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In older editions of D&D, a Free Action was something you could do during combat “for free”, meaning it wouldn’t interfere with your ability to perform other types of combat actions. Technically there isn’t anything called a “Free Action” in D&D 5e. But because the term was used in previous editions of the game, it continues to endure by some players and DMs.
An example of a Free Action might be speaking a sentence or two.
Having said all that, although the term “Free Action” doesn’t appear in 5e, there are actions that are essentially “Free Actions”.
Normally, a player can move and perform one action and one bonus action on their turn (assuming they have a bonus action ability to use, which many characters do not).
In addition, some activities can be performed without using up any action or bonus action, meaning they are essentially “free.” Here’s a few “free actions” that exist in D&D 5th Edition.
Interact with an Object
A character can interact with an object once for free on their turn.
This could include drawing or sheathing a weapon, opening or closing a door, picking up an item, drawing an object from a backpack or belt, handing an object to another player, throwing an object (but not a weapon attack), and many other minor actions.
A more detailed list is included in Chapter 9 (Combat) of the Player’s Handbook. But that list is enormously incomplete, just like my list above.
There are many different kinds of interactions with an object that a player could perform.
If a player wants to Interact with an Object more than once, they need to use an action to do it a second time.
Speaking during combat is another “free” action.
Technically, you can speak on any other player’s turns – not just your own – but many DMs will ask their players to limit most of their speech to their own turn to encourage politeness and to keep the game flowing smoothly.
The rules around speaking during combat are vague and usually left to each DM to decide.
A single turn only lasts 6 seconds, and yet some DMs will allow players to engage in a minute or more of dialogue on their turn for narrative reasons. I personally encourage dialogue during combat because role-playing often makes combat more entertaining for everyone.
Other DMs will limit players to a few sentences.
In general, I advise DMs and players to think about the scene. If a player is trying to intimidate or bargain with an NPC into surrendering, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to allow more dialogue. If a player kills the BBEG who murdered their family, maybe give them a minute to deliver a dramatic speech, even if the combat isn’t over.
But if players are trying to talk through complicated strategies in the middle of combat, it’s often best to keep that dialogue short.
Other forms of communication are also allowed, such as gestures, thieves’ cant, etc.
Other Examples of “Free” Actions:
A spellcaster can drop concentration on a spell for free at any time.
A character can drop to the prone position for free on their turn.
A character can release a creature from a grapple for free at any time.
A character can perform weapon flourishes or non-mechanical gestures for free on their turn.
A character can also drop an item from their hands for free, or can take a hand off a two-handed weapon.
Note: this last one is not in the official rules, but was confirmed in a tweet by Jeremy Crawford. But this does not allow a character to drop a shield–so donning or removing a shield takes an action.
There are also several class abilities, magic items, spells, and monster abilities that include options that do not require an action. Oftentimes they’re labeled with the term “(no action required)”.
For example, many summon spells include the ability to command the summoned creature(s) for free – “(no action required).”
Another example is the Banderhobb, a large frog-like creature that can swallow enemies as an action, and “it can regurgitate a creature at any time (no action required).”
If you’re not sure if something can be done for free, just ask your DM, and be sure to mention whether it has a mechanical effect or not.
Since the goal of the game is fun, many DMs are pretty lenient about allowing “free” actions from time-to-time. The worst thing they can do is say no.
But at times, those “free” action one-liners become some of the most memorable moments of a campaign.