When every individual action counts, you enter the encounter mode of play. In this mode, time is divided into rounds, each of which is 6 seconds of time in the game world. Every round, each participant takes a turn in an established order. During your turn, you can use actions, and depending on the details of the encounter, you might have the opportunity to use reactions and free actions on your own turn and on others’ turns.
An encounter is played out in a series of rounds, during which the player characters, adversaries, and other participants in the encounter act in sequence. You roll initiative to determine this order at the start of the encounter and then play through rounds until a conclusion is reached and the encounter ends. The rules in this section assume a combat encounter—a battle—but the general structure can apply to any kind of encounter.
Step 1: Roll Initiative
When the GM calls for it, you’ll roll initiative to determine your place in the initiative order, which is the sequence in which the encounter’s participants will take their turns. Rolling initiative marks the start of an encounter. More often than not, you’ll roll initiative when you enter a battle.
Typically, you’ll roll a Perception check to determine your initiative—the more aware you are of your surroundings, the more quickly you can respond. Sometimes, though, the GM might call on you to roll some other type of check. For instance, if you were Avoiding Notice during exploration (page 479), you’d roll a Stealth check. A social encounter could call for a Deception or Diplomacy check.
The GM rolls initiative for anyone other than the player characters in the encounter. If these include a number of identical creatures, the GM could roll once for the group as a whole and have them take their turns within the group in any order. However, this can make battles less predictable and more dangerous, so the GM might want to roll initiative for some or all creatures individually unless it’s too much of a burden.
Unlike a typical check, where the result is compared to a DC, the results of initiative rolls are ranked. This ranking sets the order in which the encounter’s participants act—the initiative order. The character with the highest result goes first. The second highest follows, and so on until whoever had the lowest result takes their turn last.
If your result is tied with a foe’s result, the adversary goes first. If your result is tied with another PC’s, you can decide between yourselves who goes first when you reach that place in the initiative order. After that, your places in the initiative order usually don’t change during the encounter.
Step 2: Play a Round
A round begins when the participant with the highest initiative roll result starts their turn, and it ends when the one with the lowest initiative ends their turn. The process of taking a turn is detailed below. Creatures might also act outside their turns with reactions and free actions.
Step 3: Begin the Next Round
Once everyone in the encounter has taken a turn, the round is over and the next one begins. Don’t roll initiative again; the new round proceeds in the same order as the previous one, repeating the cycle until the encounter ends.
Step 4: End the Encounter
]When your foes are defeated, some sort of truce is reached, or some other event or circumstance ends the combat, the encounter is over. You and the other participants no longer follow the initiative order, and a more free-form style of play resumes, with the game typically moving into exploration mode. Sometimes at the end of an encounter, the GM will award Experience Points to the party or you’ll find treasure to divvy up.
When it’s your turn to act, you can use single actions ( ), short activities ( and ), reactions ( , and free actions ( ). When you’re finished, your turn ends and the character next in the initiative order begins their turn. Sometimes it’s important to note when during your turn something happens, so a turn is divided into three steps.
Step 1: Start Your Turn
Many things happen automatically at the start of your turn— it’s a common point for tracking the passage of time for effects that last multiple rounds. At the start of each of your turns, take these steps in any order you choose:
- If you created an effect lasting for a certain number of rounds, reduce the number of rounds remaining by 1. The effect ends if the duration is reduced to 0. For example, if you cast a spell that lasts 3 rounds on yourself during your first turn of a fight, it would affect you during that turn, decrease to 2 rounds of duration at the start of your second turn, decrease to 1 round of duration at the start of your third turn, and expire at the start of your fourth turn.
- You can use 1 free action or reaction with a trigger of “Your turn begins” or something similar.
- If you’re dying, roll a recovery check (page 459).
- Do anything else that is specified to happen at the start of your turn.
The last step of starting your turn is always the same.
- Regain your 3 actions and 1 reaction. If you haven’t spent your reaction from your last turn, you lose it—you can’t “save” actions or reactions from one turn to use during the next turn. If a condition prevents you from being able to act, you don’t regain any actions or your reaction. Some abilities or conditions (such as quickened and slowed) can change how many actions you regain and whether you regain your reaction. If you lose actions and gain additional actions (such as if you’re both quickened and slowed), you choose which actions to lose.
Step 2: Act
You can use actions in any order you wish during your turn, but you have to complete one action or activity before beginning another; for example, you can’t use a single action in the middle of performing a 2-action activity. What actions you can use often depend on your class features, skills, feats, and items, but there are default actions anyone can use, described in Basic Actions below. Some effects might prevent you from acting. If you can’t act, you can’t use any actions, including reactions and free actions.
If you begin a 2-action or 3-action activity on your turn, you must be able to complete it on your turn. You can’t, for example, begin to High Jump using your final action on one turn and then complete it as your first action on your next turn.
Once you have spent all 3 of your actions, your turn ends (as described in Step 3) and the next creature’s turn begins. You can, however, use only some of your actions and end your turn early. As soon as your turn ends, you lose all your remaining actions, but not your reaction or your ability to use free actions.
Step 3: End Your Turn
Once you’ve done all the things you want to do with the actions you have available, you reach the end of your turn. Take the following steps in any order you choose. Play then proceeds to the next creature in the initiative order.
- End any effects that last until the end of your turn. For example, spells with a sustained duration end at the end of your turn unless you used the Sustain a Spell action during your turn to extend them. Some effects caused by enemies might also last through a certain number of your turns, and you decrease the remaining duration by 1 during this step, ending the effect if its duration is reduced to 0.
- If you have a persistent damage condition, you take the damage at this point. After you take the damage, you can attempt the flat check to end the persistent damage. You then attempt any saving throws for ongoing afflictions. Many other conditions change at the end of your turn, such as the frightened condition decreasing in severity. These take place after you’ve taken any persistent damage, attempted flat checks to end the persistent damage, and attempted saves against any afflictions.
- You can use 1 free action or reaction with a trigger of “Your turn ends” or something similar.
- Resolve anything else specified to happen at the end of your turn.
Basic actions represent common tasks like moving around, attacking, and helping others. As such, every creature can use basic actions except in some extreme circumstances, and many of those actions are used very frequently. Most notably, you’ll use Interact, Step, Stride, and Strike a great deal. Many feats and other actions call upon you to use one of these basic actions or modify them to produce different effects. For example, a more complex action might let you Stride up to double your Speed instead of just up to your Speed, and a large number of activities include a Strike.
Actions that are used less frequently but are still available to most creatures are presented in Specialty Basic Actions. These typically have requirements that not all characters are likely to meet, such as wielding a shield or having a burrow Speed. In addition to the actions in these two sections, the actions for spellcasting can be found on pages 302–305, and the actions for using magic items appear on pages 531–534.