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.
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.
In general I’m not a fan of exploiting the rules and looking for loopholes. That’s simply because when we play, we aren’t looking to “play a game.”
That is, the game (and the mechanics) isn’t our focus. We prefer the rules to provide a framework to help adjudicate the action, rather than define the action. So rather than focusing on the rules and mechanics, we focus on the action in the game and consult the rules as guidelines when needed, adjusting to fit the situation.
Having said that, your second example works both within the rules and what we would consider making sense. Taking cover is one of the best things to do when dealing with missile attacks. It’s an extremely common scene because it’s just plain smart.
Where we tend to change rules (often on the fly) is when the actions we expect based on real life don’t line up with the math/mechanics in the game.
The first example seems more complicated, but I don’t think it is.
It has a similar effect as subtle spell.
The reality is, from a mechanical perspective, this “loophole” does require the spellcaster to commit to their spell and ready it, which limits their other options for that round. In addition, it increases their chances of losing the spell for loss of concentration if they don’t win initiative.
A question not answered – Can you tell when a caster has “readied” a spell?
A visible sign would clue in opponents that the spellcaster is an immediate risk. Thus still allowing a counterspell, or an attack, to try to break it.
In 1e/2e spellcasting took time and you could interrupt that casting. This is not a thing in 5e, except when a spell is readied. The only question is whether their concentration is broken before releasing the spell.
Even if there is no visible sign, many attack spellcasters first when possible, so the chance remains provided others have a chance to break the concentration before the trigger is met.