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How Does Combat Work in D&D 5E? An Introduction

I’m just about to start two Dungeons and Dragons campaigns with a few new players, and am creating a series of resources to hopefully help them get the hang of existing in the realms of Dungeons and Dragons. I then remembered that I run a board game blog – which one could argue is a useful thing to have when dispersing information across players. With that in mind, there will be quite a few of these shorter explanatory articles up over the next couple of weeks.


Combat is a vital part of Dungeons and Dragons. Where it is possible to have a completely pacifist campaign, there is no doubt about it that the game was designed with swords and sorcery in mind. Combat is an essential part of the game, and thus it is important for players to understand how it works going in. In this article we are going to look at how combat works, along with a few home brew concepts later on that I like to throw in when being Dungeon Master.

D&D Dice

Epic Dice and Epic Stories

How Does Combat Work in Dungeons and Dragons 5E?

Combat is a very simple process in D&D that we will be looking at closer in this article. We are, in this article, only going to cover attacking and not the additional actions you can do in combat instead such as using items or casting spells.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THERE ARE A LOT OF NUANCES TO COMBAT IN DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, SO FOR NOW WE ARE JUST LOOKING AT THE BASICS OF DOING AN ATTACK. FOR FULL RULES LOOK AT CHAPTER 9 IN THE PLAYER’S HANDBOOK.

Before we begin however, there are three basic concepts you need to know –

  1. The average round of combat lasts approximately 6 in-game seconds.
  2. Dice, in D&D are usually referred to by their number of sides. This means D20 is a 20 sided dice. D6 is a 6 sided dice. There are seven different variations of dice – D4, D6, D8, D10 (usually 2 versions – one with 0-9 and one with 10-90), D12, and D20.
  3. There are six core stats in the game – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. Strength and Dexterity are the two core stats when talking about combat.

Now you know that, let’s create a scenario – Agador and Sparticus (yes, I watched The Birdcage recently, what of it?) are a Human Rogue and a Half-Orc Barbarian. They are sneaking up on a camp of 4x Bandits.

The Bandits are armed with Scimitars. Agador has two Scimitars, one in each hand. Sparticus has a Great Axe.

  1. Determine Surprise  – Since the party is sneaking, they may be able to surprise the bandits. If they do, the Bandits don’t get to attack in the first round of combat, depending on the exact situation. This means they can get an attack in before the enemy.
  2. Determine Initiative – Next we need to determine initiative. Initiative is literally the order in which players do their actions. This again can be determined by the positioning of the players; however, it is usually a dexterity check. This means you roll a D20 and add your Dexterity Modifier. The Dexterity Modifier is determined by your Dexterity score, with Dexterity being one of the core stats in the game. If, for instance, you have a Dexterity Score of 10, then you will have a +0 modifier (10 being completely average). If you have a Dexterity score of 12, you will get a +1 modifier. If it is 14, you will get +2.This also works the other way – if you have a 9 or an 8 for Dexterity you will have a -1, a 7 or 6 would result in -2 etc.

    Anyway, highest Dexterity goes first. The DM also rolls for every enemy. So, in our scenario we may have a running order of:

    1. Agador
    2. Bandit 1
    3. Bandit 2
    4. Sparticus
    5. Bandit 3
    6. Bandit 4
  3. Attacking – During your turn (when attacking and not doing something else) you can do two things – move and attack. You can move up to your set distance, usually determined by the race you are playing as.To roll to attack you need to roll to hit and then roll to do damage. The roll to hit is always, without fail, with a D20. The roll for damage depends on your weapon.

    To roll to hit with melee, you need to roll a D20 + your Strength modifier + your proficiency (+2 at Level 1). You are aiming to get higher than the Armour Class of the thing you are attacking.

    This means that, with the Bandits having Studded Armour, you would be looking for a 14+ on a D20 to hit.

    To roll to hit with a ranged weapon the concept is the same, changing only by the modifier you use. For ranged it goes D20 + your dexterity modifier + your proficiency bonus.

    IF you have two weapons, one in each hand then, generally speaking, you get 2x attacks on your turn (one as a bonus action). The first will have the D20 + your ability modifier + proficiency bonus. For the second hand you will just have D20 + your proficiency modifier. You lose the ability modifier for your second hand.

    Using two weapons can only be done with LIGHT weapons unless specified otherwise. No, you can’t have two great axes, but nice try.

    So, to use the example – Agator attacks Bandit 1, rolling a 12 on a D20. He then adds a strength bonus of +2, and gains his proficiency of +2. This gives him a score of 16, which is more than the Bandit’s Armour Class of 14, so the attack hits.

    When it comes to taking the bonus actions, Agator will take a second attack. He rolls a 12 again, but this time only adds proficiency (for +2). This is a 14, so again he hits the Bandit.

    A NOTE ON BONUS ACTIONS: Bonus actions can be taken when an in game effect allows for you to take one. Holding two weapons and swinging like a maniac is one such thing that allows them – otherwise it may be a feat, class ability, spell, item etc. that permits a bonus action.

  4. Dealing Damage – After you have hit you get to deal damage. Damage is very simple to work out – it’s your weapon dice + your ability modifier.So, Agator will do damage for 1D8+2. Sparticus, let’s imagine, has a strength of 18, giving him +4 as his strength modifier. He will then get 2D8+4 as his base attack.There are affects that can be added on – for instance Sparticus is a Barbarian, so he can Rage and this will add a +2 to each attack. Clerics of the Domain of War gain an additional attack. You get the idea. Generally though, when you are looking at dealing damage to a bad guy, it is:

Damage = Weapon Dice + Ability Modifier

Once all those involved in the combat have had a turn, it goes onto the second round of combat.

So that is the very basics of attacking. Next, let’s look at the concept of the Critical Hit and the Critical Fail.

Combat in D&D: Critical Hit and Critical Fail

Of course, in D&D, you are rolling a D20, and that has a top end and a bottom end. Rolling a 20 on a D20 in D&D is a Critical HIt and an automatic hit, no matter what the creature’s Armour Class is. Rolling a 1 is a Critical Fail. Rolling a Critical Fail is always a miss, no matter what your modifiers are.

There are quite a few variations on what Dungeon Masters choose to happen with a Critical Hit, and I have heard of everything from rolling and adding on an additional damage dice (also known as the official rule) to the attack always doing maximum damage.

Dungeon Master Luke’s Additional Rules

Ahh but of course, the DM is the word of law in Dungeons and Dragons so what the DM says goes. I have a few tweaks that I like to use when resolving attacks in Dungeons and Dragons.

  1. As a word of advice it is a bad idea to loot a body until combat is over. If you are insistent on trying to loot the body in combat then –
    1. It will take at least 30 seconds to do, so you will be out of the combat for 5 rounds.
    2. Your attention will be entirely on the looting so you won’t see any attack coming. This gives the attacker full advantage on the attack.
    3. There is a chance any critical fails from your team mates might hit you.
  2. I subscribe to the school of thought that Critical Hits do max damage, they don’t roll the damage twice.
  3. If you get a Critical Hit then you get THE HIT LOCATION DICE. Yes, I have a D12 with a little stick man on every side, showing an hit location on each side, going from head to toe and hand to hand. If you get a Critical Hit then you get to roll THE HIT LOCATION DICE and incapacitate part of your enemy. The downside is, whenever a Critical Hit hits you, you also have THE HIT LOCATION DICE rolled against you. The effects can give you disadvantage on certain checks (I don’t want to say what yet – bwahahahaha) and aren’t healed until you rest.
Hit Location Dice

THE HIT LOCATION DICE

So, there you have it – a brief overview of combat in Dungeons and Dragons, plus some of my own little quirks to combat added in. For those interested, I got the hit location dice from Q-Workshop at the UK Games Expo two years ago. You can browse their website here.

For those of you who aren’t in my D&D group – what are your thoughts on my homebrew adjustments? Do you have any of your own? Let me know in the comments below.

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6 Comments »

  1. I like the hit location, adds some additional flavour. Interesting about max damage vs double dmg. We do it where if your weapon causes D8 + xxx then you roll it twice. It can be very variable whereas you method just maxes out the damage.
    As my favourite game is still Warhammer fantasy 8th and there is a lot of random rolls in it (which I like) I probably prefer the rolling but I can see why some players would prefer the flat max damage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see why you like that 🙂 I’m glad you like the hit location die as well.

      Randomness definitely has its place and helps keep the game exciting, I will give you that!

      Like

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