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In combat, if a Battle Smith Artificer commands a Steel Defender to attack in every round, does he need to use his bonus action in every round or only one command is necessary?

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3 Answers 3

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You need to use your bonus action each round

The relevant paragraph from the Battlesmith section states: (emphasis mine)

In combat, the defender shares your initiative count, but it takes its turn immediately after yours. It can move and use its reaction on its own, but the only action it takes on its turn is the Dodge action, unless you take a bonus action on your turn to command it to take another action.

So unless you spend your bonus action telling it to Attack, it will only Dodge.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While I agree with the conclusion, I'm not convinced that this answers the question. Is your argument that the wording is unambiguous? It doesn't read that way to me. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 6, 2023 at 14:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's why it keeps saying "on [its/your] turn". Each turn, everything starts over, with it taking dodge unless you command otherwise on your turn (this one, not your last turn). If one command were sufficient to have it continue attacking, then it wouldn't keep repeating the 'turn' phrasing. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 6, 2023 at 14:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RutherRendommeleigh without a caveat like "Until given a command" It seems clear that at the start of the Steel Defenders turn you start reading its 'actions' and "It can move and use its reaction on its own, but the only action it takes on its turn is the Dodge action, unless you take a bonus action on your turn to command it to take another action." Then initiative cycles. And again on its turn you read it's 'actions'. There is no caveat that says 'Once given a command it follows in perpetuity.' \$\endgroup\$ Jan 6, 2023 at 21:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is also no rule that says its memory resets. But let's not argue this in comments. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 6, 2023 at 23:25
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Of two interpretations, only one is reasonable

The steel defender can (emphasis mine):

move and use its reaction on its own, but the only action it takes on its turn is the Dodge action, unless you take a bonus action on your turn to command it to take another action.

Is it ambiguous what "another action" means? I think it is clear that "another action" means 'one singular action' such that when it is complete it is not continued.

However, one could argue that 'another action' instead refers to a type of action, and thus, that commanding the steel defender to take 'the Attack action' means that it will continue to do so without changing to another type of action.

So let's follow this perspective to its logical conclusion. Suppose my Artificer uses their bonus action to command the Defender to take the Attack action on a specific foe, and then on the Defender's turn the foe is killed. If on the Defender's next turn it 'automatically' repeats the Attack action, what is its target? What will it attack, absent new direction from the Artificer (supplied by a new bonus action)? The Dodge action can be repeated without external context - the action doesn't interact with any other conditions on the field. But nearly every other action likely has a different context each round that would require clarification from the Artificer. Help: help who, with what? Hide: from who? (that is, of all the observers on the field, with which will the Defender have to break line of sight before attempting to Hide). Ready: ready what action, for what trigger? Search: search for what, where? Use an object: use what object, to do what? Repair: targeting itself, another construct, or an object?

I suppose that since the Defender is somehow capable of movement on its own, it could repeatedly take the Dash or Disengage actions absent any new context or direction. But it is clear that the majority of possible action "types" can simply not be repeated without the Artificer having to provide the Defender with new information. Thus I think it is clear that this interpretation of the Defender's text is not what is intended.

Following an alternate interpretation to its logical conclusion, it is unambiguous that the Artificer needs to take a new bonus action on each round in order to have the Defender take any action other than Dodge.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Any specific reason that you think the Defender cannot extrapolate from a given command (it is capable of independent action), or retain a given target until it becomes invalid ("attack this creature until it dies")? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 6, 2023 at 23:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RutherRendommeleigh Mostly game balance, which admittedly becomes a circular argument. I've run a game where the wizard had a Shield Guardian (Int 7 vs SD's 4) and the biggest problem has been the incentive for the player to argue "this is what the SG would do" when what they really mean is "this is what I would like the SG to do." If as a DM you want the SD to make autonomous decisions, effectively running it as an NPC, fine, but then you need a values system to inform those decisions. And if it is 'whatever favors the PC in the moment', that IMO is unbalanced & breaks verisimilitude. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 7, 2023 at 1:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RutherRendommeleigh With respect to RAW, take your suggestion of "attack this creature until it dies". Even allowing the SD to repeat a type of action, it should repeat the Attack action until given a different command as a bonus action. Should it stop at death, or just unconsciousness? Why should it stop at either and not continue hacking at the corpse? Should it pursue if the target withdraws from the field? "Repeat Attack" is not enough information to make sustained decisions, and RAW it is not clear where this information would come from. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 7, 2023 at 1:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RutherRendommeleigh I think there is also an argument to be made for how the game treats things like familiars which are capable of truly independent action but which can't attack, and things like spiritual weapon which can attack but which need to be directed by bonus actions each roun. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 7, 2023 at 1:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ The information comes from the same source that tells it where to move, and if/when to take its reaction, whether you interpret that as its own intelligence or as cues from its owner. For example, the "should it pursue" question is trivial to answer - the player decides if and where it moves, regardless of what action it might take. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7, 2023 at 3:55
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The wording is ambiguous.

The feature states that it requires "a bonus action on your turn" to issue a command, which in turn causes the Steel Defender "to take another action." It does not specify a duration or other constraint for the command (e.g. "on its next turn", as in the Command spell).

The qualifier "on your turn" could be read as meaning "on the immediately preceding turn", though that would call for past tense ("unless you have taken a bonus action on your turn"). Technically, by the time the Defender is acting, taking that bonus action is no longer an option because the player's turn is over.

Thus, "on your turn" could also signify just that: that the player has to choose a command (or none) on their turn and not during the Steel Defender's turn, say, after it made a saving throw or triggered something with their movement.

"One attack for one bonus action" is likely the intended reading.

Features that allow you to make an attack (or to cause another creature to make an attack) generally require your action, reaction or bonus action. This is by design, as "stacking" additional attacks from different sources would quickly lead to balance issues.

While the feature's wording is unclear, allowing a potentially unlimited number of attacks for only one bonus action would violate that design principle, so if that had been the intent, it's likely that would have been stated explicitly.

Granting one attack for one bonus action would also be in line with all similar features (with the exception of Commander's Strike, which has additional costs).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain where you are finding ambiguity? \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Jan 6, 2023 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the question could boil down to whether the rules meant "Action" in the game-mechanical sense, or plain English course of action which could be an ongoing task like "raise the bucket from the (very deep) well" or "kill this ogre" which take multiple turns to accomplish. Agreed that balance reasons are the primary factor in deciding to read it as 1 defender Action for one PC Bonus Action. But also the tenses and phrasing, like "take a bonus action on your turn", not just "took a bonus action" to imply that some arbitrary past-tense bonus action could carry on. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7, 2023 at 9:51

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