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.
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.
I understand the impulse to not impose disadvantage for called shots, but I think there’s an easy houserule workaround: PCs can’t even attempt a called shot if they already have disadvantage on an attack roll. I think I’d prefer that to introducing fixed modifiers like -2 or -4, since 5e generally avoids things like that!
Delay can come from wanting to maximize things (such as the duration of something that lasts until the end of your turn), but most of the time in 5E at the tables I run it seems to come from indecision. The player doesn’t know what to do. Here, I encourage the player to tell me what in the scene worries the character the most, and I help them word a Ready so it can contribute to that. I find many players don’t understand ready very well and have trouble thinking on the fly of how to word it so it will work well.
Called shot – I suggest apply the cover rule, if target is 25% or less of total creature, the AC is +5.
Just thinking about it, if a PC really wants to aim at the head with a missile attack, might be ok to say +5 AC (minimum AC 20), +2 damage if you hit. Only super-accurate PCs are likely to find that worth doing, but it reflects the player desire to trade a lower chance to hit for increased damage.
Delay – having run 5e for over five years now, I’m starting to think it might be best just to let them delay if they want! Effects still happen on their init count of course. Or even go back to side-based init; running 1e again recently it doesn’t suffer from the anomalies of 3e-5e init.
For players who want to throw sand in an opponent’s eyes or something similar I’ve used the Help action (often overlooked) – the player has to describe what they are doing to help (distract, throw sand, trip, knock things over, wave their arms, shout, etc) and gives advantage to an ally. It’s pretty costly as it takes up your whole action but it works every time (no skill check needed), encourages cooperative play, and injects flavor!
“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.”“
That is the solution by the lead rules designer? Omg, No wonder 5e sucks. I wonder what his games are like. Does he just let them always hit because they say they “try real hard” in combat?
I assume everyone is already trying to stay alert. Much like the called-shot, Insta-kill scenario, where it is assumed they’re trying to kill their opponent and that is resolved through normal combat rules. I know, players find all those hit points their opponents have inconvenient, but that’s the game.
Yes, players want to stay alert all the time and never be surprised. Too bad. Even though they are “heroes”, the PCs are still mere mortals with finite attention spans and limited awareness. You try staying on high alert and see how quickly you get bored or distracted.
That’s why we have rules for surprise. We use them and not just wave them away because a player says he stays alert.
That Crawford just throws away rules he ostensibly designed just to placate players tells me he should find another line of work.
When you just take words out of implied context, they become stupid, yes. But everyone can play that game.
“the PCs are still mere mortals” – no, they start like mere mortals, but certainly become more, much more. They kill giants and dragons four times their size with just swords. They cast wish. And in previous editions they could explicitly challenge gods.
I completely agree with you about Crawford and I think it is this in part that led WoTC to declare that his tweets and such are not official rulings. He just says whatever he thinks people want to hear and will then contradict himself in another tweet later on.
I still think disadvantage for called shots is better because it halves the chance of a crit against the targeted body part. A -2, -5, or even a -10 penalty still has a 5% chance of dealing double damage. Maybe I’d say -5 if you already have disadvantage, even though that’s a bit overcomplicated.
When my players want to ready an action before combat, like target a door, the way I handle it is this :
First, I ask if it makes sense. If the monsters know the party is beyond the door, then the door opens and the combat starts as usual, usually with lots of cover granted on both sides.
But in some cases – one time, the two monsters thought they were pursuing a single fleeing adventurer, and another time, the monsters were following the scent trail of the party in the woods but the party had set up an ambush, so the monsters knew a fight was coming but not when- then I allow the ambush.
I do so by giving them the first initiative slots. And their attack has to be called like a readied action with a trigger like, “when the first monster comes into view, ” with any movement coming afterward. That way, they get to strike first, but they don’t get a possible second strike before the monsters can react. The party gains a benefit over a normal battle beginning, but not as good as surprise.