It’s the fighter’s turn. Korth is an enormous half-orc, 300 lbs of rippling muscle encased in a full harness of plate armour. In one hand, he carries a blade so large that some might mistake it for a greatsword. In the other, he holds a heavy wooden shield, the red stain not from paint, but from the blood of many a poor sap whose face was broken on it. Korth has the Shield Master feat, allowing him to use a bonus action to shove a creature if he takes the Attack action on his turn.
And so, when Korth meets another half-orc just as big as he is, he has a plan.
“I run up and smash him with my shield!” Korth’s player, Alec, declares.
The DM nods. “So you’re using your attack to shove him?”
“What?” Alec asks, “no, I’m using my Shield Master bonus action”.
“Ah”, says the DM. “Then you need to use the Attack action first.”
This is an example of a very common point of confusion in the rules. For groups who want to follow the rules as written (RAW), many bonus action options have troublesome wording that requires unpacking. In this article, we’ll explore the structure of these options in a fulsome manner for your benefit.
Let’s go back to our youth. For some of us, it’s a bit further back than we’d like to admit. Don’t worry, we’re not here to judge.
You’re a kid sitting at the dinner table. It’s almost 7 o’clock and your TV show is about to start, and your mom has set out some ugly green stuff for dinner. You just came back from your friend’s house where you had lots of snacks, and you’d rather just skip this… whatever it is. So you ask to be excused to watch TV. Your mom tells you: “When you eat your dinner, you can watch television”.
There is a clear meaning to this statement. It is a classic conditional sentence; it has a main clause that predicates a conditional clause. You can’t do the second activity until you have fulfilled the first. Taken as a whole, the statement can be rewritten as: “You can watch television after you have eaten your dinner”. It can’t be rewritten as: “You can watch television as long as you eat your dinner” in the same way that “When you open the cupboard, it’s on the left” can’t be rewritten as “It’s on the left as long as you open the cupboard”. Therefore, your mom has told you that you can’t watch TV until your dinner has been eaten. That’s the timeline that is to be followed.
If you’re more analytically minded and are having a hard time following terms such as ‘conditional’ and ‘predicating’, think of it like an IF-THEN function in a computer program. In pseudocode form, your mom’s statement could be expressed as follows:
If (dinner=eaten) Then
(TV permission enabled=true)
(TV permission enabled=false)
Makes sense, right? If you don’t do A, you can’t do B. Not, ‘you can do B as long as you do A’. It’s a subtle but important distinction.
Contingent Bonus Actions
Many bonus action options in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons follow this exact grammatical structure. The Shield Master feat’s first benefit, the Crossbow Expert feat’s third benefit, the Eldritch Knight’s war magic feature, and many, many others. It’s also included in countless game mechanics, from readying a spell to critical hits.
Of course, there are some bonus actions which have some conditional language around their use, but which aren’t contingent on other actions. It is important, therefore, to read each option carefully.
For example, casting a bonus action spell isn’t contingent on having cast another spell, but it has some conditions on when you can do it or what you can do on the same turn. Namely, you can’t cast another spell that isn’t a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action on the same turn and, if you have already done so, then you’re ineligible to cast a spell as a bonus action.
This wording is entirely different and can’t be used as an equitable comparison to another kind of bonus action that has different wording. You can’t say that because you aren’t limited on when you can cast a bonus action on your turn, you therefore aren’t limited on when you can use a bonus action that is contingent on another criteria being met. It doesn’t work.
The Curious Case of Jeremy Crawford’s Fallibility
As much as we respect Jeremy Crawford, he’s only human and, therefore, he’s not always right. His recent move to stop calling his tweets ‘official rulings’ is rather overdue, as it has led to no shortage of confusion as people conflate his 240-character statements with what’s actually written in the book. This causes problems when human error mixes with pseudo-official statements, as happened a few years ago on this specific topic, which has led to continued frustration.
Back in January 2015, Crawford tweeted that you can pick the timing of bonus actions like that allowed by Shield Master, and then subsequently contradicted this statement. He called it a “grey area” and claimed he had to use his judgment, and that that judgment had changed when he saw how it played out. We call it a clear grammatical statement.
While Sage Advice doesn’t supersede the books when it comes to rules, this case really proves that sometimes the d20 roll you make when using the Invoke JC ability turns up a 1, and you should rely on one thing for understanding the book: the book itself.
Conditional bonus actions, therefore, must always follow their attached action.
Honestly, this is a fair question. Setting the matter of what the books say aside, what is actually harmed by allowing the bonus action to precede the action, especially if you are willing to impose some restrictions to even out the potential for abuse?
Some people point out that the specific timing prevents abuse of using the Shield Master feat to knock a target prone and then unload attacks on them with advantage, but if this becomes a problem at your table you can always rule that the character can’t then benefit from the shield’s AC bonus that turn (unless the result of their Strength (Athletics) check exceeded the target’s opposed check result by 5 or more, perhaps). And while the flavour of using one attack to distract a foe and allow a quick shot with Crossbow Expert does make sense, it makes as much sense to let loose a quick bolt before a more involved attack using a one-handed weapon. You can rule the bonus action shot can only be against a target that is currently within 5 feet of one of your allies, or who can’t see the attacker, thus still relying on their distraction.
If the players really want the freedom to flavour the order as they like, there are many ways you can fine-tune the mechanics for your table’s preferences. You’re the DM, after all. Jeremy Crawford might not have found a way to curtail the abuse using the rules as written, but that doesn’t mean you have to use those same tools. The rules are there as guidelines; you can discard them at your leisure.
Or you can just tell your players, “if your characters can do it, so can the enemies”. That typically gets your players to figure out if they really, really want something.
What are your thoughts on bonus action timing? Let us know in the comments below!