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I'm trying to make a monster in D&D 5e and I can't find anything on taking away actions. I want to have a monster that can take away a player's action, but I can't find anything on it. I know I could just say "Take away an action from a target" but I want to word it like an official D&D monster. Any advice on how to word it?

(Unimportant side... um... paragraph, I'm dumb and decided to make a D&D campaign before playing a full one. I have a good enough grasp on D&D to make a character with some help, and I have a copy of the Player's Handbook. I want the party to be transported to a different land with entirely new creatures, and no knowledge of what they are or their weaknesses. I could go on and on about how a party member's behavior would be affected by knowledge of the player, but I want to keep this shorter than one of my usual off-topic speeches which I end with "Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.". The side note is longer than the question. I'm sorry.)

If there are any details I left out, please let me know.

EDIT: I want to thank you all for the useful advice, and I suppose I was a bit unclear about the whole thing. I want to make a monster that can prevent a player from taking an action, but also has disadvantage on any attack rolls as well as half movement for 1 turn. The ability can only be used once, and the monster loses their movement and reaction. If the monster has already moved it cannot use the action. The attack also deals 1D6 damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking to take away their one action (and thus allow them to take a bonus action and/or reaction) or to take away all their action economy on the turn (and thus disallow bonus actions and/or reactions as well)? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kerrick
    Commented Apr 5 at 18:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not related to the question itself, but I would advice you to play a "normal" campaign first. there is a LOT to think about when DMing for the first time so anything to ease that burden is a huge help. You also don't have any frame of reference when creating your own stuff if you haven't played with other stuff first. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 5 at 19:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you are DM and making this up, why look for official ways of doing it? Why not just do it if you think it is a good idea? I use none DND rules quite often and I don't bother writing them down because they aren't going to be seen or read by anyone else \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Apr 5 at 19:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site and the hobby! Please edit the question to clarify how this should behave with bonus actions, movement, and any special features you think might be relevant, like a Fighter's Action Surge. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 6 at 1:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ What do you mean by "taking away" an action? Disabling a PC the way they can't do anything? Acting faster (doing more things) than PCs? Copying a PCs feature? Something else? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Apr 6 at 16:44

5 Answers 5

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“The target is incapacitated until the end of its next turn.”

The Incapacitated condition states:

An incapacitated creature can't take actions or reactions.

So just have your feature inflict the Incapacitated condition until the end of the target’s next turn.

That said, if you only want to take away the creature’s action, and not their bonus action, you’ll have to create an exception to this rule for bonus actions:

anything that deprives you of your ability to take actions also prevents you from taking a bonus action.

By rule, if you remove a creature’s action, you also remove its bonus action. So if you only want to remove the creature’s action, and not its bonus action or reaction, word your feature something like this:

The target cannot take any actions (but may still take a bonus action and a reaction) until the end of its next turn.

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Existing monsters are your friends

Even with only the Players Handbook and free resources there are many monster stat blocks that are available to you.

For free, there are many monsters in the Basic Rules. You can also search for monsters on D&D Beyond.

Look for monsters that accomplish what you want, and take features from those monsters.

An example of a monster that takes away a PC's action

One example that I found by flipping through the monsters in the basic rules is the couatl. It has bite attack that poisons the target and renders the target unconscious. An unconscious creature is incapacitated, and can't take actions or reactions:

An incapacitated creature can't take actions or reactions.

Note that this is doubly powerful, because:

Another creature can use an action to shake the target awake.

So not only does the unconscious PC lose an action (or more), because they're unconscious, but another PC loses an action waking them up.

So that is one way to remove an action from a target, and maybe not the way you want to go, but it gives you an example of a monster that removes a target's action, which you can use to inspire your own monster design.

Flat out taking away an action is a very powerful effect, and can tip a battle in one direction or another. Also, incapacitating a PC for multiple turns can be dramatic, but it can also be frustrating for the player, since they essentially have nothing to do. Used sparingly it is effective, but overused it can be less fun.

Inhibiting actions

A less drastic approach is to restrain a target, which doesn't take away an action, but may present an opportunity cost where the restrained creature may want to choose to use an action to get free of the restraint.

An example is the entangle spell, in which an entangled creature is restrained, and can choose to use an action to break free:

A creature restrained by the plants can use its action to make a Strength check against your spell save DC. On a success, it frees itself.

The dryad can cast the entangle spell. The dryad also offers another approach to taking away an action:

Fey Charm. The dryad targets one humanoid or beast that she can see within 30 feet of her. If the target can see the dryad, it must succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or be magically charmed. The charmed creature regards the dryad as a trusted friend to be heeded and protected.

By charming one of the PCs, the dryad effectively takes away the PC's action, at least in terms of attacking the dryad, and offers interesting role-playing opportunities to boot.

Side note

You said, "I have a good enough grasp on D&D to make a character with some help". You are definitely jumping into the deep end, designing your own campaign. There is nothing wrong with that! Sometimes great things get accomplished by just jumping in. While you're paddling around there, though, hopefully you're playing in a campaign with an experienced DM. You'll learn a lot. Also, the published materials can be extremely helpful. Just looking at lots and lots of monster stat blocks can help you think about how to do things. And even for free there are starter materials that can really help you out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "it can also be frustrating for the player, since they essentially have nothing to do." - this is a very important point. As a player that has spent practically entire sessions stunned by mind flayers, or petrified by beholders, it's not fun to not be able to contribute. Taking a player's action or agency should definitely be done sparingly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ty Hayes
    Commented Apr 6 at 11:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ You could also add Bestow Curse to the list — "While cursed, the target must make a Wisdom saving throw at the start of each of its turns. If it fails, it wastes its action that turn doing nothing." \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Apr 8 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks @enkryptor. That's a good one. There are so many ways. I was trying to restrict it to things immediately related to my example monsters, since the OP is designing a monster. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Apr 8 at 11:32
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What is your goal?

As SeriousBri says in a comment, if you are the DM, you are running the game. Rule 0 means you are in charge of how the game works. If simply saying "This monster used its ability to take away your action," works for you, then you can perfectly well go with that.

Inflict a Condition

If, however you are looking to write something 'the way 5e does it', then read on! Typically, an effect that imposes special constraints on what a character can do is called a 'condition'. And conditions have to say what will end them. (See Appendix A for Conditions).

To write this up in a way that is consistent with the 5e rules, you will need to decide:

  1. Do you want to use an existing condition or make up one of your own?

  2. What will end the condition?

Incapacitated / Banished

As Thomas Markov explains in his answer, the Incapacitated condition removes the target's actions, which is what you want. But as he also says, it further removes the target's bonus actions and reactions, which maybe you don't want. One solution is to specify that this particular effect is a special kind of Incapacitation (specific over general) that does permit bonus actions and / or reactions.

Next is deciding how this Incapacitation will end. It could be with time (as Markov writes, "until the end of its next turn"), since time still passes and an Incapacitated character retains its place in the turn order. Or it could be with a save (or more rarely, a contest), since Incapacitated characters still make saving throws as normal. This would give the condition a variable end time and could have it last several of the target's turns.

Very similar to Incapacitated is a banishment effect. Although Banished is not a condition, it similarly removes the character from play either for a certain amount of time or until they make a save. Your conception of the 'flavor' of the monster and its ability should tell you whether it makes more sense for its victim to remain on the field but unable to act, or whether it is simply 'somewhere else' for a while.

Restrained

Another strategy is not to take away a character's actions, but to give them an incentive to spend an action to remove a prejudicial condition. This is the case with Restrained. A restrained character cannot move. They can attack, but at disadvantage, and they are at advantage to be attacked. Things that impose the Restrained condition (such as many spells) typically do not have it end over time, but rather force a character to spend its action to remove the condition. This permits the player more agency, and allows them to make tactical decisions about whether to use their action in an attempt to end the condition, or accept the condition and operate at reduced effect (which impacts martials more than casters). However, it does permit characters to continue to take actions, so might not be what you are looking for. One example of a monster that restrains targets is the Ettercap, which has a web attack:

The creature is restrained by webbing. As an action, the restrained creature can make a DC 11 Strength check, escaping from the webbing on a success.

Impaired?

If you wanted to design your own 5e-like ability that removes a creature's action, only, it might look something like this:

On a hit [or a failed save, or automatically through the use of the monster's ability], the target is Impaired. Impaired targets cannot spend their non-bonus actions on anything except an attempt to remove the condition, which is resolved as [a save or a contest or automatically with the action spent].

This language would permit you to effectively remove the action of a target without taking away their reactions and bonus actions.

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While it's not precisely "taking away" an action, I've used (or players have used against my NPCs) some spells that monsters can cast (or that serve as lair actions) which impact the action economy.

The Slow spell essentially cuts the number of actions a player can take in half.

An affected target's speed is halved, it takes a -2 penalty to AC and Dexterity saving throws, and it can't use reactions. On its turn, it can use either an action or a bonus action, not both. Regardless of the creature's abilities or magic items, it can't make more than one melee or ranged attack during its turn.

Other spells create situations where the player still has their action, but can't really do anything. I effectively removed a Bard's ability to take an action once by having them adjacent to multiple monsters (risking opportunity attack by moving) and in the area of the Silence spell:

For the duration, no sound can be created within or pass through a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point you choose within range. Any creature or object entirely inside the sphere is immune to thunder damage, and creatures are deafened while entirely inside it. Casting a spell that includes a verbal component is impossible there.

They still had their action -- but had nothing useful to do but gesture like a mime.

Kirt mentioned in a comment that Tasha's Mind Whip also limits actions:

On a failed save, the target ... can’t take a reaction until the end of its next turn. Moreover, on its next turn, it must choose whether it gets a move, an action, or a bonus action; it gets only one of the three.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I deliberately avoided spells in my answer to structure the text like monster abilities, but if you would like to go this route you might also mention Tasha's mind whip. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Apr 6 at 17:31
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The monster can cast the spell haste... perhaps as a Legendary Action, or perhaps as an at-will ability.

The description of haste includes this bit:

When the spell ends, the target can't move or take actions until after its next turn, as a wave of lethargy sweeps over it.

Note also that the haste spell is a concentration spell. Per the Player's Handbook when casting spells requiring concentration:

You can end concentration at any time (no action required).

So: Your monster casts haste on an opponent (like a PC), and then immediately ends it, resulting in that opponent losing actions (and movement) until after its next turn.

This will be devastating if haste can be cast as a Legendary Action, and especially if it has multiple legendary actions.

Caveat: Requires you as DM to adjudicate that haste can be cast upon unwilling creatures (perhaps with a saving throw).

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