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.