Tag Archives: Jeremy Crawford

The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons started as a game with a strong foundation, strong enough that when I imagined changes that would best improve the game, I just wished for replacements for the annoying spells, overpowered feats, and toothless monsters—the game’s features atop the foundation.

The D&D team agrees. “We did a smart thing with fifth edition by listening to the fans and what came out of that process was a system that is stable, that is well loved, that incorporates the best elements of earlier editions.” Designer Chris Perkins says. “Now that we have that, we are no longer in a position where we think of D&D as an edition. It’s just D&D.”

The D&D team started fixing trouble spots years ago. For example, newer books like Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take. Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes the most updates, with a new way to assign ability score bonuses, alternatives to game-stopping summoning spells, and new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype. The changes improve the game without invalidating anything in the 2014 Player’s Handbook. (See D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books.)

In 2024, the D&D team will release new core books, making that 2014 Player’s Handbook obsolete. In a way, this 2024 update resembles the jump between first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and second edition. In the 80s when designers started work on second edition, copies of first edition adventures and books like Oriental Adventures were staying in print and selling well for years. TSR management wanted to keep those evergreen products earning, so they required that second edition remain broadly compatible with first. Second edition’s most important goal was “to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.” Of course, first edition had already seen changes and new options would continue to evolve second edition. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

For the next 12 to 18 months, the D&D design team plans to release monthly playtest packets, enabling gamers to sample and provide feedback on the game’s 2024 release. “You’re going to be able to use all of these playtest docs with your existing core books,” says designer Jeremy Crawford. “We’ve designed these docs so you can take each one, and other than the places where we tell you here’s an update, all of this material works with the core books you already have.”

The D&D team emphasizes how the new release will just build on the game we play today. Their claim and my feeling that the game’s foundation is good leads to the playtest package’s biggest surprise: The document makes changes to rules such as critical hits and conditions—changes at D&Ds foundation. Make no mistake: I’m fine with these changes and the package convinces me that the designers will improve the game.

The changes to D&D’s foundation hide in the packet’s unremarkable sounding “Rules Glossary.” Roleplaying game design often means making choices between the benefits and drawbacks of a particular choice. To weigh the choices revealed by the playtest, I like looking at both sides of this equation. My listing of the drawbacks of a choice doesn’t mean I wouldn’t choose the same.

Critical Hits rate as the candy of D&D. No one ever accused D&D co-creator Gary Gygax of giving players too much candy, and he hated crits. (See page 61 of the original Dungeon Masters Guide.) Like candy, crits give joy, but they’re also bad for us, and especially bad for our new characters. Forget bugbears and goblins; blame most new character deaths on a natural 20. First-level characters lack enough hit points to survive the extra damage. D&D’s designers aim for a game that makes players feel like characters can die while rarely actually killing them. (Some gamers enjoy a more dangerous game, but fifth edition needs optional rules to cater to that taste.) Removing crits helps D&D avoid wasting new characters, but we love our candy, so the test rules allow only player characters to score crits—a change that would have appalled Gary. I like it.

As a DM who speeds play by using average monster damage, monster crits add extra friction. That 20 interrupts my flow and forces me to hunt for damage dice to roll and total. (Yeah, I know I could find a short cut.) A crit and a miss deal less damage than two hits, so the slowdown adds little to play.

Some folks complain that not letting monsters crit makes them too weak, and I’m sympathetic because D&D’s mid- and high-level monsters are too weak, and I’ve complained as much as anyone. But the fix comes from much more damage than the occasional critical hit delivers. Hopefully, the 2024 Monster Manual will deliver the power bump foes need.

The test critical hit rule also affects players. Spell attacks no longer deal crits. This just brings the rule in line with what new players expect: Only weapon attacks and unarmed strikes crit. We D&D enthusiasts can master this change.

The new critical rule also changes the damage formula: Only weapon damage dice get doubled. The designers probably aimed to weaken characters designed to farm criticals with feats like Elven Accuracy. The new formula hinders paladins and rogues by eliminating doubled smite and sneak attack damage. Paladins rate as one of the game’s strongest classes, so this change helps bring them down to Oerth. Rogues suffer more from losing a double sneak attack damage.

Still, in D&D specific rules beat a general rule. The critical rule works like this in general, but a class like rogue might gain a feature that adds additional damage to crits. If that feature worked for melee attacks and not ranged attacks, then it would help make up for the inferiority of melee-focused rogues. A guy can dream.

Rolling a 20. Another change deals monsters a more serious blow than losing critical hits. Based on the new rules for rolling a 20 and inspiration, characters will rarely fail saving throws. Now players gain inspiration whenever they roll 20 on an ability check, saving throw, or an attack roll. Players gain more fun candy for their high rolls. If you already have inspiration, you can pass the award to another character. “We wanted a way to feed people inspiration through the system itself. What the system is intentionally doing is encouraging you to use the inspiration.” Dream on. Inspiration proves so much more valuable for saving throws that I plan to continue hoarding it until I need to make a save. I suspect this will bring my characters closer to never failing a save. When I run games, players like me who hoard inspiration make monsters much less fun to run because characters rarely fail a save and so many monster abilities amount to “Action: Waste a turn while every single character laughs off your biggest threat.” At tables using the widespread house rule that lets players spend inspiration to re-roll, the heroes’ edge grows even stronger.

Instead of the players fighting ice cold dice who could use a lift, the inspiration-on-a-20 mechanic awards more success to the character already rolling 20s. Perhaps if a 20 let you inspire another character in the party, the rule would feel better.

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about the inspiration-on-a-20 rule. As a player, I love rolling natural 20s and hate failing saves. But even more, I love challenges that press my characters to the limit.

Ability score bonuses. The playtest’s update to ability score improvements rates at the playtest’s least surprising change. Now instead of pairing each race with set of ability score bonuses that reinforce a fantasy archetype, every player chooses where to put a +2 and a +1 bonus, or alternately three +1 bonuses.

Since first edition AD&D, each race has gained ability score modifiers that match the fantasy archetypes of robust dwarves, agile elves, and so on. This started back when everyone rolled characters at random and when good play meant making the most of whatever the dice gave you.

Now most players build characters to match their tastes, so ability score bonuses limit freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Setting ability scores should require just one step: Assign the scores you want to suit your character. Instead, the current design asks players to assign scores and add bonuses as separate steps, likely adding some back-and-forth friction as players find the right values. I would like to see a process that folds the two steps into one. That would work easiest if the game simply offered a few standard arrays of scores with the ability score bonuses included.

Feats at first level. Originally, the fifth-edition designers sought to make new characters as simple as possible. This returned to D&D’s 1974 roots. Then, characters just started with 6 ability scores and a class. Characters developed in play. Those simple characters proved especially easy for new players. You could immerse yourself in your role and play without knowing the rules. If you’re a hero with a sword and a monster charges, then you know your options: talk fast, hit it, or run. Now text like “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus” weighs races, 1st-level feats, and classes. If you’re coaching a new player, prepare to explain “proficiency bonus.”

The playtest rules make a new character’s history feel more important by bolstering it with mechanics. “I’m super excited about this whole approach that we’re taking with backgrounds,” says Jeremy Crawford. “It’s all about building your character’s story and making certain meaningful game-mechanic choices that reflect the story you have in mind for your character.” Or instead, you can take the Lucky feat.

For new players, the added “game-mechanic choices” risk making the game feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s fine. New players confronted with a pregenerated character always find it overwhelming, but the end of the session, they typically feel comfortable with the basics.

The designers seem enchanted by the phrase “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus,” but I wish fewer feats added things to track.

The playtest feats include a change that strike me as ingenious. Each feat includes a level. “One of the ways to make sure that feat selection is not overwhelming is to break feats up into smaller groups, and one of the ways that were doing that is with levels.” Credit Pathfinder second edition for adding this innovation first.

Grappling. The playtest changes the rules for grappling. Now, if your Unarmed Strike hits versus AC, then you can grapple the target. Likely this change aims to make grappling for characters work like all the monsters that grapple by hitting a target. Starting a grapple with an attack strikes me as odd because it defies a fifth edition design principle.

Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls once explained that to determine whether to use an attack roll or a save, designers asked, “Would a suit of plate mail protect from this?” Armor protects against darts, scythes, and so on, so traps using such hazards make attacks. Poisonous fumes, lightning, and mind blasts all ignore armor, so targets make saves. Attacks to grapple fail this test. Surely though, rules for saves to avoid a grapple would add more complexity than the designers want. Besides, D&D hardly needs another reason to favor Dexterity over Strength.

Credit D&D’s Push Into to the Multiverse for Spelljammer

Wizards of the Coast releases new settings for Dungeons & Dragons faster than ever. Those settings include worlds borrowed from Magic: The Gathering like Ravnica and Theros, a world taken from Critical Role, older settings like Eberron and Ravenloft, and now the Spelljammer setting. The last time the D&D team released so many settings, the flood of options split the D&D market and helped send TSR, the game’s owner, to the brink of bankruptcy. Then as now, D&D players only have so much time and money. Faced with a game store full of D&D campaign options, most customers will skip some. Each setting still costs to develop, but it competes with others, splitting the D&D customer base and potentially leading to financial losses.

Clearly, today’s D&D team doesn’t fear repeating the history that brought TSR to ruin. Part of that fearlessness comes from D&D’s surging popularity. So many folks play the game now that numerous campaign releases can profit despite a diluted audience. Of course, some enthusiasts buy them all, so more of my money goes to Hasbro.

Also, the product lines for D&D settings released now just include a set of miniatures and a book, or for Spelljammer a slipcase of 3 slim harcovers. From 1989 to 1993, the original Spelljammer line included 4 boxed sets, 6 adventures, 11 accessories, plus novels and comics. A committed Spelljammer fan could spend their entire budget on D&D in space without buying other products. TSR spent money creating all these products to support a setting that surely trailed other D&D settings in popularity.

In 2015, Wizards polled to rank their campaign settings’ popularity and then reported the results. “Our most popular settings from prior editions landed at the top of the rankings, with Eberron, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape, and the Forgotten Realms all proving equally popular. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Spelljammer all shared a similar level of second-tier popularity, followed by a fairly steep drop-off to the rest of the settings. My sense is that Spelljammer has often lagged behind the broad popularity of other settings, falling into love-it-or-hate-it status depending on personal tastes.”

Gamers mostly remember Spelljammer for its silliest ideas, like hippo people and giant space hamsters powering ships by running on wheels attached like paddle wheels. “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs,” writes original Spelljammer designer Jeff Grubb. “The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddle wheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster.” Sometimes Spelljammer treats D&D as seriously as the 60s Batman TV show treated the dark knight. To some fans, Spelljammer felt like a setting that mocked their passion for D&D by making the game seem ridiculous and childish.

For years, D&D enthusiasts online joked about any slim hint of a Spelljammer revival by announcing, “Spelljammer confirmed!” The humor came from treating a sometimes ridiculous second-tier setting as an eagerly awaited release when in truth Spelljammer seemed like one of the least likely targets for return. Even Chris Perkins, the architect of Spelljammer’s return, jokes about Spelljammer’s lesser popularity.

So if the gleeful shouts of “Spelljammer confirmed’’ come from a joke rather than a groundswell of fans, then how did Spelljammer get confirmed? Credit Chris Perkins’s true passion for the setting. He even embraces the setting’s gonzo elements like killer space clowns and murder comets—ideas that made some gamers snub the original.

Mainly credit D&D’s new emphasis on the multiverse for Spelljammer. D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained the shift. “We’ve been letting fans know for the last year or two that we are going out there to other worlds, to other planes, and there’s going to be a lot of exciting journeys ahead.” D&D is headed to “this wonderful array of worlds that make the D&D multiverse special because it’s not just one fantasy setting, it’s a dizzying array of fantasy settings, including each DM’s home setting all in one massive multiversal setting.”

Rather than asking players to select a world and stick to it, the focus on a multiverse encourages D&D fans to dabble in different settings, skipping from world to world or gathering their favorite bits for their own worlds in the wonderful array. Hints of a D&D multiverse date back to Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980) where the Demonweb included gates to parallel worlds on the material plane, but Spelljammer made the game’s worlds accessible by Spelljamming ships.

The multiverse gives D&D room for settings that feel less conventional. By design, Spelljammer delivers. “I wanted to push the envelope on what D&D fantasy was,” Jeff Gubb writes. “We had done Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, but those had been written down as typical fantasy worlds. Vanilla fantasy. Default fantasy. Background static. Here was a chance to go out on more of a limb and push the envelope. So this was the chance to do D&D in space. I’m sorry—Innnnn Spaaaaaaace!” Spelljammer brings a different tone than those grounded settings. Fans love the setting’s swashbuckling flavor, ships like the mind flayer nautiloid, heroes like the hippo folk on safari, villains like the half-spider/half-eel neogi, and the chance to explore strange new D&D worlds.

Jeff Grubb pitched Spelljammer by describing a knight standing on the open deck of a ship in space. Based on the preview of the new Spelljammer, the setting moves from shining armor and wizards in pointy hats to the Guardians of the Galaxy and a cast as varied as the Star Wars cantina scene.

Spelljamming lets characters take the scenic route while they travel the D&D multiverse, leading to more adventure than using spells like plane shift. “Spelljammer was initially thought of as being AD&D in space, but soon became obvious as a way to tie the existing campaigns together.” In the revised setting, D&D worlds exist in spheres of magical space called wildspace. In wildspace, even objects as small as ships have enough gravity to capture bubbles of air and for sailors to walk the decks.

The emphasis on the multiverse shows in changes to the Spelljammer cosmology. In the old version, indestructible crystal spheres locked each world into a bubble suspended in phlogiston, “a turbulent, unstable, multicolored, fluorescent gas.” The designers imagined the crystal shells to account for different gods and rules in different spheres. “Want to run a hard science version? It works that way in the sphere. Want the constellations to move around? There you go. Want a flat world resting on elephants, with iterative turtles below? Go for it.” But the crystal barriers strike me as unnecessarily clutter separating magical pockets. Meanwhile, phlogiston overlaps too much with existing D&D lore around the astral plane. So at the edge of wildspace, the bubbles now transition to the astral sea where explorers might meet gith, astral dreadnoughts, and planetoid-sized bodies of dead gods. Here, Spelljammer blends into Planescape. Planescape confirmed!

How Playing on Streams and at Conventions Sharpens D&D’s Designers

In the 80s into the 90s, I would see convention panels or magazine interviews where game professionals said that their game writing left them no time for game playing. Those writers might admit to an occasional session of Call of Cthulhu—that was the role-playing game the pros played once they felt too mature for bashing monsters in dungeons. But writers of the era’s countless Dungeons & Dragons setting books rarely seemed to play the game much anymore.

Prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Especially in the third-edition era, some Wizards staff seemed not to play their own game and seldom saw it played. In the Living Greyhawk community (a 3E organized play campaign) there was the sense that a large portion of new rules needed errata solely because the designers weren’t familiar enough with the game to see (obvious) exploits and problems.”

fameFor many of the game products of the time, play experience mattered less. People bought game books to read. RPG writers could succeed by satisfying game readers more than players. See “How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books.”

Speaking in an episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin said, “One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past of [D&D] staff, especially through third and fourth edition, was that they would sit in Renton, Washington and create this game, but they never really got out and saw how the game was played by the different kinds of fans, or the fans that may play a little bit differently than the designers’ own home games or their games within their company.”

The designers of fifth edition play more with the D&D community, and the edition benefits. “We know that D&D is a big tent,” explains lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “Not only do people of many sorts play in the D&D, but also people of many tastes play D&D. We know some people really love heavy improvisational role-playing and other D&D players, for them, that’s all about the tactical nuances of D&D combat, and everything in between.”

Over the past few years, I‘ve seen D&D designers at conventions run games for random tables of Adventurers League players lucky enough to draw the celebrity DM. Speaking in the podcast, Teos Abadia said, “This is a really important thing for Wizards to do. To meet with players and see how players play [the designer’s] game in this kind of environment.”

In a convention game, you will join players who may play differently. “You’re just randomly dipping into the pond to see who ends up at your table and to see how they play the game that you create. And I think that’s very important,” Teos said. “For me as a fan, I want to see Wizards involved with fans in this kind of way as much as possible.”

The D&D designers play with non-designers even more on liveplay streams. “One of my favorite parts of the rise of RPG celebrities running liveplay games is that they have to then play their games with other people,“ Teos writes. “I really think it is fantastic that so many at WotC have run and played in the games.” Of course, streamed play intends to entertain an audience, making these performances different from most D&D sessions—the ones at basements, kitchen tables, or game stores‘ back rooms.

People who think about D&D’s future wonder how livestreams will influence designers to change the rules, and whether streaming should shape the rules. Jeremey Crawford says, “We’re concerned about supporting traditional tabletop play well, but also the types of D&D experiences people have in streams.”

Streaming certainly affects the interests of new players discovering D&D. Traditionally, new D&D players tended to focus on the joy of bashing monsters and developing more powerful characters. Those same new players found acting in character off putting. Before steaming, virtually nobody new to D&D spoke in character. The prospect of adopting a funny voice seemed odd and potentially embarrassing. Now, new players typically want to play the sort of personalities and scenes they see in streams. (In my experience, new players act in character, but they still hesitate to use a funny voices. Perhaps the vocal talents of actors seem unreachable.)

Based on experience running games at conventions, the people guiding D&D’s Adventurers League organized play campaign work harder than ever to accommodate different play styles. The recent League seasons have encouraged authors to welcome the three D&D pillars of exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat when designing adventures, and to especially consider non-combat answers to encounters. The league’s Ravenloft: Mist Hunters campaign aims to “focus on story, atmosphere, and immersive interaction.”

If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers. Every regular group settles into a play style. Do they play recklessly or cautiously? Heroically or ruthlessly? How do they settle conflict between PCs that pull in opposite directions? Regular groups seek activities they all enjoy. A group’s style makes them predictable. When we play long enough in one style, we tend to forget other ways.

DMs who operate in public eventually see groups that defy even the most common customs of D&D. New players love to split the party. Authors with experience as dungeon masters for strangers become better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at writing scenarios that account for players who veer off the path.

Organized play authors understand the challenges of running an adventure from a text. Their adventures sometimes even include troubleshooting sidebars that help DMs account for actions that threaten to break an adventure.

Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write games for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.

This post revists a topic from 2016.

Tasha’s Rules for Custom Origins Make Pencil-Necked Mountain Dwarves Overly Good

I played Rime of the Frostmaiden in a party that included the sort of armored dwarven wizard empowered by two features: (1) a weak dwarf’s ability to wear stout armor without a speed penalty and (2) the customized origins from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which let players assign their race’s ability score bonuses to any ability score. This dwarf started with a Strength of 8 and level of fighter for heavy armor proficiency, but some characters gain similar benefits by opting for a mountain dwarf and gaining proficiency with medium armor.

We both played wizards who boasted similar offensive power, except his wizard never got hit. When the character returned at high levels for my D&D weekend, a shield spell routinely boosted his AC into the 30s.

Aside from a monk with high-wisdom and Stunning Strike, I suspect the character type that dungeon masters find most tiresome combines high AC and the ability to cast shield. We DMs can be fans of the characters and want to land an occasional attack. I love Superman, but I also love the threat of a robot powered by a kryptonite heart.

Tasha’s custom origins improve D&D by giving players freedom to play the character they want without choosing ability scores that make the character less effective than others. In an appearance on Dragon Talk, lead D&D designer Jeremey Crawford says, “All games are about making choices and making meaningful choices, but we want the choices to be between things that are all fun and interesting. What we don’t want is a choice where just hiding inside it is some kind of trap. And that’s what the traditional ability score bonuses often feel like to people.

“As the game continues to evolve, and also as the different types of characters people make proliferate and become wonderfully diverse, it’s time for a bit more of those old assumptions to, if not pass away, to be something that a person can set aside if it’s not of interest for them and their character.” The Tasha’s rules create a game that helps gamers imagine and create a broader spectrum of viable characters. “You can play the dwarf you want to play. You can play the elf you want to play. You can play the halfling you want to play.”

Does the new freedom fuel more powerful characters? Jeremey says no. “Contrary to what many people might think, those ability score increases that are in those different options, they are not there for game balance purposes. They are there strictly to reinforce the different archetypes that have been in D&D going back all the way to the 70s.”

The game’s design gives smaller ability score bonuses to races with more potent racial features. Jeremey contends that where players put the ability score bonuses doesn’t matter.

Except the placement matters. Before custom origins, mountain dwarves gained a +2 Strength along with medium armor proficiency—a feature that rarely benefits characters who gain from a +2 strength. Fighters and paladins get armor proficiency anyway; barbarians and monks avoid armor. For wizards and other classes that actually need armor, that +2 Strength offers nothing. To the Player’s Handbook designers, this combination of strength and armor proficiency seemed like such useless fluff that mountain dwarves gained +2 in two ability scores rather than just one. Besides, Strength is a roleplaying choice for sub-optimal characters..

I suspect that if Jeremey failed to save against a suggestion that forced the whole story, he would admit that the placement of modifiers does matter, but not enough to derail adding the simple and flexible custom origins in Tasha’s. Mountain dwarves rank as strong, but not overpowered.

Still, if the designers gained a redo on the dwarf, surely the race’s mechanics would change. In the case of dwarves, the custom origin rules go beyond enabling unique characters who defy class archetypes. The rules encourage pencil-necked dwarf wizards able to wear half-plate. I’ve learned to accept characters who sell out to seldom get hit, but acceptance comes easier when the price isn’t a bargain. Nonetheless, if I were king of D&D, custom origins and their flexibility would stay despite the adventuring parties suddenly filled with clanking dwarven wizards.

Two Ways to Exploit D&D’s Ready Action In Tricky Ways

Usually, D&D games feel the most fun and immediate when the game’s rules aren’t the center of attention. So for example, the fifth edition uses the blunt simplicity of advantage and disadvantage instead of the fussy lists of pluses and minuses found in prior editions. But the Ready action adds rules where players and dungeon masters can wring benefits by exploiting the game text. Using these tricks throws a spotlight on the game’s rules and might send players to the books or to search for rulings from lead designer Jeremy Crawford, so the tricks don’t fit every table.

A Dungeons & Dragons round unravels 6 seconds of mayhem where combatants all fight at once into turns played at the game table. The ready action lets players hesitate a moment to take an action outside their usual turn. Since all the turns in a round share the same 6 seconds, Ready actions leave space for wonky rules exploits.

Use this one weird trick to avoid counterspell

You cast counterspell as a reaction “you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell.” So if you cast a spell out of sight, no foes can counter it. “When you ready a spell, you cast it as normal but hold its energy, which you release with your reaction when the trigger occurs.”

To avoid a counterspell, just ready a spell by casting it around the corner or beyond the 60-foot range of a counter, and then choose to trigger the action when your target comes into view or within range of your spell. Jeremy Crawford writes, “Counterspell foils the casting of a spell, not the release of a spell that was cast previously using the Ready action.”

Nothing in the ready action prevents you from readying and then moving while concentrating on the ready spell. As an added bonus, readying a spell out of view enables you to release it without the mystic movements or words that would expose you as the source of the spell. Of course, with many spells, something like flames jetting from your fingertips reveals you as the caster.

Although this exploit works, I never use it because—despite Jeremy’s defense of the rules as written—it feels like an unintended consequence of the fifth edition text, allowing a trick that only a rules lawyer could love.

Slow ranged attackers by a third just by moving out of sight between turns

Creatures in fifth edition D&D can move into view, fire an attack or spell, and then duck back into complete cover. Such duck-and-cover tactics make the most effective defense against ranged attackers who can’t shoot through walls and other obstacles. The typical archer has to choose between two options:

  • Circle the obstacle and potentially move dangerously close to the target.
  • Ready an attack for the moment a target pops into view.
archer photo

Photo by Alireza Sahebi

Few D&D players appreciate how much using a Ready action hurts their ranged characters. Combatants forced to ready attacks suffer from two disadvantages that tend to fall more heavily on players.

  • The Extra Attack feature only works “when you take the Attack action on your turn.” Because Ready actions trigger on another creature’s turn, a character with Extra Attack who readies an Attack action only gets a single attack despite the feature.
  • The Ready action only lets you postpone an action, not an action plus a bonus action, so characters typically able to trade a bonus action for another attack lose that addition.

Combined, this means that martial characters who typically attack three times per turn thanks to the Extra Attack feature and feats like crossbow expert can only ready a single strike.

Because most adventuring parties include ranged attackers who can prove brutally effective in fifth edition, this technique tends to bring more advantages to DMs. But should DMs use this bit of rules mastery to frustrate players? If the party lacks characters with the Sharpshooter feat, I opt for just keeping foes in sight to gain the simple benefit of cover. But Sharpshooter negates cover and ranks as the most efficient feat in the game, so against it, I reluctantly adopt tactics that force players to ready actions.

How to Make a Mind-Controlling Sorcerer Who Forces DMs to Keep up with Some Fast Thinking

I made a character who can short-circuit adventures and force dungeon masters to do some fast thinking. Does that make me a troublemaker? I feel guilty as charged, but I blame curiosity. I wondered how experienced Adventurers League DMs accustomed to quick thinking would manage the character. While I haven’t played Poggry enough for a statistically significant sample size, I have made DMs visibly pause and ponder ways to make success in social encounters a bit less sudden.

My sorcerer Poggry favors spells like suggestion that influence the unwise and weak-willed. Normally, in a Dungeons & Dragons world, suggestion raises the anger of folks who prefer to keep spellcasters out of their heads.

According to the Player’s Handbook (p.203) spells like suggestion with verbal components require “the chanting of mystic words.” After making that incantation, the caster gives the suggestion in what D&D designer Jeremy Crawford calls “a separate, intelligible utterance.” Most Dungeons & Dragons worlds make magic common enough for ordinary folks to recognize spellcasting when it starts. In a D&D world, suggestion starts fights or finishes them. Unlike charm person, targets of suggestion don’t necessarily know they succumbed to a spell, but the mystic words reveal the magic.

So Poggry took the Subtle Spell metamagic option. “When you cast a spell you can spend 1 sorcery point to cast it without somatic or verbal components.” Suggestion still requires a material component like a spellcasting focus, but the caster just needs it in hand, so sorcerers able to hide their hands under something like a cloak can cast spells without notice. No wonder evil sorcerers favor capes. And just as real-life magicians sport bare arms to show that they have nothing up their sleeves, perhaps spellcasters in D&D worlds keep their hands empty to appear trustworthy.

Aside from the need to hide a focus, Subtle Spell turns suggestion into a sort of Jedi mind trick. If a target saves, they just ignore a bad recommendation. If they fail, they follow the suggestion and feel persuaded. The Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Assuming you failed to notice the spellcaster casting the spell, you might simply remember the caster saying, ‘The treasure you’re looking for isn’t here. Go look for it in the room at the top of the next tower.’ You failed your saving throw, and off you went to the other tower, thinking it was your idea to go there.” You can never know the source of the impulse, although a rash enough action might imply magic at work.

As a bonus, sorcerers boast real charisma, so when a subtle charm person seemed like too much, Poggry could charm to persuade. He combined a talent for deception with disguise self. I like heroic characters, so I imagined Poggry as a positive fellow from a bad situation who gained such talents for survival. Sample dialog: “It’s nice that you get to sleep on top of beds here. Where I come from, we always had to hide underneath them.”

If you opt to explore evil impulses by combining similar magic with a sociopath, share your plans with the rest of your group and gain their consent. A darker take on a manipulative sorcerer makes establishing hard and soft limits as described in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything especially important.

Players of sorcerers commonly complain that their characters’ know too few spells, and choosing spells like disguise self over attack spells makes that limit even tighter. For a more versatile alternative with the same spellcasting tricks, you could design a caster such as a bard with Subtle Spell from the Metamagic Adept feat. Pick the College of Eloquence for maximum persuasion.

Using suggestion to tell enemy combatants to go jump in a lake gets old. When I played Poggry in combat-intensive adventures, he proved a bit dull. When I finally played him an adventure with a masquerade ball, intrigue, and exactly one fight, he became a delight. My poor DM for that session might disagree.

Spells like a subtle suggestion can potentially reduce an adventure full of diplomacy and intrigue to a few failed saves. Combined with a knack for deception, a spell like disguise self can turn an assault on a stronghold to retrieve some mcguffin into a solo milk run. Either spell can wreck the expectations of a written adventure. Such magic can force DMs to imagine ways to reward a characters’ talents while leaving room for the rest of the party to contribute. Think fast! (Or just call for a break to dream up new complications.)

Related: Should Charm Person Work Like a Jedi Mind Trick?

3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

The latest Dungeons & Dragons release, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, brings a host of additions to D&D’s fifth edition. These extensions prompt updates to at least 3 posts on this site.

1. Fast, Unkillable, Deadly: The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing

Just two weeks before this post, I delivered a list of 7 supreme D&D builds, including best healer. Tasha’s Cauldron enables a new build to take that crown.

The older best-healer build combined of life domain cleric with enough bard levels to gain the paladin spell aura of vitality via the bard’s Magical Secrets feature. Tasha’s Cauldron paves a short cut by simply adding aura of vitality to the cleric’s spell list. Forget multiclassing; just play a life cleric. For each of the 10 rounds of aura of vitality’s 1 minute duration, you can use a bonus action to heal 2d6 hit points. The cleric’s Disciple of Life feature boosts that to 2d6+5 hp.

Now, to claim the crown as best healer in D&D, take the Metamagic Adept feat, also in Tasha’s Cauldron. “You learn two Metamagic options of your choice from the sorcerer class.” Select the Extended Spell option. “When you cast a spell that has a duration of 1 minute or longer, you can spend 1 sorcery point to double its duration, to a maximum duration of 24 hours.” When you cast aura of vitality, spend 1 of your 2 sorcery points to double the duration and the healing. One third-level spell heals an average of 240 hp. At just level 5, you can perform the trick twice. Remember when folks fretted about pairing the life domain with goodberry for 40 points of healing?

2. Concentration Frustrates D&D’s Rangers More than Paladins and Hexblades, but Unearthed Arcana Helps

In a post on concentration, I explained the trouble concentration brings rangers. “The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark.”

Unearthed Arcana trialed a new Favored Foe feature that erased the problem of concentration and hunter’s mark. Unfortunately, the final version in Tasha’s Guide brings back the pain. “When you hit a creature with an attack roll, you can call on your mystical bond with nature to mark the target as your favored enemy for 1 minute or until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).”

The offhand mention of concentration confused me, but a ruling on another feature sharing the wording clears up the intent. The trickery domain cleric’s Invoke Duplicity feature also works “until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).” Lead rules designer Jeremey Crawford explained that this wording means that you must concentrate on the feature to maintain it, just like a spell.

The new Favored Foe skips the need to spend a bonus action, but otherwise it weakens the version tested in Unearthed Arcana in every way. In addition to requiring concentration, the new feature does less damage, only damages once per turn, just lasts a minute, and can’t be moved. Why do the D&D designers hate rangers?

3. D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

My post on choosing the right pet for your character continues to rank near the top of my daily page views, proving the appeal of animal companions.

The post began with the easiest route to a pet or companion. “Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy,” Jeremy Crawford explained, “As long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”

But this simple approach posed one problem: After the party befriended a creature, the party leveled up to meet greater threats while the friend remained the same fragile creature. At just level 5, most characters survive a flameskull’s fireball, but an 11 hp wolf needs extraordinary luck to live, and a 5 hp tressym goes to meet Sharess, goddess of cats.

My favorite part of Tasha’s Guide offers a remedy: The sidekick rules offer an easy way to add a special companion to a group of adventurers. “A sidekick can be any type of creature with a stat block in the Monster Manual or another D&D book, but the challenge rating in its stat block must be 1/2 or lower.” This means that sidekicks could range from that wolf or tressym, to a bullywug rescued from a monster who enjoys frog legs, to the kobold Meepo, future dragonlord.

Whenever a group’s average level goes up, the companion gains a level in a sidekick class of warrior, expert, or spellcaster. They gain the additional abilities and hit points required to survive and contribute without ever overshadowing the rest of the party.

My post on pets ends with advice for beast master rangers. This archetype’s animal companions earn a reputation for weakness, partly because the Player’s Handbook offers poor direction. The beast master’s description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillon says that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4.

To enhance the beast master archetype, Tasha’s Guide presents three primal companions typed for land, sea, and sky. Beastmasters can summon these primal beasts as a companion instead of befriending the creatures in D&D’s monster books. You can choose to describe your creature as a hawk or mastiff or anything that fits a type, without the risk of selecting a creature too weak to prove effective.

Rangers can spend a bonus action to  command the primal beasts to attack or to take an action other than the dodging they do on their own. This marks a big improvement from archtype’s original companions, which typically required an action to command.

The primal beasts offer effective companions that can feel warm, fuzzy, and charismatic. The primal companions tend offer more hit points than real creatures. Plus, if these spirt beasts drop to 0 hit points, you can revive them for the price of a spell slot. As spirit creatures, you can summon new and different beasts after a long rest.

Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D

In the beginning, Dungeons & Dragons required house rules to run. For instance, for 10 years the game suffered from an unplayable initiative system, so everyone used a house rule. Every dungeon master grew accustomed to tinkering with the game, leading to a generation of amateur game designers who sometimes graduated to the pros.

Fifth edition has proved sound enough that the game’s designers resist tweaking even the worst parts of the game. The reluctance makes sense: No customer wants to learn that the rules in their game book are changed by some notice on the Internet.

Nonetheless, everyone who plays the game long enough wishes something played a bit differently, perhaps a bit better. Forty-some years on, the roleplayer’s urge to design and redesign remains. My search for fifth-edition house rules turned up an avalanche of favorites.

What are the most popular house rules for D&D and how do they stand to scrutiny?

Players may spend inspiration to a gain a reroll.

Spending inspiration gives you advantage an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check, so you must choose to use inspiration before the roll. Meanwhile, so many people think that inspiration allows a reroll that every convention DM who runs by the book can tell a story of being falsely accused of not knowing the rules. “You may be right,” we lie. “Go ahead and look that up for me.”

Advantage. The original conception of Inspiration supposed that players would gain inspiration more frequently than typical now. During the edition’s design, Mike Mearls wrote, “A player can gain it once per significant scene or important combat. Inspiration fades quickly, so you must spend it within a few minutes in game time before you lose it.” The lighter benefit of advantage suited this frequency. With most DMs awarding Inspiration less often, a stronger reroll benefit works fine.

Disadvantage. You may foster a misunderstanding that causes your players to call out some poor DM who plays by the book.

Players roll their characters’ death saves in secret.

Groups who adopt this house rule allow players to override their secret saving roles to spare their character or, I suppose, speed a tragic end. This change doesn’t actually change D&D rules, so the pedant in me wants to call it a table convention.

Advantage. By rolling their character’s death saves secretly, players gain more control over whether their character dies. This suits groups who emphasize story and would rather not see the campaign arc overturned by a blown save.

Disadvantage. Allowing players to choose not to die may seem like a violation of the game’s spirit to players who value a genuine threat of death.

See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

DMs roll the characters’ death saves in secret.

Advantage. If you play fifth edition long enough, you suffer through this scene: Your character drops early in a fight, and because you never fail a death save, no one bothers to heal you. The players know your character remains 3 turns from death, so no one feels urgency. Meanwhile, for all the characters know, their friend is hearing her dead parents calling her toward the light. (As an adventurer, her parents are as inevitably dead as a Disney lead’s mother.)

If the DM rolls death saves, or the player rolls and only shares the result with the DM, the rest of the party stops gaining metagame information about a dying character’s closeness to the final curtain. This adds urgency to the need to heal fallen characters and can heighten feelings of peril. Such secrecy encourages players to quickly bring their friends back into the action.

Disadvantage. Particularly if the DM rolls, the players lose a sense of control over their fate, even if that false sense only comes from throwing the die.

Precedent. If Gary had invented death saves, you know that he would have rolled them secretly for players.

Critical hits deal maximum damage plus damage from a second roll of the dice.

Advantage. In fifth edition, we’ve all experienced the excitement of a critical, followed by the roll of a handful of dice that yields mostly ones, twos, and a big letdown. Reinforcing critical hits guarantees big damage. This favors divine smiters, sneak attackers, and the kid at my game table whose “practice” rolls uncannily end when he rolls a 20. “Look! Another critical!”

Disadvantage. Apparently, none of the folks bolstering criticals have played a paladin and realized that the class rates as almost too good without smites backed by stronger crits.

Criticals offer fun, but they are secretly bad for players because characters endure far more critical hits than any monster. Dialing up extra damage increases the chance that a monster’s attack will kill a character dead. For criticals that avoid the bummer of low rolls without adding risk to player characters, make criticals deal maximum damage.

Precedent. In third edition, criticals let you double your damage bonuses along with your damage dice. Fourth edition backed away from doubling damage bonuses by just making criticals deal maximum damage. That favored players, but eliminated the fun of the roll and the chance of huge damage against monsters. The fifth-edition system opts for a mechanic converging on maximum damage, but with extra dice to roll.

Lesser Restoration and remove curse won’t automatically remove diseases, poisons, and curses.

Lesser restoration and remove curse turn poisoning, diseases, and curses in D&D into the loss of a spell or a donation at the local temple. To match folklore and for story, we want curses and other afflictions to prompt quests, so many groups add limits to the spell remedies. The limits run from an ability check similar to dispel magic, to a requirement for special material components, to more. Adventurers League administrator Greg Marks writes, “I’m a big fan of any story-based poison or disease requiring a story-based solution in addition.” If a character gets hit with a bestow curse spell in a random encounter, then remove curse fixes it. If the party is cursed by the dying breath of a witch queen, then that’s an adventure to fix.

Advantage. Limiting lesser Restoration and remove curse opens D&D to a type of story that pervades the tales that inspired the game.

Disadvantage. Limiting these spells hurts characters who prepare them, but not as much as in earlier editions. Originally, clerics who prepared a just-in-case spell like remove curse lost a spell slot, which they could have devoted to a healing spell that would always prove useful.

Precedent. Many adventures through D&D’s history include curses and other afflictions that resist mere spells.

Healing potions can be consumed with a bonus action.

A character can spend a bonus action to drink a healing potion. Administering a potion to another character still requires an action.

Advantage. When a typical round takes several minutes of real time, losing an action to drink a healing potion feels like a bummer. Also, a player who needs a potion probably needs that action to turn the tide of battle.

Disadvantage. If your campaign awards a typical amount of treasure, then the 50 gp cost of a healing potion quickly becomes negligible, especially when characters have little else to spend money on. If drinking becomes a bonus, expect smart players to litter battlefields with empty vials. Still, this change probably won’t upset the game’s balance.

Lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford might prefer that you not mistreat bonus actions as just a lesser sort of action though.

Characters gain a bonus feat at first level.

Advantage. Granting characters an extra feat enables more customization, especially for groups who tend to shorter, low-level campaigns. Some DMs even allow characters who reach ability score increases to gain both an increase and a feat rather than choosing one.

Disadvantage. Some feats grant big boosts in power. See The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves, How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter, and How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D. Also, the Lucky feat may as well be called Never Fail a Save. The power of feats means that bonus feats steeply increase the power curve for characters. Some groups don’t mind because they see combat as a way for characters to show off their prowess rather than a challenge that endangers heroes. Some DMs don’t mind because they happily dial up the opposition to match.

Also, pairing extra feats with ability score increases strongly encourages multi-class characters to take class levels in blocks of 4.

Precedent. If you like this rule because it allows extra customization, you may benefit by switching game systems. Pathfinder 2 modularizes character advancement into choices of feats and allows much more customization of characters.

Players can delay their turn to take a later place in initiative.

Advantage. Too often, the slow, tough characters who open the dungeon door roll a low initiative while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. The tanks in front wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way.

Also, some groups enjoy the tactical options unlocked by letting characters delay.

Disadvantage. The D&D designers sought faster play and a leaner game by dropping the delay option. For more, see 3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices.

I favor a lightweight alternative to a full delay option. Before combat starts, let players opt for a lower initiative than they rolled.

Precedent. Third and fourth edition both included a delay option. For a suggested delay rule adapted from those editions, see What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay.

Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

Advantage. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the game rules will only heal characters when they drop, because damage below 0 heals for free. Imagine being injured but denied healing until you lie dying on the dungeon floor because the magic somehow works better that way. As an adventurer, I would find a less psycho group of comrades in arms.

By making characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion, the dying condition becomes something to be realistically feared rather than an inconvenience where players can exploit their metagame understanding of fifth edition’s lack of negative hit points.

Disadvantage. Although this penalty encourages players to keep their friends in the game rather than incapacitated by 0 hit points, the rule remains a penalty that will sometimes prove unavoidable.

Precedent. In first edition, characters brought to 0 or fewer hit points needed a week of rest. “The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else.” However, due to house rules, I never saw this penalty enforced.

How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter

When I wrote a post rating the Sharpshooter feat as overpowered and naming its combination with Crossbow Expert as the worst thing in Dungeons & Dragons, some readers stepped up to expose my bad take. But nobody said the feats were weaker than I claimed, because most folks who read my posts have played D&D.

Many folks refuted the power of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert by naming a spell with the power to win an encounter. Animate objects (5th), mass suggestion (6th), and forcecage (7th) make particularly good examples. My posts on the most annoying lower-level spells and higher-level spells add ammunition to this line of thinking. Still, a look at the spells-per-level tables shows that even high-level spellcasters rarely get more than one chance to cast one of these spells per day. D&D lead designer Jeremey Crawford explains, “We constrain how many spell slots you get at those upper levels. You’ll look at your table of spells slots and you’ll go down the slope and you’ll get down there and you’ll go, “Oh, just one.” And it never goes up. That’s on purpose because it allows us to make 9th-level spells, for instance, just crazy bonkers. But you get that crazy bonkers no more than once a day.” Meanwhile, a martial character optimized for damage blows up every encounter.

Most commonly, folks tried to refute my point by citing other character builds they rate as even more broken. What could possibly be more ridiculous than the Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert feats combined with either a fighter using the Samurai martial archetype or a ranger using the Gloom Stalker archetype? Also, you might ask how to build such ridiculous characters (but only because your story concept arrives there organically). Read on.

1. Great Weapon Master + Polearm Master

Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master offer the combination of feats most comparable to Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert. Great Weapon Master lets characters trade -5 to hit for +10 damage with a heavy weapon, including polearms such as halberds and glaives. Polearm Master lets characters use a bonus action for an extra attack. Sure, the extra attack only starts with 1d4 damage, but when each hit still deals 13-15 points of fixed damage, the d4 is just seasoning. Plus, you can use a reaction to attack creatures who enter your 10-foot reach.

To create a character based on this combination, choose human to take Polearm Master at creation, then add Great Weapon Master at level 4.

Either barbarian or fighter makes a good class to combine with these feats.

  • Barbarians can use Reckless Attack to gain advantage, making landing blows at -5 easier.

  • The Battle Master fighter gets combat maneuvers like Trip Attack that enable you to gain advantage on follow up attacks. Later, the fighter gains more attacks. Plus the Riposte maneuver lets you use your reaction to attack creatures who miss you with a melee attack.

Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?

As strong as the combination of Great Weapon Master plus Polearm Master seems, three factors make it less troublesome in play.

  • These warriors must enter melee and stand in harm’s way. Flying foes can avoid their attacks.

  • These warriors usually must move to attack and to switch targets.

  • No fighting style comparable to archery offers a +2 bonus to hit with great weapon or polearm attacks.

Paladin also makes a fun combination with these feats, but the class needs both Charisma and Strength, so trading ability score improvements for feats hurts more.

2. Polearm Master + Sentinel

Polearm Master and Sentinel creates a combination of feats able to frustrate monsters and dungeon masters alike. The polearm master gains ways to trade bonus actions and reactions for extra attacks. When the sentinel lands an opportunity attack in a polearm’s 10-foot reach, the creature’s speed becomes 0. The combination of reach and literal stopping power lets these warriors plug a 25-foot gap.

To build a character based on this combination, choose human to start with your favorite of the two feats.

For fighters, choose the Defense fighting style. The Battle Master martial archetype brings several abilities that save your bonus actions and reactions for the feats. The Goading Attack, Lunging Attack, and Sweeping Attack maneuvers seem like particularly good picks.

The Cavalier martial archetype also combines well with these feats. The Unwavering Mark helps you draw attacks and punish foes who attack your allies.

Barbarians make a good match because they can shrug off damage better than any other class. Choose the Path of the Bear Totem Warrior for resistance to everything but psychic damage while you rage. The Path of the Ancestral Guardian also makes a good choice, although the Spirit Shield feature takes the reactions needed to power your Sentinel abilities.

Unlike armored fighters, unarmored barbarians need Dexterity and Constitution to gain a high armor class, so they suffer more when they trade an ability score improvement for a feat.

Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?

A character built on these feats rates as the best way to frustrate monsters and DMs looking to maneuver past the party’s front line. Still, these characters shine less in bigger spaces, when attacks come from multiple directions, and against ranged and flying foes.

While these combinations prove strong, they lack the consistent dominance of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert. But forget feats. The most common builds rated as more powerful combined a paladin’s martial proficiency and smite ability with a spellcasting class able to fuel more smites.

Next: The best multiclass combinations with paladin

Related:
How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D.
The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay

Without knowing any rules—without knowing a d20 from a d12—new Dungeons & Dragons players can join a party and love the game at least as much as veteran players. Everything feels fresh and thrilling, so often the newcomers have more fun. They play without rules by just imagining themselves as heroes and asking what they would do.

For the rest of us, knowing the rules can interfere with that primal experience. Instead of interacting with the D&D world, we slip into interacting with the rules. So when we hear footsteps approaching a door, instead of nocking an arrow and drawing a bow, we ask to ready an attack action for when a monster opens the door. In this example, that ready action breaks the rules because ready only applies during combat’s initiative order.

My last post described 3 times when players ask to use rules not even in the game. The game omits the supposed 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 economical design forced them out. That post explained the designers’ choices and how to explain the missing rules to players.

Still, although the rules only allow ready actions in combat, lack a system for called shots, and omit the delay action, characters can still aim a drawn bow at a closed door, shoot for the tentacle gripping a friend, and perhaps even wait for the slow paladin to stop blocking the door.

This post offers advice for ruling on all those requests without inventing rules that the designers skipped for good reasons.

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

Players usually ask to ready outside combat for one of two reasons:

  • They expect trouble and want to stay alert.

  • They want to attack first. 

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained how he handles the request to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table.” Alternately, you could grant the character advantage on perception checks and a cooresponding +5 to passive perception until the situation changes or you judge that the characters’ attention would ease to a normal level. Nobody can stay especially alert all the time except barbarians with Feral Instinct. Impinging on a class feature would make barbarians angry. You wouldn’t like that.

Often, attempts to gain the first attack fall under surprise rules. When a party prepares to attack something inside a closed door and that foe remains unaware of the threat, then the monster starts combat surprised. If the monster knows about the threat, then the situation matches the usual start of a fight: Everyone is ready. Roll initiative to see who goes first. DMs who rule that a character with an arrow pulled only needs an instant to aim and shoot might give that character advantage on initiative. Don’t make the first attack automatic. We’ve all seen countless scenes where some skilled fighter stares down a poised weapon, and then uses lightning reflexes to strike first.

2. Called shots.

Usually players ask to call shots to gain a quicker route to taking a foe from a fight. To that I 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.”

The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide limited called shots with a rule that remains sound in fifth. “Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed by the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

Such a limit quashes most interest in called shots, so the designers opted for rules economy over adding rules for called shots. Still, players may want to temporarily impose a condition like Blinded, Deafened, or Prone. Conditions in D&D typically last a round or allow saves every turn. Players could also aim to distract, slow movement, or disarm.

The latest Dungeon Master’s Guide includes rules for disarming a foe (p.257). For other conditions, game designer Justin Alexander suggests some sensible, but untested rules. His post details the design decisions behind called shots. Called shots typically suffer a penalty of -2 or -4 as judged by the DM. (Don’t impose disadvantage, because that creates an incentive to call a shot whenever an attack would suffer disadvantage anyway. D&D lacks double disadvantage.) If the called shot succeeds, then you deal damage normally and the target must make an appropriate saving throw or suffer the effect. I recommend calculating a saving throw DC using a formula similar to the Battle Master fighter’s Maneuver save DC. Add 5 + your proficiency bonus + your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier. 

Delay a turn.

Fifth edition skips the delay action because the extra option adds extra rules baggage and may slow play.

Nonetheless, in one case players who delay their place in initiative can smooth play without adding any complexity to the rules. That case comes when you first arrange initiative before any creature takes an action. Too often, the slow, tough characters at the door roll low while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. Those tanks wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way. Before initiative starts, let players opt for a lower initiative count.

For the players who enjoy the tactical intricacies brought by the delay action, groups can import the delay rules in earlier editions of D&D and in D&D’s sister system Pathfinder. Here are the rules the designers wished to avoid.

Delay

By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat. When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until sometime later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.

You never get back the time you spend waiting to see what’s going to happen. You also can’t interrupt anyone else’s action (as you can with a readied action).

Your initiative result becomes the count on which you took the delayed action. If you come to your next action and have not yet performed an action, you don’t get to take a delayed action (though you can delay again).

If you take a delayed action in the next round, before your regular turn comes up, your initiative count rises to that new point in the order of battle, and you do not get your regular action that round.

When you Delay, any persistent damage or other negative effects that normally occur at the start or end of your turn occur immediately when you use the Delay action. Any beneficial effects that would end at any point during your turn also end. You can’t Delay to avoid negative consequences that would happen on your turn or to extend beneficial effects that would end on your turn.