have them follow the same rules as the player.

Once you have been through a few battles it will get easier and easier to understand all of the nuances of combat in Dungeons and Dragons. I recommend picking up the D&D Starter Set on Amazon. It only costs $15 and goes into all of the rules in depth.

I hope you enjoyed this guide on combat in D&D 5E. Let me know in the comments what other guides you would like to see. Happy gaming!