Rethinking Potions as a Bonus Action

A popular house rule in Dungeons & Dragons lets characters drink a potion as a bonus action rather than as an action. (See Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D.) When a typical round takes several minutes of real time to play, this rule spares the players from having to wait for their turn only to spend it adding 2d4+2. That turn feels like a letdown.

Nonetheless, I favored playing by the book and making drinking a healing potion an action. Until we welcome CamelBak hydration backpacks into our D&D worlds, I estimate that getting and opening a vial, and then downing the contents would take the better part of 6 seconds. Also, characters tend to need healing potions late in a fight, and I enjoy the difficult choice between pressing an attack despite dangerously low hit points or healing. Choices make games engaging.

My opinion changed after I played countless battles while eyeing unused potions of giant strength, fire breathing, and heroism in my characters’ inventories. Near the end of a battle, I still like the dilemma that healing potions can bring, but those other potions work best as a boost at the start a tough fight—the sort of fight you never want to begin by wasting a turn sipping a potion. The typical D&D battle only lasts three rounds!

Can I start fights with a timeout? “Before we roll initiative, my character tells the dragon, ‘Wait one second,’ holds up a finger, and then drinks a potion of fire resistance.” Until that works, I will continue to retire characters with stockpiles of unused potions. I would have enjoyed using those potions, so I suppose I’m ready to invent a device that rigs one of those gag cup-holder hats with more tubes than a pan flute.

21 thoughts on “Rethinking Potions as a Bonus Action

  1. Frederick Coen

    I took a trope from CRPGs, and give the PC’s “an adventurer’s belt”, with 4 slots. These slots hold potions or scrolls or other small items. You can grab a belt item as a bonus action; potions specifically can be grabbed and drunk in the same bonus action. But unless you acquire some other specialized gear (for example, there is a “guzzle gauntlet” with room for specialized potion bottles that takes a minute per vial to load), that’s it, just 4 items you choose. But note, this is *any* four items/potions, not just healing.

    We also use the rule that if you drink a healing potion as a Bonus Action, you roll the dice; if you spend an Action to slowly and carefully drink it, you get the maximum effect. This, on average, is only 4 or 5 more points per Tier, but nothing sucks like spending an action and getting 4hp! At least you’re guaranteed the full 10pts. (Administering a potion to someone else is always a full Action *and* rolls the dice.)

    So you get 4 items to prepare with, allowing some advance planning, but you don’t get your whole backpack of odds and ends. That potion of fire resistance isn’t helpful when you realize the dragon you’re hunting is a green dragon that’s been playing with you! But at least that potion of giant strength and the 2 potions of healing will be useful!

    Reply
    1. Jeff

      Oh wow! I like those house rules a LOT! Ours are currently if you drink it yourself its a bonus action but if you administer it to someone else it takes an action. But i reallllllly like your twist on it.

      Thanks for sharing that!

      Reply
    2. Dusey

      Those ARE great houserules!

      My idea, that I haven’t implemented quite yet, is making a type of potions that are much smaller, can be drunk in a single swig / bonus action, but also cost more.

      Reply
      1. Frederick Coen

        Dusey, that’s a good idea, too. They would work great with the guzzle-gauntlet, explaining how you can get big ol’ potion bottles into the glove’s case…

        Reply
  2. George Dorn

    I feel like potions taking an action rewards careful play; a party with advance notice about enemies (say, by working out the best way to have the rogue scout ahead) can win more difficult fights due to having more preparation time.

    Reply
    1. Frederick Coen

      Taking potions before a fight “rewards careful play”. It has no impact on what kind of action (lower case) is required to drink them – combat hasn’t started. Also, you are almost never drinking healing potions *before* the fight. (Yes, sometimes you are going to “top off”, if you know the BBEG is around the corner…)

      My “belt rule” allows some planning combined with some “emergency use”. Otherwise what actually happens is… no potion use in combat. At least, that’s what I’ve seen in 30 years of DMing across all editions.

      Reply
  3. ThrorII

    Saying it is too hard to drink a potion in combat is like saying it is too hard to cast a spell – it isn’t. Resource management has always been part of the game. The problem, as I see it, is as the game has evolved, it has become less strategic and more tactical. It has also become a ‘race to zero hit points’, thanks to short rests, long rests, and recovery hit dice.

    Reply
    1. Frederick Coen

      It’s not “hard” to drink a potion; it’s hard to justify sacrificing an Action that could be spent ending the combat faster. Your analogy doesn’t quite work – that spell is likely worlds better than a mere potion (or functionally goes back to “ending the combat faster”). Heal for 7pts, or hit the monster for 8? Or better yet – thinking of last night’s game session – DODGE to avoid being hit for 19?

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      1. simontmn

        5e Potions are for drinking outside of combat. 4e healing potions (minor action draw, minor action drink) were for combat, but most D&D editions they’re primarily for pre-combat buffing or post-combat healing. For me the resource management aspect is a feature not a bug. Many players don’t use their potions as they are not good at this, but I’m quite Old School so this doesn’t bother me.

        Reply
        1. Frederick Coen

          If that’s the perspective you’re going with, then I can’t argue – your logic is on point with your perceived design goal (“Potions are meant to be used outside/before combat.”). I see them differently – as do many others, hence the popularity of this houserule – but I freely admit to being influenced by years (decades!) of CRPGs, too. As an example, I’m enjoying the fact that Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is so hard (for me) that it’s forcing me to use my scrolls and potions to survive… normally they build up until the weight is annoying and I sell them all for some spare cash!

          Reply
  4. Jacob

    Most potions last 1 hour. They reward thinking ahead. Players can often guess when their characters are likely to enter battle in the next hour and chug a potion.

    Never has a potion of Frost Giant Strength or Invisibility that I have awarded gone unused.

    The real problem with allowing players to drink potions as a bonus action is the it changes the balance of the entire game. Now every character is required to carry dozens of potions in order to maximize their combat effectiveness. They have to weigh that off-hand attack, disengage, or bardic inspiration against the value of drinking a potion, effectively decreasing the value of every class feature that offers a bonus action.

    Reply
    1. Frederick Coen

      Interesting perspective, given that, [RAW], they have to weight the value of drinking a potion against every class feature that offers an attack or defense as an Action! 😉

      Reply
      1. JACOB

        It is rare that there is not a better action available than drinking a potion, but for many character builds there often is not bonus action available that would take priority over drinking a potion. Thusly, the combat effectiveness of those characters would be dramatically effected by the ability to drink a potion as a bonus action. Making potions a bonus action therefore requires those characters to stockpile potions in order to fight effectively.

        Reply
        1. Frederick Coen

          I’m hard pressed to come up with a class/build that doesn’t have something to do with a Bonus Action, besides the Warlock, but I’m probably just not thinking. Giving players another thing to do doesn’t force them to do it. However, I recognize that I don’t have every rule in every book memorized – and thus every possible rule interaction known – so as I mentioned, in may campaign I limited it to “just the 4 items on your belt”. If that Potion of Fire Resistance (or Scroll of Protection from Demons) is still in your backpack, whoops.

          Now, if the DM *changes* the difficulty of the game because he assumes the use of potions of healing will make things easier… then I agree with you – this rule both impairs the use of Bonus Actions and makes PCs *must have* four potions of healing on their belt. And that’s wrong. Mostly.

          (Having the compromise position of “drink as Action, get full effect; drink as bonus, roll dice” gets around the “impact on Bonus Actions” though, because the Bard can still drink the potion as an Action and Inspire as a Bonus Action. Only applies to potions with a random level of effect.)

          Reply
  5. 1958fury

    I prefer bonus action because, in my experience, quaffing as an action just wastes the potions. I can either attack the monster and possibly kill it, or I can drink the potion, heal 10 hit points, and then get hit for 10 hit points by the monster. That’s my own bad luck, but it always seems to work out that way. So I’ve learned just not to use them in battle.

    Reply
  6. AjaxPlunkett

    This reminds me of WebDM’s video on the ” Tyranny of Fun “. So much of 5e rules changes are about how Players and there PC’S are inconvenienced by aspects of play. 1- Grabbing a potion ( from a belt or backpack or whatever 2- uncorking it 3- drinking entire contenders 4- having it take effect metabolically , as a bonus action is very video gamey.

    A PC could stand up, attack, move 10ft, drink a potion, and perhaps attack through a reaction if some dude runs past him later in turn— that’s a lot.

    I guess this may fall under PLAY STYLE : not keeping track of equipment , ammo, etc, unlimited cantrips ( button pressing at will powers ), poison that may kill but not save or die, turning to stone not quite but almost, etc

    5e is a good game, and like all editions hackable but I think the slow incremental opening of Pandora’s box of ” ( since 1e ) cool neat-O stuff will never be put back officially.

    and yes, there are always retro clones.

    Reply
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