3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players ask to do things that the rules don’t handle—and not just because no roleplaying game’s rules can cover everything. The game omits the added rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more consistent design forced them out.

This post isn’t about the rules fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons could have included, but which the design skips for brevity. The D&D designers intentionally avoid providing rules for everything. “We want a system that trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation,” writes designer Rodney Thompson.

What actions aren’t covered by the D&D rules because they defy the game’s design choices?

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

In the early days of D&D, players liked saying, “I ready my sword” or “I nock an arrow.” Back then, initiative ran by house rules and DM whim, so this sort of declaration might win an edge. In an example of playing D&D that Gary Gygax wrote for the Europa zine in 1976, the DM grants the party +1 to a d6 initiative roll for being prepared. Only Unearthed Arcana (1985) actually put a benefit for readiness into print. “A bow specialist who begins the round with arrow nocked, shaft drawn, and target in sight is entitled to loose that arrow prior to any initiative check.” (See For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

Despite the lack of rules benefits, such declarations might prevent an adversarial dungeon master from deciding that because you never said that your sword was drawn, a fight caught you unprepared. In those days, many gamers saw thwarting and punishing players as part of the DM’s role. That attitude has fallen from favor. Nowadays, even though you never mention that your character started the day by putting on pants, we still assume pants.

The old spirit of readiness continues today. In a Sage Advice segment, D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford says, “People often want to ready actions before combat has even started.”

Why “readying” does nothing. Jeremy says, “The ready action is an action you take in combat, so there’s really no such thing as readying before combat has started.”

What a DM should say. Maybe nothing. “I rarely correct them,” Jeremy says. He interprets the ready request as the player signaling their intent to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table. So even though I won’t have the mechanics of the ready action play out, I will still reward them for thinking in advance and signaling intent.”

To more rules-oriented players say, “In D&D, everyone who isn’t surprised starts a fight ready. Initiative lets us decide who among the ready combatants goes first.” (Surprised combatants also have a place in initiative, but they take no actions while surprised.) For more on what to tell players about initiative, see What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle.

2. Called shots.

Sometime in every player’s D&D career, they get the idea of skipping the process of hacking through all a creature’s hit points by simply chopping off their weapon hand or blinding them with a blow to the eyes. Earlier editions of D&D termed attacks that aimed for a specific body part “called shots” and the game once included rules for such strikes. No more.

Why the rules don’t include called shots. The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook explains, “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” That’s a lot of possibilities. The game rules rely on this vagueness to allow characters to regain all their hit points after a short rest rather than a long hospital stay.

The moment characters start attempting to gouge their foes’ eyes out and villains return the favor, the game loses the useful abstraction of hit points. Also, if aiming for a particular body part proved more effective, why would anyone bother with regular attacks? The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed called shots, but explained, “Because the AD&D game uses a generalized system for damage, called shots cannot be used to accomplish certain things. Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

What a DM should say. “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”

3. Delaying an action.

In third and fourth edition, players could delay their actions to later in the initiative count. This helped players coordinate actions with other players using an advanced strategy called you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down. Players who remember the flexibility of delaying still ask for it.

Why the rules don’t include delaying. The fifth-edition designers chose to eliminate delaying to simplify the rules and speed play.

Many spell durations and combat effects last until the beginnings and endings of turns. An option to delay complicates the rules for such effects and the bookkeeping needed to track them. “Simply by changing when your turn happens, you could change the length of certain spells,” explains the Sage Advice Compendium. “The way to guard against such abuse would be to create a set of additional rules that would limit your ability to change durations. The net effect? More complexity would be added to the game, and with more complexity, there is greater potential for slower play.”

An option to delay encourages players to analyze and discuss the optimal order for their turns during every round. “Multiply that extra analysis by the number of characters and monsters in a combat, and you have the potential for many slow-downs in play.”

What a DM should say. “Everyone in a fight acts at once. We just have turns to make some sense of that activity. If you delay, you do nothing while everyone else acts. At best, you can start an action and attempt to time it so that it finishes right after something else happens. That’s called readying an action.”

18 thoughts on “3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices

  1. Sai

    GREAT article, especially the section of “what a DM should say”. Sometimes I read analyses of rpg rules and think “hmm this was a good critique, but it is not prescriptive” or doesn’t even give ideas to make improvements. Here youre downright explicit.

    Reply
  2. Wallraven

    “characters to regain all their hit points after a short rest” should read “long rest”.

    (or, if you want to differentiate from “long hospital stay”, you could word it as “a night’s rest” or something)

    Reply
    1. Noah Black

      You can theoretically regain all your hit points after a short rest though by spending your hit dice and rolling well.

      Short rest works better to emphasize that you’re just taking an hour to breathe instead of spending a week in the ICU

      Reply
  3. Alex

    I can think of two things to add on what a DM can do with these.

    For called shots add a minor status effect if they do a called shot and get a 20 otherwise damage as normal, and perhaps only valid if the character is using something in tune with his core class or background. Thus it isn’t a constant free for all, and in some cases can up the creature’s AC to hit at all.

    For coordinated actions, make it so they have to decide in the first round of combat for one character to delay to the same initiative of another. It is always to later in the round of combat and cannot be done mid-combat. This still allows 1-2 setups, but it has to be at the start, not after the fray and battle panic has set in.

    Reply
  4. Олег Башлыков

    The list of things I hate about 5e.
    It takes me at least 5 homebrew rules and game mechanics to patch those holes, while d&d5e is definitely not a homebrew-friendly system.
    Also:
    Wrestling system is lost at the road side.
    Types of weapon damage are used as frequently as never. It’s takes a while to serf through the monster manual to find a foe with vulnerability for piercing or slashing damage

    Reply
    1. Matthew

      Honestly I usually find myself giving most monsters a vulnerability and resistance to one of the mundane types, rolling a d4 for both if there aren’t logical options that make sense.

      To make this not totally unfair for players I let them make one free action knowledge check based off what type of monster it is (beasts would be nature while golems might be arcana and a demon would be religion) to figure out what the resistance and vulnerabilities are.

      It’s made my players switch out weapons a lot more which makes for more varied combat. I also gives knowledge checks more of an explicit use in combat and encourages them to take notes since if they remember next time they fight that type of monster, they won’t have to make another check.

      Reply
    2. Noah Black

      5e isn’t homebrew friendly? It’s probably the easiest version to homebrew for yet. It takes one minute at most to fill these “holes”.

      1) Allow readying actions out of combat. That’s easy. It just works the way you’d expect it to.

      2) A called shot has disadvantage, and it provides an appropriate effect like blinded. And/or maybe a called shot only has the intended effect on a crit. Those are pretty reasonable, even though being able to cut off hands and legs and poke out eyes is still totally busted and called shots aren’t what the system is designed for.

      3) Allow players to delay their turns. It’ll mess with some spell durations, like the article says, but if you want you can track those with their own initiative pretty easily.

      Additionally, you seem to be missing the point of the article. These aren’t holes. They’re explicit exclusions. As the article (and the designers) have said, these things bog down the otherwise simple system, and so aren’t in it.

      Reply
      1. snowwolfcleric

        D&D has been doing way too many changes too fast, I know that their trying to make things better, but their should listen to players and dungeon masters and find out from them what rules would work and what rules don’t work. Everybody plays the game differently and rules change based on the type of campaign DM’S and players want to create. So I think D&D should take a little more time to really think about what rules work for whatever DM’S and players come up with for campaigns.

        Reply
  5. Maxim Yakovlev

    We never had problems with delay in 3e, 5e or pathfinder. I find the current situation where rolling high initiative can be a bad thing much more problematic.

    “Simply by changing when your turn happens, you could change the length of certain spells”
    I would like to see an example where it would actually cause problems.

    Reply
    1. C A

      An example of extending how long a spell is active by delaying your turn is Shield. Specifically, if your turn is before the baddies so you play it out then on their turn you use the reaction Shield spell for +5 ac until your next turn but then you don’t want to use your resources on Shield again so you delay your next turn until after the baddies, effectively doubling the length of the Shield.

      Reply
    2. pez

      Certain spells last until the end of your next turn. If you’re at the top of the order, cast the spell, and then delay until the end of the next round, your party gets two rounds of the effect.

      Reply
  6. Eric Kaser

    Here is an example of how delaying your action could abuse spell durations. We will use PC wizard and goblins 1 and 2 for this example.

    The first round of initiative looks like this:
    17 – PC Wizard
    12 – Goblin 1
    11 – Goblin 2
    On the first round of combat, goblin 2 attacks the wizard, who uses his reaction to cast Shield (which grants +5 AC until the start of the character’s next turn).
    The PC wizard then delays his turn until initiative count 10, granting him the +5 AC bonus through goblin 1’s turn and applying it for a 2nd time on goblin 2’s turn without casting it again.

    Reply
    1. Maxim Yakovlev

      So, you suggest to let the monsters make their attacks for two turns in a row, maybe not even against you, instead of, you know, trying to prevent them? Giving up initiative and hiding beyond the Maginot line? And you call that abuse?

      Reply
      1. Maxim Yakovlev

        Just think about your example a bit. Without delay wizard-goblin sequence looks like
        17 – Wizard
        11 – Goblin 2
        17 – Wizard
        11 – Goblin 2
        17 – Wizard
        11 – Goblin 2

        And with delay it looks like
        17 – Wizard
        11 – Goblin 2
        11 – Goblin 2
        10 – Wizard
        11 – Goblin 2
        10 – Wizard
        11 – Goblin 2

        Goblin 2 effectively got an extra turn, during witch Wizard has free +5 AC. Do you seriously think it’s Wizard’s gain here?

        Reply
  7. Francis

    I hate the “delaying your turn extends spell duration” argument. RAW, yes, it could be abused. In my games, spells end when they are intended to do so. If a wizard casts Shield, then decides in the next round to delay until after her foes have gone, her Shield spell ends on her original initiative. Simple, logical fix for rule abusers

    Reply
    1. snowwolfcleric

      Rules change from game to game no matter what type to it is, trying to choose what to say, do or not do in those games is not always up to rules set by game companies. It should be determined by the way people like DM’s and players feel would be best for whatever type of game is set up in a planing session before you start the process of game play. That is when they decided to choose what rules to use and what rules not to use so they know what they have to work with.

      Reply
    2. Dan

      In fact, in 4E the rules were explicit that it worked exactly the way you rule it, and it only took like one extra sentence, two tops.

      Reply
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