Players: you need a combat crib sheet

This week’s amazing art from Jason Rainville’s Twitter

Compared to some of the earlier iterations of D&D, 5th edition is one of the simplest. In most cases, the rules are clear, your options are right in front of you, and it’s easy to know what to do. However, the longer you play, the more you open up your character sheet, and the more you start to appreciate the granularity of good tactics. That’s where a combat crib sheet comes in!

What is a combat crib sheet?

I think of a combat crib sheet as an order of operations: a brief instruction manual for how to ‘optimize’ my character. I don’t necessarily need one for every character. A champion fighter is extremely straightforward, for example. But for spellcasters, high-level characters, and characters with interesting feats and abilities, it can really come in handy.

What does it include?

To some extent: whatever you want! However, there are some key points I like to cover:

  • Marching order. According to the Player’s Handbook (182) there is a front rank, one or more middle ranks, and a back rank. Generally speaking, I would generally put clerics, rogues, or rangers at the back, front-liners at the front (obviously), and most other characters in the middle.
  • Default gear. Players and DMs often handwave the rules for switching weapons. If you’re playing ‘rules as written’, stowing a weapon and drawing another is going to take up your whole turn, so knowing what you’re holding at the start of a combat is important. Bear in mind that a character can’t carry a torch if they are wielding a weapon and a shield, and a spellcaster usually needs to be holding a spellcasting focus to cast spells (although a cleric or paladin can have their symbol on their shield instead).   
  • Spells in effect. There are some spells that your DM should consider to be ‘always on’. Some that spring to mind: aid, darkvision, death ward, foresight, light, mage armour, mind blank, nondetection, telepathy, and water breathing. Check the durations and components for these spells, however.
  • Bonus actions and reactions. It’s important to make a note of these and when you plan to use them. Using them effectively is key to your action economy. Reactions are particularly important as they are not an active decision you take on your turn, so it’s easy to miss their ‘triggers’. Some classes have more options here than others.
  • Boss strategy. You don’t need to throw everything you’ve got at the first monster you encounter. Your bread-and-butter attacks are usually enough – usually. Sometimes, you need a bit extra. You need to go ‘full nova’. This is where you want to consider your strategy round by round for optimum impact. Some classes gain more from thinking about this than others, particularly spellcasters. I’ll give you some examples down below.   
  • Special abilities. Whether it’s racial traits or class features, most characters have at least one or two tricks up their sleeve. Halflings can reroll 1s; half-orcs have relentless endurance; rogues have sneak attack; paladins have divine smite. Experienced players will be able to keep this in their head, but even so, it doesn’t hurt to crib it.
  • Feats. Not everyone needs this, but some characters have important choices to make in combat because of their feats. Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter both give the option of trading a −5 to attack for a +10 to damage. Lucky allows three rerolls per day. Sentinel and Polearm Master affect opportunity attacks. It’s worth bearing these in mind.
  • Magic items. Some magic items only provide passive bonuses, which you can easily include on your character sheet. But others provide additional actions, and you may want to keep these prominent. In my experience, most players are very bad at remembering to use their consumables (me included), so keep a record of any potions or spell scrolls you plan to use. Remember: if you don’t use them, they don’t do anything! (Here are my best magic items by class.)
  • When to rest. Players might not be aware of this, but the game has an underlying rhythm called ‘the adventuring day’. It is assumed that players take two short rests per day and one long rest, so aim to take a short rest every time you lose a third of your hit points. Ideally, you don’t want to spend more than half your hit dice on one short rest. You may also want to consider other ‘reserves’ here like ki points and battle master manoeuvres. If you’re a spellcaster who gets their spells back on a long rest, consider taking a long rest when you’re down to a third of your spell slots.
  • Exit strategy. Players don’t always give this a lot of thought. 5e is very forgiving, and it’s easy to start every encounter with full hit points. But sometimes, you need to know when to run. Keith Ammann has a great post about this at The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. Most player characters will want to Disengage, but some might want to use Dodge to draw enemy aggro. It’s up to you when you decide to pull the plug, but Ammann recommends 40 percent hit points as a ‘warning light’ for NPCs, but use this figure as a guide only. There’s no need to run away from a combat if it’s only a single zombie, for example. And again, pay attention to class options here. A rogue will use cunning action to Disengage, while a sorcerer might use misty step to teleport.  

This seems like a lot, so here’s a general principle: include what you need and no more. The more ‘stuff’ is on a crib sheet, the less easy it is to navigate.

Putting it all together  

How does a crib sheet look in practice? Let’s take two examples.

Belise Samilkin

The Cleric Class for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) Fifth Edition (5e) - D&D  Beyond

Fun fact: Belise Samilkin was the first D&D character I ever created. He was a dwarven cleric of Moradin who regularly waded (waddled?) into combat with a maul. Let’s assume he’s a 5th-level cleric, 3rd-level fighter (battle master).

  • Marching order. Back. In combat, though, he tries to stay within 25 ft (his movement speed) of the front line.
  • Default gear. Maul (Kundelhorn, a +1 maul).   
  • Spells in effect. None, although he casts aid on three of his teammates every day.
  • Bonus actions and reactions. Spiritual weapon is a bonus action, and so are shield of faith and sanctuary. I also have second wind and action surge thanks to three levels of fighter. One of my battle master manoeuvres is riposte, which I can use as a reaction.    
  • Boss strategy. The best spell for me to concentrate on is probably spirit guardians, so I would get that up and running as soon as possible. I might use action surge to get into a good position or make an attack using commander’s strike (great for the rogue – a bonus sneak attack). In the next round, I would summon a spiritual weapon (no concentration!) and alternate between maul attacks or sacred flame depending on range.   
  • Special abilities. As a life domain cleric, I can preserve life and turn undead as channel divinity options. As a battle master, I have action surge, second wind, and three manoeuvres: commander’s strike, riposte, and precision attack. Dwarven resilience helps against poison.
  • Feats. Only one: war caster. Advantage on concentration saves and I can inflict wounds as an opportunity attack, if I want.
  • Magic items. Kundelhorn is just a passive bonus, but I have a potion of hill giant strength to knock back before a boss fight.  
  • When to rest. Belise has 67 hit points, so I might consider a short rest at 44 hp or fewer. I only have nine spell slots, so if I’m down to three, I would be keen to take a long rest.
  • Exit strategy. Belise is no coward, but he’s not an idiot. If he’s down to 26 hp, things are starting to look bad. If things look desperate, he takes the Dash action. If his teammates have his back, he might Disengage. If he’s playing the hero, trying to draw enemy fire away from others, he will Dodge.  


Pin on dragons

Wonderful 3rd-edition concept art from Sam Wood. Isn’t it great?

My brother’s first D&D character. Let’s make him a 5th-level orc barbarian with three levels in champion fighter.

  • Marching order. Front!
  • Default gear. Greataxe!   
  • Spells in effect. Kesk needs no magic!
  • Bonus actions and reactions. Rage is the obvious bonus action, and Kesk also has second wind and action surge thanks to three levels of fighter.   
  • Boss strategy. 1. Rage (or use adrenaline rush if too far from combat). 2. Activate Great Weapon Master (see below). 3. Reckless Attack. 4. Extra Attack! (Use action surge on round 2 for maximum RAR SMASH SMASH SMASH.)
  • Special abilities. Bear totem (resistance to all damage while raging). Danger sense. Improved critical. Everything else already mentioned.
  • Feats. Great Weapon Master. Definitely use this with Reckless Attack.
  • Magic items. Winged boots. Kesk fly!
  • When to rest. NEVER! Well, maybe it’s time to think about it when he gets to sub 30 hit points. It’s economical to rage once per short rest, and when Kesk is out of rages, Kesk tired.
  • Exit strategy. Kesk would probably stop using Reckless Attack if he needs to retreat. Disengage is best if the situation isn’t desperate, but if Kesk is running away, the situation probably is desperate. In which case: Dash.   

Do you have a combat crib sheet? Is it useful to you? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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One thought on “Players: you need a combat crib sheet

  1. Definitely think this is a good idea. I played a paladin / fighter with Heavy Weapon Master in Curse of Strahd, and drew a combat flowchart which helped keep my combat turns quick while maximising my abilities. In Rise of Tiamat, for my dwarf cleric, I kept a list of prepared spells for dungeons, for wilderness, and for urban; meant I knew what spells my character would have each day depending on environment. I call these notes my “Player Sheet”; the Character Sheet describes who my character is and what they can do, but my Player Sheet describes what I should do as a player.
    Also, as a GM, I think this will help all players but particularly new players. I”m going to suggest it to my inexperienced players.

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